Why healing the mind is essential to win the war in your body
A moment of awkward silence followed as Nadia asked, “Who has gone to therapy (mental health) since their diagnosis?”
Nadia was hosting a large Zoom meeting of people who suffer from a debilitating autoimmune disease, this isn’t what she expected. Nadia had just admitted that since her diagnosis, she had started to work with a therapist. However, she wasn’t referring to a physical or occupational therapist but mental health therapy.
She asked who else had gone to therapy and how it helped. Nobody raised their hands except for me. No one wanted to address autoimmune disease and mental health. Either people were afraid to admit going to therapy due to the stigma this world has placed on mental health, or they had not pursued treatment from a mental health professional.
How both your mind and body have immune systems
In normally functioning immune systems, your body’s physical immune system regularly works hard to fight off and deal with infection when something “bad” gets in your body. However, for those diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, your body’s immune system thinks it’s always under attack and fights hard to rid the body of the infection or harm to the point of damaging our bodies.
You also have a psychological immune system which consists of your heart, mind, soul, spiritual, and emotional well-being. So many words describe the psychological system, so I wanted to list as many as possible.
It’s not just your physical immune system that works hard
Your psychological immune system regularly works hard too. It fights off the “bad” stuff from the outside world that wants to infect you.
Your psychological, emotional, and spiritual immune system is under attack daily. Unfortunately, people and circumstances can make you anxious, depressed, angry, and sad. People who abuse and manipulate can make you feel helpless, held back, and break your spirit. Uncontrollable events happen daily, making us feel powerless, exhausted, and hurt.
Once something slips through the psychological immune system, it works hard to eliminate it. Imagine how hard your psychological immune system fights if it’s broken. It fights so hard that, just like the physical immune system, it begins to hurt the mind and body.
The importance of autoimmune disease and mental health
Your psychological immune system impacts your physical immune system, and your physical immune system affects your psychological immune system. For this reason, I advocate for mental health and hope doctors and researchers will soon connect the dots and acknowledge the mind-body connection.
How well your psychological immune system functions determine what is allowed in and how much it hurts us.
- Were you taught to hide or push away your mental or emotional health issues?
- Was having a mental or emotional problem a sign of weakness, or worst yet, shame?
- Did you learn to ignore or disguise how you were feeling to cope?
Hiding our pain away and sinking in an ocean of shame takes a toll on the mind and body. Renowned psychotherapist and bestselling author Gabor Mate‘ is highly regarded for his expertise on addiction, trauma, childhood development, and the relationship between stress and illness. He stated the following on the issue:
Emotional stress is a significant cause of physical illness, from cancer to autoimmune conditions and many other chronic diseases. The brain and body systems that process emotions are intimately connected with the hormonal apparatus, the nervous system, and in particular, the immune system.
Dr. Maté’s insight into the relationship between the mind and the body is presented in his book: “When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress.”
Autoimmune disease and mental health care
Why do we go to a doctor when our joints hurt, our cold won’t go away, or we feel shaky if we don’t eat, but not if our emotional or mental health is hurting?
Getting our mental and emotional health under control is step two to being healthy with an autoimmune disease.
If our bodies hurt, our minds are hurting, guaranteed! Learning to deal with emotional and mental issues is essential, especially if you are living with an autoimmune disease. We must take the time to process what is happening to our bodies. Just as we care for ourselves when we are physically sick, we should do the same or more for our mental and emotional health.
Seven strategies for taking care of your mental health
I strongly recommend seeking professional help to deal with anxiety, depression, general emotional issues, and grief. Many people diagnosed with an autoimmune disease go through these emotions and grieve the life they used to live while trying to adjust to a new way of living. Although there are many ways to manage your mental and emotional health, you should always discuss health professionals.
In my experience, I did not get recover until I met with a mental health professional and took medication. I know that taking medication is scary for some because it was for me, but it saved my life. In addition, there are several things you can do to help you feel better in your mind, body, and spirit.
Here are my top 7 tips for boosting mental and emotional health.
1. Identify how you are feeling
Sometimes you can’t find the right words to describe how you feel emotionally. Your feelings are valid, and there’s a reason for them, so don’t discount or ignore your feelings. Instead, identify and name how you are feeling so you can address how you feel and work on resolving the issue.
To identify and name a feeling you are experiencing, use the Feelings Wheel created by Dr. Gloria Wilcox. The feeling wheel has an inner circle with the primary emotions of mad, sad, scared, joyful, powerful, and peaceful. The outer rings contain names of secondary feelings related to the primary ones. This wheel will help you learn how to identify, express, generate, and change feelings.
Set a goal to identify how you feel at least once a day and then write about it in a journal. Some feelings are like cars going down the street. The emotions drive right by you, and you can watch them go away.
Some you may need to think about and reframe the feeling or emotion from negative to no big deal. Finally, some feelings run deep and need to be addressed with someone who can help you process the feelings, such as God, a mental health professional, or a trusted person in your life. Find someone you can trust outside your circle of family, friends, or acquaintances to talk to and share how you feel mentally. Be careful with who you choose. Not everyone is emotionally intelligent and able to help you.
2. Do things you enjoy or that you used to enjoy
Many people who suffer from an autoimmune disease feel tired and lack energy. One day, they feel great and are feeling joyful and free. However, on other days, they feel withdrawn and vulnerable because they can’t do what they used to do. Due to pain, fatigue, and discomfort, they stop doing the things they enjoy, such as shopping or going to lunch with friends. Feeling this way is understandable and logical however you can’t unpack your bags and stay in this place. Seek professional help and try to set small and attainable goals for doing something that will bring you joy.
Set a goal of trying one thing daily that will bring you joy. Set a small goal such as turning off not watching the nightly news, helping someone else, singing in the shower, going outside (see tips #3 and #4), or watching a funny movie.
3. Get your body moving
Research has shown that exercise improves mood and sleep. Exercise releases endorphins that help you feel good and divert your attention to the body. You don’t have to run a 5k or go to a tractor-tire flipping HIIT class!
If you are not used to exercising, start with a small goal like walking down the street four houses and back. There is power in walking outside, which is therapeutic for your mind and body. See tip #4 below. When you are out, take some time to reflect on the green grass or the white snow, the birds in the air, the trees blooming, or the fall foliage. Breathe in the fresh air and open your windows (weather permitting, of course!)
Set a goal of going outside or walking around the house for 10 minutes daily. Connect with nature by taking in all the scents, sounds, sights, and sensations.
4. Take a nature bath
Get some sun into your mind and body (safely, of course.) Do not get too much sun exposure; wear sunscreen to protect your skin. Exposure to the sun increases the chemical serotonin in the brain. Just as anti-depressant medication boosts serotonin in the brain, so does the sun!
A recent study looked at the influence of external natural environments, including sun exposure, on mental health and encouraging results. The study found that sunlight exposure, leisure time in green spaces, and physical activity positively impacted people’s mental health, including depression, anxiety, and stress. Specifically, researchers found moderate physical activity in an external environment with sunlight or green space was essential to positive mental health.
Set a goal to get outside at least once a day. If it’s cold out like my Michigan winters, invest in a sunlamp light therapy lamp that mimics sunlight using full-spectrum light at the equivalent of up to 10,000 lux with longer sessions to enhance mood, energy, sleep, and focus – but without the harmful UV rays.
5. Get good sleep
Getting enough sleep can be very difficult if you are in pain and uncomfortable. Most people are not getting enough sleep, defined as seven to nine hours a night. Sleep is essential to your physical and mental health.
Unfortunately, most people (myself included) waste precious sleep time scrolling on the internet, social media, or news, which doesn’t allow the brain to rest.
Set a small goal to stop the scroll one hour before bed.
6. Pray, study the Bible, and connect with God
6. Journal your thoughts daily. Pray, study the Bible, and connect with God. See my post on “Why daily Bible study is the foundation of a healthy lifestyle.”
7. Make an appointment
Search for mental health professionals in your area or online. Make an appointment TODAY. Chances are that your appointment date is a few months in the future, but please make the appointment no matter how long in advance the appointment may be. Then, go to therapy and practice what the professional suggests.
Autoimmune disease and mental health The Mind-Body Connection
Make a plan to take control of your mental and physical health. Through awareness of the mind-body connection, you can win the war going on in your mind and body.