By Elliot Denton
TW: Discussion of body image issues
For most people, with or without chronic illness, mental health and physical health often go hand in hand. People often separate the two, thinking that the mind is completely segregated from the body. Those who suffer from mental health conditions such as myself can confidently say that the latter is false. The two types of health work both ways, if you are physically unhealthy you are more likely to be mentally unhealthy, and vice versa. Over the past few months, I have realised that one of the best things for my mental health has actually been looking after my physical health.
Since late 2016, I have suffered from Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) as well as Social Anxiety, often being crippling and affecting my everyday life. I have also suffered bouts of depression and undertaken various treatments such as antidepressants and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Although these issues are less prominent within my life right now, they are still a significant part of my wellbeing.
My mental health has had a constant impact on my physical health and wellbeing. If I’m having a day filled with anxiety, I can almost guarantee that I will not feel great physically. An upset stomach, nausea and tiredness are often the results of high anxiety for me, these feelings are not good for the body, so at the end of a tough day I can often feel completely washed out. If my anxiety is high, it’s extremely likely that I will refrain from eating and my appetite diminishes, again this is not healthy as this could last all day. I would say during a regular week there is a least one day where I experience these physical feelings. Another resultant of my mental health is headaches and migraines, a stressful day can easily bring on a migraine, leaving me unable to do anything and writing off my day completely. These were an often occurrence during my first year of university.
Education has always been a strain on both my mental and physical health. More the former, but as we have established that inherently means the latter! Sixth form and university have resulted in myself often questioning whether or not my mental health is able to cope. First year of university left my mental health in a bad way, resulting in medication and many appointments with various services. This left me feeling extremely poor physically, I was constantly tired and had barely any motivation to do the basic tasks. Examples being, not having the drive to socialise or even take the 15-minute walk to my university classes. I realised that in order to improve my physical wellbeing, I had to look after myself mentally. Taking the decision to look after myself out mentally was significantly beneficial and I’m very grateful to those who helped.
Moving on to the more physical side. I’ve always been a relatively fit individual, taking part in sport and exercise at least once a week. Exercise and football especially have always been a fantastic outlet for me, an activity where I do not feel any anxiety or stress. I highly recommend anyone who is contemplating taking up exercise to do it! Over lockdown my mental health deteriorated dramatically, one of the activities I undertook was running. It boosted both my mental and physical health massively and overall did wonders for my wellbeing. Timing myself, setting goals, comparing times were all aspects that I found really enjoyable. It also inspired me to do a charity fundraiser for Mind which I thoroughly enjoyed. Running was one of those things that I never thought I’d get into, but I can confidently say that without it, I would have really struggled to pull myself out of a deep hole.
A big part of both my physical and mental health is my body image. I’ve always seen myself as too thin and not fitting in to the societal expectations of a young male. I fell into the trap years ago thinking that your body size is a huge part of you as a person and felt extremely judged myself. Over the past year or so I’ve kicked that attitude and never looked back. I began to properly exercise, not for my size, weight or how I looked on the outside, but how I felt on the inside. Taking that first leap and deciding to do something about how you feel is always immensely difficult, but once you start, you often find that the stress and anxiety that you felt before is now fuelling you on your journey. I learnt that nothing is going to arrive and magically make things better, therefore the only thing that can make you change is yourself. I can now look in the mirror and not fear for my mental health taking a dip. Body shaming and insecurities about how you “should” look are still rife in todays society and I wish it did not exist. The people on Instagram are not real representations and you should never match your physical health to someone else’s.
My mental and physical health have a close relationship. Living with anxiety and having it impact my physical wellbeing has never been ideal, but learning to get on with it and utilise it for motivation is something that I will not stop. Furthermore, coming to terms with my body image and not letting impact my mental health, has been a battle, but I’m happy to say it is no longer an issue. My advice to anyone who is struggling with their mental health affecting their physical health is to reach out. Coming to terms with your struggles no matter how severe and talking about them, is the first step towards any success. Feeling inadequate and not belonging to societal norms are totally naturally, these emotions do not put you into any bracket. As I’ve mentioned, nothing will magically arrive and make everything better, so when dealing with mental health, I say take that leap and don’t be afraid of the consequences!