How Your Mental State affects your Physical Health
“It all begins and ends in your mind.
What you give power to, has power over you, if you allow it”.
- Leon brown
When we talk about taking charge of our health, the physical aspects of wellness dominate our thoughts. We home in on aches and pains, wavering strength or energy levels. We focus on what we should eat to get slimmer, drink to get clearer skin, or what we should avoid to prevent illness. Seldom do we pay the same level of consideration to our emotional wellbeing. A seemingly abstract concept rarely gets paid much attention, not enough to do something about it anyway. If you can’t see it, it does’t exist, right? Wrong. It’s time to reconsider this approach.
Life is a balancing act
Our lives are a series of continuous events, unfolding before our eyes. Planned or otherwise, positive or negative, life moves forward at a pre-destined pace. Throughout this journey, we experience a whole spectrum of feelings, joy, love, anger, grief, worry, and fear. These are natural emotions, felt by all, and contributing to the overall human experience. But what happens when we hold on to negative emotions more than others? If we ignore them, will they go away? Let’s be honest, life can catch us off guard more often than not. As strong as we think we are, one curve ball too many can have its impact on our mental state. Feelings of unhappiness, resentfulness, anxiety, bitterness and anger can override and dominate our minds when trials are sent to us, whether it be due to family stresses, work pressures, marriage, in-laws, illness or otherwise. How we deal with and balance out these emotions is critical to our state of well-being.
The Mind-body Connection
There is an intimate and dynamic relationship between the mind and the body. Just as ageing and physical trauma lead to the wear and tear of the body, so does the effect of unresolved negative thoughts. Bad feelings fester, especially if we allow them to, and even if we consciously try to fight it. Bad treatment by others takes its toll even more so. Feeling down does not make us ‘weak Muslims’ as many of us are sometimes made to feel. Being a Muslim does not automatically make us immune to grief, anger or pain, or fair game to ill-treatment. We are all human and no one is immune to this cycle of emotional strain. Ignoring these feelings and burying them deep, however, will only cause them to take root. Like an ecosystem, our mind relies on strong roots that promote sustenance rather than those that allow weeds to grow and engender ruin amongst the surroundings. We cannot ‘trick’ our bodies. What the mind conceives, the body manifests physiologically.
"Why, then, 'tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison. Well, then it isn't one to you, since nothing is really good or bad in itself—it's all what a person thinks about it".
- Hamlet, Shakespeare
Emotions are powerful energies that strongly affect our overall health. This is known as Qi or our ‘internal life energy’, a concept deep-rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM considers each emotion to be associated with an organ in the body. When one of these emotions is out of balance, it can interfere with the body and its functions. These energies must flow freely in order for them not to have an adverse effect on your well-being. When one emotion becomes excessive, or it is repressed, it can cause a stagnation in the flow of these free energies, leading to an altered pathology and so disease. An imbalance tends to occur when we experience an emotion all of a sudden very intensely, or when we chronically hold onto an emotion over an extended period of time. Sadness and grief manifest in the lungs and can lead to chronic asthma, for example. To neglect these feelings then, can be damaging on a deep level, causing them to impact our personal life, our body and our relationships with others.
Today’s scientific research confirms these ancient principles. Chronic stress and anxiety have been shown to slow the body’s ability to heal and to regulate inflammation. Unfortunately, inflammation is the root cause of many diseases and has been linked to increased blood pressure and cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels, chronic pain, IBS, hormonal balance, and has also been found to increase the rate at which tumours grow. Many studies show that even one’s outlook on life can affect their immunity. One study found that when participants felt optimistic, they had a stronger immune response. Likewise, when they were feeling more negative and pessimistic, their immune response was slower.
Recreating balance: Finding an emotional release
“If you correct your mind, the rest of you will fall into place”
So how do we dissolve these negative emotions? Surely this is easier said than done? It can be, especially if resentment has built up over time, but it is not impossible. The first step is paramount and can be life-changing.
SEEK COUNSEL - One of the most seemingly obvious advices to this issue yet one that is most overlooked. There is still a huge stigma attached to allowing yourself to talk openly about your difficulties, especially amongst Muslims, as if somehow it weakens our position on divine reliance. Not showing emotion somehow equates to strength of Iman. This mentality couldn’t be more dangerous. As Muslims, we should strive to better ourselves in every way, as we have been commanded. Our bodies are an Amanah (trust) and our minds are part and parcel of that package. Releasing emotions can heal disease. It is a sign of strength to seek help, not weakness. Speak to a therapist or counsellor, one that makes you feel at ease, and open up to them. Call it self-care, because that’s what it is. Seek solace in a friend or family member that deeply cares and empathises, and build yourself a solid support network. “Opening the floodgates”, as the saying goes, can be one of the most important steps on a journey to recovery and internal peace. Declutter you mind like you would your personal space, and see the results.
DON’T BE A MARTYR - Do not neglect yourself for the sake of your responsibilities. Recuperate and give yourself time and space. We convince ourselves that we do not have time to look after ourselves or worse still, we feel guilty or selfish for doing so. We give our precious time to others for fear of letting them down or causing them difficulty, and then feel depleted afterwards. If you are not given the time, DEMAND it. Life will continue to go on without you despite what you may think. Allah encourages us to be of use to others, but NOT at the expense of ourselves. We cannot give if we ourselves are empty, emotionally or spiritually.
GROUND YOURSELF IN NATURE- Take time-out for a little mental and digital detox. Studies show that being amongst nature reduces our stress levels, reduces feelings of anger and fear and provides a break to our usually over-active minds. Being in physical contact with the ground, for example by going barefoot, has the effect of neutralising excess energies. Invigorating yourself in the great outdoors will make you feel like you are a part of a much larger universe, and will help give you perspective. Doing this regularly enough is one of the keys to maintaining emotional wellness.
KEEP GOOD COMPANY - The type of people you surround yourself with is so important. Pick people who reinforce your view of the world, who are naturally relaxed and easy-going, people who appreciate, empathise and are optimistic, people who are good for your soul. Now is the time to detox from all those toxic relationships.
BREATHE DEEPLY - Take time to breathe. Consciously breathe. We tend to hold our breaths when we are tense or agitated, without realising it. What should be relaxed and effortless breathing turns in to a shallow breathing that requires unnatural effort. When you find yourself anxious, stressed or angry with someone or a situation, close your eyes and take a long and deep inhalation. Take the time to recollect your thoughts and calm your body. Then exhale, consciously lengthening your breath, breathing deeper into your belly. Overcoming ‘bad’ breathing habits can be improved with Pranayama Yoga (breathing exercises), Tai Chi or meditation classes. Reviving our devotional prayers will have an equally positive outcome. Being mindful of the moment that you are in, focusing on your connection with God and breathing through this has the power to elevate your senses and bring ‘khushoo’ (sincerity and presence) to your prayer, where ‘your heart feels aware and humbled before the greatness and glory of God’ (Ibn Qayyim).
JOURNALING- For some, the best way to release emotions is to write them down. Physically imprinting words on paper has been shown to help people come to terms with stressful life events and overcome them. No censorship or judgement, this could be the key to boosting your physical well-being.
EAT, SLEEP AND EXERCISE RIGHT - Your brain is a highly metabolic organ that requires “good” energy to function. The food you eat becomes the basis of your brain chemicals. Don’t skip meals, eat small meals often and go easy on the caffeine. A nutrient dense diet consisting of foods high in B vitamins, relaxing minerals like magnesium, healthy fats to support brain health like avocados, nuts, seeds, as well as omega 3 to help stabilise moods will all help. Exercise often to release those feel-good chemicals. Boxing, Muay Thai classes, slamming a punch-bag even can all be used as an outlet for pent up anger and frustration, as well as keep you physically fit and strong.
RELEASE THE ANGER! - Not necessarily on others! But if exercising isn’t enough of an outlet to release the frustration you are feeling, go in to your car (or somewhere no one can hear you !) and just SCREAM!!!
TALK TO YOURSELF- This may initially seem a little strange, but it can be a really helpful exercise in regaining lost confidence. Tell yourself repeatedly that you CAN do something, that you are good at something, that you are courageous, empowered and strong. Bring optimism in to every aspect of your life by saying it out loud. These positive affirmations dictated from our subconscious in to the universe rewire our brains, making it easier to manifest words into actions. Above all, have hope. Refer back to Allah, and think well of Him and the plan He has laid out for you.
‘I am as My servant thinks I am. I am with him when he mentions Me. If he mentions Me to himself, I mention him to Myself; and if he mentions Me in an assembly, I mention him in an assembly greater than it. If he draws near to Me a hand’s length, I draw near to him an arm’s length. And if he comes to Me walking, I go to him at speed.’”
[Hadith Qudsi- Al-Bukhari]
So take a step back and re-assess how you spend your time. Allocating time for yourself will ultimately make you more productive in your everyday affairs, better the relationships around you, and keep you physically and emotionally well in the long run. Self-care is a necessity, not a luxury. Are you making time for yourself?