Read this if you only take care of your physical health and not your mental health

I am a clinical psychologist who does not talk about mental health 24-7. I roll my eyes when someone preaches it too much, or obsesses over minutiae and sinks in analysis-paralysis without taking action. Whilst there is a place for normalising the very experience of being human, and learning to accept that it comes with messy emotions at times, mental health talk can sometimes feel like a never-ending circle. In Buddhism, the term Saṃsāra denotes an endless cycle of rebirth, from death to life, and the suffering in-between. Put simply, it is a vicious cycle that practitioners strive to break. This might be a controversial opinion to utter openly, and I am tired of how mental health can look like getting caught up in a Saṃsāra of endless ‘healing’.

It is with this understanding that I get why it’s hard for some to accept that we need to take care of our mental health. Indeed, there are groups of us who have stomached through tough conditions in life and whilst we pay the price for it, we are generally okay. Or kind of okay. And if mental health looks like Saṃsāra, where there are endless boxes of wellness retreats to tick, that may at most serve at bandaids, then it just feels like a waste of time and money. And at best, performative.

And yet coming from the other side, as someone who practises in mental health, I also understand how it’s a fundamental pillar of our lives and that of organisational cultures to be sustainable. And so I wrote this for you, if you take care of your physical health but not your mental health.

1. You protect against decline

People who take care of their physical fitness are reducing their odds of physical illness or decline– from reducing inflammation to having your bodily systems work more optimally to strengthening your immunity. We know that when a chronic illness sets in, a bodily system has more-often-than-not broken down, and that can easily feed into a cascade of other physical health issues. This is the same with your mental health. When you build a certain level of mental fitness– from taking care of your mind by resetting it during times of fight-of-flight, to processing old experiences that haunt you or stop you from living optimally, to building stronger relationships and partaking of your social vitamins– you also protect against mental decline. This isn’t just about memory or keeping your brain sharp; these also protect against common mental health struggles like anxiety or depression. For instance, people who have panic attacks are often highly anxious, have poor sleep, and experience depression. When we take care of the symptoms and the root, you live more fully and peacefully.

2. You can ‘automate’ it

Walking is one of my favourite activities ever– not only does it take care of your body’s health and looks, it also sharpens your brain. I automate my walking with habits like taking public transport and thus having to climb up multiple flights of steps, and taking walks with people instead of scoffing down burgers everytime we meet. I schedule in runs once a week, and throw in some weightlifting whilst I’m at it, so it’s all done and dusted. In the same way, you can automate your mental health. In-between activities or people, I do a brain-reset exercise. Every night, I engage in a quick reflection. During more demanding times, I book in bulk sessions of therapy and/or coaching. My supplements that take care of my ADHD brain are next to my morning water, so I pop them first thing. It is that simple.

3. You cannot outrun poor foundations

The 4 Hour Body. Apple cider vinegar. 5:2. Being vain and loving to run around in cropped tops, I’ve done it all. Every diet works until they don’t work anymore; many many years later and at the fittest and most consistent regime ever for two years and counting, I now understand that wisdom. You see, I was always trying to game the machine, like cheat codes in a game. Whilst biohacking and these can provide some results, it is ultimately about your mindset and foundations for a sustainable lifestyle. Meaning, I’d always wanted to eat as much as I can, and that was the aim of every diet– to get back to that level.

I have been humbled by the very fact that this body of mine is only human and not cyborg– I can’t cheat science, and I cannot elude the fact that I have to do some work. Like, eat high protein and low sugar on some days. Run and go to Barry’s Bootcamp a few times a month. Walk everyday. And I’ve also come to the realisation that food will always be there– I don’t need to eat all the croissants today. That and other beliefs that used to imprison me like a puppet, which I’ve uncovered, have helped me realise that I cannot outrun a bad diet. And I definitely cannot out-vinegar a few slices of cake a day.

Similarly with mental health, you cannot out-mantra a situation in your life that needs changing. Lying to yourself can only work for so much, and when you are having a particularly bad day, it is utterly ineffective. Talking about it till the cows come home will not change your panic attacks, the longer they persist, the more you learn to feel helpless and hopeless. It all boils down to your foundational mental health– what habits you want to grow, and what would you like to outgrow. From there, you can build a system.

4. Every little bit counts, every little bit compounds

Doing everything all at once is overwhelming, you will procrastinate or you will go big and then burn out. Start small, then build it up. I started running 2km initially, and very quickly built up to 10km, shocking myself. Compound interest doesn’t just work for your investments.

On some days, you will put more into your physical health bank, for the days when it’s harder to be active because you’re busy or tired. That’s okay. What’s most important is we look at the big picture and come back once we’ve recovered.

Same with your mental health. Small habits compound. I always say, start with breathing correctly for three breaths– it’s so easy the only thing standing between this and you, is you. If you forget, pair that with an activity. Like, everytime you sip water, or everytime you wash your hands after using the bathroom.

Engage in habits that feed your brain, for instance throwing in a little reading here and there, for 7 of the 10 times you’ll scroll through social media. Or fill your social media feed with things that help you to learn.

Cull the toxic and ambivalent relationships in your life, and you’ll find your mental fitness improving so much you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it earlier.

Keep doing, keep reviewing, keep celebrating.

5. You start a little more intense, then you can take your foot off the accelerator

In building any physical health habit, you get a bit more precious initially. You stick to it rather doggedly, and want to do it right. That’s good. You’re building foundations. But know that past a certain level (which you will define beforehand), you can then take your foot off the accelerator.

Like it’s okay to cut out white carbs for 3 weeks initially as you are intensely building health or slashing fat, as you unlearn old habits of eating too much of said carbs. But if you love bread or pasta, you can learn to re-introduce it into your life with equanimity and without fearing it. Of course you’ll be anxious for a little bit, you’ll learn to get through that too.

Same thing as if you forget your supplements once in a while, it’s not the end of the world; let’s not waste energy beating yourself up.

With your mental health, you might be rigid on instituting boundaries initially, or strict about going to your therapy sessions regularly for a little while. That’s okay. You’ll slowly learn to ease back into a world where you can take care of your mental wellbeing more intuitively.

6. It has to be tailored to you; never say never

I run alone because I love that Me Time; I hike with friends because that’s the only way I’ll wake up; and I go to Barry’s because I love the energy of having others in the same space. Previously, I’d think I could only exercise alone, due to my introversion. What I’m saying is, never say never. Experiment. If it’s a no, no love lost; you’ve just got new data about what makes you tick.

So just because someone says a certain form of mental health practice from self-care to yoga are absolutely essential, you don’t know until you’ve tried it. Give yourself time. You have your whole life to find out and enjoy.

7. Physical health and mental health reinforce each other

I worked as a psychologist in the awesome Chelsea & Westminster Hospital in London for 18 months. I spent time in the paediatric wards and outpatient, and the burns and oncology unit for the first 6. And then a year in the HIV/Sexual Health Unit. Most people are often stunned about.

The truth is, both your physical health and mental health reinforce each other.

In the HIV/Sexual Health Unit, besides seeing clients who had anxiety and depression, I also worked with those who were learning to accept a HIV diagnosis. Same with in the other hospital wards. Cancer research by Stirling Moorey et al. shows that your mindset when you receive a diagnosis can make-or-break your mortality outcomes.

Or when you lose a loved one, your pain and grief which you may not know how to express, may manifest as physical symptoms.

In your body, there is a nerve called the vagus nerve that runs between your brain and your gut. Taking care of this nerve (and your brain, and gut) can help you with the physical symptoms you experience when your mental health is challenged, or the mental health struggles when your physical health is compromised. And, in panic attacks, you can literally think yourself into a panic attacks.

So what I’m really trying to say is, it’s not all in your head. But your head can save you.

If you’d like to know more about enhancing your mental health, why not check out our open events.