If You Don’t Have Your Health
By Maile Sundquist
I’d always been an optimistic person. The life of the party, a dreamer, someone who would break into song and dance with furry woodland creatures… until the wicked witch cast a spell on me. When I was 25 I suffered injuries at work and in a car accident. They brought on chronic pain and physical limitations that prevented me from being as active as I once was and caused me to lose my job. Rather than accepting my physical limitations and learning to work around them and thrive with them, I was in denial and active retaliation against them, and, in the end, because I lacked the tools and knowledge to manage my emotions and stress, I became one of the many depressed sufferers of chronic anxiety.
In our society, too much importance is placed on our physical health and hygiene. We need to have teeth so white they make snow jealous, be a size one if you’re a woman, be able to bench-press a bus if you’re a man, shower regularly… okay, well, that one is reasonable. Anyway, we spend too much time pumping up our muscles rather than our character, and so a huge, arguably more important aspect of our health is neglected and at times actively sabotaged by our lifestyle and priorities: our emotional hygiene.
I find it sad that someone could be in acute emotional distress and that the people around them, even people who care deeply for the person, might say, “You’re overreacting, you should just get over it and shrug it off.” Or they might not know what to say, but in the back of their minds, they’re thinking that the person is unstable, crazy, or weak.
We wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg, “Just shrug it off, it’s in your head, just walk on it and jump and play like you did before.” No, that would be considered insensitive and crazy! Obviously, the leg needs time to heal, the right surgical procedure must be performed, and supports must be in place before it can work normally again. It’s the same with emotional injuries.
Growing up in an emotionally unhealthy family where my parents didn’t take physical or emotional care of themselves, it was a sign of weakness to cry, and “butt nugget” was a term of endearment, there was a lack of good examples for me to emulate. I embraced spirituality at an early age in the form of the Christian faith, which was and is extremely beneficial to me in terms of hope, inspiration, direction, and as a foundation for my beliefs, but due to poor theological teachings at one point, I lived in a constant state of shame for a period of time.
It was this shame over various aspects of my personal and spiritual life, coupled with a perfectionistic, all-or-nothing mentality, that compounded the struggles and challenges I was facing physically and emotionally. So now I was down, had chronic pain, and lacked mobility. Needless to say, I packed it on a bit and my curves became curvier. Realizing my trajectory and wanting to avoid becoming a human version of Lombard Street, I implemented a thrice-weekly exercise routine into my schedule. However, a combination of laziness and my love for eight-course meals always seemed to derail any progress I made… strangely enough. I have always struggled with prioritizing my physical health. Although I had a good knowledge of nutrition and appropriate exercises, I lacked the discipline to make it happen.
I realized later, however, that it wasn’t just discipline I lacked. My mental health was in such disarray that trying to get myself to accomplish these goals would be like asking a five-year-old to operate a crane. I was attempting to lose weight because it was my most outwardly visible problem, but the source of it was hidden inward. My emotional hygiene was out of whack. It is true that the body is intricately connected and that helping one part will exert a ripple effect that improves other aspects of your overall health, so when you work out it produces endorphins that help your mental state. But in this case, my hopelessness, despair, and anger, which were not being dealt with properly, kept perpetuating my depression and anxiety, which made me mope at home and eat too much. It had me convinced that my best years were behind me, that I had gone too far, and that it would take too much time and effort to recover what had been lost. Hopelessness is a dangerously powerful thing that can render someone immobile mentally, emotionally, and physically.
I wish I could say I was writing on this subject having surpassed my health goals years ago and that I now stand before you as a flawless specimen of feminine perfection and mental-emotional stability, able to tout my foolproof method for becoming the sexiest, most well-rounded human alive, but, alas… I cannot.
Let’s be realistic. It can take years to get yourself back into shape after years of bad eating and self-neglect and the same can be said for regaining mental health. But both must be accomplished if we are to live a happy, healthy, balanced life.
Having a toddler, I have this topic fresh on my mind. We want our children to become mentally balanced, physically healthy, productive, thriving adults and so we teach them the best practices we can. But we can’t teach them what we don’t know, and, despite our good intentions, they will follow our example more than they will follow anything we tell them to do. How can I take care of him if I don’t take care of myself? Do I want him to grow up prioritizing everything and everyone else while neglecting his own health, personal and artistic goals, and development? Do I want him beating himself up over arbitrary goals or not being able to meet the important ones? Or do I want to give him the knowledge and tools to succeed by living them out myself and making sure I emphasize the importance of not only working out and eating properly, but of loving himself and being open and honest with himself and others about his thoughts, feelings, struggles, questions, and emotions? Our bodies are amazing, magnificent creations that are minutely intertwined and connected and what we put into our brain affects our body just as much as what we put into our mouth… except maybe for s’mores.
Why we struggle with self-love and self-care could vary from person to person. Most everyone’s default excuse is laziness, and that might play a part, but I think that, in many cases, it goes deeper than that. Perhaps you are unorganized and struggle with time management so you can never find the time. Maybe you are an all-or-nothing perfectionist like me and you convince yourself that, if you can’t execute your ideal health and diet regime perfectly, then there’s no use in trying at all. Maybe you don’t feel that you’re worth the effort. Or maybe you’re an alien. I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on the reasons that keep you from taking care of yourself and, once you’ve found them out, consider what you can change, add, or take away from your life, outlook, and commitments to allow the necessary tools and time for self care to grow and be utilized and prioritized. I believe a healthy mind begets a healthy body, but that, ultimately, nurturing the two in tandem will reap the greatest benefits.
Whatever your personal struggles, I encourage you to not get discouraged. Just like mastering any new skill, cultivating self-love, emotional hygiene, and physical health takes time, practice, and perseverance. I’m still working it all out myself in real time, but I’ve listed some tools and actions or mindsets that have helped me on this journey so far.
Let Go and Let God
This is a religious-based sentiment, but it just means releasing the control that we fight to maintain over things that are out of our control or in the past that are bringing us down. Letting go of the past self you are hoping to recreate, the emotional and physical hurts you experienced, unreasonable goals, and missed opportunities will bring only freedom and make room for healing, new experiences, and joy. We are good at allowing regret, fear, and worry rule over our lives, sway our decisions, and prevent us from moving forward. Forgive yourself and those that have hurt you and choose to embrace the abundance of the current moment and the beauty that is the current you and move forward.
Make Time For Self Care
There’s a reason they tell you if a plane is in distress to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you attempt to help anyone else. If you pass out, you are no good to anyone. Oftentimes caretakers are so busy taking care of those in their charge that they neglect themselves and are unable to give their best to those who count on them. Do something for yourself, even if it’s a ten-minute walk or a bath, writing, singing, dancing, or working on a hobby. You only get one life, so staying healthy will bring more happiness and length to it.
Make Smart Goals
Rather than setting large goals without concrete set steps for achieving them, break goals down into smaller, more manageable ones to keep momentum and focus. For instance, if you want to lose 20 pounds in the next six months, break it down into four-pound chunks, then decide what steps need to be taken to lose those four pounds every month. Create daily and weekly goals such as running 20 minutes a day, drinking eight glasses of water a day, or only having a sugary dessert on Fridays.
The support and encouragement of an in-person or online community of people who understand your struggle – weight loss, chronic pain, depression, etc.- can be very helpful and it can simply be reassuring to know you aren’t alone in your struggle.
Get the help and treatments you need and don’t procrastinate. If there are treatments that exist that could help you don’t let anything stop you from pursuing them.
Seek out trustworthy resources for up-to-date information. In the ‘90s, fat was bad, but today, fat is good. In the past, shock therapy was used for mental disorders; today, it’s cognitive behavioral therapy. The medical and nutrition world is always growing and shifting. Being knowledgeable about past and present health trends and treatments can help you know what questions to ask your doctor and what options you should consider, to address whatever physical or emotional issue you are struggling with.
Create a Routine
When I was young I wanted nothing to do with restrictions of any kind. I was convinced that it could only bring stagnation and boredom. I’ve grown to realize that, without well-balanced and considered boundaries, I fall victim to the extremes of my personality and end up becoming a prisoner of my bad habits. Rather than exerting self-control and self-discipline to aid me in meeting important goals and milestones in my life, I was floundering, wallowing in my self-made pool of regret. Routines can help us figure out what’s most important to us and aid in setting goals and life trajectories. Old habits die hard, but once we take the first step to a better life, the ones that follow are easier.
Listen to your body, know your limits, and be proactive in managing your time so that you can use proper ergonomics, take the time you need to process information, decompress, and get the job done without added mental or physical strain.
Be proactive in addressing conflict and stress in your life. When you find you are tense, excessively worried or tired, or showing signs of stress, take a few minutes to reflect on your life and write out all your stressors (good and bad), from the one that is causing you the most anguish down to the least. Then find ways to address the stressors. In some cases, like sustaining an injury or losing a loved one, the things that are causing you stress are out of your control. In such instances, coping techniques will need to be employed. Other stressors, like aggravating and negative coworkers or family members, could be addressed by creating boundaries to protect yourself from continued conflict. Utilizing de-stressing techniques such as prayer, meditation, calming visualization, deep breathing, light exercise, journaling, or even getting a massage can aid in relieving your stress and bringing about a sense of calm to your spirit.
Find a hobby like biking, birding, rock hounding, hiking, or rollerblading – one that will get you active and outside the house – or just walk and wander this beautiful planet of ours. We weren’t made to sit within dead trees, we were made to dance under live ones!
I have found time and time again that helping others, whether it be buying groceries for an elderly neighbor, being a big brother or sister to a child in need, or volunteering in the community to help the homeless, gets your mind off of yourself and your problems, brings about perspective, and helps to heal the soul.
Keeping my all-or-nothing mentality at bay, not comparing myself to others, and rejoicing in small victories has been key in helping me make the small but impactful steps forward that I have so far.
I pray for mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical healing and success to you, now and always!