I suppose it’s only fitting that as I set out to start writing this today, my mind was a chaotic mess. Pressure to find a new job, pay the bills, afford my new lifestyle as a husband and dad, and to relocate to a more peaceful area all weighed heavily on my mind this morning. I’ve noticed that my OCD and anxiety has a substantial effect on the way I experience and perceive time; when I’m anxious, I obsess over what needs to be done and how I can do it all, right freaking now. When a goal that feels urgent to me but can’t be accomplished by setting aside an hour, or even an entire day of my time to completing it, the anxiety kicks into full gear and really takes hold.
In setting out to write this mini-series, my objective was to address all 8 dimensions of health one at a time. I’m quickly realizing that there is going to be some overlap, and there’s no way around it. At first, that thought made me anxious, too. Ideally, I’d love for everything to fit into neat little boxes and to be able to say that this post will exclusively be about physical health, the next about spiritual health, and so on.
That’s just not how it goes.
There’s overlap in everything we do in life. Our financial health is directly impacted by things like work (occupational health), our social lives (social health), our eating habits (physical health), our living conditions (environmental health), or academic pursuits (intellectual health). Each of these in themselves can be a source of emotional stress (mental health), which can make us question our purpose in life (spiritual health). This stress can take a toll on our bodies, our minds, our relationships, our work, our savings, and our surroundings.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again because I firmly believe it: Everything. Is. Connected.
If you can try to embrace that idea, then the solution to any particular source of anxiety may not come from just one area of our lives, but be pieced together by taking action in many other areas. While I will devote each post to a particular dimension of health, there will inevitably be some overlap, which I’ll acknowledge as well. With that said, there are a lot of things I could start with here, but here we go:
Mind Meets Body
I told myself I wouldn’t start with physical health because to me it’s one of the most obvious things— along with mental health— that comes to mind when we think about our well-being. Fitness and exercise this. Nutrition and diet that. Of course, those things are important, but it’s an extremely saturated topic for writing. If you don’t believe me, ask Google:
Still, the fact is that everything we do, we do within our own bodies. Every action, every thought, and every bout of anxiety— though it may be largely in our minds— exists within and is carried out in some way, shape or form by our bodies. And so, as much as I didn’t want to start with physical health, it’s probably the logical starting place for a reason.
I’m not going to highlight fitness and nutrition, because frankly, I don’t have to. Could my anxiety be alleviated by working out more and eating better? You bet. And trust me, those things have been, are, and probably always will be a work in progress for me to some extent.
Instead, I feel it would be more valuable to share 3 areas of physical health that can impact anxiety for better or worse but don’t always get the attention they deserve.
As a new dad, I can no longer ignore this one. Almost everybody I see, whether it’s family, friends, coworkers, or friendly strangers who might approach me at the supermarket, loves to ask, “Are you getting any sleep?”
I usually laugh in their faces. I’ve already stopped feeling bad about it and I promise, it’s only partially on purpose. I laugh because the question almost seems rhetorical, if not vaguely optimistic on their part. I like to think that their hope is for me to say, “YES, actually! The baby sleeps through the night and I, too, sleep like a baby!”
But no. I don’t sleep much and my amazing wife, bless her soul, sleeps even less.
To be fair, I was never much of a sleeper. Don’t get me wrong, I love my sleep. I need my sleep. But with the way my mind races I often find sleeping difficult to come by.
For years I prided myself on being a self-proclaimed “night owl” who could still be productive despite only getting 3, 4, or 5 hours a night. This has always baffled people. When I then tell them I have also never consumed a cup of coffee in my life, they’re shocked and sometimes even angry, unable to comprehend how I could possibly function on such little sleep AND without caffeine.
Well, let me tell you. These days are coming to an end. Not the caffeine-less days, no, because I still hate the taste of coffee. But the days of being able to joke around about not getting sleep and still being OK? No longer.
We’re learning more and more about the connection between sleep and mental health. If at one point this was a secret, it’s not one that’s nearly as well-kept anymore. In short, a lack of sleep can contribute to increases in stress and irritability. It can also lead to decreases in exercise, memory, and our capacity to cope.
Speaking from my own personal experience, I’m finding this to be especially true. I wake up anxious more often than not, and as a result, any stressful thing I encounter during the day takes that much more energy for me to handle appropriately— if I’m even able to at all. I’ve had more anxiety attacks since getting less sleep, and frankly, I’m not surprised.
I’m not saying that getting more sleep is the be-all, end-all to my anxiety, nor will I say that it’s easy; I know it’s not. Still, that doesn’t diminish the importance of getting enough regular and restful sleep. This can be a difficult thing, but it’s one that definitely deserves attention if you’re also dealing with overwhelming anxiety.
There are many guides available to help map out your plans to get yourself on, and sticking to a regular sleep schedule, including this one. For more information on sleep and rest, you can also check out the links on our sleep resource page (Topics > Physical Health > Sleep and Rest).
Last summer, Jackie Masciana wrote about the importance of breathing as it relates to playing music. Jackie shared different types of breathing exercises that she practices in playing her instruments. She also suggested that we change the way we think about breathing, and I couldn’t agree more.
I’m no expert on breathing, but I do know that if you look at some of the common ways to treat anxiety like exercise and meditation, breathing is part of the equation. To be fair, breathing is technically always part of the equation as it’s necessary for sustaining life, but that’s beside the point. Breathing, simply put, is a way to combat our body’s reaction to stress and kickstart the process for relaxing.
Of course, different contexts call for different methods of breathing. Breathing techniques for playing music are bound to be somewhat different than breathing while running. In this case, I’m talking more specifically about conscious breathing, and how we can use our breath to cope with bouts of anxiety.
In Volume IV of his series on anxiety, Chris Kulmann recognized the importance of breathing when dealing with and treating anxiety. In doing so, Chris shared some breathing techniques for anxiety including square breathing, which involves focusing on breathing in and out for equal amounts of time. In this particular exercise, as with many breathing exercises, it is not only the breathing that helps calm the body and mind but purposely devoting our complete attention to the act of breathing that distracts us from our anxiety-producing thoughts.
The biggest trick I’ve found with breathing is to actually make the conscious effort to do it differently, seeing as it’s something we already do automatically. If you are committed to making that effort, there is no shortage of breathing techniques that can be used to help calm anxiety. It is for this reason especially that meditation is often used as a form of anxiety treatment as it heavily incorporates breathing in its practice.
If you’re like me and are worried that you won’t know how to breathe properly for relaxation purposes, I recommend finding some guided breathing exercises to help you out. In searching for some to share here, I came across a lot of great ones which I’ll share when I touch more on meditation later in this series, but there’s one in particular I’ll share now— a breathing exercise presented by Max Strom via TEDx Talks:
If you have a little extra time, I also recommend watching the entire 18+ minute video as well, which I found to be quite interesting.
Imagine starting your day already being anxious about where you’re going, before even getting dressed. Maybe it’s work, maybe it’s school, or maybe it’s the DMV. Now, add to that the stress of not fitting into your own clothes as you prepare to walk out the door and you’ve got a recipe for some strong anxiety.
This one is a little different, but like I said in the beginning, I wasn’t going to do the whole fitness and nutrition bit here and it doesn’t get more physical than our physical appearance.
Yes, fitness affects our appearance. Yes, nutrition affects our appearance. What I’m really focused on though is less related to our body’s genetics and our metabolic responses to food and exercise, and more about the way we maintain and present ourselves. This may very well be just as much a body image issue as it is an anxiety issue. Body image in itself is its own avenue (one which I’ll walk down as part of the upcoming “In Our Own Skin” collection starting June 6th), but as far as I’m concerned, body image and anxiety can easily go hand-in-hand.
It is important not to be too harsh with the self-criticism, but if I’m being honest, lately part of my anxiety stems from not liking what I see when I look in the mirror. It’s frustrating to take out a shirt you used to like only to have to put it back because it’s too small. The obvious solution in this situation may seem like eating better and getting that part back on track, which isn’t not a solution. That part, though, takes time no matter how resilient your metabolism is.
The less obvious, but more immediate adjustment that can be made here is to pay attention to the little details and find a look that’s comfortable for you. For starters, basic hygienic routine-based things are simple and easy ways to boost your confidence in your self-image. In many cases, this doesn’t cost much financially, just a little bit of time and conscious energy.
Take flossing, for example. Flossing is something I’m sure almost all of us have been told we should do by our dentists. Yet, many of us either forget or simply don’t do it very often because it’s no fun. Believe it or not, a clean smile can go a long way when it comes to self-esteem.
Paying a little extra attention to your hair (including facial hair) can also help. Something so simple, yet, I haven’t made a point to do this much recently. I’ve worn a beard for a while now, but lately, I haven’t kept it as neat and well-groomed as I normally would, and it’s a bit scraggly. I still like having a beard, but there’s that “sweet spot” (for me it’s between 3-5 days after a shave) when I look into the mirror and actually love it.
Last, as someone who doesn’t often enjoy shopping, I’ll admit that every few years or so (because I’m not at all up with the latest fashion trends) I do like to get myself some new clothes. I like trying on clothes much better when I’m in better shape, but there’s still value in doing this even if your body isn’t quite where you want it to be at the moment.
Financial health is a factor here as this part will cost money, but budgeting accordingly and spending within your means can make this possible. In that vein, here’s some good news: If you’re not particular about the higher end brands, there are plenty of budget-friendly clothes out there that that will suffice.
A friend of mine works in the clothing industry and is familiar with the testing procedures that clothes go through before hitting the rack. According to him, many of the dress clothes you find at wholesale stores like BJ’s or Costco go through just as rigorous, if not more rigorous quality checks than many of the brand names you’ll find in department stores.
Wearing clothes that you like and that fit you comfortably can make you feel confident when you put them on. Along with clean smile and a hairstyle you enjoy, wearing clothes that you like and that fit you comfortably can make you feel confident as you start your day. These suggestions are admittedly cosmetic and material and are no substitute for other forms of treatment for anxiety. Still, the way you feel about your appearance does contribute to your mood, which can absolutely impact how well or how poorly you handle anxiety throughout the day.
So by all means, exercise and eating right can change your body chemistry and help you to better cope with your anxiety, but they’re not the only aspects of physical health that connect with your mental well-being. On a good day, do you envision yourself to be tired, uptight and unkempt? Or, is it more likely that a good day for you entails being well-rested, lowering your heart rate with some quality breaths, and liking what you see in the mirror?
Stay tuned as “Inspired by Anxiety” addresses anxiety across each of the 8 dimensions of health.
What aspects of your physical health help you to manage anxiety?
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