When you are injured or ill, there is a lot of focus on healing your body, but your mind’s health(mental health) is a huge factor in your recovery process.
Since this is mental health awareness month I wanted to talk about the relationship between physical and mental health.
The question I have for you is this: If your thinking and mindset are not healthy, how can you expect your body to heal?
Physical and mental health really are very closely related and can have very impressive effects on one another.
I have been reading a very interesting book about it, Your body believes every word you say, which delves deeply into the medically verified proofs that what you think and how you think can greatly affect your body and physical symptoms you may have.
Think about your state of mind
Even if you were in great mental health before your condition(I personally believe there is no such thing as “perfect”‘ mental health), getting sick or injured is going to add a lot of stress(both physical and emotional) to both you and those closest to you.
As a person who has been injured or ill, you are likely to recover best if you are in a hopeful and positive frame of mind(realistic, but positive), and are willing to take the necessary next steps in your recovery.
The more willing you are to work on yourself, and devote yourself to healing, the more likely you are to have a positive outcome, and the easier things will be for your loved ones, as they try to help and support you.
It has been proven that there is at least a correlation between your state of mind and physical health, and it has been proven that staying in a positive frame of mind can improve your overall health.
The damage you are dealing with is real, and stressful, and makes it very easy to slip into a negative state of mind.
The people surrounding you are also traumatized and frightened by your injury or illness, which increases their stress level.
That’s on top of the reality that they are often doing more work(helping you and taking over your usual responsibilities), often under additional financial pressure(your medical care, and possibly your inability to work)
The more stress everyone involved is under, the harder these positive behaviors and attitudes are to create or maintain. So, back we go to your mental health.
What can you do about it?
Well, it’s time for you to work on your own thoughts, feelings, and emotions because you are the only one who can.
You can’t control the damage you have suffered, and you can’t control what the other people in your life do or don’t do.
All you can control is what actions you take, and how you respond to your emotions and others’ actions.
Identify your feelings
I want you to think about how you have been feeling.
Have you generally had a positive attitude? If so, pat yourself on the back for a job well done, and think about how you can maintain that positivity. If not, think about why.
- Are you in physical pain?
- Are you thinking about the things you can’t do right now?
- Do you feel that life has treated you unfairly?
- Do you think that your loved ones are fussing over you too much?
- Do you think they aren’t giving you enough attention?
- Are you feeling sad, or angry, or guilty?
Take some time and really think about how you are feeling, and why.
Get those feelings out!
Do your best to define how you are feeling right now, and how you have been feeling recently. Write it down, if you can(or record it in another way, if you have the means and the privacy to feel safe doing so), and really do your best to strip away any blame or anger you might feel towards somebody else(it’s not productive), and focus in on what you are feeling, and why you are feeling that particular emotion.
If at all possible, express these emotions.
Cry, scream, beat up a pillow, write in a journal, anything you can do, by yourself, that lets you recognize and release your emotions without needing anybody else to experience them.
Do this as often as you need to.
Holding your feelings in is just going to increase your stress levels and leave you more jumpy, angry, or sensitive.
I utterly understand that you might feel you need privacy to do this – if that is the case, do what you can to get(or imitate) that privacy.
Once you have expressed your feelings, and are calmer, you can think about your loved ones and their needs and emotions.
It isn’t your job to “fix” their feelings, but if you can stay calm and controlled when communicating with them, you are much less likely to fight or to increase one another’s stress.
It may be your job while you are healing to be “the strong one”, and help your loved ones maintain their sense of humor and sense of hope.
It might be that you aren’t used to expressing yourself and sharing your feelings, and so haven’t been able to do that with your loved ones and need to work on doing that yourself.
Each relationship and each family is different. All you can do is your best.
The only person you truly control is yourself.
You can’t change what your loved ones do, think, or feel, but you can do your part to help yourself recover, and you can help diffuse tension and stress in your home by keeping yourself in a positive and healthy mindset.
Handling Al’s acetabular fracture
My partner Al broke his hip joint on his way home from work on his last day of a 6-week paid training program for a new job.
We had been thrilled that he got it because that meant we could finally afford our apartment without needing to have a roommate and that we would be able to pay down some bills, and maybe start saving for a wedding and house.
Those plans were shattered when his hip was. It was devastating, for both of us.
There were still things to be grateful for. Al’s insurance package started his first day of employment.
When the bills started arriving, it was pretty scary, but Al also realized how lucky he was to have good enough insurance that it was accepted at the Hospital for Special Surgery, where he got a much higher quality of care, and the best surgery possible.
It could have been so much worse!
He could have had fewer options, or we could have had to pay for the whole thing! The surgery and hospital itemized bill was over $400,000, but he was only responsible for about $3,000.
It is still a good chunk of change(we are still paying it), but the full bill was more than some houses!
While his injury caused me extra stress and severely increased my Functional Neurological Disorder symptoms, we also were lucky that I had participated in a very successful treatment program the previous November.
Because of that program, I was able to handle being Al’s primary caregiver, making meals for us, helping him with the stairs(prior to my treatment, I couldn’t feel safe climbing stairs), and getting both of us scheduled for the correct appointments with the correct doctors.
Even with a severe injury, we still had things that did go right, and things to be grateful for. Focusing on those made the experience better and easier than it could have been otherwise, so we both did our best to focus on the positives
You can help yourself keep a healthy mindset is through gratitude exercises.
There are a lot of apps and programs to assist with gratitude lists, but the basic concept is to choose to write down things you are grateful for each day. You want to be as specific as possible, and make sure that each day is relatively unique.
For example, Al would pretty much always be on my list, but each day, I focused on something he had done or said or experienced that I specifically was grateful for – one day it was his ability to find the humor in his situation, another day it was him having a good PT session – I focused not only on WHO I was grateful for, but why, and what specific thing about him had been most obvious that day.
I found it really therapeutic and it helped me to keep things in perspective and keep a positive mindset while dealing with my problems and his.
Mindfulness meditation practices
Yes, I mean it! Mindfulness is all about living in the present moment, and focusing on your emotions, sensations, breathing, and other senses.
The mindfulness process can help you become more connected with your own emotions and to better understand your own thoughts and motivations.
I do my best to meditate daily, usually using the app Calm, I mostly do 10-minute meditations. I really have enjoyed it(both the app and the act of meditating).
Even if you normally don’t meditate you might want to investigate it further – there are mindfulness exercises that are pretty different from many people’s idea of meditation, and even meditation is a lot more flexible than many people assume.
It’s much more about how you think as opposed to what you physically do.
Yes, I mean it. If you are dealing with a very physical problem, make sure that you are doing the recommended physical therapy exercises as frequently as they want you to.
Each round, do it with focus and determination and get as much out of it as possible. Exercise releases endorphins, which help you feel better after physical exertion.
If you are dealing with a more mental or emotional issue, it’s especially important to go out, even if it’s just for a walk around the block(walking in nature is especially inspiring and relaxing).
You can also encourage your loved ones/caregivers to make sure they are taking care of themselves too – encourage them to take a break and go out for a walk or to the gym when possible.
Handling a disabling condition is a marathon, not a sprint, so each step that you and they can take to be in the healthiest physical and emotional shape is very helpful.
It won’t do either of you any good if they work themselves to exhaustion.
In Al’s case, he was given PT exercises to do a couple times a day starting maybe a week after surgery.
I reminded him when necessary, but he kept up on his exercises, which helped everything heal and helped him maintain and rebuild muscles as quickly as he could.
I went out for walks as often as I could, our goal being for me to be able to go out for about an hour each day to walk the nature trail down the street from us.
I got time away to clear my mind a bit, and sweat out some of my anxiety and fear and frustration.
It was comfortable for me to do so because we made sure that he was set up ahead of time(neither of us was comfortable with the idea of him getting out of bed without somebody else there) so he wouldn’t need anything in that time I was out.
He knew that it was important for me to get out and respected that need, so I felt comfortable doing so.
He knew that I would be coming back in about an hour, so if anything did come up(like needing to use the bathroom or wanting something to eat), I would be back shortly.
It would have been much harder for me to go out and enjoy my walk if he got mad at me for leaving him alone, or if I had been afraid that he would try to push himself physically in ways he shouldn’t yet.
So yes, even if you are bedbound and have very limited energy, you can still help your loved ones help you by being understanding and supportive and patient – and by encouraging them to take care of themselves too!
Yes, I’m serious. Your body heals best if it has the right nutrients in it, and a lot of extra fats and sugars won’t help your recovery one bit(unless, of course, you need them).
So, if you need to be on a special diet, do it!
People with heart disease need to eat heart-healthy foods, people with allergies and food sensitivities need to avoid certain foods, and, in Al’s case, people with broken bones need to get as much calcium as possible into their bodies, as well as lots of vitamin D and other nutrients that help bones rebuild.
So besides taking supplements, we were trying to have Al drink extra milk, and eat plenty of cheese(he has never liked the taste of yogurt, cream cheese, or sour cream).
We ended up ordering out a lot because we were both pretty tired much of the time, and I had just been getting used to cooking again.
If I was able to make 2 meals, it was a good day. We did our best to order healthier – if we had pizza, we’d have it with vegetables, when we had sushi, I’d order rolls made with brown rice, and try to have vegetables in most of them.
We did what we could, each day, to choose the healthier option.
Again, this is important for both you and your loved ones, so reminding them that they need to eat too is another way you can take care of them and their mental health while you are healing.
The first few days that Al was in the hospital, my entire self-care plan was to make sure I got some sleep, and to make sure I ate, and to get the healthiest option I would enjoy.
I got smoothies, breakfast burritos with lots of vegetables, wraps, and things like that. I knew that I needed to keep myself going, but didn’t want to be far from Al for long, so that was my solution.
You are all under a lot of extra stress, and sleep is one of the best possible healers, so use it!
You need to listen to your body and sleep as much as you can.
When you’re asleep your body can heal, you’ll be less aware of any pain you are in, and your loved ones may be more likely to either sleep themselves or be able to get some work done without interruption.
It’s also very important that your loved ones get enough sleep, so you can also encourage them on that front.
Make sure that both(or all) of you have a comfortable space to sleep in, and that you minimize the risks to your sleep. Remember, lack of sleep is an additional stress and you are already all/both under a lot of stress!
When Al first was injured I was by his side for about 24 hours straight. I knew that that was unsustainable, so when his parents came to see him, they dropped me off at a nearby hotel so I could sleep.
I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep each time I went in, but I did make sure that I had some time comfortably unconscious each night, and then would go back to him when I woke up(usually stupidly early in the morning).
I also jealously guarded his sleep. When he managed to fall asleep(the pain was keeping him awake a lot), I did everything I could to not wake him up, and to keep others from awakening him.
When he was in a car accident in 2012 and suffered a brain injury, he slept most of the time for the first week(that was aided by the pain meds they gave him).
I sometimes need to sleep 11 hours a night, and then have multi-month periods where I can’t sleep more than 3 hours straight.
Whatever happens with my sleep process, I stay aware and try to find a workaround that helps me get the rest I need – and you should too!
Conclusion: How healthy is your mind?
Perfect mental health is a myth. There is always a little something that can be done to gain more self-knowledge, be more empathetic with others, and recognize your own emotional pain points.
With that said, any illness or injury has the potential to worsen your mental health.
Any injury increases your stress(the unknown, the treatments, the financial costs, and your loved one’s responses to the damage you are experiencing(or, worse, the lonely idea that nobody cares), and whatever the physical effects may be).
You have experienced a loss, often a traumatic one, which is also stressful. If you are physically limited in ways you haven’t experienced before, this is especially true, even if you are expected to make a full recovery(believe me when I say the definition of ‘full recovery’ can also be pretty vague).
While you are dealing with all of your trauma, your loved ones are dealing with their own: the redefinition of who you are and what you do(at least in the short term).
The people who most want to help you are also the ones must hurt or frightened by your change in health.
The best thing for everybody concerned is to create an honest but positive perspective on everything you are dealing with.
You can do this by expressing your feelings in constructive ways(as opposed to lashing out at loved ones), being honest with yourself about what and how you are feeling and why, and by comforting and calming your loved ones as you can.
You and your loved ones will be much better off if you are eating healthy(ier), get enough sleep, and get exercise as appropriate.
Remember that they are hurting too and that their intentions are good, even if the results are less than helpful. You can help them help you by communicating your needs clearly, explaining the logic of the requests you make, and trusting their judgment.
Make sure you are listening to your body and getting enough sleep. As you can, encourage your loved ones to take care of themselves, so that you can all make it through your marathon of healing together.