Have you ever had to choose between your mental health and your physical health? What I mean by that is, have you ever decided to do something (or not do something) that would improve your mental health but harm you physically (or vice versa)?
I believe everyone, whether aware of it or not, has had to make these decisions from time to time. Maybe you have a cold but you’ve had a long week and desperately need a night out with friends. Going out will almost certainly result in alcohol consumption and minimal sleep that will ultimately prolong and worsen your cold, but the benefit to your mental health will be more than worth it. Alternatively, there are some times you have to choose to stay in or forego a particular activity because the blow to your physical health would just be too great.
There isn’t always a right choice here. There are going to be days where you need to prioritize your physical health and others where your mental health takes precedence. There are going to be days when you have to put others’ needs before your own. It’s just part of having meaningful relationships with other people (family, friends, significant others, etc.), and honestly I think it’s a beautiful thing. However, it’s important to remember that you still need to make choices that is right for YOU and YOUR situation. It’s completely possible (and necessary) to consider your own needs when prioritizing somebody else’s. There are other times, however, that we must prioritize what serves our own needs, yet we can still find ourselves making decisions based on how we think others will react or what others will think of us. Will I disappoint my friends if I choose to stay in? If I do go out, will I get everyone sick or bring everyone down? Sometimes, these choices seem impossible. It seems like no matter what you choose, there could be negative consequences. But here’s the cool thing: there is literally no wrong choice.
Unfortunately, those of us with chronic pain and/or a chronic illness have more experience with these kinds of decisions than your average person. Having a chronic condition creates many more of these situations, and having a mental illness, such as depression or generalized anxiety disorder, can makes these situations so much worse. For me, however, having to balance my physical health with my mental health on such a regular basis has taught me a lot about myself and my priorities. It has also taught me how to be kind to myself and give myself permission to make the choices that are best for me in any given situation. Living with a chronic condition has shown me just how intertwined physical health and mental well-being truly are.
So, how do you make these decisions? How can you choose what is right for you in each specific situation? While, the answer is unique to each individual and each situation, there are some questions I ask myself when making choices regarding my mental and physical health:
- How good/bad do I currently feel physically? How much worse will I feel if I choose to partake in this activity?
- How good/bad do I currently feel mentally? How much better will I feel if I choose to partake in this activity?
- Will I have the time I need to recover physically after the activity, if I choose to participate?
- When was the last time I did something to improve my mental health (i.e. do something I really enjoy, see friends, workout, etc.)?
- Will the overall effect on my health (mental + physical) improve my current overall state?
While these seem like pretty standard questions, things people don’t normally have to think through, those of us with chronic illnesses have to go through these considerations sometimes multiple times per day! I think there are lessons that can be learned from this, that can be passed from the chronically ill to the chronically healthy.
- Listen to your body. You know your body better than anyone and if you listen closely, it will tell you so much more than any health blogger or diet guru ever will. Fuel your body with food it craves and avoid foods that anger it. Do activities that serve your body, not that break it down. If something causes you pain (not just soreness from a workout, but real genuine pain), stop doing it. We only get one, so it’s important to listen to our bodies and treat them with the utmost respect.
- Do something that makes you happy every single day. Regardless of how crappy you feel, try to find something that brings a smile to your face, even if it’s as simple as writing, drawing, or listening to a funny podcast. Even if you’re physically limited like some of us are at times, accepting those limitations and focusing on what you can still do to be happy is key. If it does not serve you, it’s not worth doing. One of my favorite sayings is, “If it costs you your peace, it is too expensive”. Just as those of us that are chronically ill have to use our energy wisely and prioritize what serves use (physically or mentally), those that are not burdened by an illness have to manage their time in a similar manner. Keep this in mind when making your daily decisions.
- Give yourself permission to rest. Even if you are the most physically fit and mentally healthy individual on the planet, rest is vital. Our bodies require it for health and growth, and our brains need it to function. While our society glorifies the idea of “busy,” we cannot forget the importance of rest and recovery.
- There is nothing wrong with being selfish when it comes to your health (mental or physical). Another one of my favorite sayings is “you can’t pour from an empty cup” and this can honestly be said for both your physical and mental well-being. Physically, if you try to do too much, your body can literally shut down and you can get very sick. If that’s the case, your proverbial cup is empty and you aren’t any good to yourself or anyone else. Mentally, if you are doing so much that you forget to take care of yourself (a few minutes of meditation every day, journaling, going to the gym or for walks, etc.), you will not have the mental or emotional capacity to serve yourself or others. Do yourself a favor and put yourself first sometimes. It’s best for everyone in the long run.
- Sometimes there are going to be choices you have to make that hurt one aspect of your life, but the benefit in another causes an overall improvement in your well-being. For normal twenty-something’s, this could mean skipping a workout to go to happy hour with your friends because you know that the mental and emotional benefit of this social action will far outweigh the negative impact of not working out. For us chronic illness fighters, this may mean choosing to go out to a party and stay much later than we should, sacrificing incredibly important hours of sleep. We may pay for it physically in the morning, having to stay in bed the entire next day, or having to take pain meds we really don’t like taking, but sometimes, even when you know it’ll hurt you physically, the mental and emotional benefits are more than worth it. Remember, however, the opposite can also be true. Sometimes, friends may invite you out for something that sounds kind of fun, but you know staying in and taking care of your responsibilities (or yourself) will result in an overall greater benefit, even if you feel a little bit of FOMO from staying in.
When facing these difficult decisions, regardless of if you’re an overall healthy individual or chronically ill, please know that whatever you choose is your business. You do not owe anyone an explanation or an excuse. Your decisions are your own. What is right for you might not be right for somebody else, and vice versa. We all have different situations, limitations, bodies, and priorities. Respect yourself by making decisions that are best for your body, for your mind, for you.