How are you feeling?
Most likely, you’re thinking about how you’re feeling physically when someone asks you that question. But when I ask my clients how they’re feeling, I am more interested in their emotions.
So, one more time: How do you feel?
How you’re feeling emotionally can have a big impact on how you’re feeling physically. It seems like we are hearing a lot about the mind-body connection these days. There’s a reason for that. Medical science is learning more and more about how our minds and our bodies work together. Understanding this connection can have a positive impact on your wellness, and that’s especially beneficial if you are living with a chronic condition like HIV.
Here are the basics about the connection between your mind and your body:
The events that happen in life can bring up a lot of strong feelings. Finances. Relationships. The job. Raising children. And on and on. Along with the responsibilities of managing your HIV.
Your body responds to how you are feeling emotionally. This can include physical symptoms like pain, headaches, stomach aches, rises in blood pressure, tense muscles, and fatigue, among other symptoms. Any of these sound familiar?
These physical symptoms are your body’s way of telling you to pay attention to your emotional health. And if you don’t, your immune system can be affected, which can result in being that much more susceptible to colds and viruses. Is there proof? There seems to be more and more of it coming our way, based on studies that have provided evidence that psychological factors play a role in physical health and illness.
But even more important, think about the evidence of the mind-body connection in your own life. How do your emotions affect the way you feel physically? Have you noticed how your body reacts to your emotions? And have you noticed how emotions that build up over time and affect the way you feel physically?
Also consider that emotions can have a negative impact on how well you manage your HIV, and other aspects of your physical health, day to day. For example, if you feel anxious, you might not be as capable of paying attention to the messages that your body sends you when it needs attention, or you may forget to follow your medication regimen.
So, what can you do? For one thing, you can take better care of your emotional health, which in turn will have a positive impact on your overall wellness. Here are some ideas to get you moving in the right direction:
Acknowledge your feelings. Some of the emotions we experience, like fear and anger, aren’t so comfortable. But emotions don’t just slink away if you ignore them. Instead, they stick around, get stronger, and do all kinds of damage to your wellness. So own up to all of your feelings. Emotions are part of being human.
Talk it out. Sit down with someone you trust, who can listen without judging you or trying to tell you what you should do. Talk, laugh, cry, yell — get all those feelings out of hiding into the open. When you talk about your feelings, you take away their power to control you. And there’s something kind of magical about talking about how you feel. As you talk, you gain perspective on what’s behind your feelings.
Work it out. Getting active can be emotionally healing. Exercise produces feel-good hormones that can give you a sense of well-being. Exercise also increases self-esteem, and gives you a sense of confidence and control.
Look for ways to relax. Doing things to promote your own calmness and peace of mind can go a long way toward healing yourself emotionally. Taking a walk, sitting in a quiet place, listening to soft music … choose an activity that helps you to relax and build it into your schedule. Especially when your emotions are threatening to boil over.
Treat the part of your brain that doesn’t talk. You’ve probably been hearing a lot about the benefits of yoga and meditation. Regularly practiced, they can help you to maintain your inner balance, so that when a stressful event does occur, you are that much better prepared to handle it emotionally. Yoga and meditation can have a positive impact on areas of the brain that you are less aware of, yet are also involved in your emotions. And so do martial arts!
Let your doctor know. It’s always a good idea to run any physical symptoms you are experiencing past your doctor. This is a way to make sure there isn’t something physical going on that requires your doctor’s attention. Your doctor can also talk to you about how your condition and/or its treatment can impact you emotionally, and how your emotions can affect your condition. Your doctor can also be the first line in terms of suggesting how to get help with your emotions.
Reach out for help. If your emotions are interfering with your ability to do the things you need to do in your life or interfering with your relationships, or if you’re going through the motions of life but just feeling plain old miserable, then it might be time to talk to a mental health professional. A therapist or counselor can help you to sort your feelings and to learn some new ways to cope with the challenges in your life. Getting help with your emotions can, in turn, have a positive impact on your physical health. Again, the body-mind connection.
Don’t neglect your spirit. Let’s add another dimension to the mind-body connection: spirit. Making a spiritual connection can make a big difference in your life in terms of helping you to stay focused on the big picture of what’s really important in life. Reading inspirational books, spending time in meditation or prayer, or getting together with others who share your beliefs, can be great ways to bring more spirit into your life.
Body, mind … and spirit. They all work together. So make sure you are taking the best possible care of yourself — your whole self.
Gary McClain, MS, PhD, LMHC, CEAP, is a psychotherapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. He often works with couples who are living with a chronic condition. He maintains a website, JustGotDiagnosed.com.