What will you say if I ask how you’re feeling right now? You might respond with a polite “I’m fine.”
But what if I persist? What if I say, “Drop the formality and tell me how you’re really feeling.”
If I’m lucky, you’ll open up. Honest answers like “stressed,” “anxious,” “depressed,” “exhausted,” and “mind-fucked” will tumble like clothes from an overstocked closet.
Don’t punish yourself for feeling like this. Millions of people across the world are battling in a storm inside themselves. And the number is increasing. In March 2020, 32% of adults in the US reported that worrying about COVID — 19 negatively impacted their mental health. Just a month later, the number jumped to 53%!
There’s plenty of advice online to manage your mental health: connect with friends, express gratitude, love yourself, seek professional help.
This advice is useful. We even feel good when we apply it. But it doesn’t take long before we return to the downward spiral of negative emotions. Dopamine, the feel-good chemical our brain secretes, goes missing in a flash. And the craving for it drives people to resort to social media, alcohol, and other harmful substances.
Why does our dopamine-rush have a shorter shelf life than a politician’s promise? Why do we struggle to maintain our mental health despite it being a coveted subject in current times?
The answer lies in our neglect of an element essential to our mental health — our body. People don’t just ignore their bodies; they behave as if they have a vendetta against it.
The main reason why many people visit the gym is to click photos for Instagram (working out consistently to remain fit de damned). The live-to-eat philosophy is an excuse for people to punish their systems with junk food like they punish their minds with junk thoughts. And they wield the love-me-for-who-I-am ax to avoid getting off their butts and putting in the effort to care for their bodies.
But here’s a truth you probably ignore. Others won’t love you for who you are if you don’t love yourself. And you cannot love yourself if you don’t like the person in the mirror.
The simplest step to like the person in the mirror is to take care of your physical health.
A Healthy Body Leads to a Healthy Body
This isn’t an empty aphorism. It’s a scientifically proven fact.
The brain is the physical part of the body that houses the conscious and subconscious mind. In a paper, Leslie Aiello from the University College in London stated that “each unit of brain tissue requires over 22 times the amount of metabolic energy as an equivalent unit of muscle tissue.”
In simpler words, the brain requires a lot of energy to function properly.
This energy is oxygen and nutrients that come from our physical movements and diet. But our sedentary lifestyles and erratic eating habits deprive the brain of this fuel. Moreover, the brain cannot purge itself from low-quality fuel. This means we punish our brain by neglecting — or abusing — our bodies. And it exacts a terrible toll on our mental health.
The word health originated from the old English word hælþ, which means “wholeness, a being whole, sound or well.” And to feel whole, Sadhguru said:
Our physical energy must be vibrant, emotional health must be joyful, and emotions must be exuberant.
Here are three simple ways to care for your body and feed your mind with the right fuel.
1. Engage in a Competitive Sport
Many people exercise merely to tick it off their to-do list. They don’t focus on improving. That’s why their progress plateaus after a point.
To remain healthy, it’s important to keep leveling up instead of resting on plateaus. Competitive outdoor sports serve as a terrific means to achieve this.
Playing a competitive sport enables you to express your emotions and exert your body. You improve your focus and discipline. You learn to appreciate small wins like improving marginally over the previous week or feeling thrilled by winning a point. You learn to deal with disappointment and loss. And you build the mental toughness to show up the next day, ready to compete again.
This floods your brain with endorphins, the feel-good chemical. Endorphins set off a chain reaction of positive thoughts in your mind and improve your decision-making in various aspects of life. Research shows that people who exercise start eating better, become more productive at work, show more patience with family and colleagues, use their credit cards less, and feel less stressed.
Thus, exercise sets the wheels in motion for positive habits that improve your mental health.
You don’t have to play at a professional level. Just spend 30 minutes a day competing in a physical sport. Tennis, basketball, cricket, swimming, running, or even at the gym. Keep score of the aspect that truly matters: how your current level compares with the previous week.
Before the lockdown, I was a regular at the gym and the swimming pool. After the lockdown, I stopped both for six months. I never felt worse physically and mentally in my life.
In the last two months, I’ve returned to exercising, where my workout partner and I keep pushing each other to do a few more reps than the previous week. This hasn’t just impacted my body. It has also positively affected my mood and work.
2. Watch What You Eat
Research states that almost 95% of serotonin stems from our gut. Serotonin is the lead neurotransmitter in charge of our mood, hunger, and perception, Elizabeth Owens wrote. Which means the food we consume sends a direct message to our brain.
But most people don’t send good messages to their brains.
Processed sugar is a common ingredient in foods today. And the fact that it’s dangerous is the world’s worst-kept secret. The more we consume it, the less dopamine our body secretes, which makes us consume more sugar to get the same “high.”
This doesn’t just lead to obesity-induced health conditions. Dropping dopamine levels also lead to anxiety, depression, ADHD, Parkinson’s disease, and sleep disorders.
Likewise, erratic eating habits like wiping off a bag of chips at 2 AM or gorging on junk food at every chance don’t just make us lethargic. They also increase inflammation in the brain, slow down our ability to function, and cause severe long-term ailments.
It doesn’t take much to switch to a healthy diet. But the benefits are unmatched. Folate-rich foods like spinach, asparagus, broccoli, and beans improve cognitive function and lower the risk of depression. Drinking honey once a day increases antioxidants that reduce the risk of heart ailments and strokes, and improve eye health. Eating fibrous foods like apples and veggies improves digestion.
I’ve also felt a distinct shift in my mental and physical health since I began drinking a glass of ash gourd each morning. It isn’t tasty, but it fills me with energy while keeping my mind calm.
The food we eat creates chemical reactions in our body which, in turn, dictate how we respond to situations. Healthy food is not tasty. But it makes you feel energized and helps you regulate your moods better.
3. Purge Your System
When your body holds crap for a long time, it goes to your brain. That’s where crappy ideas come from.
Okay, let’s cut out the lame-ass jokes.
Purging your body of toxins is as important as consuming healthy food. This includes emptying your bowels, sweating, deep exhalation, and more. Think of it as a daily detox.
A clean body is a fit one. And fit bodies rarely retain toxins for more than 24 hours.
If you visit an Ayurvedic doctor, the first thing they do is purge your system so that the medicines can take effect.
Here’s the thing. If you exercise and eat healthy food, your body automatically drains out the toxins each morning. You feel lighter in the body and mind. This is another reason for you to lead a healthy life.
The state of your body directly affects the state of your mental health.
The points above prove that you can do your mental health a world of good by simply treating your body like a temple.
This is not a one-time activity. It takes constant vigilance. It might even feel boring in the beginning. But the rewards are tremendous.
When you feel fitter in mind and body, you’ll smile when you look in the mirror. When you smile at yourself, others will smile at you. And you smile in the face of stress, which makes the events that caused it to appear trivial.
Until one day, living a healthy life becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end.
You have only one body and mind to spend your life in. Treat them well. You owe yourself that much.