From a very young age we are taught “Mind over matter.” Most people interpret this as, “if I think it I can do it.” Or people think of someone standing out in the freezing weather telling himself or herself that it is not cold, trying to convince their body that the subzero temperatures are not really that cold. So, if we can think of this phrase this way, why not bring in mental health? Because mental health and physical health have been separated, with the exception of Recreation therapy or Sport Psychology. Mental health is considered a soft science, whereas physical health is considered a hard science (something tangible, we can touch, test, and prove it). But what if we can use physical exercise to help treat mental illness?
My history as an athlete and someone who has studied mental health has lead me to believe that mental and physical are intertwined in so many ways. People with depression tend to isolate from others, have a lack of energy, and are not physically active. Antidepressants and counseling are the treatments, but what if the client and counselor went for a walk during the session (obviously keeping confidentiality in mind)? We have heard that physical activity can help a person feel good about himself or herself. Isn’t that part of what we want for a client with depression? Physical activity will also encourage a person to get out of the house to do the exercise (leading to less isolation). People with depression tend to do less, leading them further into the pit of depression. Encouraging a client to do more can help the client climb his or her way back up from the pit and, in turn, help his or her physical health, because we know that people with mental illness tend to die at a younger age than those without and that some mental illness cause physical illness like heart disease.
Self-esteem is also a problem that we, as counselors, come across a lot. I have found that self-esteem is usually linked to a person’s physical appearance more than who they are. So, why do we not work on helping the client with the physical part as well? I’m not saying ignore the fact that our bodies are not who we are, by any means. However, I am saying that some mental illnesses are greatly linked to our physical bodies (eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, etc). Substance abuse also greatly affects our bodies. So, is there a way to help a person feel good enough about his or her body that they want to take care of it? That is one of my goals. A person with body dysmorphic disorder may never see his or her body the way other people do, however, if we can work on the mental health part (thoughts, emotions, triggers, etc) while working on the physical (helping the person know the body movements, feelings of health and wellness, etc) the person may do better than if we only work on the mental health parts.
Some medications used for mental illness can cause weight gain. The weight gain can lead to decreased medication compliance as well as decreased self-esteem in our clients. Why would someone take a medication if it caused them to gain 45lbs? Do the benefits of taking the medication outweigh the risks? For some of our clients that answer is “no.” By combining physical activity with the counseling we can counter at least some of the weight gain, leading to potentially more medication compliance and longer lasting results.
When we think about coping skills that people use when feeling angry, depressed, anxious, stressed, etc a lot of the coping skills involve doing something. Taking a walk, writing, deep breaths, dance, sing, talk to a friend, spend time with a friend, etc all of these involve doing something physically.
Even though, let’s say, writing may not get your heart rate up your body is having to physically move in order to perform the task. Why can’t we use this to our advantage and incorporate physical activity into counseling? Our brains are part of our bodies, keeping one healthy will affect how the other one works.
Physical activity is encouraged and recommended by medical professionals and is starting to be incorporated into mental health. Physical activity can help out clients deal with more than just physical ailments, but also with psychological concerns. Now that we have explored how physical activity can help our clients cope and deal with mental illness, or just the stresses of life, we can now encourage them to get out and do it.