Why are Physical Issues More Acceptable than Mental and Emotional Ones?

Why is it that people accept physical problems as a normal part of life and even offer each other compassion and support when facing physical ailments, while mental and/or emotional issues often engender stigmas that send us underground to suffer in silence? What if we could simply see mental/emotional issues and mental health in a similar fashion to physical issues and physical health. How might that change us for the good?

Consider these two true statements about me. 

My Mental/Emotional Issues 

Hi…I’m Dave and I have mental and emotional issues. I’ve struggled with anxiety and panic for a good deal of my life. Twice in my life I’ve managed anxiety with medication and I’m really grateful that it helped me. I come from a long line of world-class “catastrophizers.” When I catastrophize it can dramatically lower my mood and increase fear and threat . I get hung up on small-minded narratives that serve no good purpose and only hurt me and negatively affect others. I can let shifting moods drive my behavior with very little examination of those moods. I can also find it difficult to state my feelings, especially in close relationships.

Now to me, in one very real sense, the above explanation about my mental and emotional issues is no different than the next statement about my physical issues. It’s just a different “part of me.” 

My Physical Issues 

“Hi…I’m Dave and I have a shoulder impingement on my left shoulder. A few years ago the doctor prescribed physical therapy and exercise as a way to avoid surgery. I also have atherosclerosis in a couple of the arteries that supply blood to my heart. My atherosclerosis is managed with a statin, vigilant exercise, and a healthy diet, along with stress management. I also notice (at 58)  that the level of exercise I do creates small aches, pains, and tightness. I’m trying to focus on stretching as a core element of my exercise regimen. I find stretching mitigates a lot of this discomfort. 

The BIG Question:

Why can’t we talk as openly about our mental/emotional issues as we do our physical ones? Why can’t we accept that we all have mental/emotional issues and normalize them in the same way we normalize our physical issues? I wonder if doing so would create more mental and emotional well-being. 

Our View Matters 

When we view mental/emotional health issues in a similar way to physical problems it can help to reduce stigma and increase acceptance of mental health issues in ourselves and others. Just like physical health problems, mental health issues are an inherent part of the human experience and affect all of us.

Unfortunately, mental health issues are often stigmatized and misunderstood. Many people believe that mental health issues are a sign of weakness or that individuals can simply “snap out of it.” Our limited understanding of all of this – including how the brain works, how our nervous system affects our behavior, and how our early and formative years of life continue to influence us –  can prevent us from seeking help or engaging in practices that increase our mental and emotional well-being.

Enhancing Our Mental and Emotional Health – Three Practices 

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of mental health and well-being. Mental health is not simply the absence of mental illness, but rather a state of well-being in which an individual can realize their full potential, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively, and make meaningful contributions to their community. That last sentence is worth a second read. Mental health is NOT simply about dealing with our mental and emotional woes, but it is about fostering a way of life that increases well-being. So here are three tried and true practices that increase mental and emotional health.

PRACTICE ONE: Exercise and Mental Health – It’s about as a close to a holy grail as you can get

Exercise has been shown to have a positive impact on mental health and well-being. The most recent research suggests that a combination of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and resistance training can be beneficial for mental health. Numerous studies have shown that exercise can have a positive effect on symptoms of depression and anxiety. In fact, a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2018 examined 33 randomized controlled trials and found that exercise interventions had a significant positive effect on symptoms of depression and anxiety. Additionally, the study found that resistance training had a stronger effect on reducing symptoms of depression than aerobic exercise.

Additionally, regular exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function, reduce stress, and promote better sleep. Exercise also releases endorphins, which are natural mood-boosters that can enhance feelings of well-being and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Consider this:

  • A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that people who engaged in regular cardio exercise experienced a 22% reduction in symptoms of depression. Similarly, a study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that cardio exercise reduced symptoms of anxiety in people with generalized anxiety disorder. The reason for this may be due to the release of endorphins during exercise. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that produce feelings of pleasure and well-being. Exercise also increases the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that promotes the growth of new neurons and helps regulate mood.
  • Research has shown that strength training can help improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression. In a study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, participants who engaged in strength training twice a week for ten weeks reported significant reductions in symptoms of depression. Strength training may also help improve self-esteem and self-confidence. A study published in the Journal of Health Psychology found that women who participated in a strength training program reported increased self-esteem and body satisfaction.
  • A study published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies found that a ten-week yoga program significantly reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety in participants. Another study in the International Journal of Yoga found that yoga helped reduce stress and improve mood in people with anxiety disorders. Flexibility training may also help improve body awareness and reduce negative body image. A study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that participants who participated in a yoga program reported improved body image and a decrease in disordered eating behaviors.

PRACTICE TWO: Living a Congruent Life with Your Values

Congruence is the state of being in alignment with one’s values. It involves accepting and expressing one’s true feelings, thoughts, and beliefs, rather than conforming to the expectations of others. Congruence is important because it allows individuals to live a life that is authentic and meaningful, which can lead to greater mental health and well-being.

The work of psychologist Carl Rogers revealed that living a congruent life is associated with better mental health and well-being. When we act in accordance with our values and beliefs, we experience a greater sense of satisfaction and fulfillment in life. Conversely, when we act in ways that contradict our values, we may experience feelings of guilt, shame, and frustration. This can lead to negative mental health outcomes such as depression and anxiety.

How to Cultivate Congruence

Cultivating congruence can be a challenging process, but it is essential for mental health and well-being. Here are some tips for cultivating congruence:

  1. Identify your values: Take time to reflect on the values that are most important to you. Write them down and consider how they shape your beliefs and behaviors.
  2. Evaluate your actions: Consider whether your actions align with your values. If not, consider what changes you can make to live a more congruent life.
  3. Practice self-awareness: Pay attention to your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Notice when you are not being honest with yourself or others, and work towards expressing yourself authentically.
  4. Be Yourself, But Let Others Appropriately Influence You: Expressing yourself and living an authentic life is not in conflict with our need to listen to, and learn from, the wisdom of other people. If I’m not open to the positive challenge from trusted friends and family, my self-understanding becomes rigid and selfish. Congruence is not about “doing my own thing” regardless of the consequences. It’s about living in tune with my core values while valuing the wisdom that comes from perspectives beyond my own.
  5. Practice Reflection: Sending time alone, or with others, reflecting on your life, situations, and relationships helps you to process out feelings, let go of unhelpful angst, and learn from past experiences while preparing for the future. Reflection can be done through active thinking, journaling of many sorts, and/or talking with trusted friends and/or advisors.

PRACTICE THREE: The Value of Friendships

Strong social connections are essential for mental health and well-being. Friendships can provide emotional support, reduce stress, and promote a sense of belonging. Research has shown that individuals with strong social connections have better mental health outcomes than those who are socially isolated. Friendships, in particular, are valuable for improving mood, reducing stress, and providing social support. A study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that having a supportive network of friends can improve mental health outcomes in individuals with chronic illnesses.

NOTE: It’s worth noting that the study focused on breast cancer survivors specifically, rather than individuals with chronic illnesses more broadly. Nonetheless, the findings do suggest that having supportive friendships can be beneficial for mental health outcomes in those dealing with chronic health challenges.

Here are some examples of how friendships and personal reflection can positively impact mental health:

  1. Social support during difficult times: Having strong friendships can provide us with a support network during challenging times. For example, a friend who listens and offers words of encouragement can help us better cope with stress and anxiety.
  2. Reflecting on the quality of our relationships: Personal reflection can help us better understand the quality of our relationships and identify areas for improvement. For example, reflecting on past experiences with friends can help us identify patterns and behaviors that may be impacting our current friendships.
  3. Developing empathy and understanding: Personal reflection can help us better understand our own thoughts and emotions, as well as the thoughts and emotions of others. This can lead to greater empathy and understanding in our relationships, which can have a positive impact on our mental health.

Embracing Our Humanness

When we embrace our humanity in all its wonderful messiness, we find that our weakness becomes a place of great strength. As humans, we all have a variety of struggles and triumphs. Embracing this mix enables us to live a more authentic and congruent life. Well being begins when we accept and appreciate our frailties and engage in practices that enable us to live lives of meaning and purpose. Meaning comes not in avoiding the mess, but engaging it with more and more wisdom. This includes embracing our mental and emotional issues and the health we desire.

References to Explore from this Article:

Exercise and the Prevention of Depression: https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2017.16111223

Exploring the Effects of Yoga: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3193654/

Research on Yoga and Well Being: https://www.bodyworkmovementtherapies.com/action/doSearch?text1=yoga+depression+anxiety&field1=AllField

Physical Exercise and Depression: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6335323/

Resistance Training and Depression: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29800984/

High Intensity Workouts and Anxiety: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0887618520301250

Positive Benefits of Self-Directed Exercise: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3942640/

Strength Training and Body Image: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4354895/

Segrin, C., Badger, T. A., Sikorskii, A., & Segrin, E. (2013). Depression and loneliness in breast cancer survivors: A prospective observational study. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 54(1), 38-51.)