We are accustomed to thinking about physical and mental health as separate domains in our lives, yet more and more evidence is showing us that the two are intertwined. When we endeavor to address one, we are invited to consider the other.
I don’t by any means believe that we can address all of our mental, emotional, and relational struggles through improving our physical health alone. Yet there is ample evidence that the journey of healing anxiety and chronic stress is supported by attention to our physical health needs.
One of my scientist heroes is Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett. In her book, How Emotions Are Made, Feldman upends modern understandings of the human brain and mind, drawing from her extensive lab research at Northeastern University and more broadly from new discoveries in the dynamic field of neuroscience. We’ve all heard that it’s generally beneficial to our mental health to exercise, sleep well, drink enough water and eat well. Feldman’s book, however, goes into the benefits of improving physical health to enhance emotional wellbeing.
In order to understand how tending to our physical health is beneficial to conditions such as chronic stress and anxiety, it’s helpful to understand a couple of body/brain processes as described in the book. The first is interception, a constant process that occurs as our brains monitor the internal states of our bodies. Dr Feldman Barrett writes:
Simple pleasant and unpleasant feelings come from an ongoing process inside you called interception. Interception is your brain’s representation of all sensations from your internal organs and tissues, the hormones in your blood, and your immune system. Think about what’s happening within your body right this second. Your insides are in motion. You heart sends blood rushing through your veins and arteries. Your lungs fill and empty. Your stomach digests food. This interceptive activity produces the spectrum of basic feeling from pleasant to unpleasant, from calm to jittery, and even completely neutral.
The second process that is important to know about is affect. Dr Feldman Barrett continues:
Affect is the general sense of feeling that you experience throughout each day. It is not emotions but a much simpler feeling with two features. The first is how pleasant or unpleasant you feel, which scientists call valence. The second feature of affect is how calm or agitated you feel, which is called arousal.
Affect is informed by interception. The brain’s interpretation of the body’s needs, as well as its surpluses and deficits (body budget) translates into affect. In the field of psychology, the word affect is often used interchangeably with mood. Hence, our mood is a reading by the brain of the body’s overall health and wellbeing: The most basic thing you can do to master your emotions….is to keep your body budget in good shape.
Most of us tend to look for emotional or relational causes to unpleasant moods, yet this information invites us to look to our health instead. We might pause and ask; how is my health in this moment? Am I hydrated, well rested? What have I eaten lately? Have I moved my body?
The most important thing that we can do with this information is to use it in ways that align with self-kindness. It is crucial to make only small changes to our health habits at a time - health is a long-term project (life-long). For lasting changes, we must witness ourselves with compassion if we begin to feel anxious or obsessive about our health or if we are unkind to ourselves.
It may be helpful to choose one small way that we can tend to our bodies better such as staying hydrated, moving more often, improving sleep habits, eating meals at regular times, or reducing our intake of processed foods. A small change can set the foundation for better moods.
Of course, there is far more to our mental, emotional, and relational health than our physical wellbeing. Yet if we begin with small steps toward improving physical health, our success in addressing other aspects of our lives that contribute to anxiety and chronic stress can be bolstered.