Editor’s note: the following is a column submitted by Serena Jones, a primary care counselor at MCHC Health Centers, run here are a letter-to-the-editor.
More and more, research bears out what common sense has already told us: our physical and emotional health are closely tied together. If we don’t feel good physically, it affects our mood and motivation. If we feel depressed or anxious, it can show up in our bodies as stomach aches, headaches, and other physical ailments. So, it should be no surprise that as a behavioral health provider, I find myself sharing the same recommendations as my medical colleagues—to consider lifestyle changes that enhance nutrition, sleep, movement, and mindfulness. We know we cannot control so many things that contribute to mood problems, so why not control the things we can?
Oftentimes, the focus of good nutrition is to reach an ideal weight or increase strength. From the behavioral health perspective, it is important to understand how various foods can affect the mind and body, regardless of how many calories they have.
We know certain deficiencies in vitamins cause problems. For example, low vitamin D levels are associated with depression, and low vitamin B12 levels are associated with feeling weak and tired, as well as troubles with memory and thinking. So, it stands to reason that improved nutrition can contribute to higher levels of energy, and when you have more energy, you feel more motivated to do things.
The body is full of complex systems, including the nervous system, that must coordinate properly for optimal health, and the brain is the processing system for them all. Good nutrition contributes to the body’s ability to manufacture essential brain chemicals, so a balanced diet is key. A great first step is to eat the rainbow—eat fruits and vegetables of all colors, red, orange, green, yellow, and more. Each of the colors is associated with different nutritional gift.
Another way to keep your complex machine running well is to get enough restful sleep. The brain needs to recharge overnight. When people suffer from chronically interrupted sleep, their thinking is foggy, their memory is spotty, they have lower energy, and their moods can darken.
If you’re nodding along with these symptoms and thinking, “Yes, I’d love to get good sleep, but I can’t,” you’re not alone. Many people struggle to fall asleep and/or to stay asleep. Their minds race as soon as their heads hit a pillow.
Because this is such a common complaint, behavioral health professionals have many methods to help, such as meditation and breathing techniques. And several apps have been developed that incorporate these methods. One free app is Relax and Sleep Well, which includes more than 80 hypnotherapy and meditation recordings. Another is Pzizz, which includes relaxing music and sounds. Other resources include YouTube channels such as Doreen Blumenfeld’s Journey into Deep Relaxation and The Honest Guys’ Meditations and Relaxation.
When your brain takes off at a gallop instead of relaxing into sleep, I think of it as an unruly horse in need of training. As soon as you relax on the reigns, goes starts to take off again. Happily, we can train our brains. One of the first steps is to recognize that it is truly okay to stop thinking for a while.
Remind yourself that after a break, you’ll actually think better. If you need to jot down some notes so you can let the thoughts go, then do so. Ideally, you’ll get to the point where you can notice a thought, and then let it go without judgement. Just say to yourself, “There goes my brain, thinking about that again.”
Next time, I’ll share information about movement and mindfulness. In the meantime, if you need help making the changes you want to make, consider scheduling an appointment with a behavioral health provider. Sometimes having some support, either through counseling or medication, can provide the foundation for healing and set you on the path to a more balanced, happy life. One local resource is MCHC Health Centers Behavioral Health Department.
Serena Jones is a primary care counselor at MCHC Health Centers, a community-based and patient-directed organization that serves Mendocino and Lake Counties, providing comprehensive primary healthcare services as well as supportive services such as education and translation that promote access to healthcare. Learn more at mchcinc.org.