As physical therapists, the majority of our work is helping patients fix very specific issues – reducing the pain of a knee injury, for example, or building up muscle again after a broken bone.
One thing we learn very early on in our training is that the site of the injury might not always be the cause. Lower back pain could be the result of tight hamstrings; restricted movement in the knee can sometimes be alleviated by a deep tissue massage of the calves.
For us it’s one of the most fascinating things about the human body: just how connected everything is. (If you’ve ever done a deep hip stretch in a yoga class and felt your jaw relax you’ll know what we mean!). Seeing the body in this way – as an intricate web of interrelated elements – rather than as lots of separate parts, is essential to providing effective treatment. ‘Zooming out’ allows us to identify issues we may not have considered if we’d only focused on the site of the injury.
But what if we zoomed out a little further? Beyond the realm of physical fitness in which we specialise, there are a host of other factors that contribute to our health. Just as the various parts of the body are deeply interconnected, so the areas of physical, mental and even spiritual health all have an effect on each other. Viewing the different areas of our lives as interrelated is sometimes referred to as a ‘holistic’ approach to health – considering the whole person rather than just the symptoms they present with in order to treat an issue.
While this may sound a little ‘new-age’, there’s sound scientific evidence to back it up. Stress, for example, is believed to play a part in around 70% of diseases, including cancers, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. It can lower the immune system and increase recovery time from injury.
So with the prospect of a long Covid winter perhaps leaving many of us feeling a little more anxious than usual, we thought we’d cover a few ways to take care of your health in a more holistic way.
(P.S – for more on this you can download our free resource pack, here).
Well, we would start here! But with good reason. There’s almost no better way to combat stress than with physical exercise. The endorphin boost that follows a good workout is one of the most powerful relaxants known to science. Running, swimming or other repetitive tasks are also great for helping the mind drift into a more relaxed state, akin to meditation, where conscious and subconscious minds connect to work out problems. Ball sports, extreme sports and martial arts all require a high level of focus that takes your mind off any worries you may have. And more gentle activities such as yoga, tai chi or Pilates often have this holistic philosophy of linking body and mind at their core. In short – whatever your sport, get out and do it!
Give Yourself a Break
We don’t mean booking that cottage in Cornwall (though that would be nice too!). But simply trying to achieve less can have a significant impact on your stress levels. If you’re the type of person who says yes to everything, start saying no and taking on less. A never-ending to-do list is one of the most commonly cited causes of stress. Far better to do a few things well and have some time to yourself at the end of the day.
And remember – you’re almost certainly your own worst critic. It’s great to have high standards, but perfectionism can be a curse as well. Let yourself aim for ‘good enough’ every now and then.
You Are What You Eat
It’s all too easy to reach for the usual suspects of chocolate, caffeine or alcohol when we are feeling tired or stressed out, but while these may provide a short-term boost to our mood, there is usually a subsequent crash. If we’re not careful, a vicious cycle can ensue. So as much as possible, try and remain disciplined with what you consume: we know how important it is to eat well for our health and the effect our diet has on our immunity, but mounting scientific evidence shows that our diet has a direct impact on our mood as well. Studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet – high in fruit, veg and nuts, moderate in dairy and white meat, and low in red meat – is associated with a reduced risk of depression and anxiety. So next time you prepare food, think of a beachside taverna on a sunny Greek island. There – you feel better already!
Few things have a more instant impact on our wellbeing than a good night’s sleep. This is when our minds solve problems and process what might be going on in our lives. It’s also the time when our bodies do the most physical healing. But when we are feeling stressed or anxious, sleep can feel elusive. If this is the case for you, try building a bedtime routine that starts at least half an hour before you want to sleep. Avoid stimulation such as television or the internet, and definitely don’t spend time scrolling down your phone. A warm bath, gentle stretching, or even a guided relaxation exercise such as a yoga nidra can help you relax. (A quick Google search will bring up plenty of guided pre-recorded pre-sleep meditations).
If you do find yourself tossing and turning, get up after 20 minutes and do something to calm yourself down again. Staying in bed will only result in rising adrenaline, and further lack of sleep.
Worrying about the future, going over events in the past or focusing on negative thoughts can all be causes of stress. One antidote is to choose to ignore these thoughts, and focus simply on the present. This is the idea behind mindfulness, and while it might be easier said than done to ‘be in the moment’, with a little practice most people will be able to do it for at least a minute or so. Mindful practice, sometimes referred to as focussed attention, can involve anything from a deep yogic meditation, to simply taking a moment to appreciate the taste of the food in your mouth or the feeling of the air on your face. How you do it doesn’t matter, but do try and take time in every day to practice. As we slow our minds down, the frequency of our brain waves decreases, the result of which is everything from better problem solving to increased feelings of wellbeing.
An increasing amount of evidence suggests that the simple act of taking a moment each day to give thanks can have a positive impact on our wellbeing. Participants in studies around the benefits of keeping a gratitude diary noted better sleep, reduced illness and increased mood. The practice is simple. At the end of each day, write down a small number of things for which you feel grateful. They can be big things, like your health or a promotion at work, or little things, like the great cup of coffee you had in the morning, or a sunny day. Taking this time to focus our thoughts on the positives in our life can alter our brain chemistry over time, making us more predisposed to happiness and wellbeing.
Want to find out more about nurturing your wellbeing?
Based on the latest research into holistic health, these guides contain simple, practical steps to help boost your mood and feel great.