Christmas 2020 was an unusual one for all of us, but for many people it was made even harder by financial uncertainty, travel restrictions, health concerns, or unemployment. Millions of Americans lost their unemployment benefits the day after Christmas when the $900 billion Covid-19 relief and government funding bill was delayed. Millions more Americans continue to experience a delay in unemployment benefits and don’t know when they will be able to pay their bills.
January can be depressing enough as it is. All of the magic of Christmas and other special holidays over and long gloomy nights with cold, miserable weather prevails. It is really hard to stay in a sparkling mood when the festive season is over. This is such a common occurrence that studies show that as many as 25% of Americans suffer from mild to severe depression after the holidays. Expectations aren’t met, gifts need to be taken back; or some may not have been able to give gifts this year at all. The fantasy that Christmas was going to fix Covid-19 is dashed. These are challenging times for even the most resilient among us.
The Mind Body Connection
On top of this, research has shown that poor mental health can have a negative impact on our physical health, leading to increased risk of certain health conditions. Our mental and physical health are fundamentally connected. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. In other words, “there is no health without mental health”. This statement is especially true when it comes to chronic conditions like high blood pressure, chronic pain, and musculoskeletal conditions like low back pain.
People with chronic illnesses have a higher risk of suffering from depression. Sometimes the depression follows a diagnosis, such as a back injury or trauma. In these instances, the depression can improve over time, as the person’s physical condition improves. But low back pain can be so debilitating that, despite multiple surgeries or implant devices aimed to treat pain, many individuals are left with little to no relief of their pain, and many are unable to get back to work or enjoy the things they used to do.
How Depression Impacts Our Health
Depression has many different impacts on our physical health. Scientists have found that depression can influence many different parts and functions of our body such as :
Increase feelings of pain
Reduce our body’s ability to fight infection
Cause abnormalities in stress hormones
Bring about metabolic changes in our bodies.
The science is clear — there is a direct link between the mental health and physical illness. The good news is that there are several things that we can do to improve both our mental and physical health.
What We Can do to Improve Our Mental and Physical Health
When we exercise it releases “feel-good” hormones called endorphins. It also increases the production of serotonin, a compound in our blood that is responsible for regulating mood. These hormones can help to reduce depression and lower anxiety. It has long been said that exercise is one of the most underused “drugs” to help with pain.
The good news is that you don’t have to do anything too intense. Just a quick 10 minute walk, or spending time in your garden, can release endorphins. The important thing is that you find something that you like and then do it regularly.
Recent studies have found that a Mediterranean-style diet (a diet with lots of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, fish, and healthy oils) has led to a reduction in depression among participants. This reduction was found to be sustained for six months. A 2014 study found that individuals who ate more fruit and vegetables reported high levels of well being. Conversely, a diet that is high in saturated fats, processed foods and refined carbohydrates has been linked to poor health and increased depression.
Sleep is another one of the most underrated natural things that you can do to improve your health. I know, it sounds like we are always talking about diet and sleep and exercise, but that’s because they really do have a huge impact on your health. Not getting enough beauty sleep has been linked with anxiety, stress, and depression.
The average adult should aim for between 7–9 hours of sleep per night. Dr. Michael Twery, a sleep expert at NIH states that “Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies”. According to Twery, “It affects growth and stress hormones, our immune system, appetite, breathing, blood pressure and cardiovascular health”.
Over time, sleep deficits can influence your mood and put you at greater risk for developing depression. Maintaining a good sleep schedule with good sleep hygiene can have a significant positive impact on mood and overall health. Setting a regular bedtime, decreasing screen time an hour or so before going to sleep, and reducing alcohol and caffeine intake, can all help with getting some good quality sleep.
The Covid-19 pandemic has left many people feeling isolated and cut off from friends and family. But getting support during hard times is vital to preventing a decline in your mental health. It can be hard to talk about your mental health with others since there is still some stigma surrounding mental health conditions, although improvements are being made.
The shame surrounding getting help often makes people hesitant to reach out for support, but there are so many people out there who would love to be of assistance. Don’t be afraid to tell someone you are having a hard time. In many cases, people only seek professional help after a crisis has occurred. The rise in telehealth services has made getting help from a professional counselor or therapist much easier. Many counselors now offer sliding scale fee options, and there are some who are even offering pro bono services to those who may not be able to afford it.
Mental Health Resources
If you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition, it is vital to contact a mental health professional. While eating healthily and exercising can help improve your mental health, some people may need counseling and/or medication to reach optimal mental health. If you are experiencing an immediate crisis you should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. This is a 24-hour toll-free suicide prevention service available to anyone in crisis. You can call them on 1–800–273-TALK (8255).
As we have seen, there are so many ways that our mental health can affect our physical health, and so often we are completely unaware of this essential mind-body connection. So the next time you experience a flare up of low back pain, it might be an idea to see if taking a different approach to back pain could help? Have you been stress eating a lot of fast food? Have you made time for yourself to engage in some activities that get your endorphins going?
Instead of using traditional pharmacological treatments, there might be something different you could try that would work even better to help reduce your pain and get you back to doing the things you love? Let us know if you have a favorite way of treating your low back pain. We would love to hear what is working for you!