Like so many people, I have dealt with anxiety and depression for most of my life. It ebbs and flows, but I accepted long ago that it is part of my life for the long haul. And so I try to always be in pursuit of what will be most supportive to my mental health.
A part of this exploration has been connecting with my body and mind as one entity — they are not separate. And so caring for myself is not about focusing on only one part, but rather on nourishing my whole self.
One thing I’ve really been able to connect with over the years is how my digestion is impacted if I’m not taking care of my mind and heart. This is a part of what makes holistic health so beautiful to me — it’s not only about what I put into my body, but also about how other aspects of myself impact what my body does with what I put into it.
How we feel in our heads and hearts can affect the body’s processing of foods. Just like how we can get a stomach ache when we feel nervous. We literally feel our feelings in our stomach — so why wouldn’t those feeling have an impact on our digestion?
I find it may be easier to think about this in the context of how it feels to eat a meal in a hurry compared with when we can sit in peace and savor each bite. I know it has always felt like a clear difference with how my system handles the food and how it feels afterward.
But what about during the times where stress is more chronic? When we’ve stopped being terribly aware of the presence of stress because it has become a constant? For me, during times of high stress, my digestive system does not feel as equipped to process the foods I eat, no matter how nutritious.
And of course I want to support my body in accessing all the nourishment I give it, but it can be tough to remain aware of my mental space when I don’t do so intentionally. If the stress remains unchecked, suddenly it has been days or weeks of feeling off, and it is only when I finally take a moment to sit with myself and check in that I realize my stress level has been negatively impacting my ability to truly nourish myself.
We can’t always change the situation, but we can support ourselves in coping most effectively with the chaos around (or in) us.
One simple strategy that I like adding to my daily wellness routine is this: breathe.
Upon waking, take a few moments of quiet and focus on the breath. I like to count. I count 1 to 4 while breathing in through my nose, hold my breath for 7 counts and then release the breath through my mouth as I count 1 to 8.
This helps me focus my attention on my breath, and it helps me control it a little more than my stressed-out brain often allows. Practicing intentional, mindful breathing throughout the day can help to decrease stress levels and feel more focused.
While seemingly small, any chance to unload some anxiety can help your whole self — mind, body, heart — work more effectively as one beautiful being. This way, your body can better use all the good stuff you’re putting into it!
Now, I do want to be clear that really supportive breath-work is actually not always super easy to learn. And it can be even more complicated to do breathing techniques correctly if there is a history of chronic stress or trauma. For something more substantial, I would recommend finding a good therapist, mindfulness expert or trauma-informed yoga instructor.
But if you need to start small, try taking a few nourishing breaths throughout the day and see how you feel — even this act of intentional self-care can make a big difference.