Want to be healthy? Take time for yourself. Do something that makes you smile or brings you pleasure. Take a walk, read a book, get a massage, or even spend a few minutes stretching.
Your emotional health is directly tied to your physical health, said Dr. Elizabeth De, a primary care physician now practicing at the UCHealth Primary Care Clinic – Steele Street, in Denver. In fact, she ranks emotional neglect up there with other national “epidemics,” such as obesity and diabetes.
So she asks her patients who come in for a wellness check or annual physical some direct questions about their emotional well-being.
“I really started doing it years ago,” she said. “I do it with all my well visits. I ask them what they are doing for themselves, for ‘me time,’ as I call it. I started seeing lots of anxiety and depression – in the top 5, if not the top 3, complaints. I noticed that the age (for these issues) was getting younger and younger. Teens sometimes come in only for anxiety and depression. Lots of teens are asking for anxiety medications. It makes me sad.”
As a mother of school-aged children herself, this concerns De. But it’s not just children who are experiencing physical symptoms from emotional stress.
“With the workforce situation being what it is … where working more is considered better, and people take pride in that,” the attendant stress is “starting to affect people physically,’’ she said.
We tend to forget “how intimately mental health is connected to physical health,” she said. “A lot of physical complaints are related to our emotional health,” mainly fatigue, inability to sleep, irritability, joint pains and body aches.
“It all stems back to not taking care of ourselves emotionally,” she said.
She asks her patients, “What are you doing for yourself? What gives you joy? What makes you smile? What gives you pleasure?”
She is surprised at how often the patients have to sit and think about it. And sometimes they can’t even come up with an answer.
People “are too busy taking care of their kids, just getting through life, just trying to keep their heads above water. They forget to take care of themselves, to enjoy life, to take a pause.
“It’s unfortunate,” she said.
Caring for the caretakers
People who are caretakers – of their children, their parents, or others – need to take care of themselves first, she said. “If you don’t, then you can’t be a good caregiver.” Parents, especially, tend to put their own needs low on the list of priorities, and if it goes on too long, can have physical consequences.”
When she asks patients her pointed questions, she often finds their answers revealing.
“It usually explains most of their symptoms, to be honest,” she said. Things like fatigue, general achiness and irritability are often exacerbated by life crises – going through a divorce, the death of a parent, or problems with a child.
She often recommends that patients take steps to enhance their emotional health – go to the gym, get a massage, take a walk with the dog, or read a book where they won’t be interrupted.
“They’ll say, ‘I don’t have time to go to the gym, or do any of those other things’, and I tell them, ‘It’s doctor’s orders.’”
They often come back to her and say “When I do exercise, I feel a lot better! Or if I just sit in my room and read for a while, I’m not as irritable. I don’t yell at my kids as much, or get as grumpy with my spouse.”
The power of movement has been proven to be so beneficial that even some schools are now incorporating it into the curriculum – yoga or stretching for children helps them perform better during the school day, she said.
“Exercise is a huge remedy. When you exercise you get the endorphins going and get your blood pumping, and you’ll feel so much better afterwards. Do it in the morning, because it gets things going. Evening exercise might make it hard to sleep. A lot of workplaces now have gyms, so you can work out at lunch. You don’t have to work up a sweat for it to be beneficial. Take a walk, do some stretching, sign up for a yoga class, whatever is available.”
Changing the mindset
The biggest — and sometimes hardest — thing is changing the mindset “that it’s OK to sometimes put yourself first.”
Medical professionals need to remember that, too, she said.
“Of course, when we are involved in direct patient care, the patient always come first. However, to maximize our performance as healthcare providers we have to take care of ourselves first,” she added.
She recommends that everyone do something for themselves every day.
“Find what you enjoy … whatever makes you happy. If you have kids, take turns letting one spouse look after them for an hour or two while the other one gets to go do something they like.”
So go for a run, play a game of badminton, work on your needlepoint, kick back, close your eyes and listen to your favorite music. Just for an hour every day. You’ll feel better.
After all, it’s doctor’s orders.