Balancing act: The yin and yang of mind and body

Our culture is obsessed with fitness and self-improvement. We all want our bodies fit, lean, toned and full of energy. How can we do the same for our minds? Is there a miracle workout or diet that cures stress, depression and anxiety? Not completely, but a growing body of research shows that the way we treat our bodies is intimately linked with our mental well-being. Mind and body are two vital parts of the same whole that mesh together in the most unique and special way. They make you who you are.

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A growing body of research shows that the way we treat our bodies is intimately linked with our mental well-being. (Photo by Reagan Hembree)

Well, Well, Well

“Wellness,” or the idea of mind and body health as one, appeared in Western popular culture just after World War II. Since the ‘60s, scholars and health professionals have defined wellness as multi-dimensional health covering our personal, social and physical lives, where balance and personal responsibility are key. “You have physical health, but there’s also mental health, social health, environmental health, spiritual health. So there are a lot of different things that pour into what wellness is,” said Bucky Buchanan, Assistant Director of Fitness at the George St. Gym.

But everyone is doing it!

Fitness culture and motivational workout quotes may dominate the Internet, but college students notoriously love junk food and hate exercise. “I think of students who are not eating well, who are staying up overnight to study and write papers and using a lot of caffeine, and maybe going out afterwards and drinking a little bit more than they should,” said Rachael McNamara, advisor to the Cougar Counseling team.  These are some of the biggest mistakes we have all been guilty, in spite of the consequences.

Misconceptions about what is and is not healthy are equally dangerous. Ashley Galloway, Dietician and Food Service Manager at Liberty Fresh Foods, mourns the many souls led astray by the decadent toppings available at the salad and greek yogurt bars.

“Bacon bits with the cheese and all the ranch dressing, still a salad, right?” Wrong. Greek yogurt topped with a ton of honey and chocolate chips is not good for you by virtue of being Greek yogurt. “You may as well have a brownie,” she said.

Prioritizing weight loss over wellness by cutting out calories and carbohydrates is yet another grievous sin. By cutting out your body’s preferred source of energy, “you essentially starve yourself,” said Galloway. “Your body is always wondering when it is going to get its next meal … it’s going to hold on to everything and store it as fat for fear of you not feeding it again in the future.”

Students, especially freshmen, are new to the responsibility of feeding themselves. Some of us eat a jar of Nutella before bed, others live on salad and water, neither option is healthy.

Stressed spelled backwards is “desserts”

College students are, by nature, stressed out. We feel like adults, but we are still learning how to take care of ourselves while managing commitments, responsibilities and relationships.

Feeling overwhelmed is totally normal and sometimes all we need is a sympathetic ear. The Cougar Counselors are a team of peer counselors highly trained to deal with a wide range of issues. Sometimes it’s an annoying roommate who ate your yogurt. It can be homesickness, relationships or, more seriously, suicide ideation, according to Virginia McCaughey, Co-Executive Director of Cougar Counseling services.

“Sometimes they say ‘I don’t know if my problem is legitimate enough to talk about,’” McCaughey said. “If you see it as a problem, it is a problem. All of your feelings are valid.”

When stressed, our body thinks it has to fight for survival, so it draws on energy normally used for important functions like digestion and immune support. Constant stress leads to a weakened immune system, according to McLernon-Sykes, increasing chances of getting sick.

For those with diagnosed mental illness, the mind-body connection is even more acute. Caitlin Hastie is a volunteer with Cougar Counseling services; her depression and anxiety manifest themselves through extreme fatigue and and physical sickness. “I tend to oversleep a lot,” she said, “I can’t eat, sometimes I throw up.”

So our mental health can affect physical well-being, but does it work the other way around? Absolutely. Lack of sleep or exercise, overuse of caffeine, alcohol and processed sugars all feed into a vicious cycle of stress and poor physical health.

A good workout staves off stress and anxiety by releasing endorphins, but food plays a role too. To supplement exercise, Galloway advised eating foods containing a few specific nutrients, minerals and vitamins that fight stress by lowering levels of specific hormones. Vitamin C and Zinc, found in whole grains, nuts and seeds, and Omega-3 fatty acids, found in salmon, tuna and walnuts, have shown to reduce rates of suicide and depression.

All about that balance

Your mind and body are yin and yang, meaning what you put into one will affect the other. Personal wellness is a highly individualized pursuit, all about tuning into that balance. Our unique relationships, beliefs, preferences, genetics and personality all fall under the umbrella of wellness.

“It’s hard to put everybody in a single box,” McCaughey said. For instance, caffeine, alcohol and marijuana can all affect stress levels differently, depending on individual past experiences and genetic profile.

Individualization of personal wellness is crucial in the work that Galloway and Buchanan do at the College. Buchanan said he uses a highly individualized approach to the fitness plans he creates for students.  He laments that students come in with plans that are too advanced or unbalanced for their needs. Galloway creates personal diet plans based on wellness needs and foods available on a meal plan. Everyone has different boxes that need ticking to achieve full mind-body wellness.

On her journey to personal wellness, Hastie discovered that avoiding coffee, energy drinks and even exercise kept her anxiety down. “It’s different for everyone,” she said. “So you’ve got to be on the right medicine, if you need medicine. Get the right counselor, if you need a counselor. It’s a matter of balance, either way.”

What is the point of having a tight core and a thigh gap if you look better than you feel? Sacrificing one aspect of health for another will deal damage to both. We think we are going to live forever, and hedonistically fill our bodies with garbage. We might accept the physical consequences because we are aware of them, but is your wellness and sanity really worth that caffeine-fueled all-nighter? As more research emerges linking mind and body health, society may change the ways we approach our own health. In the future, physical and mental illness may be treated in the same facilities, and having self-esteem may be as important as having a thigh gap.

*This article first appeared in the February 2016 issue of The Yard.

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Following in the footsteps of many great authors before her, Carson chose to begin her writing career with journalism. She's been writing news stories since high school and now writes for CisternYard News. She came to Charleston as a transfer after a two-year sojourn in the icy mountains of Utah and never looked back. She keeps busy by reading, playing video games and working at the Children's Museum as an expert in cardboard swords, dragons and pirate adventures. After graduation she will be setting off on her own pirate adventure, conquering the globe in her trusty VW van.

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