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Hilal Her

Finding a Balance: Mental and Physical Health for Women

April 2023

It is a common lived experience for all humans that their mental state influences their physical state and vice versa. Psychological and medical research has further identified specific ways in which this interplay of mental and physical health impacts men and women differently. These days, it seems we are all juggling more than our share of responsibilities. That seems to go double for women. Many are holding down jobs, caring for loved ones, staying active in their communities, trying to maintain social lives, and seeking to maintain their health and wellbeing at the same time. For women especially, it is important to remember that physical health and mental health are intricately connected. It is thus of priority for women to understand their psychological and physical needs, in order to take better care of themselves for a wholesome life.

Mind and Body – Two-Way Street
Since our mind and body share a natural connection, there is a two-way communication that happens between our mental functions and our bodily functions. When our body senses cool or warm temperatures, it communicates this to our mind, which then finds ways to adjust the body temperature to by wearing warm or lighter clothes, respectively. Similarly, when we experience emotions or when our way of thinking is challenged, or when we are expected to adjust outside our comfort zone, our mind should ideally be sending messages to our body to behave, speak, and respond in a way that helps in our adjustment process. However, sometimes our mind and body are unable to operate in coherence with each other. For example, if our better judgment is to limit snacking after dinner, yet we end up eating snacks after a full meal, it indicates a weak mind-body connection, and it is likely that the communication between mind and body is not two-way. Such daily experiences of disconnection between mind and body can become stressors for a person. 
How Does Stress Impact Women?
The reactions to stress vary in each woman and can also differ within the same woman at different stages of her life. For this reason, it is particularly important to monitor these symptoms correctly and identify when the stress starts to build up. When stress becomes chronic or excessive, it becomes harder to adapt and cope. Chronic stress builds up so that stress seems like a normal way of life for some women. Oftentimes women are so busy that they do not take time to slow down long enough to think about how stress is negatively affecting them. Common manifestations of stress among women are:
Physical: Chronic or long term stress often shows up in women as headaches and migraines, gastrointestinal issues and obesity, acne and skin related concerns, bodily aches and pains (typically in back and neck), disturbed or poor quality of sleep, tiredness, weak immunity, irregular menstrual cycle, fertility concerns, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Emotional: Depression and anxiety are reported at a higher rate among women as opposed to men. Common presentation of depression and anxiety in women is irritability in mood, crying spells, frustration, and feeling of losing control over personal response, among other clinical symptoms. 
Mental: Stress often shows up as mental manifestations that include, brain fog, forgetfulness, indecisiveness, inability to sustain focus, negative thinking style, inappropriate worry, and reduced attention span. 
Social: Stress impacts women’s capacity to meaningfully engage in interpersonal relationships, leading to experiences of isolation, lack of intimacy, and loneliness.  
Occupational: Stress in work places shows up as piling up of work tasks, tense relationships with coworkers, dissatisfaction with quality of work output, and other signs of burnout. 
Spiritual: Repetition of stressful cycles can lead to a loss of sense about meaning, which may result in difficult experiences of feeling empty and unfulfilled, general lack of interest and purpose, doubt and guilt may disrupt engaging with rituals and behaviors that carry spiritual meaning for a person. 
Balancing Act of SMART Wellness
The mind body link is an efficient mechanism for gaining and maintaining overall health. There are numerous activities, which lead to an overlap of benefits in both mind and body. This allows us to take better care of ourselves in a time efficient manner as well as making sure that we do not overlook our mental health for our physical health, and vice versa. However, it is key that each person creates their care plan as informed by their specific needs. 
Following is a step by step way of creating your SMART (be Specific, Measure effort and outcome, Achievable, Relevant, Time-framed) individual wellness plan, which helps in identifying and specifically focusing on balancing life areas that carry more stress. Notice and write what actions you consciously take to provide for your needs in each area and rate your satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10. Specifically, write in what ways your needs are not satisfied in each of these areas, for example, if you frequently experience headaches, or isolate yourself socially, it indicates neglect in that life area.
Be Specific 
For the specific unmet needs you have identified, specify what it would look like if you were to provide for these needs. For example, for frequent headaches because of dehydration, a specific goal would be to increase water intake by a specific amount. 
Measure Effort and Outcome
In order to keep up motivation and discipline for any positive change in life, one has to put in effort for desired outcomes, for example, measuring the increase in water intake and the frequency of headaches experienced within a day or a week. An efficient way of keeping track is to make a chart in physical or digital form. 
It is crucial that we introduce changes in our life gradually. Abrupt changes often lead to poor adaptation of healthy changes in our lifestyles. Even if these changes are to bring about positive results, the human mind is designed to adapt efficiently to gradual changes. 
The goal should be such that it makes sense in the overall health state you want to achieve, and ultimately contribute to your long term health objectives. For example, proper hydration helps to relieve headaches, and also helps in mental alertness, improves energy levels, and improves bowel functioning. 
Efficient behavioral changes are set to be achieved within a time frame. This helps in making timely and appropriate changes if certain efforts are unable to bring about desirable results. For example, if making changes in water intake alone is unable to relieve stress headaches within two weeks, it indicates that there are other underlying health issues that need to be addressed.
Helpful Ways to Strengthen the Mind and Body Link
• Maintain a reflection journal to keep track of your days and your thoughts, as signs of early stress show in our thoughts and feelings. This will also help to tune in better with your internal needs, thought process and expressing your feelings. 
• Incorporate any form of meditation during your day. Research studies support the benefits of meditation in all life stages. A few minutes of practice with consistent daily routine deepens the body and mind link. Free meditation guides are available online that can be used by beginners. 
• Maintain balance in cycles of functioning. Sleep and wakefulness, eating and fasting, mood, menstruation, etc., all these cycles are closely linked within a woman’s body and influence bodily functions. Maintaining optimum sleep hours, consuming nutrient rich diet with the least amount of processed food, healthy emotional outlets, smooth and pain-free menstruation all go hand in hand. 
• Incorporate movement in your lifestyle. Sedentary lifestyle is increasingly becoming a root cause of many mental and physical concerns. This leads to an imbalance and weak mind-body link. Exercise should be inculcated in our lifestyles as its benefits are long term and multifaceted.   
• Add structure to your day-to-day. Organization by putting to-dos on paper and crossing them out adds a sense of accomplishment and is a useful skill to keep a check on needs in all life areas.
While the causes of a stressful experience could vary from situational, personal, to interpersonal, there is almost always a portion of attentiveness that we can exercise on our mind and body link. Although the proportion of personal responsibility would vary in each experience, taking ownership of one’s personal stress experiences allows the opportunity to identify and address one’s needs. It ultimately helps in reducing the mental and physical strain and improving the quality of day-to-day life. HH

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