It’s Not All in Your Head: Why Positive Thinking May Not Always Be the Answer

Recently, I woke up thirsty in the middle of the night, and when I was getting out of bed to get water, I somehow caught my leg on the foot of the bed. I fell, and fell hard. My ankle and knee took the brunt of the fall. I consulted with a medical professional, and after confirming that the injury wasn’t too serious, I have been nursing myself back to health. It’s been three weeks, and I’m still healing. If I put too much pressure on my leg, I am reminded that I need to go easy, so I do. This has led me to consider, yet again, the difference in how I perceive my own mental health versus my physical health.

Can you imagine taking a broken ankle to the doctor’s office and just being told to “think positive” rather than receiving a cast? How much longer would it take you to heal, if at all? Would that ankle ever be the same again? How often have you been going through a rough time and talked about it with a friend or family member, only to hear things like, “It could be worse,” “Time heals,” or, “Look on the bright side”? In managing mental illnesses like anxiety or depression, or recovering after a traumatic event, it can be difficult for friends, family, or even ourselves, to take our mental “injury” as seriously as a broken limb. After all, you wouldn’t be able to see it on an x-ray, right? Is it all in our heads?

The answer is no, it’s not all in our heads. Mental illnesses like anxiety or depression are often not taken as seriously as physical illnesses because it’s commonly thought that they can’t be “seen.” In actuality, anxiety, depression, and trauma are physically experienced in the body. It has been proven that, in extremely stressful situations like suddenly losing a loved one or a massive betrayal, your heart can actually “break” – the left ventricle of your heart can suddenly weaken – resulting in stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Other research has found that Tylenol can help relieve emotional pain as well as physical pain. Some MRI studies of people with depression and social anxiety show structural differences in some brain regions. Depression and anxiety also can include physical symptoms: they make us fatigued and interrupt our digestive processes, for example. Depressed people also have a lower pain tolerance. These symptoms aren’t minor, and days, weeks, or months of being chronically depressed or anxious can even put your life in danger.

Folks going through a difficult emotional time can often get the message, even from themselves, that they should “suck it up” or just frame their thoughts differently. When they don’t feel better, they may blame themselves for not being able to muster enough positive feelings. Feeling like a failure, or a drama queen, can make their already painful struggle feel even worse. It can lead them to want to hide their emotional state even more and put on a mask of being okay for the people around them.

Your mind and body comprise a complex, interwoven system, and feeling better often isn’t simple or something you should work on alone. If you were having trouble putting weight on your ankle, ideally you’d see a doctor, and do what you need to in order to heal. My hope for all of us (including myself) is that it becomes as socially acceptable – and self-acceptable – to seek support if we’re having trouble mentally or emotionally.

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