Stop Using Exercise to Punish Your Body; Use It to Connect WITH Your Body

Beyond the brain health benefits, beyond the physical health benefits, moving your body is a way to intentionally connect to it and create space for safety and healing and growth.

When you have trauma of any kind, when you have body image issues or a history of disordered eating or disordered exercise behaviors, when you are fighting a chronic disease or are consumed by depression or anxiety… the last thing you want to do is intentionally connect with your body and be present with it.

For this reason, I hold a deep appreciation for movement like yoga or slower, low impact exercises. When I was a runner only, I could escape from the racing thoughts. I could “beat my body into submission,” by pushing harder, increasing my miles or my speed. But in yoga, where the moves rarely change, or when I’m walking slowly through my hilly neighborhood, I’m trapped in my thoughts – and my body. I have learned to lean into the discomfort of being present with my body, instead of punishing it for not acting how I want it to act.

I heavily dislike anyone promoting that you shut down the signals your body sends to you. I recently saw two shirts pop up in Facebook ads (thanks algorithm) that bothered me on such a deep level. One shirt read, “FIT: F*&% I’m tired” and the other read, “Shut up, legs, you’re fine!”

Listen. If I’m tired, I probably need to rest or make an adjustment in my schedule. It is simply unhealthy to keep pushing forward. If my legs are hurting during a workout, I probably need to take a breath, ask my body how to provide it further support. Exercise is an incredible tool for growth and healing. It’s a hormetic stressor that can create stress resilience.

It is not for dissociation and punishment. 

Moving my body is a way to engage, not disengage and dissociate. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do is be present and move with the body I have – not punish my body for what I don’t.

Movement is therapeutic, it’s a celebration, and yes – it can even be a form of worship.

What a joy to intentionally flood our brains with endorphins and serotonin and GABA and brain-derived neurotrophic factor. What a gift!

Exercise and moving your body isn’t just something that impacts your physical health. Like with the act of eating, your mindset matters. Your thoughts matter, and they send signals to every cell in your body. Using your time of movement to renew your mind, renew your thoughts about your body, and celebrate what your body can do goes beyond simply pumping your arms and legs and getting your heart rate up.

I love moving my body. I love connecting to it and creating space for safety and healing and growth. I DISLIKE shutting down the signals my body sends me. 

Remember: every thought you think is a chemical messenger that brings information to your cells, positive or negative. Partner with your body; don’t punish it.

Mental Health Awareness Month: Special Podcast Episodes

This month, I’m taking a break from the regular podcast content to bring episodes focused on bringing awareness to all the tools that support our mental health. Contrary to what the media may tell you, you can change your brain. You can heal from mental illness. You can access resources beyond medication and more sleep, and many of those resources are free, like these episodes.

In Episode 135, I share my story of overcoming PTSD, depression, and bipolar disorder in a way I haven’t shared before.

Key Topics:

  • The growing epidemic of mental health issues in teens
  • The root causes to my own mental health issues and how I struggled to find treatment that supported my mental well-being
  • The medication weaning process and how I was able to get off medication I had been on for 18 years
  • The tools I used to support healing and how I continue to prioritize my mental health to prevent recurring issues

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Favorite Foods for Brain Health

I love supporting my mental health through nutrients from food. When I stopped dieting and started focusing on ADDING colorful variety and nutrient density, it was a much needed mindset change.

This helped me to learn to listen to my body’s needs, instead of viewing my body as a project I needed to perfect and relying on diet and food companies’ marketing instead of my own intuition.

I spent many years choosing food items with the marketing phrases “diet,” “reduced fat,” “low fat,” “low calorie,” and “sugar free,” never knowing that those things were harming my mental health.

It has been so freeing to find what nourishes my unique body and not being enslaved to anyone else’s rules. These three categories (protein, veggies, and fiber) are things I have learned make me feel great when I include them every day!

What are your must haves? My guess is yours might look different than mine, which is a beautiful, bioindividual thing!

It’s Not Either/Or; It’s Both/And

I started my website four years ago because I wanted to share my story of surviving mental illness, and I wanted to give hope for healing for those that are continuing to struggle with errors. I wanted to share how it isn’t just chemicals in the brain, how it isn’t just in your head, and how there are very real physical deficiencies and imbalances at play, just as much – if not more than – imbalances at the brain level.

I have never been anti-medication, and I have never recommended anyone go off their medication without consulting their health practitioner. But I have always wanted to be realistic about the risks that come with taking medication. While medication may have served its purpose for me in the short term, there were plenty of unpleasant side effects I experienced when I took the wrong medication, or medication at too high of a dose, or because the medication I was given didn’t fit the disorder that I was experiencing. I never hallucinated or heard voices or saw strange things… until I started taking an antipsychotic.

With that being said, there are plenty of people in the world that do benefit from medication and will need to be on that medication long-term. For other people, there may be different solutions that improve their quality of life more than medication does. There is no one-size-fits-all to mental health.

I started my podcast because I wanted to seek out experts in the field who are doing things differently, who are looking for new solutions to an age-old problem that isn’t being solved with medication and talk therapy alone.

Because of what we know of the gut-brain connection, the HPATG axis, the vagus nerve, and even mitochondrial function, we know that there is so much going on under the surface when it comes to mental and physical health. We know that our body works as a network, one huge spiderweb, and nothing occurs on its own.

We are living in a time when everything is being polarized and divided into either/or categories. If you look at alternatives to medication or vaccines, you must be anti-med or anti-vaccine. If you take medication, you must be anti-natural health. If you are promoting any kind of nutritional support, you must be promoting dieting. These things aren’t true. It isn’t either/or. We can live in a both/and world.

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Five Things I Do For My Mental Health Every Day

While I was officially given a mental illness diagnosis over 22 years ago, I struggled long before that.

That means I’ve spent most of my life battling my brain.

These five things help me manage my symptoms and keep me checking in with myself. When I’m feeling off, I check in and ask myself how I’m doing in each category.

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Why I’m Not Bipolar – and Neither Is Anyone Else

22 years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (or manic depressive illness, as they called it back then) based on a set of symptoms, according to the DSM and failure to respond well to SSRI medication. My identity is not in my diagnosis, and neither is yours.

Imagine if we also said, “I am depression,” “I am anxiety,” “I am Hashimoto’s,” or “I am diabetes.” The phrasing doesn’t work for any other diagnosis. I’d also suggest that anytime we turn our diagnosis into an “I am” statement, we are attaching our unique identity to a set of symptoms, and putting our worth in our limitations.

22 years ago, I was suffering from the symptoms of bipolar disorder. I experienced bouts of glorious manic/hypomanic highs, where the world looked brighter and more alive, when I could stay up all night even with an illness like mono, when I felt charming and unstoppable and like the most brilliant person in the room. I also experienced waves of crushing depression, where I was unable to leave my bed, my body frozen, exhausted, and the world was a dark hole I couldn’t climb out of. It confused me because I was taking an anti-depressant at the time. So we upped the medication amount, and the highs got higher. I didn’t have any other tools for support (except my psychiatrist did mention there was emerging research on omega 3 supplements and brain health – too bad I hated burping up fish).

But here is the point I really want to get across:

Just because you were diagnosed with a mental illness by one person, based on a set of symptoms during one period of your life, doesn’t mean you will struggle with those symptoms for the rest of your life. That’s an archaic school of thought, and it doesn’t line up with newer research on brain health.

Often when we ONLY treat symptoms, instead of looking to the interconnecting root causes in each individual body, we don’t heal, and we limit the opportunity to find healing.

There are so many evidence-based tools to support mental WEALTH. Does rapid relief through medication possibly play a role? Sure! But remember, for some people, like me, it may exacerbate symptoms or make things worse, leading to new diagnoses and treatment cycle.

What are the puzzle pieces in my story that potentially led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder? Some would say I have a genetic predisposition and leave it at that. But based on what we know of epigenetics, we know that our genes are only as influential in the way they express, and they express according to our environment.

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Holiday (Detox) Soup

The coolest thing about “un-dieting” and choosing to partner with my body for nourishment – instead of punishment – is that I know when my body is craving nutrients.

After the Thanksgiving leftovers were gone a couple weeks ago, I threw this together. Then I made it again this weekend, because I was missing it. It’s just what my body asks me for after enjoying heavier, richer food this time of year.

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Five Things Triggering Anxiety over the Holidays

They say this is the most wonderful time of the year, but for those of us who struggle with seasonal mood fluctuations, it often isn’t. I always try to make an effort to enter this season on the offense, instead of playing defense.

Here are five things that could be triggering anxiety and mood instability over the holiday season. The beauty of these things is that each one of them impact the other, because so many of these important processes are connected.

Poor sleep – Sleep deprivation leads to heightened activity in the amygdala (your fear brain) and decreases the function of the prefrontal cortex. With lack of restful sleep we become reactionary and it makes it difficult to make good decisions. Listen to your circadian rhythm this season, and choose to go to bed an hour earlier. That can make all the difference in the world for your brain. Cut the electronics an hour before bed or at least wear blue light blocking glasses, because blue light blocks melatonin, which we need for restful sleep.

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A Glimpse into the Mental Illness Memory Vault

“Sometimes I feel like being me takes up too much energy.” – me, 20 years ago.

In 2001, I started documenting my journey with what we then called “manic depressive illness,” after being unable to return to college with my friends due to my instability and frequent med changes. I forgot about the following journal pages, but they are so telling. I struggled with intense lows, wanting to leave this earth and end my pain, then I would experience shooting and soaring highs where I wanted to conquer every goal in a day.

Here are some of the entries:

8/27/01: “All I want to do is cry. I haven’t told my friends that I’m not coming back this quarter… What kind of trick are you playing on me, God? What lesson am I going to learn from this?

9/5/01: “Sometimes I really do wonder if I should just end it all. I really do. Even when I’m stable, taking my 600 mg of Lithium, 100 mg of Topomax, and 25 mg and counting down of Zoloft (I’m hopeful that one day soon I’ll end this vicious charade with Zoloft).

What good am I doing here? What help am I to myself? Honestly? Why must I keep keeping on? Isn’t it ironic that the most inspiring thing I heard the other day came from the stupidest move, Joe Dirt. The main character, who lives a life of utter hopelessness, keeps quoting, ‘Life is a garden – dig it!’ I thought, that’s pretty inspiring. Unfortunately, I feel like any garden I’d be digging would only end up looking like weeds.

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Changing the Conversation on Postpartum Depression

Postpartum depression is a tricky subject. While on one hand, there seems to be a greater awareness of what it is and how to find support, it still carries a bit of a stigma and there are many misconceptions. For that reason, I don’t approach the topic lightly. Like all mental health issues, there is no one size fits all cause OR solution.

Walker Ladd, Ph.D. has been a thought leader in the field of maternal mental health for nearly two decades. Her writing and research challenge paradigms of motherhood and mental illness, using women’s stories to reveal the hidden truths and extraordinary dimensions of the lived experience of motherhood.

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