minding your body

smiling on the bad days

When we wake up, whether we’re tired or well-rested, we leave our dream space and prepare to enter the world of errands, academics, social circles, and other networks.

Schedules structure our days, remind us of our assignments, and keep due dates looming over our heads. We are constantly living in two time zones: our day-to-day life and our future. We have to go grocery shopping, and we also have to prepare for job interviews. That leaves us with  two roles—we must shape our future lives and future selves while simultaneously presenting our fullest selves. This duality can be overwhelming.

On paper, we control our schedules, but in many ways, our schedules control us. We can control our present circumstances, but we cannot control the hand we are dealt and to which we have to react. We may feel caught up in a draining lifestyle that mentally and physically exhausts us, then become so entrenched that it becomes the only lifestyle imaginable.

I am most overwhelmed when I feel trapped in this cycle, when I feel like I don’t have agency or control over my life, leaving me uninspired and dissatisfied. Can I change these negative feelings without changing my circumstances? Or are these feelings signals that I need to change an aspect of my lifestyle, that something isn’t quite working anymore?

Bad days, bad weeks, bad months, and bad semesters happen. When these realities become constant realities, professional intervention is important. However, this article does not address mental illness, but rather, the ups and downs that we are not impermeable to.

When we feel dissatisfied, frustrated, or upset with the people in our lives, the activities we involve ourselves with, family situations, relationships, or the career path we’ve chosen, how can we feel better? Health professionals say that smiling, even when you don’t feel happy, can make you feel happy. But is that really possible? Is there a mind-body connection that can influence how we perceive and shape our lives shape our lives?

A mind-body connection exists in some aspects of my life, but not others. In spiritual and meditative practices, I am conscious of it and can feel a noticeable difference when my mind and my body are in sync. However, in professional situations and in my daily life, my physical body is not a priority for me. I do not get enough sleep. I do not exercise regularly. I do not eat healthy meals. In fact, my typical meal consists of fruit roll-ups and pickles. In this way, my body is just the mechanism, the vessel, that I use to engage with the world.

Treating my body this way is a perverse privilege. I am fortunate to say that I currently do not have a serious health condition that affects my daily life. For now, I do not have to watch what I eat, pay attention to my heart rate, or monitor my blood pressure. Many medical conditions require entirely different forms of awareness. I recently heard a fellow student speak about a cardiologic and neurological condition she has; she has an overactive connection between her brain and her heart, meaning her mental state can affect her physical state and vice versa.

Her definition of health does not separate physical health from mental health in the same way that mine does. For her, physical health and mental health are not two different sides of the same coin, but rather, the same side of the same coin.

I cannot imagine what it is like to live with this woman’s condition—the attention it demands and the scariness of it both seem incredible. Yet I am intrigued by it. The condition itself demonstrates something that is true even for those without it: No matter how much we may fight it by ignoring our need to sleep or eating unhealthy meals, there is a connection between one’s mind and one’s body.

Our attitude and our stress level affect how we feel on a physiological level; when I am stressed, I am more likely to get sick, to cry, to not sleep, and to feel faint and weak. When I am happy, my body feels stronger, whether I am physically well or not.

Can we harness this mind-body awareness? Instead of the mind overruling the body or the body overruling the mind, what if we more often listened to one to inspire, to propel, and to strengthen the other?

What if we slept when our mind says we should study? Would we learn better time management? What if we wrote creatively when we want to stress-eat? What if we called our parents to vent rather than write that last internship application?

I struggle to treat myself well, and I have many friends who also struggle to treat themselves well. These feelings often express themselves in unhealthy behaviors that we can recognize but fail to stop because they seem uncontrollable. But we can control our minds and our bodies. We can choose how we want to feel throughout the day by encouraging, rather than discouraging, ourselves.

We need to redefine what healthy means. Healthy is a combination of physical and mental factors. To improve our health, we can eliminate people, activities, or stresses from our life that once made us happy but no longer do. We can eliminate what we do not care about and focus on what and whom we love.

We do not have to become trapped in patterns, lifestyles, attitudes, and ways of thinking.

We can change. We are not static people. We can take a different path, approach problems differently, and choose to be happy.

We have this agency.