The start of this journey of mental illness started when I was pregnant with Boo. When I was pregnant, I became very physically unwell which led to isolation, anxiety and eventually depression. My mental health took a knock because of my physical health. Following the birth of my daughter, I expected my physical health to improve, but was left needing many trips to hospital to cope with excruciating pain. All of this left me wondering – can mental health exacerbate physical health problems and vice versa?
Now, I must preface this by saying that I am most definitely not a doctor, psychiatrist or expert. These views are based on my experiences.
Here is the evidence I have experienced that physical and mental health can interact and exacerbate each other:
• Isolation caused by physical illness made me feel very low and that I had lost my identity. I couldn’t work or socialise. I felt like I had lost who I was.
• Feelings of worry about my own health and my baby’s health increased dramatically to the point that I couldn’t control my anxiety the longer the issue persisted.
• Being unsure of what is wrong is a mental torment. When tests after tests reveal that something is up, but what exactly is wrong isn’t clear, it is mentally exhausting. The cycle of tests, waiting, worry, relief and then the realisation of more tests really takes its toll. It need mental stamina.
• When worst case scenarios means the death of your child, it is very traumatic and hard not to dwell on that outcome.
• When you are expecting to get better at a certain point, and it doesn’t happen, the blow is devastating. It takes the wind out of you. It’s like it sucks your last ounce of fight.
• It’s very difficult to make healthy eating choices and exercise when you are deeply depressed. This does not improve physical recovery.
• Long term illness will mess with your immune system and ability to recover from simple illnesses.
• Recovery from physical illness requires rest. But my depression gets worse if I spend too long in bed. Needing rest but knowing that spending the day in bed is also bad is pretty much impossible to juggle.
The complex interaction between my physical and mental health since becoming pregnant is clear and yet confusing. To me, as one got worse, so did the other. But how do I heal both?
Option 1: Treat each issue separately
Physical recovery was a very long road. After suffering from ICP, I had expected to recover immediately following birth. Unfortunately, for me, this didn’t happen. My Bile Acids only returned to normal once I stopped feeding.When Boo was 2. At times, they were as high as 60 over a year after I had Boo. That is pretty high. With raised bile acids, I experience severe fatigue; itching that burns and cannot be scratched; severe pain around my liver that has led to the consumption of a lot of morphine; and an inability to eat fatty foods, large quantities of chocolate or alcohol. I had doctors stumped. My bloods weren’t right but didn’t exactly fit a diagnosis. At one point I was told I had PBC. Being told you have a life-long condition is devastating. I don’t have PBC but it took a long time to work out what was going on – basically I am incredibly sensitive to hormones which triggers ICP-like symptoms even when I am not pregnant (hence it improving once I stopped breastfeeding).
During that time, I had spent many nights in hospital, taken a lot of medication and had all of the tests going. It was exhausting. I barely felt physically or mentally well enough to work out how to be well again. There was nothing I could do to become physically well (apart from stopping breastfeeding which I didn’t want to do) so I felt completely out of control. This lead to massive anxiety and stress which is well documented to have a negative impact on physical health.
Meanwhile, I was in separate treatment for post natal depression. I had CBT and we worked through my feelings as a mother. I felt a little better and my anxiety was under control. As I moved forward and had projects to focus on, my mental well being began to improve. But every time I felt physically unwell, my mental well being took a huge knock. Given that my depression and anxiety was first triggered by my physical health, I should have really known to treat both together. I think if I had focussed on my physical health during CBT and learning to be OK with not being in control, I would have benefited hugely.
Option 2: Total Wellness
For me, the only way that I can feel well, is if I work on both my physical and mental health together. Firstly, that means regular exercise. Sometimes it has to be very light exercise if I don’t feel physically well but I can’t skip it completely because that would impact my mental health.
I also need to eat well. This has obvious implications physically and mentally but when I am low I eat my feelings. I try not to have alcohol or junk in the house to avoid temptation when I am feeling low.
Moderation is also a massive factor in the choices I make. If I need to rest, I have a rest then get up and get on with the day. If I want cake, I have one piece. Finally I take supplements. I have always turned my nose up at supplements thinking that I could get everything I need from a good diet. But becoming a mum means that your body has literally given away its stores of nutrition to grow a human. Your body needs a helping hand to restock its store cupboard. I try to take care of my physical health so that I don’t put myself in a position where I am isolated. But if I am unwell, I try to keep in contact with people via my phone so I don’t totally withdraw into myself.
Most importantly – the many times I fail to do the above (because let’s face it, it’s a work in progress) I don’t beat myself up. Today I’ve been in bed all day. I am absolutely exhausted from Boo waking all night and then endless nightmares when I did sleep. But I have been productive. I’ve written a couple of blog posts and sent off some emails. I haven’t just slept or zoned out for the day. I have found a compromise and let myself off the hook.