RISKY BUSINESS: A RECAP
A few weeks ago, we talked about May is Mental Health Month, the nationwide initiative to educate the public about the facts and fictions of popular mental health perception. This year, the nonprofit Mental Health America (http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net) is spreading awareness about a concept they are calling Risky Business:
We believe it’s important to educate people about habits and behaviors that increase the risk of developing or exacerbating mental illnesses, or could be signs of mental health problems themselves.
To recap, there was a national conversation happening about habits and behaviors that might put people at greater risk of mental illness. MindPath Care Centers has decided to participate with its own segment on mental health risks. Last time, we discussed the link between impulsive behavior and deteriorating mental health. This week, we narrow our focus and examine how even the healthiest activities can become a problem if they become addictive.
ADDICTED TO HEALTH
Exercise is one of the few things universally regarded as a healthy activity. While there may be some contention as to the most efficacious type and amount of daily exercise, the benefits of a consistent workout regimen are indisputable. Furthermore, numerous clinical studies have shown exercise to be a powerful tool for combating mental health issues, particularly depression. And yet, exercise has been shown to be addictive to at least 3% of the US population – meaning that every year, millions of people are over-exercising to a dangerous degree. If you are wondering how to tell if you have an addiction to exercise, there are a number of simple questions to ask yourself:
- Are you so obsessed with exercise that you are sacrificing other elements of your life, such as spending time with friends and family, or getting important work done, to work out?
- Are you working yourself beyond a reasonable, sustainable level for your body – either consistently injuring yourself, or ignoring pains and other warning signs your body is sending you?
- When you fall short of your exercise goals, are you inflicted with self-loathing, self-deprecating thoughts, or poor body image issues?
- Are you getting enough to eat?
When framed in this way, it becomes very easy to see how a person could become addicted to the endorphin rush and self-esteem boosting powers of exercise, to the ultimate detriment of their physical and mental health.
THE NECESSITY OF MODERATION
This example illustrates some key takeaways about addiction. While certain kinds of addictive behavior (e.g. smoking) can be inherently toxic, much of a discussion of addiction comes down to a question of moderation. How much of your life are you giving up to this activity, are you able to recognize and accept your own limits, and would you be able to stop if it started hurting you? A healthy life requires, above all, balance. If a single habit in your life is impeding your ability to maintain a healthy balance between diet, exercise, socializing, physical and emotional maintenance, romance, physical intimacy, and your work life, among other things, then it’s probable that you’re letting that habit take up too much of your time and energy.
THE LINK TO MENTAL HEALTH
Crucially, if your self-esteem is suffering because you feel out of control or helpless to in the face of compulsive behavior, you should seek help immediately. Apart from the dangers that are intrinsic to certain addictions, addiction can be highly comorbid with other mental health disorders. Exercise addiction, for instance, has a strong link with eating disorders; substance abuse disorders tend to go hand in hand with depression and suicidality; the list goes on. The causal arrow can travel the other way, too: people with preexisting mental health issues can fall prey to addictive behaviors, as a result of – or as a way of coping with – their condition.
As we exeunt our designated month of awareness, it is important to remember that, really, every month should be “mental health awareness month”. While society has slowly moved towards a greater and less stigmatized understanding of mental health issues, we must continue to be vigilant of the warning signs in our day-to- day lives, and the lives of those around us. After all, when something as seemingly benign as going to the gym can be a precursor to, byproduct of, or catalyst for mental illness, vigilance could be the key to saving yourself or a loved one from excruciating hardship.