Like many, I struggle with mental illness, and I have done so for most of my life. In fact, it took me decades to recognize my symptoms. My apathy, my anxiety, my irritability—and accept that there was, truly, something unequivocally off about my thought and behavior patterns. That there was something wrong enough to rightfully be labeled mental illness. Even after I felt confident in the existence of my mental disorder, it took me several more years to seek help and treatment.
Yet, as soon as I began feeling chronic pain, I talked to a doctor. It’s fascinating how even those of us who suffer from mental illness can be so dismissive of mental disorders and so immediately accepting of physical ones. While I continued to grapple with the anguish in my mind, I immediately recognized my inability to manage the agony in my neck and spine.
My doctor knew what I needed: physical therapy for pain management. Little did she know how much physical therapy would revolutionize every aspect of my life.
What Physical Therapy Is
Most often, people associate physical therapy with physical injury, and that makes sense. At its most fundamental, physical therapy is the treatment of disease or injury through physical manipulation, such as exercise, massage, heat, or cold. Though most physical therapy participants seek such treatment because of a physical malady, like a broken bone, a severed ligament, or a joint replacement. It isn’t uncommon to seek physical therapy for a mental disorder – like chronic pain.
Often, chronic pain is attributable to a physical problem, like traumatic injuries, degenerative diseases, and congenital conditions, but sometimes there is no obvious physical cause of chronic pain. Such was my case: my doctor could not identify a reason for the agony I experienced in my neck, back, and shoulders. Thus, I was prescribed physical therapy in the hopes that a therapist could provide much-needed relief.
The Role of the Physical Therapist
Fortunately, he did—just as thousands of other qualified and attentive physical therapists do for patients and pain sufferers around the world. This is because a physical therapist’s goal is to bring a patient back to health and improve their quality of life, regardless of how and why the patient is unhealthy.
Physical therapists aren’t the same as physical trainers; while a trainer might help you achieve physical goals, like gaining strength or losing fat, therapists perform rigorous tests and develop comprehensive programs to ensure holistic health of the body and mind. Physical trainers are clinicians qualified to make diagnoses, so they can identify problems that are holding patients back and integrate solutions to facilitate recovery. They understand health, and they are dedicated to restoring, maintaining and promoting health in their patients, which often means addressing underlying mental disorders.
Physical Effects on Mental Health
After years of my mental illness, my body was wrecked. Because I was not motivated to exercise regularly or beneficially, nearly all my muscles were weak and deconditioned. Additionally, I had lost flexibility in my back, hips, and legs, making it difficult to bend, twist and move with comfort. All this compiled with the chronic pain around my upper body to make living utter anguish.
When I first began attending physical therapy, my expectations were low. Fortunately, my therapist easily identified my physical issues and dug into my mental state, as well. We began by steadily increasing my strength with small weights while unlocking my mobility with slow and mindful motions. Though I only completed PT twice per week, I began to notice subtle improvements to my life outside the small gym: I slept better, I enjoyed talking to people, I felt less stress and anxiety, and I began to like myself more.
That’s because you aren’t only your mind; you are also your body. Thus, when you physically improve, you will feel mental effects. The correct exercise regimen will improve your circulation, ensuring nutrients reach critical parts of your body and brain. Endorphins and neurotransmitters like serotonin are more often released, giving you a rush of positivity and pleasant feelings that your mental disorder once prevented. By getting out and moving—especially in a program customized for your physical and mental needs – you can start to manage any disability.
Though I still use medications to manage my mental disorder, I rely less heavily on them than I once did. My physical therapy has drastically reduced my chronic pain and given me greater strength and mobility than I could have imagined. I encourage everyone struggling with mental disorders and chronic pain to try physical therapy for a few months; if you receive even a portion of the benefit I did, you will feel worlds better.