I’m going to attempt to answer the question ‘why do I feel down about myself?’. But, to be clear, this is not a discussion on all causes of low mood, anxiety and depression. This is specifically about feeling down about your physical health and appearance, and the impact it has on you. After all, we’re personal trainers, and that’s the angle on mental health we deal with in our role.
I’m not a psychologist or a neuroscientist, but I am a scientist by training, and I like taking complex subjects and making them more accessible. So, the good news is that I’m going to discuss this in terms I understand – simple terms – to which I hope you can relate.
Are you feeling down about yourself?
If you are feeling down about yourself, you’re not alone. Almost all our clients are unhappy about something to do with themselves. And our small client base is just the tip of the iceberg. So, it’s a fair bet that you’re only one of a large number of people in the population who are down about themselves.
Of course, being personal trainers, we’re going to see a lot of body-misery. But when our clients come to us, they don’t talk about how low they feel. Instead, they talk about the things that get them down – the state of their health or the way they look.
So, our clients’ physical state is driving the decline in their mental wellbeing. They come to us to seek help in improving their physical health and appearance, expecting it to improve their mental health, which it does.
What gets you down?
Before I talk about why poor physical health gets you down, let’s have a look at some real-world examples of what gets people down. These are genuine notes taken at client and prospect consultations. I’ve organised the comments into three lists.
I imagine, even if you’re feeling good about yourself, you can relate to a number of these. Notice the negativity and despair, rather than hope and positivity.
Abraham Maslow came up with his hierarchy nearly 80 years ago. Although it has inconsistencies, it’s still a handy and intuitive way to look at what motivates us and what makes us happy or sad.
Maslow proposed that people must address their lower-level needs before the higher-level needs can be given sufficient focus. This makes sense intuitively: if your physiological or safety needs are not met, that could be life-threatening. If they are not met, your pursuit of them is going to be too distracting to pay much attention to the higher needs. The same logic, although slightly less clear-cut, can be applied all the way up the pyramid.
Going back to the three lists above, you can see that our clients come to us with concerns at different levels of the hierarchy.
Notice that under ‘safety’ is the word health. A of of our clients come to us worrying about their health. Fifty seems to be an age that provokes action. Hitting that age reminds you that you’re over halfway and you become more conscious of your own mortality. If you’re in your fifties, you’ll probably know of someone who died younger than you due to ill health. Gosh! You might only have ten years left! Death is dreadful enough, but the thought that you might be heading for an early grave is terrifying. At least by being healthy, you improve your chances of having a good long innings. And, of course, you want to be active and of sound mind.
You’ll see from the client comments that what gets them down about themselves is the prospect of serious ill health or the inability to lead an active and fulfilling life.
These needs are to do with your relationships with others. You may be worried about how you are perceived; you feel embarrassed, or that others are judging you. Or you may be concerned about affecting others. Perhaps your weight or your health is affecting your close relationships. Our clients’ comments reflect this kind of concern.
Within esteem, some needs relate to your status in the world and how others see you. You might call these external esteem needs; they include pride, status, prestige and recognition. I’ve included client comments for these external needs in the relatedness needs collection.
There’s been a lot in the media about the pressure put on people by advertising: the pressure to have a beach body; the notion that you have to look a certain way, that you should aspire to have a six pack and so on. In response, there’s been a drive to help people to accept and love the way they are, which is great.
I know this is a little controversial, but people want to look good and they feel they will only look good if they are slimmer.
This isn’t vanity, or even social pressure. To me, it’s instinctive. In the animal kingdom, the fittest, strongest animal gets to mate. It makes sense that this animal is attractive to others as it improves the chances of the species prevailing due to the propagation of strong genes. We are animals too, and we instinctively want to look fit, healthy and attractive. Being overweight or obese doesn’t instinctively convey ‘fit and healthy’.
Be aware also that a lot of people make judgements about obese people, which puts them at a disadvantage. We instinctively want to be respected and have a high status within the herd – that might be harder if we are not perceived well. I’m sorry if I have offended anyone; I’m not saying I applaud how things are, but I do think this is a reality right now and the evidence is in our client comments.
There are also internal needs, needs for the self. These include confidence, self-worth, achievement and mastery. You’ll notice these in the client comments in the form of self-hate or unhappiness with the self. There’s a lot of hate and frustration!
Everyone is different, but…
No two people are the same, and everyone will identify different reasons why they are down about themselves. But, almost invariably, you’ll be able to associate their concerns to one or more of the Maslow needs not being satisfied. I appreciate Maslow’s hierarchy is a simplification, but at the same time, it’s useful. It helps you ‘understand’ why people are down about themselves, providing you accept that human beings must satisfy these needs to feel optimistic about the world and themselves.
What gets you down, and where do those concerns fit on the hierarchy?
You may have noticed that self-actualisation hasn’t been mentioned yet. When we ask clients for their vision, we get a change in outlook. Suddenly they switch from talking about what they hate to imagining how they will be.
They display more positivity, albeit tinged with some self-doubt.
A physiological perspective
Although I find the psychological angle on mental health fascinating, I tend to gravitate to the geeky science and try to understand the biochemistry. The state of your physiology has a massive impact on your mental health.
The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. The way it is wired, the memories it stores and the output it generates are influenced by your experiences, your environment, your interactions, your activity, your health, your diet. Scientists have only scratched the surface in their understanding of how it works and of what constitutes consciousness.
But, having said all that, your brain is still an organ. It’s flesh and blood. And it’s affected by most of the same things that affect your other organs. At a fundamental level, it’s a vast collection of biochemical reactions responding to hormones, nutrients, antioxidants, blood sugar, enzymes and so on.
The same things that cause you to be physically unhealthy also make your brain unhealthy. A brain that’s not healthy isn’t going to function as well as it should. What makes you physically unhealthy? A sedentary lifestyle and a poor diet.
What is an unhealthy lifestyle?
You can summarise an unhealthy lifestyle as having
- A lack of exercise.
- A deficiency of healthful nutrients.
- Intake that has a detrimental effect on health such as smoke, excessive alcohol, too much sugar and saturated fat, and food additives.
- Excess calories.
The most talked-about consequences of our modern lifestyles are the obesity epidemic and the rise in mental ill-health. It’s not surprising that, among individuals, there is a strong correlation between obesity and depression. It’s also understandable that dissatisfaction with appearance is a significant factor in why people feel down about themselves, fuelled by a lifestyle that is contributing to both their unwanted physical changes and their low mood.
Why do these factors affect mental health?
Here are some reasons why an unhealthy lifestyle makes it more likely you will suffer from mental ill-health
- The dry weight of the brain is around 60% fat, much of it highly unsaturated. It requires omega 3 and 6 in equal amounts, and you can only obtain these through the diet. A lack of foods containing omega 3, in particular, is going to affect your brain’s health.
- Excess intake of saturated fat and, especially, trans fats, can make the neurons less flexible and unable to transmit information quickly.
- A lack of fruit and vegetables makes the most significant difference to mental health. This is due to insufficient levels of vitamins, minerals and other beneficial nutrients.
- Processed fast-digesting carbs – found in most junk foods – will trick your brain into feeling good for a while, but long term will lower your receptiveness to feel-good stimuli. The same goes for smoke, caffeine and other stimulants.
- You need adequate amounts of clean protein to make neurotransmitters. Amino acids, such as tryptophan and phenylalanine derived from protein, are essential.
- A lack of exercise reduces cerebral blood flow, which reduces the synthesis of synapses, neurons and blood vessels in the brain.
- A sedentary lifestyle reduces the availability of neurotransmitters. If you have less available serotonin, it’s going to lower your mood.
I’m sure you can see from the list above that the brain is as sensitive as any other organ to poor lifestyle factors. An unhealthy lifestyle creates an unhealthy brain which leads to poor mental health.
Mental health is a hugely complex topic, and the causes of poor mental health go way beyond the examples given here. But, there are some useful ways to look at mental health that relate specifically to what we do as personal trainers. If we understand potential causes of client unhappiness, then we can take action to improve mood and outlook, as well as improving physical health, fitness and appearance.