Staying healthy is an important life goal for many. But while physical wellness is often talked about and promoted, not enough emphasis is placed on the importance of psychological well-being.
With more research being conducted into what factors influence our health, science has proven that there is a close link between our physical and mental health. If one declines, the other will suffer as well.
So how are mental and physical health related? How do our bodies and minds work together, and what choices should you make to cater to both? Below, we’ve tackled these questions and more.
A holistic view of health
When thinking of the word ‘health’, most people go straight to working out, eating healthy, and staying away from drugs or smoking. While all of these are necessary to stay physically fit, health, and well-being don’t end here.
The World Health Organization defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.’ It goes on to say that, ‘there is no health without mental health.’
Furthermore, it defines mental health ‘as the state of well-being where every individual realises his or her own potential, manages the normal stresses of life, works productively and fruitfully, and can contribute to her or his community.’
With that being said, let’s see how your mental and physical health are connected.
Psychologists and doctors alike have long been interested in the link between physical and mental health and how they interact. It has been proven that mental health impacts physical well-being directly and indirectly.
Individuals with mental health issues are much more likely to suffer from heart problems such as heart attack and cardiomyopathy. One classic example of how mental stress can cause heart disease is that of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which is an acute heart condition that occurs due to immense emotional stress.
Mental stress leads to the release of catecholamines in the body, which are chemicals that make the heart beat faster and harder. This can lead to the pain and discomfort seen in Takotsubo cardiomyopathy.
Another important (and potentially life-saving) idea is the link between heart disease and anger and anxiety. Recent findings by an Australian study concluded that acute feelings of anger and anxiety could trigger heart attack responses, which demonstrates the power your brain has over your physical state of being.
Again, catecholamines might be at play here. They’re released when you feel angry or anxious, making the heart beat faster. If the blood vessels of your heart are narrowed (due to fat deposition), this can trigger a heart attack.
The link between physical and mental well-being is also apparent when it comes to chronic illnesses. Poor mental health has been marked as a significant risk factor for chronic conditions. One example is dental diseases like gingivitis and tooth decay.
These occur because people with mental health conditions often don’t have the energy and motivation to look after their teeth. Plus, they might be hypersensitive to pain, causing them to avoid potentially painful procedures like root canal treatment.
Interestingly, this relationship also works the other way around, as people with chronic pain disorders are more likely to suffer from poor mental health.
The immune system and depression
Major depressive disorder is one of the most common mental health disorders in the US. Even with increasing awareness about depressive disorders, many individuals tend to dismiss them as simply being ‘sad’ or failing to cope with the ups and downs of life.
Another aspect of depression that often gets overlooked is how it can impact physical well-being.
In addition to affecting mood and motivation, depression has been proven to suppress T-cell responses to foreign particles like bacteria and viruses, which significantly weakens the immune system. Other research suggests that it is actually the other way around and that a weak immune system can trigger depression.
In a recent study on inflammation, researchers were able to trigger depressive symptoms in individuals as an immune response to stress, highlighting another aspect of how the mind and body are connected.
Fatigue and mental disorders
Mood disorders, chronic anxiety, and depression are closely linked with feelings of permanent tiredness and exhaustion, both physically and mentally.
Research on mental health and fatigue has demonstrated that mental exhaustion, stress, and lack of motivation can manifest as physical feelings of exhaustion and tiredness.
The reverse is true as well. Many physical disorders can lead to slowing down of the brain (or ‘mental fatigue’). The most famous example is fibromyalgia, which is a chronic pain disorder. Patients with fibromyalgia often find it difficult to concentrate and focus due to brain fog.
In addition, many women undergoing menopause report facing cognitive difficulties.
As we’ve seen above, many health disorders have both a physical and psychological element. For those living with mental illnesses or chronic physical conditions, understanding the link between the body and mind is a crucial first step toward overall well-being.
Health advice is available everywhere, but most of it focuses on the body and ignores psychological well-being. But you should remember that it’s essential to care for both your mental and physical health to stay fit, healthy, and happy. Using these technologies designed to improve your mental well-being is a good place to start.
Ellen Diamond did her degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.