Our bodies and minds are more closely linked than most of us give credit for. When a person enjoys good physical health, it’s more likely that their mental health is strong. Likewise, a healthy mental state can help keep a person physically healthy. The correlation between these two aspects of human health is complex and multidimensional. However, research shows that taking care of one and not the other can hurt both. A holistic approach where all needs are considered, not just mental or physical, will provide the best long and short-term outcomes.
The Mind-Body Connection
The mind-body connection is when our thoughts and feelings can negatively or positively affect our physical body and when our physical condition can impact our mental state. However, this is often overlooked as medical practitioners treat the mind and body independently.
Chronic health problems can significantly increase a person’s risk of developing mental health problems. Conversely, poor mental health can cause physical health problems.
Research over the last 20 years has revealed that stress diminishes white blood cell response, heals wounds slower, and reduces the effectiveness of vaccinations. Reducing stress can in turn improve physical health response.
The Impact of Mental Health on Physical Health
When a person is experiencing mental health difficulties, their physical health is likely to be affected. Around 50-80% of people with a mental health condition will have a sleep problem compared to 10-18% of the population without. Insomnia and sleep apnea make a good night’s sleep difficult. Sleep deficiency is linked to a range of chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and depression.
People with a mental health condition are more likely to have a preventable physical health condition such as heart disease. This may be caused by several factors related to mental health, including a lack of motivation to take care of themselves. They also may find it difficult to arrange and attend medical appointments and be less likely to improve their lifestyle choices to help their physical health.
Depression and anxiety can cause physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach pain, digestive problems, insomnia, restlessness, and poor concentration.
The Impact of Physical Health on Mental Health
When people undergo poor physical health they are often hit with the double whammy of poor mental health too. Suffering from a sudden or unexpected health condition, such as a heart attack, stroke, injury or cancer diagnosis, can often result in anger, shock, and sadness, among other negative emotions and feelings. The longer these feelings are left unattended, the more likely they will take a toll on one's mental health.
It is estimated that one-third of people with long-term physical health problems will have a mental health problem, usually depression or anxiety. Being diagnosed or suffering from a chronic condition can make a person feel stressed or sad. They can bring worry about their long-term health, work, hobbies, sports, and social activities as these may be more difficult to do, and daily pain can negatively affect a person’s quality of life.
Poor mental health can hamper recovery rates from a physical injury or illness. Treating the psychological impact of an injury simultaneously with the physical side can lead to a better long-term outcome.
Shared Risk Factors
A few main risk factors are known to have the greatest impact on a person’s physical and mental health. Some are lifestyle choices, while others are pre-determined at birth.
Alcohol and Drugs
Recreational drugs and alcohol can cause mental and physical health problems and worsen symptoms. Some people use drugs or alcohol as self-medication to try and deal with a health problem and its symptoms. And while not all drugs have the same effects and risks, they can increase the likelihood of developing a mental illness. Using drugs or alcohol can cause mood changes, a negative outlook on life, poor motivation, depression, anxiety, and drug-induced psychosis. Taking recreational drugs can also make it harder to treat mental illness.
The physical health problems that drugs or excessive alcohol drinking may cause include high blood pressure, strokes, liver and pancreas problems, and increased risk of liver, bowel, and mouth cancer.
Our genetic disposition plays a role in possible physical and mental health conditions. Bipolar disorder is the most highly genetically inherited psychiatric disorder, but no mental disorder has a full 100% genetic basis. Environmental factors strongly influence the likelihood of developing a mental illness. However, scientists have found autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia run in families.
Genes can cause health problems at birth or appear later in life. Family history can be the strongest risk factor in several diseases and disorders, including some cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders.
A poor diet is well known to be the major risk factor for a range of physical health concerns, such as obesity, diabetes, and some cancers. What is not as well known is that food choices can contribute to depression and other mental health disorders. When a person doesn’t eat a balanced diet, they are more likely to have nutritional deficiencies. Research has found that people suffering from mental disorders are often severely deficient in essential vitamins and minerals.
Lack of Physical Activity
Like a poor diet, a low level of physical activity increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. Research has found that people who exercise regularly have better mental health than those who don’t exercise. Physical activity can reduce stress levels and improve sleep, which can help with mental well-being.
Importance of a Holistic Health Approach
Holistic health involves managing physical, mental, emotional, and social needs and the way these relate to each other rather than focusing on resolving issues in one aspect separate from another. The interest in holistic healthcare has been growing because it addresses the mind and spirit, which hadn't been attended as much as physical health.
A holistic approach focuses on achieving overall wellness rather than concentrating just on their medical condition. Instead of a doctor prescribing medications to treat the illness, they may recommend additional practices for their patient to incorporate regularly, such as going for a walk and improving their diet, as these contribute to better mental health. They may ask the patient if they have a good support network as it may reduce the likelihood of suffering from depression during their chronic illness.
The connection between these two aspects of human health - physical and mental - is complex and multidimensional.
Taking care of one pays dividends for the other, but when taking care of both, the benefits multiply.
If you’re suffering from a mental health condition, consider its impact on your physical health and vice versa. Try to make holistic choices that serve your mind and body. Our Healthy Lifestyle services such as gym memberships are available with most of our Extras cover policies, helping kickstart your journey to an improved relationship between mental and physical wellbeing.