Physical and Mental Health: What is the Connection?
Physical and mental health are inextricably tied. Poor mental health eventually begins to manifest itself in the physical body, while chronic physical pain worsens mental stability over time.
In the past, the body and the mind were typically treated separately from each other. Physical ailments were treated by medical doctors who analyzed their symptoms and prescribed medications and exercises. Meanwhile, mental illness was regarded with a mix of skepticism and scorn.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that science advanced enough to prove that mental illness had a measurable effect on the chemistry of the brain. Since then, experts in physical and mental health have been exploring the connection between the two to inform the treatment of both.
Gone were the days when experts thought mental and physical health should be treated separately. Instead, treatments for mental illnesses often encompassed physical lifestyle changes, such as introducing regular exercise and a healthy diet. At the same time, those focused on healing the physical body incorporated mental health techniques to speed up recovery.
Keep reading to learn more about the connection between physical and mental health, including a few lifestyle changes you can introduce to instigate healing for both your body and mind.
How Does Physical Health Affect Mental Health?
Studies have found that many common physical ailments often appear alongside mental illnesses.
People who are obese are 25% more likely to have a mood disorder.
About 85% of people with chronic pain experience symptoms of depression.
Between 30 - 50% of those with chronic migraines also have anxiety.
In all of these cases, the physical ailment provokes low levels of inflammation in the body. Over time, the inflammation worsens both physical and mental health.
About 50% of all life-threatening diseases are also associated with chronic inflammation including heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, strokes, autoimmune diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, etc), and neurodegenerative disorders (Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, dementia). Your chances of manifesting a mental health disorder increase dramatically if you have an inflammatory disease.
However, inflammation is only part of the problem. When someone is sick or in pain for a long time, it takes a toll on their mental well-being. They are no longer able to participate in the activities that they love and their relationships with friends and family may become strained.
What starts as exhaustion, fear, guilt, and sadness may turn into anxiety, depression, etc when left untreated.
The Effects of an Aging Brain
As you get older, your brain also undergoes several changes. The brain begins to shrink in your 30s, a process that speeds up around the age of 60. Memory, learning, and many other cognitive functions are affected by age as inflammation naturally increases.
The natural changes that happen in your body as you age are associated with an increased risk of depression - the most prevalent mental illness among older adults. Developing depression in your later years is thought to increase your chances of developing neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson’s.
Other common mental illnesses among those over the age of 65 include anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Studies have also found that those who experience mental health issues during their youth often show signs of accelerated aging in midlife. They also have a higher risk of developing certain diseases and dying early.
Physical Habits that Support Mental Health
Thankfully, the effects of chronic pain, illness, and aging on your physical and mental health can be mitigated by a healthy lifestyle.
When you take care of your physical health, you are also inevitably protecting yourself from mental illness. Diet, exercise, and sleep are the three fundamental physical fitness habits that you need to improve to support your physical and mental health.
When it comes to diet, your body requires a balance of essential vitamins and minerals to function. If you don’t get enough vital nutrients, you risk negatively impacting your mental health and decreasing longevity.
For example, folate is a vitamin found in many fruits and vegetables. Studies suggest that low levels of folate in the blood may lead to worsening symptoms of depression, mental impairment, and dementia. The body doesn’t produce folate on its own, so you need to ensure you get enough in your diet.
A balanced diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins is crucial for keeping your body healthy. Foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids are particularly supportive for brain health and contain anti-inflammatory actions to relieve the symptoms of many mental illnesses including depression. Examples of foods rich in omega-3s are salmon, walnuts, and flaxseeds.
Regular exercise is another important habit you need to develop to support your mental health. Some evidence suggests that exercise is often neglected by mental health professionals as an affordable way to treat mental illness. But this simple and powerful tool has many mental health benefits.
Exercise increases circulation to the brain, influencing all aspects of your mental state from reducing stress to increasing motivation. It also improves sleep, endurance, mood, energy, and stamina. People who exercise regularly are also less likely to be obese and to develop fatal diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
Aerobic exercises like swimming, dancing, running, and cycling are proven to improve symptoms in people with depression and anxiety. Even less intense forms of exercise, like taking a thirty-minute walk, have both physical and psychological benefits.
Fitness experts recommend exercising for about 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week. That works out to 50 minutes 3 days a week or 30 minutes 5 days a week.
A healthy sleep schedule is a cornerstone of health. Sleep deprivation has been linked to a greater risk for mental illness, and mental illness often causes issues with sleep. Between 50 and 80 percent of people who go to see a mental health professional confess to having chronic sleep issues like insomnia or restless leg syndrome.
During sleep, the brain cycles between NREM (non-rapid eye movement) and REM sleep. People with chronic sleep problems don’t cycle through all the stages of sleep which can lead to problems with learning, memory, and cognition while awake.
Studies have also shown that sleep assists with processing emotions and memories. When you get enough sleep, your brain has an easier time regulating your mood and reducing reactivity to environmental stressors.
Most experts recommend you try to get between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. People younger than twenty should need even more sleep - ideally, between 9 to 12 hours.
How Does Mental Health Affect Physical Health?
Since mental health and physical health are often symbiotic, it stands to reason that mental health impacts physical health in similar ways to how physical health affects mental health.
A physical illness causes inflammation which exacerbates mental illnesses. Common mental health problems like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and PTSD are also associated with increased systemic inflammation.
Inflammation from psychological disorders might eventually result in physical diseases like obesity or diabetes. It can also cause less noticeable disruptions to sleep patterns and hormones that worsen both mental and physical health.
Chronic Pain and Mental Illness
One of the most striking ways that your mental health may influence your physical body is by causing chronic pain. Chronic or persistent pain typically lasts longer than 3 to 6 months and continues even after the original cause has healed.
Chronic pain and mental illness often appear together. In fact, people with chronic pain are four times more likely to have anxiety or depression than those who are pain-free.
Several chronic pain conditions including fibromyalgia, arthritis, migraines, and back pain are typically seen alongside mental illness. The symptoms of mental illness in those with chronic pain also last longer than in those without pain.
Over time, the effects of chronic pain and mental illness severely deteriorate a person’s quality of life. When these two conditions occur concurrently, you are likely to be less productive and more antisocial. Your relationships, career, and overall sense of well-being all suffer if left untreated.
Mental Habits to Support Physical Health
Many mental healthcare techniques like meditation, yoga, and talk therapy have been used for thousands of years to treat mental and emotional issues. But in reality, mental healthcare is still in its infancy.
Professionals are still experimenting with the best treatments to deal with specific mental and physical health patterns. Currently, patients with concurrent chronic pain and mental illness are typically treated with a combination of medication, pain rehabilitation, and stress reduction techniques.
A few standout treatments have emerged that support both mental and physical health including meditation, talk therapy, and spending time with family or friends.
Meditation is a proven method for dealing with many mental health issues from anxiety to PTSD. When you meditate, you are essentially taking control of your thoughts and feelings by focusing your attention on the present moment. You release any repetitive negative thoughts and start to recognize harmful thought patterns.
One of meditation’s most useful benefits is stress reduction. The stress hormone cortisol increases inflammation, which exacerbates both physical and mental illnesses. Mindfulness meditation in particular has been proven to help with the effects of psychological stress.
The positive effect of meditation is cumulative, meaning that the best results were found in those who meditated consistently over time.
2. Spend Time Outdoors
Between increasing screen time and the general migration toward large cities, people are spending increasing amounts of time indoors. Therefore, the link between technology and mental health is a subject of intense scrutiny.
Some screen time is unavoidable, especially for those whose work involves a computer. However, some negative patterns have emerged in those who spend more than two hours using screens outside of work. People who spend too much time online are more likely to be overweight or obese, and to experience anxiety, depression, or trouble sleeping.
Studies have found spending time outdoors to have many surprising benefits. Even the simple act of taking a walk through nature boosts your mood and improves cognitive development.
3. Talk Therapy
Talk therapy has been a treatment for mental illness for a long time. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks were some of the first to document “healing with words” as a type of therapy. However, it wasn’t until Freud in the 1880s that psychotherapy became a regularly practiced way to treat mental illness.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that helps the person change negative thoughts and behaviors. Similar to meditation, CBT focuses on altering your thoughts to change the way you experience pain and, at the same time, develop healthy coping skills.
CBT is only one of the techniques psychotherapist use to address mental and physical health issues. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), mindfulness training, and biofeedback are also used to treat concurrent pain and mental illness.
4. Mind-Body Exercise
Many people associate the term mind-body with certain types of exercise, namely yoga or tai chi. These types of mind-body exercises use movement, breath, and mental focus to heal both the body and the mind.
The idea is that if the mind-body connection can inadvertently cause harm, it can also be used to heal. Mind-body exercises like yoga and tai chi harness the connection between the body and the mind to treat your mental and physical health.
For those with chronic pain, yoga is proven to reduce the intensity of the pain and improve muscle function. It also encourages physical and mental relaxation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system and reducing stress. Similarly, tai chi reduces stress and anxiety while improving balance and flexibility.
The Future of Mental and Physical Health
Many studies have been done to ascertain the exact nature of the connection between mental and physical health. These studies revealed ways to treat common mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder using the physical body. They’ve also shown how much influence physical well-being has on mental health.
It appears that the only way forward is for physical and mental health to be treated simultaneously. Specialists in physical will need to work hand-in-hand with psychologists and vice versa. Meanwhile, the patients need to become conscious of what is going on in their bodies and mind to begin to introduce true and lasting healing.