Did you know that your mental health affects your physical health, and vice-versa? Many people think of their mental health as something completely separate from their physical health, but the truth is that there is a mind-body connection. Having good mental health can positively impact your physical health, while having untreated mental health issues can negatively impact your physical health. It’s important to take care of your mental health if you want to maximize your longevity, heart health, and more.
In this article, we’re taking a closer look at a common question we hear – how does mental health affect physical health?
How Does Mental Health Affect Physical Health?
You might have heard the adage, “mind over matter,” but just thinking positive thoughts is not generally enough to improve your physical health (though it can certainly help!). There are actually tangible ways that a mental health issue can become a physical health issue. Some of the connection is due to lifestyle factors.
So, how does mental health affect physical health?
For example, many people with anxiety or other mental health conditions find it hard to sleep well. You might have trouble falling asleep or have trouble staying asleep. Poor sleep can cause a wide variety of physical health issues, including heart problems, diabetes, and hormonal fluctuations. It can make it difficult to lose weight if you are overweight or obese, and it can also make you feel pain more severely than you would if you were well-rested. Of course, not getting enough sleep also puts you at risk for developing or worsening anxiety and depression, so it can become a vicious cycle.
Those with depression often find it very difficult to get out of bed. This can lead to a lack of exercise, which, in turn, leads to physical health problems. It can also be difficult to maintain proper nutrition; the effects of malnutrition could include weight changes, headaches, digestive difficulties, and, over a longer period of time, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and even some forms of cancer.
Those who struggle with substance use and addictions also often experience physical health issues. Depending on the substance and how much is being used over what period of time, a person might have effects ranging from headaches and a dry mouth to a heart attack, lung and other cancers, liver disease, and more.
One other factor is that those with mental health issues might not have the resources or motivation to seek care for physical issues as they come up. Some may be afraid to go to the doctor, while others might be worried about how they will afford care. This hesitancy or inability to seek health care can lead to not catching small problems early.
How Physical Health Can Affect Mental Health
Keep in mind that the mind-body connection is not a one-way street. Physical health issues can and do cause or exacerbate mental health issues.
If you are struggling with chronic pain, for example, you might develop anxiety or depression. This can be the case for any chronic illness, including heart disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases, and so on. Part of this is simply because getting a serious diagnosis or dealing with pain and other troubling symptoms can be emotionally upsetting, even devastating. It is not surprising that someone struggling with this might develop depression or anxiety.
That’s not the whole story, however. Part of the issue is that many illnesses cause inflammation. As the body tries to combat whatever the issue is, it creates cytokines, which are inflammatory substances that can fight off viruses and other intruders. Unfortunately, these cytokines also take their toll on the body, including on mental health. They can make it difficult to concentrate and slow down the brain’s processing time. This can cause depression and make it difficult to cope with these physical changes.
Tips for Better Mental (and Physical) Health
While a serious diagnosis of either a physical or a mental health issue requires care from a professional healthcare provider, there are some things you can do at home to improve your mental health and, in turn, enjoy better physical health.
The first is to exercise regularly. Exercise has been shown to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression in those who have mild to moderate forms of these conditions. In addition, it will improve your heart health, help your lungs function more efficiently, and can help you drop some weight if you are overweight or obese. You don’t have to do a hard workout each day (although that is certainly a good idea if you enjoy it and if your doctor has said that it’s safe for you!). You can simply go for a daily walk or do something else you enjoy, like swimming, dancing, or playing tennis with a friend.
Next, paying attention to your diet can help you feel better overall, both mentally and physically. Fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein sources, whole grains, and plenty of water will go a long way toward giving you the energy you need to get through your days. Avoid processed foods as much as feasible; having a treat now and then is no problem, but try not to make it a daily habit. Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist if you aren’t sure where to start in an effort to improve your diet.
Getting enough sleep is also important for physical and mental health. Teens should strive for about nine hours per night, while adults should get seven to eight hours in most cases. Ideally, you should wake up refreshed most mornings. If you’re having trouble getting the sleep you need, consider making your room cooler, leaving electronics out of your bedroom, and winding down with a good bedtime routine. You could also talk to your doctor about whether a natural supplement or even a sleep medication would be helpful in the short term.
Finally, seek out medical care as well as counseling if you need it. You should see your primary care doctor regularly (usually every year to three years for healthy adults, and those with chronic health issues may need to go more often). If you are struggling with your mental health, talk to a therapist or counselor. Your family doctor can give you a referral if needed. Take care of your mental health so you can live longer and feel better mentally and physically.