The Domino Effect

Mental Health Inevitably Impacts Physical Health

It may not occur to most people that mental health and physical health are very interconnected. However, a large body of research shows how your brain effects the well-being of the rest of your body. Our thoughts, feelings and behaviours relate to one another and sometimes accumulate certain habits which prove consequential to the likelihood of good physical health and overall well-being.

A Man with a Headache

Mental health issues can produce a range of physical symptoms such as tension in the body, headaches, insomnia, nausea, loss of or increases in appetite, reduced concentration, fatigue, disruption to regular bowel movements, and even aches and pain. When mental health issues aggravate physical health problems, this is known as psychosomatic symptoms. Meaning our bodily experiences are influenced by our psychology.

Stress Response

When we experience stress, our body goes into “fight”, “flight” or “freeze”. This is an automatic response that allows us to prepare for a situation or event, as best we can. Cortisol and adrenalin are released, which increases our heart rate and blood pressure, it suppresses the digestive system and improves hyper-vigilance to danger. It is healthy and normal to have this response and it actually keeps us motivated. However, when a stress response is long term and frequent, your body never has the chance to go back to a resting state to repair and increases your chances of developing long term health problems including diseases (Prince et al., 2007).

Physical Health ImpactsA Woman Sleeping

Similarly, mental health can impact your physical health due to the debilitating nature of the condition. Such as using maladaptive coping mechanisms to ease the symptoms they experience. People may have a suppressed appetite which is a common symptom in depression, anxiety and eating disorders. This results in reduction of consuming enough nutritious healthy meals. Furthering other symptoms of fatigue and concentration which prevents behavioural activation necessary for a healthy lifestyle like exercise and opportunities to separate from negative thoughts and increases isolation. Moreover, when we sleep, our body repairs and restores energy which supports healthy brain function. Whereas many mental health symptoms result in sleep disruption which can have the opposite effect, by lowering our immunity and reducing our capacity to respond to stress in a healthy way, making the psychological symptoms worse. Finally, people may also increase substance use like alcohol and other substances to numb their pain. However, this causes serious health issues and brings on a ‘come down’, which reduces mood and increases anxiety. These examples highlight the vicious cycle of psychological and physical symptoms being mutually responsive to one another.

Why is this Important?

Have you ever heard your counsellor ask, “how are you going to self-care today?” It is such a simple question but often we don’t even consider the ways in which we are attending to our mental health and allowing our body to rest from the stress which could be causing many of the aches and pains we experience. Think of psychosomatic symptoms as the way our body is trying to ask us to slow down and to take a break. Think back to when you have had a huge week and afterwards you suddenly have a cold and feel completely run down. If we find ways to support our mental health before it gets to this stage, we can prevent those things from happening, and long-term physical health problems from arising. Similarly, we can prevent stress and ‘bad days’ from turning into mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.

How Can I Prioritise my Mental Health and Physical Health?

As you may have guessed, if mental health can impact our physical health, the inverted is also true. Getting enough sleep, exercise and having a healthy diet helps our bodies get back into a balance that promotes good mental health. Happy hormones such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin are released which improves mood, and ability to respond to stressful situations in a positive and proactive manor.

A Man Walking

Secondly, implement breaks into your day so the body can return to a resting state, and disconnect from the swirling thoughts that may consume you. Some ways to achieve this include:

  • Mindfulness/meditation
  • Breathing exercises
  • Short walks
  • Splashing your face or hands with cold water
  • Having a rest or changing the task you’re working on
  • Talking to a friend or colleague
  • Identifying irrational automatic thoughts and challenging them

In some cases, reaching out for personal or professional support can provide you with ideas to manage your mental health that you have yet to consider. It may also help you see a problem in a new perspective. Stress, anxiety and low mood are usually temporary and sometimes it’s just about finding positive ways to cope until it passes.

Prince, M., Prof, Patel, V., Prof, Saxena, S., MD, Maj, M., Prof, Maselko, J., ScD, Phillips, M. R., Prof, & Rahman, A., PhD. (2007). No health without mental health. The Lancet (British Edition), 370(9590), 859-877.

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