Many people think of the “mind” and “body” as two separate entities, but there is a fundamental link between mental and physical health.
Although research is ongoing to better understand the pathways through which the mind and body communicate with each other, mental health professionals know one thing is clear: when you take care of your mind, it benefits your body – and vice versa.
It also means that when you’re stressed, overwhelmed, or experiencing a mental illness like depression or anxiety, this state of mind can lead to chronic physical health conditions if the root cause of the issue is unresolved, undiagnosed, or untreated.
Keep reading to learn four ways mental health affects physical health and how to maintain your well-being, no matter what life brings your way.
One way that mental health affects physical health is through your immune system. When you’re stressed, worried, or coping with an untreated mental illness, your brain releases hormones that decrease disease-fighting lymphocytes in your bloodstream and weaken your body’s ability to fight viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens.
Because of the strong relationship between mental and physical health, the opposite effect can occur for people with autoimmune disorders. Researchers have found that individuals who struggle with chronic inflammation are highly susceptible to depression and other mood disorders if left untreated.
Mental illnesses can also have a major impact on your cardiovascular health. Individuals with depression, anxiety, and PTSD are at a higher risk of chronic heart conditions, including coronary artery disease. Many mental illnesses have physiological symptoms – like high blood pressure, reduced blood flow, and high cortisol – that can lead to heart failure, stroke, or heart attack in severe cases.
However, cardiovascular issues are not caused by brain chemistry alone. People who struggle with their mental health are more likely to adopt habits like smoking, eating non-nutritious foods, avoiding exercise, or skipping medications, which can take a toll on their heart and general wellness.
Another way mental health impacts physical health is through the digestive system. Stomach aches, diarrhea, constipation, and cramps are all examples of physiological responses to short-term mental distress.
Long-term gastrointestinal conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), however, can often induce anxiety – especially if symptoms are unpredictable and bathroom access is uncertain. This may cause individuals to socially isolate themselves and increase their risk of depression.
Fatigue – or the persistent feeling of tiredness or exhaustion – is one of the most common signs of a mental health issue. Because fatigue is a physical response to a wide range of personal situations, it can be difficult to pinpoint it as a symptom of mental illness.
Despite the subjective nature of fatigue, people who experience chronic exhaustion may unknowingly be allocating their energy to a mental disorder. That’s why it’s important to talk to a medical professional if you are experiencing fatigue or any other physical symptoms previously discussed in this article.
Fostering a Healthy Body and Mind
Your mind and body are always communicating with one another to achieve homeostasis, or the biological process of actively maintaining stable conditions necessary for survival. When you’re stressed or mentally unwell, these emotions can disrupt your inner equilibrium.
While some situations may require treatment by a mental health professional, there are many ways you can be proactive about improving your mental and physical wellness, such as:
- Eating a balanced diet
- Staying physically active
- Prioritizing self-care
- Taking your prescription medications according to your doctor’s instructions
- Getting enough sleep
- Limiting consumption of caffeine and alcohol
- Talking to a mental health professional