How Mental Health Affects Physical Health- Part 1 of 2
I have never before posted an article on the importance mental health has on our physical health but the reality is that many obese or chronically ill people are dealing with much deeper issues than what we see on the outside. And while there once was a stigma to admitting the need for mental help, that negative stigma has slowly dissipated due to education and a better public awareness of this global epidemic.
This is a subject that hits very close to home with me. In my past, I’ve experienced depression, alcohol abuse, and even drug use. I’ve experienced divorce and occasional feelings of hopelessness. I’ve watched my weight fluctuate up and down by as much as 60 pounds!
The result of my past bout with depression was that my immune system became severely decreased and my blood pressure went through the roof. To top it off, all those years of seesawing through life’s ups and downs were a major contributing factor to my complete and irreversible kidney failure. Many of you know I recently received a kidney transplant after 6 years of dialysis. To say I know the importance of mental health on physical health would be an understatement. But what about the impact of physical health on mental health?
𝗠𝗘𝗡𝗧𝗔𝗟 𝗔𝗡𝗗 𝗣𝗛𝗬𝗦𝗜𝗖𝗔𝗟 𝗛𝗘𝗔𝗟𝗧𝗛 𝗗𝗢 𝗡𝗢𝗧 𝗘𝗫𝗜𝗦𝗧 𝗜𝗡 𝗔 𝗩𝗔𝗖𝗨𝗨𝗠
When a person is experiencing emotional or mental distress, meeting with a counselor often is helpful. If the problem is physical in nature, however, a physician typically is recommended. But that does not mean that these challenges are always completely unrelated. Although the mind and the body often are viewed as separate entities, when it comes to counseling, it is important to recognize the relationship between the two in order to maximize a patient’s complete mental and physical well-being.
𝗧𝗛𝗘 𝗘𝗙𝗙𝗘𝗖𝗧 𝗢𝗙 𝗠𝗘𝗡𝗧𝗔𝗟 𝗛𝗘𝗔𝗟𝗧𝗛 𝗢𝗡 𝗟𝗢𝗡𝗚𝗘𝗩𝗜𝗧𝗬
One of the clearest places that the link between mental and physical health is illustrated is in longevity. Many studies have found that those with mental health challenges, such as schizophrenia or even depression, tend to live shorter lives when compared to those who do not have these conditions. In fact, the Mental Health Foundation reported that schizophrenia is associated with a tripled risk of dying from a respiratory disease and a doubled risk of dying from a form of heart disease. Depression has been linked to a 50 percent increase in a person’s risk of dying from cancer and a 67 percent increase from heart disease. These conditions have a significant impact on life expectancies.
Researchers hypothesize that one reason for the increase in respiratory disease, heart disease and cancer risk is that individuals with mental health conditions are less likely to seek care for their physical health. The Mental Health Foundation reported that those who take part in mental health services are statistically less likely to receive many routine checks, such as weight, cholesterol and blood pressure, that could identify health concerns early on. Unhealthy habits, including smoking, drug use and a lack of exercise, also can play a role, according to an article from U.S. News and World Report.
However, there are other ways that mental health can affect longevity. Researchers are finding that a person’s sense of optimism also has an impact.
𝗧𝗛𝗘 𝗣𝗢𝗪𝗘𝗥 𝗢𝗙 𝗣𝗢𝗦𝗜𝗧𝗜𝗩𝗘 𝗘𝗠𝗢𝗧𝗜𝗢𝗡𝗦
According to a 2012 Harvard University meta analysis of 200 articles, optimism may correlate with cardiovascular health and may even decrease the rate of the disease’s progression.
“The absence of the negative is not the same thing as the presence of the positive. We found that factors such as optimism, life satisfaction and happiness are associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease regardless of such factors as a person’s age, socioeconomic status, smoking status or body weight,” said lead author Julia Boehm.
Boehm, a research fellow at Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Society, Human Development and Health, additionally stated that the most optimistic individuals, when compared to their less optimistic counterparts, had approximately 50 percent less risk of an initial cardiovascular event.
Whereas positive emotions correlate with a person’s mental state, the opposite is also true: negative emotions correlate with deficits in a person’s physical well-being. Stress is the perfect example. While chronic stress can wear down the body over time, even short-lived spurts of minor stress, such as temporary stomachaches, can have an impact, the American Psychological Association (APA) reported. Negative emotions such as anger have been found to correlate with heart attacks and other physical problems that sometimes can lead to death.
𝗣𝗛𝗬𝗦𝗜𝗖𝗔𝗟 𝗛𝗘𝗔𝗟𝗧𝗛’𝗦 𝗔𝗦𝗦𝗢𝗖𝗜𝗔𝗧𝗜𝗢𝗡 𝗧𝗢 𝗠𝗘𝗡𝗧𝗔𝗟 𝗛𝗘𝗔𝗟𝗧𝗛
The difference between physical and mental health is not as pronounced as you might think. For years, researchers have been asking a complex question — how do mental and physical health interact? The answer is predictably complicated, but we do know that mental illness impacts physical health directly and indirectly. Take a look at some of the concrete ways your body and mind influence each other.
𝟭. 𝗗𝗲𝗽𝗿𝗲𝘀𝘀𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗜𝗺𝗺𝘂𝗻𝗲 𝗦𝘆𝘀𝘁𝗲𝗺
Depression, the most common mental disorder in the United States, doesn’t just impact mood and motivation. It can directly affect the immune system by suppressing T cell responses to viruses and bacteria, making it easier to get sick and stay sick for longer. A weakened immune system can also lead to a jump in the severity of allergies or asthma.
Some research suggests that it may be the other way around, and the immune system may actually cause depression. Stress — especially the chronic type — triggers an immune response within the brain itself. That inflammatory response may be a driving cause of depression.
A recent study on immune inflammation and depression involved the manipulation of immune receptors in mice. Researchers exposed the mice to repeated stress and observed that stress caused the mouse brains to release cytokines. Cytokines are a type of protein associated with inflammation, and their release led to damage in the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that plays a critical role in depression. In other words, the researchers were able to trigger depressive symptoms as a result of the immune system’s response to stress.
A strong immune system is a hallmark of physical health, but the addition of stress increases the chances of depression. In turn, depression may further weaken the immune system, resulting in a discouraging cycle.
This case illustrates the fact that many health problems have both a physical and a mental element.
𝟮. 𝗠𝗲𝗻𝘁𝗮𝗹 𝗜𝗹𝗹𝗻𝗲𝘀𝘀 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗙𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗴𝘂𝗲
Depression, anxiety and other mood disorders often result in persistent feelings of tiredness and exhaustion. Some inappropriately suggest that “it’s all in your head,” but research shows this is not the case. Being mentally tired leads to physical tiredness.
A study from Bangor University in Wales, the United Kingdom, had participants ride a stationary bike until they reached the point of exhaustion. They defined exhaustion as the inability to keep up with a pace of 60 revolutions per minute for five or more seconds.
Participants performed the test in two different situations. In one situation, they rode the bike like usual. In the second setup, participants first engaged in a 90-minute task with elements drawing on memory, fast reactions and inhibiting impulsive responses to stimuli.
After participants engaged in the mental challenge, they reported feeling tired and a little listless. Most importantly, the participants reached the point of exhaustion 15 percent earlier.
Mental illness is closely linked with fatigue, and that persistent tiredness can easily lead to declines in physical health. When someone is chronically depressed or anxious, they are less likely to engage in exercise and to quit early when they do. Fatigue from mental illness can also interfere with basic hygiene, increasing vulnerability to disease.
𝟯. 𝗔𝗻𝗴𝗲𝗿, 𝗔𝗻𝘅𝗶𝗲𝘁𝘆 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗛𝗲𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗛𝗲𝗮𝗹𝘁𝗵
Angry outbursts and the stress of anxiety are bad for the heart. An Australian study set out to see if acute emotions can cause heart attacks like you see in movies — and unfortunately, the trope is true.
Dr. Thomas Buckley, lead author of the study, said, “Our findings confirm what has been suggested in prior studies and anecdotal evidence…that episodes of intense anger can act as a trigger for a heart attack.”
In the two hours following a bout of intense anger, which the study defined as tense body language, clenched fists or teeth, and feeling “ready to burst,” a person’s risk of heart attack becomes 8.5 times higher.
In the case of anxiety, the risk of heart attack rises 9.5 fold in the following two hours. While youth are generally a long way away from having to worry about heart attacks, anger and anxiety involved in impulse control disorders can negatively affect their growing hearts.
Adults are not the only people affected by exercise. According to a 2012 study by the Economic and Social Research Council, a survey of 5,000 adolescents between the age of 10 and 15 revealed that those who lived a healthier lifestyle were happier than those who indulged in unhealthy habits such as drinking, smoking and eating junk food. The council also found that the more hours a week the participants played sports, the happier they considered themselves.
𝗛𝗢𝗪 𝗧𝗢 𝗚𝗘𝗧 𝗜𝗠𝗠𝗘𝗗𝗜𝗔𝗧𝗘 𝗛𝗘𝗟𝗣
People often don’t get the mental health services they need because they don’t know where to start.
Talk to your primary care doctor or another health professional about mental health problems. Ask them to connect you with the right mental health services.
If you do not have a health professional who is able to assist you, use these resources to find help for yourself, your family, or your friends.
𝗘𝗺𝗲𝗿𝗴𝗲𝗻𝗰𝘆 𝗠𝗲𝗱𝗶𝗰𝗮𝗹 𝗦𝗲𝗿𝘃𝗶𝗰𝗲𝘀—𝟵𝟭𝟭
If the situation is potentially life-threatening, get immediate emergency assistance by calling 911, available 24 hours a day.
𝗡𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻𝗮𝗹 𝗦𝘂𝗶𝗰𝗶𝗱𝗲 𝗣𝗿𝗲𝘃𝗲𝗻𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝗟𝗶𝗳𝗲𝗹𝗶𝗻𝗲, 𝟭-𝟴𝟬𝟬-𝟮𝟳𝟯-𝗧𝗔𝗟𝗞 (𝟴𝟮𝟱𝟱) 𝗼𝗿 𝗟𝗶𝘃𝗲 𝗢𝗻𝗹𝗶𝗻𝗲 𝗖𝗵𝗮𝘁
If you or someone you know is suicidal or in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Trained crisis workers are available to talk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Your confidential and toll-free call goes to the nearest crisis center in the Lifeline national network. These centers provide crisis counseling and mental health referrals.
𝗦𝗔𝗠𝗛𝗦𝗔 𝗧𝗿𝗲𝗮𝘁𝗺𝗲𝗻𝘁 𝗥𝗲𝗳𝗲𝗿𝗿𝗮𝗹 𝗛𝗲𝗹𝗽𝗹𝗶𝗻𝗲, 𝟭-𝟴𝟳𝟳-𝗦𝗔𝗠𝗛𝗦𝗔𝟳 (𝟭-𝟴𝟳𝟳-𝟳𝟮𝟲-𝟰𝟳𝟮𝟳)
Get general information on mental health and locate treatment services in your area. Speak to a live person, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST.
Sources: Hillside Atlanta, MentalHealth.gov
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