The relationship between mental and physical health is complex. Poor mental health can negatively affect physical health and vice versa. While it is often overlooked, mental health can play a significant role in our overall well-being. In this blog post, we’ll explore the connection between mental and physical health and discuss the steps you can take to prevent mental health difficulties from impacting your physical health.
1. The Link Between Mental and Physical Health
The mind is the epicentre of our being but when it’s not working at full strength, is overworked or tired it’s only logical that the rest of our body will follow suit.
It is most likely that the physical symptoms or decline in overall health will happen gradually, especially with anxiety disorders, which can get progressively worse if untreated. One thing usually affects the other creating a domino effect that you may not even notice i.e. if you have a lack of energy, you may not want to exercise which could lead to weight gain and ultimately joint or heart problems. You may not make the connection between your physical and mental health for a long time, and it may not be recognised as the cause by you, those around you or medical professionals so it’s really key to be in tune with you and your own body so you can spot any irregularities straight away and think “hold on, this isn’t right”.
Depending on the mental illness physical symptoms can vary and actually are quite typical for instance it’s common for those with schizophrenia to gain weight as a side effect of their medication, or become less concerned about their appearance or hygiene. These are things that can be worked on but each mental illness works differently and therefore your response to them will be different.
2. How Mental Health Affects Your Body
Creating a baseline
As I’ve said it’s important to know your body and a great place to start tracking this is a journal. By understanding more about how your body works you can better identify when you are deviating from your “normal”. Some of the most common effects of mental health on the body are:
Hiding mental illness, or the very act of trying to control it every day can be a huge drain on your body. The mental strength it takes to get through a day can mean you feel like you need to recharge several times just to get the simplest task done or you might feel yourself not being able to concentrate.
Think about it in the simplest terms. You’re in a classroom. To your knowledge, everyone else is just concentrating on listening and taking notes. You are doing that too, you are also worrying you might be sweating, nervous about whether anyone else is noticing, and trying to look like you are not worrying about sweating. You might be looking for the nearest exit, your leg might be tapping, or you might be trying to remember if you passed the toilets on the way in, all the while trying to listen and take notes.
This scenario could be just an hour of your day. Feeling all that in just one hour and you still have the rest of the day and multiple other scenarios to “get through”. Of course, this is going to take a toll on your body, you will feel exhausted. This is why it’s so important to address your anxiety as early on as possible, by finding the causes and learning ways to lessen these symptoms.
It’s even harder when you are tired to get the motivation to move, get up, get dressed or get some exercise to feel better, it becomes a vicious cycle very quickly. Try and tell yourself “I won’t always have motivation, so I must have discipline.” A just-do-it attitude can really shock anxiety into submission.
Long-term fatigue can impact your social life, relationships and work performance. If these pillars begin to fall, you could face depression and other mental illnesses as consequences.
Increased heart rate
The heart rate will peak and drop throughout the day, especially during exercise or hormonal changes, however having a constantly high heart rate isn’t a good sign. The usual range of a normal heartbeat would be between 60 bpm and 100 bpm, however, more regular physical exercise can reduce your heart rate over a longer period.
Anxiety usually occurs due to increased stress hormones and increased adrenaline (fight or flight). The body reacts like it comes across a dangerous predator and will pump your blood into the areas of the body that will enable it to either run or fight. This puts a strain on the heart and sustaining this level of stress can have serious consequences if you already have a heart condition or the anxiety goes untreated for too long.
Getting your heart checked by a medical professional, seeking help for your mental illness and keeping a healthy lifestyle with a good diet and exercise can go a long way to preventing long-term heart issues.
A lot of mental illnesses have a link with digestion and particularly nausea. Unhealthy relationships with food can often occur because of this. Some people may fail to eat or skip meals due to anxiety-induced nausea, and links with fears of being seen eating or eating in a public setting are common. Others may use food as a self-soothing mechanism and overeat.
If you think about it, it’s actually a very logical and simple connection between the brain and the stomach. We often don’t think this connection exists but if we can get excited about the prospect of food, why is it so hard to believe that our digestive system can take a hit when our mental health isn’t good?
The connection between our stomach and our mind is very strong and studies have shown that our gut is very emotionally tuned in, hence the expression “butterflies in your stomach”. If you notice that something isn’t right, one cause could be your mental health and it’s always worth discussing this possibility with a doctor, especially if it’s an ongoing problem.
Another useful thing to do is TRACK. By tracking what you have done in the day and finding out when and where your anxiety is peaking and whether this is connected with any stomach upsets.
3. Mental Health Self-Care Strategies
Journaling has come into this blog quite a lot, but it doesn’t have to be gratitude journaling or hours scrawling how you feel, journaling the basics of your health and activities will take you far.
Journaling can be adapted to who you are and what you want to achieve. The Discovery Journal approaches mental illnesses logically, just asking you to write where you’ve been and who you have engaged with. It’s perfect for tracking, monitoring and making those vital connections.
You may also choose to be more thorough, start a spreadsheet or purchase a smartwatch so you can see how your health is progressing. You might find some interesting discoveries.
Exercise is a big part of better mental and physical health, but make sure you choose something that you are interested in and something that fits you. “Exercise” is a really broad term and it’s one that often feels shoved down your neck on every TV program or at every doctor's appointment, but exercise is really what you choose it to be, it could be as simple as a walk or run just to get out the house, or you might feel more motivated by learning a new skill like dance or martial arts.
Make sure you choose something which will keep you engaged, where there is room for improvement and most of all you feel comfortable doing it regularly.
Making time for friends and family is important and it’s something we don’t do enough of, especially when we get older and our responsibilities grow. I often go to a concert and say to myself “Wow, I had so much fun, why don’t I do this all the time?” and then out of nowhere 3 years have passed and I haven’t “got around to it”
Get proactive, find some activities, restaurants or places you want to visit and get them in the diary with people who lift you and put a smile on your face because sometimes you don’t realise that that bit of connection was what you were missing.
4. When to Seek Professional Help
Never neglect your mental or physical health. It may feel impossible to get a doctor's appointment sometimes or that maybe you don’t have the time or “it’s not that serious” but sometimes having a concern hang over your head can cause more damage to your mental health. It’s always best to get checked out just in case and you will feel much better once you do. Even the act of calling and getting an appointment in the diary can free up a lot of headspace and give you some peace of mind.
If you are seriously concerned about a medical issue whether it is mental health-related or not remember to call 111 and speak to an advisor about your symptoms. In more serious cases call 999 for an ambulance.