Self-care: why taking care of mental health is important for your physical health
LAST UPDATED: Jan 17, 2022
4 MIN READ
HERE'S WHAT WE'LL COVER
Sometimes it seems like your mind and your body are two completely separate realms. And while the world of medicine may often treat them as separate entities, there’s no line in your body that separates them in reality. Every thought, feeling, instinct, and emotion you experience is the result of a chemical reaction in your body, much like every heartbeat, pain, muscle movement, and smile.
Your well-being is a puzzle made of many parts, and your mental and physical health are two pieces of that puzzle. If one piece is missing or out of place, the puzzle is incomplete. You’re not fully taking care of your health unless you’re taking care of your mental health, too. Let’s take a look at what that means and how to achieve it.
How are physical and mental health connected?
Scientists have observed the critical link between physical and mental health for centuries.
The connection between the skin and mental health is a good example. Studies show that people with mental health concerns like anxiety and depression have a higher risk of developing psoriasis, a disorder that causes itchy, scaly plaques on the skin (Ferreira, 2017).
A similar connection occurs in your digestive system. Researchers note that disturbing the balance of healthy bacteria in your intestines can increase the risk of mental health conditions like depression (Skonieczna-Żydecka, 2018).
Neglecting physical health affects the mind
You’re probably familiar with some of the things you can do to support your physical wellness, like getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, and exercising. But neglecting these needs hurts more than just your physical health.
For example, you might be tempted to skip a few hours of sleep on busy weeknights and tell yourself that you’ll catch up on the weekend. But a large study of over 10,000 adolescents found that sleep deprivation is harmful to mental health and can increase the risk of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, and more (Zhang, 2017).
Taking care of your body includes getting regular exercise, too. And studies have shown that physical activity improves things like concentration and cognitive abilities, such as attention and memory (Northey, 2018). Engaging in regular exercise and eating a high-quality diet filled with healthy foods might help alleviate symptoms of depression (Gordon, 2018; Khalid, 2016).
Neglecting mental health affects physical health
Caring for your mental health has just as much impact on your physical well-being. Good mental health doesn’t mean you feel happy and carefree all of the time.
Good mental health means you can understand and manage your emotions (both positive and negative), maintain interpersonal relationships, and cope with changes and stressors in life. Neglecting these needs can damage your physical health.
Studies have shown that neglecting your mental health impacts your ability to manage physical problems such as high blood pressure, especially in older adults (Turana, 2020). Also, high levels of psychological distress increase your risk of dying from conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer (Russ, 2012).
Some studies even suggest that providing emotional and psychological support can increase survival rates in people who have cancer, although other researchers disagree (Spiegel, 2003).
Treating one means treating both
There are times that you might experience a physical health problem and a mental health problem simultaneously.
In many instances, when you treat one, you treat the other. A few examples of this are:
Many studies show that poor mental health and high stress are linked to heart disease. Stress increases inflammation in the body that can damage the heart and blood vessels. Taking care of your mental health may help reduce some of this stress on the heart (Pompeo-Fargnoli, 2021).
One study of people who had both heart disease and depression demonstrated that when these people were treated for their depression, their heart disease improved too (Pizzi, 2011).
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a nervous system disorder that causes problems with movement, like tremors and stiffness.
Researchers in a 2009 clinical trial treated a group of people who had both PD and depression. Participants that took antidepressants had improvement in depression symptoms, but that wasn’t the only benefit—treating the depression also improved movement symptoms and overall quality of life (Menza, 2009).
Arthritis causes joint pain that can severely affect movement and limit your routine activities. In a large 2003 clinical trial of people with depression and arthritis, researchers found that treating depression helped more than just mood. Pain level decreased, function increased, and quality of life improved (Lin, 2003).
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) causes hyperactive behavior and difficulty focusing on tasks. Physical activity helps people with ADHD improve physical fitness and coordination, but those are not the only benefits of exercise. People with ADHD who participated in a swimming program reported better mental health, improved cognitive abilities, and less depression (Silva, 2020).
How can we bridge the gap?
It’s clear that mental and physical health go hand-in-hand. Many health care providers are finding ways to integrate them better.
For example, some primary care providers use screening tools to evaluate people for mental health concerns rather than just addressing physical ones. Many are also getting better mental health training during their education. Some participate in collaborative programs that integrate both physical and mental health services (Thielke, 2007).
Researchers tested this type of collaborative approach in a 2015 study. Healthcare providers treated people with both depression and diabetes or heart disease in two different settings. Some went to health care offices that offered only medical care, and others went to offices that provided both medical and psychological care. The people treated at integrated practices had fewer symptoms of depression and better control of their diabetes or heart disease (Coventry, 2015).
Recent studies have observed that technology can also provide an opportunity to integrate physical and mental health services. Mobile apps and text messages allow people to quickly speak to a healthcare provider, remember to take medications, read informative guidelines, and be more engaged in their care. Healthcare providers can use this approach to help people manage their weight, stop smoking, and treat anxiety and depression (Rathbone, 2017).
If you want to take the best possible care of your health, that means taking care of both your physical and mental well-being. Your health care provider can help you find the best resources to achieve this balance.
If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
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