Think of your body as an ecosystem. Within you, there are a multitude of microsystems and efficiencies all precariously balanced and contributing to your overall well-being. And just like with ecosystems across the world, when one part of the system falls out of sync or starts to fail, it can cause ripple effects that will ultimately harm the overall system. As such, it should come as no surprise that your mental health and physical health are closely intertwined.
Research has shown that neglecting your mental well-being can have serious consequences for your physical health. From chronic illnesses to weakened immune systems, the impact of poor mental health on the human body can be significant. Because of this, it’s crucial to understand the link between mental and physical health and take steps to prioritize both aspects of your well-being.
In this article, we will explore how your mental health can affect your physical health and provide strategies to promote better overall well-being.
How Mental Health Impacts Physical Health
The balance between your mental health and your physical wellness can be fickle and difficult to fully understand. A wide array of factors contribute to your physical and mental health, such as upbringing, genetics, life experiences, health conditions, and so on. This means that the mental/physical balance looks different for everyone and some individuals may have a far easier time maintaining that balance than others.
That said, when you neglect your mental health and don’t take time to focus on self-care activities or find the treatment that you need, this can lead to many different physical ailments and concerns. To start, poor mental health can cause disruptions to your cognitive functions and impair decision-making abilities, which may lead to physical injuries.
In addition, research has shown that your mental wellness directly affects your immune system’s functionality, so worsening mental health may weaken the immune system. And the stress associated with mental health challenges can lead to elevated blood pressure levels and increased heart rates, which may put you at a higher risk of developing hypertension and cardiovascular diseases. Elevated anxiety and stress may also contribute to things like:
- Excessive fatigue
- Night and day sweats
- Skin health issues (e.g., acne, psoriasis, etc.)
- And more physical symptoms
It’s also worth noting that many mental illnesses and disorders co-exist or contribute to the development of many physical health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and gastrointestinal issues.
The Physical Symptoms and Impacts of Different Mental Illnesses
While the primary symptoms of mental health conditions mainly affect one’s mental state, an array of physical symptoms are commonly associated with those same conditions. The presentation of symptoms varies from one individual to the next, so physical symptoms may not always develop for each condition.
That said, it’s important to understand the types of physical impacts that you should expect with a given mental health condition or disorder so you can develop appropriate coping strategies to overcome or mitigate those issues.
Anxiety Disorders and Physical Health
It’s estimated that 31% of American adults experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Anxiety disorders are common across the states and are generally characterized by persistent feelings of worry, stress, and/or fear that are strong enough to interfere with one’s daily activities. From generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder to specific phobias and more, there are many unique types of anxiety disorders affecting individuals across the globe.
In general, anxiety disorders come with many physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling or shaking, headaches, muscle tension, and feeling fatigued or exhausted. These physical symptoms can vary in severity and make it incredibly challenging to go about your day normally. Without treatment, these symptoms may worsen and lead to long-term chronic physical symptoms, like chronic fatigue, painful knots in muscles, dehydration, and consistent head pains.
Individuals with anxiety disorders may also see their anxiety manifest as other physical concerns, such as an increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and changes in digestion. It’s also worth mentioning that anxiety disorder can co-occur with other mental health conditions, such as major depression, and others may have a co-occurring physical illness too, which may worsen symptoms.
Mood Disorders and Physical Health
Mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, not only affect a person’s mental well-being but can also have a profound impact on their physical health. These disorders can disrupt a person’s daily life and may lead to a variety of physical symptoms and health outcomes.
Depressive disorders, for instance, are characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, and a lack of energy, and these symptoms can contribute to worsening your physical health. Individuals with depression often lack the motivation and/or energy to engage in activities that support good health, like maintaining a consistent and nutritious diet or getting active. As a result, these individuals may experience fluctuations in their weight, excessive fatigue, and consistent sleep disturbances. Obviously, these physical changes can have a negative impact on a person’s overall health and quality of life, and the cycle of depression will continue to repeat, thus worsening those changes.
Individuals with mood disorders are also at higher risk of developing chronic illnesses and diseases due to poor mental health, physical symptoms, and pre-existing health concerns. Researchers have actually linked many chronic illnesses to depression including diabetes, asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and arthritis. To make matters worse, the mental health condition also makes dealing with the illness more difficult because of persistent and overwhelming emotions.
Eating Disorders and Physical Health
In case you were wondering, eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are, in fact, mental illnesses and have been recognized by the DSM-5. Many can be confused about the category they fit into because they are complex and are also very medical in nature. As such, eating disorders can have a dangerous impact on your physical and psychological well-being. Eating disorders are often characterized by symptoms like:
- Changes in behavior around food
- Intrusive or repetitive thoughts about food intake, planning, and/or consumption
- Negative emotions associated with food consumption
- Unhealthy behaviors like purging, binge eating, water loading, and more
People with eating disorders may experience gastrointestinal disturbances such as bloating, constipation, and irregular bowel movements. Additionally, those with bulimia nervosa may engage in frequent vomiting or purging behaviors, which can lead to dental problems, electrolyte imbalances, and esophageal damage. In addition, these eating disorders can directly impact the functioning of the digestive system, leading to increased pain and poor digestive health symptoms.
The health problems associated with eating disorders can be chronic and severe, and they differ widely from one disorder to the next. Anorexia nervosa, for instance, can lead to significant weight loss, malnutrition, and a weakened immune system, and in severe cases, it can even be life-threatening.
Substance Use Disorders and Physical Health
It is important to note that people with mental health issues are often more vulnerable to substance misuse, and vice versa. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, people with mental illnesses have higher rates of substance use disorders compared to those without mental health issues. In fact, around 20% of adults with a mental health condition also have a substance use disorder, which affects their brains and behaviors, and their ability to control their use of substances like legal or illegal drugs, alcohol, or medications.
Substance use disorders can exacerbate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions, and may also contribute to the development of new mental health problems.
In terms of physical symptoms and changes, substance use disorders can lead to a range of health issues including respiratory problems, cardiovascular diseases, liver damage, and an increased risk of infectious diseases. Substance misuse can also impair cognitive function, affect motor skills, and impact overall physical well-being.
Strategies to Improve Your Mental Health and Physical Health
When you’re struggling with a mental health condition like bipolar disorder or agoraphobia, it can feel impossible to find a long-term solution to your mental health concerns. However, you do not have to navigate this journey all by yourself.
You have a support network of friends and family who care about you and want to see you succeed. When you’re down for the count and can’t find the way back up, it’s time to lean on your support network for their genuine assistance, comfort, and care. By reaching out to your friends and family, you can leverage their support to talk through your challenges and difficulties with a sympathetic voice. They may offer solutions that you hadn’t previously considered and may offer encouragement to help you overcome your struggles.
Aside from that, the best thing you can do for your mental health is engage in talk therapy or counseling sessions. There are tons of mental health professionals across the United States who specialize in treating a wide variety of mental health conditions. You can even find remote therapists through mobile apps like BetterHelp or Talkspace, which can be invaluable if you’re feeling too overwhelmed by symptoms to leave your home.
And if you’ve tried traditional one-on-one talk therapy before and haven’t found any benefits, it’s worth your time to explore other forms of therapy like:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy
- Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy
You may even consider looking into alternative forms of treatment, like neurofeedback therapy. This is an innovative technique that works to re-train brainwave patterns and address symptoms at the source (your brain).
Aside from these therapies and treatments, there are many ways that you can improve your mental wellness on a daily basis. Consider integrating some of these tips into your routines:
- Find more opportunities for face-to-face social interactions through recreational sports, trivia events, social dancing nights, and other activities
- Explore healthy sensory inputs to help you feel calmer and centered like listening to an uplifting song, squeezing a stress ball, or taking nature walks
- Get active through regular exercise and activities. If you can’t make it to the gym or squeeze in a workout, you can find micro-moments in the day to add some extra physical activity like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, doing 5 squats every hour, and so on.
- Take steps to improve your quality of sleep each night. We all need between 7-10 hours of sleep per night and it’s important to get good quality (deep) sleep consistently. It’s a good idea to put the screens to sleep at least 1 hour before heading to bed and to set consistent wake-up times and bedtimes.
- Optimize your diet with nutritious foods. This is easier said than done, especially for individuals with eating disorders. However, healthy foods (and a healthy attitude toward food) are important for your mental and physical health. Make sure you’re eating 3 well-balanced meals each day that consist primarily of fruits, vegetables, and proteins. Avoid over-processed foods and make sure you drink plenty of water. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, it’s a good idea to get in touch with a nutritionist or dietician as they can provide more personalized support for your dieting strategy.
- Take small steps to build healthy habits over time and gradually improve your health. You don’t need to drastically overhaul your entire life at once and instantly change all of your behaviors and habits. Progress happens when you set goals and draw a dotted line from point A to B to C. Start by setting micro-goals for yourself like setting up a talk therapy session or optimizing your sleep schedule. Once you’ve hit that milestone, reward yourself with a small treat and set your next micro-goal. This strategy will help you hold yourself accountable to your macro-goals and you’ll thank yourself later for this initiative.
Take Control of Your Mental and Physical Health
Mental illnesses and challenges can have a profound impact on physical well-being, and it is important to prioritize both aspects of your health. While your symptoms may feel overwhelming right now, you do have a path toward symptom reduction and mitigation with the right strategies and interventions. All you need to do right now is take the first step.
Author’s Byline: Nellia Melnyk is a researcher, and content creator who has a keen interest in neuroscience and psychology. She has developed an impressive collection of articles and blog posts focused on improving cognitive function, overcoming mental health issues, and enhancing overall brain health. Nellia is committed to helping individuals harness the power of their brains and live their best lives.