Mental Health and Physical Health


This article is part of a blog series. Check out our other posts, too!

Even though many people may view them as separate entities, it turns out the mind and body are strongly connected to one another. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. They also stand by the powerful principle: there is no health without mental health.

Mental health illness can often correlate with physical health problems and vice versa. It’s no surprise that poor mental health can make it difficult to take care of physical health. After all, it can be challenging to engage in hygiene, proper nutrition, regular exercise, or adequate sleep when you struggle with depression, anxiety, or another mental illness.

Those struggling with mental illness may turn to dangerous or compulsive habits, such as drinking alcohol, smoking, or using drugs to self-medicate the uncomfortable symptoms.

Untreated mental illness is associated with numerous health risks such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, immune system deficiencies, gastronomical issues, sexual dysfunction, pregnancy complications, viral diseases, and aches, sores, and increased body pain.

Research also reveals higher mortality rates for those with serious mental illness (as much as 25 years) compared to the general population. While there is not a singular cause, early death may entail a variety of factors that include lifestyle choices, environmental factors, financial issues and access to quality healthcare.

Depression's Physical Impact

Depression can be so much more than the feelings of being depressed, irritable, or withdrawn. In fact, depression is often associated with several physical symptoms including:

  • Aches and pains
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Loss or increase in appetite
  • Back pain
  • Limb and joint pain

When someone is depressed, it can be very challenging to manage basic personal self-care, such as taking medication regularly, visiting the doctor or following a nutritious diet. Research from the Mental Health Foundation shows that depression is linked to a 67% increased risk of dying from heart disease and 50% increase in dying from cancer. Even the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry advises parents to be aware of physical depressive symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, and a change in eating or sleeping.

How Anxiety Shows Physical Worry

Although anxiety is a usual reaction to stressful life circumstances, anxiety disorders occur with an excessive fear and sense of nervousness. In addition to disproportionate worry, anxiety is also closely associated with several physical symptoms including muscle pain, fatigue, chest tightness, headaches, nausea, breathlessness, insomnia, rapid heartbeat, sweating, and dizziness.

Research from Harvard Health Publishing shows that  high association rates between high anxiety levels and gastrointestinal disorders, chronic respiratory disorders and heart disease. In fact, many anxiety assessment tools ask about physical symptoms, like trouble relaxing and feeling so restless that you cannot sit still.  

Psychosomatic Disorders - The Merge of Physical and Mental Health

Psyche means mind and soma means body. When someone struggles with a psychosomatic disorder, it affects both their physical and mental well-being. In general, most disorders have psychosomatic components to them. That’s because:

  • All physical diseases have mental reactions. For example, we all have certain thoughts and feelings and coping mechanisms. Think about it this way: someone reacting to needing surgery may dramatically differ from someone else reacting to needing surgery. One person may feel calm and relatively unaffected; the other may find himself struggling to eat or sleep because he feels so worried about the procedure.
  • Mental illness inherently can impact physical health. As mentioned earlier, your mental health can impact your appetite, sleep, or hygiene habits.

However, the mind can also cause or exacerbate physical symptoms. For example, someone with anxiety may experience elevated high blood pressure or heart disease. Another person may experience chest or stomach pain without any diagnosable medical cause. Many people will consult with their doctors, expecting a physical ailment or disease and do not realize their symptoms may be associated with emotional or mental factors.

Common somatic symptoms can include feeling fatigued, dizzy, experiencing back or stomach pain, and feeling sick or nauseated. When someone experiences extreme somatization, they may struggle with the following mental illnesses:

  • Hypochondriasis - This refers to equating minor symptoms with serious diseases. For example, a person who has a headache may assume that it’s actually a brain tumor. As a result, the person will spend excessive time worried and concerned about their physical health.
  • Conversion Disorder - Individuals with this disorder often exhibit symptoms that mask a serious disease (such as losing vision or experiencing deafness) in response to a highly-stressful situation. In these cases, the body appears to be naturally shifting mental stress into a physical response.
  • Pain Disorder - This refers to the presence of persistent or chronic pain that cannot be explained by a physical ailment or disease.
  • Somatization Disorder - Experiencing physical symptoms in various parts of the body at different times is somatization. Symptoms often feel highly uncomfortable to unbearable and can include sexual problems, migraines, abdominal pain, bowel problems, and nausea.

It’s important to take care of both your physical and mental health for optimal well-being. Mental Health America emphasizes that taking care of your physical body can make you feel better. Tips for this include:

  • Eating a healthy, nutritious diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Avoiding alcohol and drugs
  • Managing stress
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Having regular physical check-ups
  • Practicing good hygiene
  • Engaging in relaxing activities like yoga or taking a walk

On the other hand, it’s also important to cope with physical illness and physical health in a productive and healthy way. Physical illnesses can be painful, frustrating, isolating, and scary, but research shows that mental healthcare may alleviate some of the mental and physical symptoms you experience.

If you are struggling with a physical illness, you may benefit from discussing your fears and concerns with loved ones and practicing relaxation techniques, like meditating or deep breathing. If your mental health symptoms do not improve, consider talking to your primary care physician or a licensed psychotherapist for professional support.

While research is still evolving to highlight the connections between the mind and body, it will always be in your best interest to integrate both physical and mental self-care into your daily living.

*Please note that the authors and editors of this article are not medical professionals. You should consult with your doctor if you have a mental or medical health concern.