How does our mental health impact our physical health?
Americans have many stresses and worries due to the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and more. Our mental wellness can impact our ability to maintain optimal physical health and quality of life. How do the two interrelate, and what are some helpful tips to achieve better mental and physical health?
Barbara Walker, PhD, UC Health integrative health and performance psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, provides answers to common questions about mental health conditions, physical health conditions and tips for improving our overall mental health status.
What is mental health and why is it important to one’s overall health?
Mental health encompasses our emotional, psychological and social well-being, and is equally important to physical health in that it drives and affects the way we perceive, think, feel and manage life.
How does mental health affect one’s physical health, and vice versa?
We are whole beings – our mind and body are connected, constantly communicating with each other. For instance, as soon as we have a negative or anxious thought in our mind, or perception of a potential threat or stressor – we unconsciously begin to contract muscle fibers in our body and start breathing more shallowly than we had been moments before. Our brain picks this message up and sends multiple messages to the body through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to prepare it for “fight or flight”, as if a bear or tiger is coming our way. This could happen over and over again during the day depending on how many perceived stressors we are reacting to – like impending or overdue deadlines, something someone said in a meeting or over-judging how you looked in the mirror this morning.
Whether the situation is actually life-threatening or not, the hormonal release is the same. This means it is possible to experience intense physical symptoms at the mere thought of something stressful. Our bodies and minds were not meant for as many ‘stressors’ as we are reacting to nowadays. These reactions take a toll on both our bodies and mind and may lead to certain acute and/or chronic illnesses and diseases.
Our physical health can take a toll on our mental health in so many ways as well. For instance, if we are in pain, injured, diagnosed with an illness or experiencing negative responses to aging, we may become depressed and anxious due to perceived or real limitations this is placing on our lives, either short or long term.
What are some signs and symptoms of mental overload? How can this overload be reduced?
We experience mental overload when we are juggling too many perceived stressors and don’t allow for enough recovery, resulting in such symptoms as:
- Feeling too tired or too wired, and we are unable to sleep.
- Staying in a flight or fight mode – ready to pounce or run.
- Taking comments personally, becoming defensive and emotional.
- Feelings of irritability, unfairness or frustration.
- Making unhealthy food choices.
- Diminishing confidence.
- Feeling pressured and unappreciated.
- Being consumed with work after hours.
- Experiencing brain scramble/”monkey mind”/”butterfly brain.”
- Having tense or braced muscles, which can develop into additional physical symptoms.
- Immune system taxed, which can lead to frequent colds and other illnesses.
- Experiencing shallow breathing.
- Stopping exercising due to perceived lack of time and low energy.
- Difficulty concentrating/impaired attention.
- Creativity and openness remain low.
- “Over-caring” – getting close to burnout.
We all experience some of these symptoms resulting from overload or stress at different times in our lives. Distress, which is what we usually call stress, is a non-specific response to a demanding or threatening event. It's a state of mental and emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. We know what distress feels like —it is a concept that is entrenched in our everyday lives and personal vocabularies. It's everywhere and is not going to go away. In fact, we wouldn’t want it to go away completely — stress is what gets us out of bed in the morning.
There is a term called “eustress,” which is the positive stress that we experience. Eustress can lead to being more focused and being in flow. It provides the energy and motivation to help us get up in the morning.
Many positive coping strategies are available to reduce overload. First, allowing yourself to take a pause and gain awareness of yourself to assess what is and what isn’t working for your own life is key to reducing stress/mental overload. Self-care must be at the top of our priority list.
Tips for Taking Care of Our Mental and Physical Health
Be sure to assess yourself and make appropriate self-care changes focused on:
- Overall expenditure of energy and recovery.
- Quality and quantity of sleep.
- Quality, quantity and frequency of fuel and hydration.
- Connecting with others.
- Movement and body language.
- Where and to whom you are spending your energy and attention.
- Kindness and grace toward ourselves and others.