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Which came first: The chicken or the egg? We may never agree on the answer, but we can agree that chickens and eggs are connected.
The same is true about the connection between mental wellness and physical wellness. No one can say, with certainty, whether physical wellness encourages mental wellness — or vice versa.
But this is for certain: More and more evidence shows an intricate connection between physical and emotional health.
For people who want to become healthier in 2023, this is great news. It means we have ways to improve both kinds of health simultaneously.
This article will share general information about mental wellness, but it’s not a diagnostic tool. Please make an appointment with a mental health care specialist if you’re concerned about your mental health. And if you’re thinking about suicide, dial 988 right now.
First, some background on the mental-physical connection in healthcare
As recently as a few decades ago, doctors treated physical and mental health as separate categories. This approach mirrored an overall trend toward specialization in the medical profession.
Health care is still specialized. Today, medical school graduates can enter more than 160 specialties, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges.
Specializing gives healthcare providers, in the collective, a more thorough understanding of the human condition. However, specialized medicine, by its nature, tends to lose sight of the bigger picture — of the way all the specialties work together in each individual patient.
Over the past few decades, the medical profession has grown more aware of this potential for a limited perspective. As a result, we’ve seen more research exploring how our bodily systems are interconnected with each other and with our environment.
For example, studies are showing an intricate interconnectedness between our emotional health and our physical health. Knowing about the ways physical and mental health interact can make treatment more effective.
How and why are physical and mental wellness connected?
The relation between mental and physical wellness is not a simple cause-and-effect equation. For instance, we can’t isolate a single, specific action and expect a specific and consistent result.
In reality, mental wellness and physical wellness interact in multi-faceted, intricate ways. These two aspects of health intermingle the way ingredients mix in a recipe. We can see how this plays out in several areas:
Overlapping risk factors
Mental health conditions like anxiety disorders and depression are common risk factors for a variety of chronic physical health conditions. Likewise, physical injuries and illnesses are common risk factors for depression and anxiety disorders.
This doesn’t necessarily mean depression and anxiety cause physical health problems or vice versa. But mental health and physical health conditions wouldn’t co-exist in patients without a close relationship between the two.
In fact, when you get a mental health evaluation, your counselor will probably ask about your physical health conditions. A general practitioner should ask about your mental health during a routine physical exam, too.
The placebo effect
Clinical trials for new medical treatments often give placebos to a percentage of their trial subjects. Placebos aren’t medicine at all, but the trial participants don’t know that. They think they’re getting treatment.
And people who receive a placebo can experience some of the effects of the medication. In these cases, the idea of the medicine is enough to create an effect.
The placebo effect exists because of a strong connection between emotional and physical health.
The gut-brain connection
Anyone who’s ever felt nauseous before a job interview already knows about the connection between their digestive system and their emotions. After all, the phrase “gut-wrenching experience” came from somewhere, right?
Now, medical science is exploring this connection and finding some interesting facts, especially about how what we eat affects our mental health. In short, eating real food — nuts, whole grain fiber, lean meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables — instead of processed foods seems to be good for our brains.
Recent research is exploring the way tiny bacteria in our intestines affect our moods. Some researchers think gut bacteria imbalances are a factor in depression.
The exercise bridge between physical and mental wellness
Exercise is one of the most explicit connections between mental and physical wellness. In fact, some mental health care providers recommend exercise as a treatment for anxiety and depression.
In short, moving around releases endorphins that improve our mood. Exercise also promotes social encounters and tends to get us outside — all of which are also good for mental health.
Physical exercise also reduces the likelihood of having physical health problems that can, in turn, become risk factors for mental health conditions.
Improving mental and physical wellness simultaneously
You don’t have to understand the nuances of the mental health / physical health connection to take advantage of it. Just know that working on your physical health can have a positive effect on your mental health. The opposite is true, too.
Eating real food instead of processed food, exercising, getting more connected socially, getting more sleep, spending time with a hobby — take your pick: it can all help our bodies and our minds.
The key is to get started somewhere. Try to turn one health improvement into a habit. One improvement can lead to another which leads to another. Like our emotions and our physical health, our health improvements can be interrelated, too.
Frequently asked questions about mental and physical wellness
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about the link between physical and mental wellness.
Can working out help me feel less depressed and/or anxious?
Yes. A regular exercise routine can help reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety, but this advice applies only generally. If you’re suffering from anxiety or depression, you’ll need a treatment plan that’s customized for your specific experience. Meet with a mental health care provider near you or find a qualified therapist online.
Can my depression or anxiety impact my physical body?
Yes. Depression and anxiety are known risk factors for a variety of physical health conditions. This correlation plays out in different ways for different people. Only a physician or mental health care specialist can provide a diagnosis and treatment for your unique condition.
What are the similarities between physical illness and mental illness?
Physical illnesses and mental illnesses are very similar. In both cases, a bodily system is not working properly and requires treatment from a qualified healthcare provider.
The journey to better health can start with a conversation
We’re fortunate to live in a society with medical specialists who can diagnose and help treat health problems. When it comes to mental wellness, treatment often starts with a conversation.
If you live in the Greensboro and High Point area, Mental Health Associates of the Triad can provide a safe place to start the conversation about improving your mental health.
Our staff knows how mental and physical wellness relate to each other. But our specialists also go beyond offering general advice. They can help you find the exact kind of care you need for your unique challenges.
If you live somewhere else, look for a licensed therapist in your community, or ask your primary care physician for a recommendation.
Once again, if you’re struggling with a mental health crisis right now, immediate help is available.
Reviewed by Karen Rudd, LMFT, LCAS