We’ve all had moments of extreme anxiousness. It can happen over losing a job, a big move or starting at a new school. You know it’s bad when you start feeling knots in your stomach. Anxiety is a common mental health issue that impacts our physical health, but it’s not the only one.
Any mental health issue can also affect your physical health, and the reverse is also true. Poor physical health can impact your mental health in various ways.
What’s the difference between mental and physical health?
The answer to this question may seem obvious, but there’s more to it than mind versus body. For example, there’s the question of whether there even should be a distinction.
The concept of separating mental illness from physical illness originated at the end of the 18th century. Around this time, the first private mental asylums were built and the phrase “mental illness” became widely used. This is also around the time the stigma surrounding mental health began. Those private mental asylums were sometimes called lunatic asylums or “looney bins.” Unfortunately, this stigma has stuck around for centuries, but we’re finally starting to work through it with education and understanding.
We still make the distinction between mental health and physical health today. But the distinction can sometimes lack clarity, especially when mental health disorders cause physical symptoms and vice versa.
However, for the sake of clarification, let’s review some of the differences:
Mental health: In order to be diagnosed with a mental health condition, you would need an evaluation from a mental health professional. This is the main method of diagnosis. Mental health issues include depression, anxiety, grief and loss, ADHD, autism, stress, anger, addiction, trauma, sexuality, and self-esteem issues.
Physical health: When you have a physical health issue, it can typically be diagnosed through a series of physical tests, including bloodwork, magnetic imaging, and x-rays. Physical health issues include things like cancer, heart conditions, obesity, diabetes, IBS, and chronic pain.
Combination issues: There is an area of overlap where mental health issues can bring on physical symptoms and vice versa. For example, a physical issue like cancer can cause mental symptoms like anxiety, stress, and depression. A mental disorder like anxiety can cause physical symptoms like heart palpitations and gastrointestinal issues.
Can stress cause physical health problems?
Stress can cause many physical health problems in the long and short-term. Short-term health problems caused by stress include headache, racing heartbeat, back pain, hyperventilation, nausea, stiff neck and shoulders, and diarrhea.
Stress is the body’s natural reaction to fear or danger. You may have heard of this response referred to as the fight or flight reaction. This reaction is designed to keep us safe from immediate stress, such as a tree falling in our direction or a boulder that’s headed our way.
Your mind recognizes the danger and sends messages throughout the body. Adrenaline surges and your heart rate quickens. Now, you’re better equipped to think and act quickly. This system works well for acute stress.
Long-term, or chronic, stress is a different story. Still, your mind and body react in the same way. Your mind recognizes the stress as danger. It sends messages throughout the body to equip you to handle the stress. Your body does not differentiate between chronic and acute stress. You remain on high alert at all times. This is what leads to long-term physical health problems.
Over time, stress can diminish your immune system and make you more prone to developing heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcers and skin problems like acne and psoriasis.
How does poor physical health affect mental health?
There are four main ways that physical health can impact your mental health.
- Pain and limitations – Extreme pain or physical limitations can weigh on a person’s mind. Thoughts of being different and/or less capable than others can lead to major depression and anxiety. If you’ve never had to deal with extreme physical issues, think about something minor. Even something as small as a stuffy nose can change your life outlook in that moment. It’s not enough to cause mental health issues, of course, but you can see how something minor may impact your mind and attitude.
- Nutritional deficiencies – Severe nutritional deficiencies can have an impact on your mental health. Some nutrients are more important for the mind-body connection than others. For example, deficiencies in the following nutrients may cause depression:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin C
- B vitamins
- Genetics – Scientists have identified certain genes that are associated with mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder. A person with these genes isn’t guaranteed to suffer from a mental disorder, but they may be more likely.
- Addiction – Using an addictive substance is a physical act that will have mental health consequences. By nature, addictive substances alter your brain chemistry. Over time, your brain and body become reliant on the substance and cannot function properly without it. When we think about addiction, we typically turn to substances like alcohol and drugs like cocaine. These are common addictions, but they aren’t the only dangers. Sugar addiction can also alter brain chemistry. In fact, sugar increases dopamine levels much in the way a drug would. Even technology addiction may impact your mental health. One small study indicates that boys who spend a lot of time on their smartphones have higher brain levels of GABA. GABA slows neurons and results in poorer attention spans and control.
Is mental health as important as physical health?
Mental health and physical health are so interconnected that it’s virtually impossible to discuss one without the other. Because of this, it would be difficult to place a higher importance on one over the other. If you were to let your physical health decline, your mental health would suffer. On the other hand, if you had a mental health issue, it would eventually manifest in physical symptoms.
The takeaway for everyone is to take care of your body as a whole instead of focusing on one over the other. This is the only way to remain holistically healthy and happy.