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Physical and mental health - How are they connected?

Anna Mills
Counselling Psychologist
Perth, Western Australia

Most people understand the importance of physical health. Almost daily we hear messages in the media informing us of the value of exercise and healthy diet in improving or maintaining our physical health. We accept this to be true, and to varying degrees and at different times in our lives we make significant efforts to improve or maintain our physical health.

Many people recognise that our mental health is also important to our wellbeing. However the reasons for this importance is sometimes less obvious.

What is mental health?

Good mental health is a sense of well-being, confidence and self-esteem. It enables us to fully enjoy and appreciate other people, day-to-day life and our environment. When we are mentally healthy we can form positive relationships, use our abilities to reach our potential, and deal with life's challenges.

What is poor mental health and mental illness?

Poor mental health is similar to mental illness, but symptoms are experienced to a lesser extent. Mental illness is diagnosed according to a recognised set of criteria, and significantly affects how a person thinks, behaves and interacts with other people. A mental illness or a mental health problem may be diagnosed by a doctor or a psychologist. Mental health problems may result in depressive or anxious symptoms, difficulty managing emotions, disruptive or negative thought patterns, low self-esteem and problems of confidence, problems socialising or difficulty in relationships, self harming or suicidal thoughts or actions.

What are the causes of poor mental health?

Sometimes poor mental health or mental illness can be caused by a combination of factors. These may include:

  • genetic factors where there may be a family history of mental health problems
  • biological or medical factors where there may be chronic illness
  • lifestyle factors such as diet, physical exercise, drug and alcohol use and living environment
  • the experience of chronic or acute stress episodes including trauma or loss of a loved one
  • developmental trauma including being a witness to or experiencing violence or abuse. This may be of a physical, emotional or sexual nature during infancy, childhood and/or adolescence
  • patterns of constant self-defeating, pessimistic or negative self-talk

Each person's situation is different and every person will have their own unique responses. While some people may suffer terribly from exposure to mental health risk factors, others may be able to manage adequately. Suffering from poor mental health is not a sign of weakness.

How then is poor mental health or mental illness connected to physical health?

Organisations like Beyond Blue, discuss the importance of good physical health, in improving and maintaining mental health. This is supported by a well established evidence base showing that good physical health supports good mental health. The reverse also being true, that poor physical health is a contributor to poor mental health.

Beyond Blue explains how exercise is thought to block negative thoughts or distract people from daily worries, as well as alter levels of chemicals in the brain including serotonin and endorphins causing positive feelings. A nutritious diet is considered to assist healthy brain functioning, and good sleep patterns improve concentration, energy levels and assists in faster recovery from illness.

It is also true that poor mental health can contribute to an increased risk of developing physical illnesses. Research has shown that these illnesses can include hypertension, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal problems, and obesity.

An example of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), demonstrates the connection between poor mental health and the effects on physical health. It has been shown that trauma resulting in PTSD is closely connected to a range of physical health problems.

After the experience of a trauma, the patterns of brain functioning are altered and the brain responds more sensitively to particular stress triggers, sometimes resulting in PTSD. This occurs more frequently when the trauma is chronic (repeated and ongoing), but can also happen when there is a one off traumatic event. After the trauma experience, repeated cycles of stress on the autonomic nervous system are carried in the body causing wear and tear, and ultimately there is a physical effect on the body.

Hypertension, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal problems and obesity have all been found to be more common in groups who have experienced trauma, in particular chronic trauma.

Poor mental health can contribute to poor physical health, and poor physical health can contribute to poor mental health. While medical investigation is always directed in the first instance for medical symptoms, sometimes psychological or mental health matters may be at the root of the problem.

What can be done to improve or maintain good mental health and physical health?

There are many things you can do to improve and maintain your mental and physical health, including:

  • Eat a healthy, well balanced diet
  • Get regular exercise throughout the week
  • Get enough sleep so that you feel refreshed when you wake
  • Spend time with those friends and family who value and care about you
  • Take time to pay attention to how you are feeling and what you might need
  • Make time for a hobby or other activity that you enjoy
  • Set goals that are realistic and achievable
  • Know that you are not alone, there is someone who can support you even if it seems they are hard to find
  • See a psychologist, counsellor or GP for support

Conclusion

In truth your body's physical health can not be separated from your mental health. Each one affects the other in complex ways.

Symptoms of poor mental health can be disruptive to a person's daily life and limit potential and place stress on relationships. Paying attention to mental health and making efforts to maintain and improve mental health can not only benefit people psychologically and in their relationships with others, it can also support good physical health.

There are many things that can be done to support good mental health, including both physical and psychological approaches. Seeing a psychologist is a good way to address mental health concerns. A psychologist can assist in increasing awareness of mental health symptoms and how they may be related to physical concerns, the possible causes of mental health problems, and support healthy ways to improve mental health outcomes.

If you would like to make an appointment please contact Anna Mills by telephone or email.

References
Beyond Blue fact shhets, www.beyondblue.org.au
McFarlane, A. C. The long-term costs of traumatic stress: intertwined physical and psychological consequences, World of Psychiatry journal, February 2010
Government of Western Australia, Mental Health Commission website.



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