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The relationship between mental and physical health

By Mandi Ryan, MSN, RN

A widely-believed myth surrounding mental health is that it is less important than physical health and should fall lower on our list of priorities. On the contrary, mental health is equally important to physical health.

It benefits no one to pit these two aspects of health against each other, because they are interconnected. Mental health impacts every area of your life: social life, occupational/educational, spiritual and physical. The same is true the other way around: physical health impacts your mental (and all other aspects of) health.

If you’re only focused on your physical health, your mental health will be negatively impacted, and vice versa. You must focus on the whole person and look at all areas of your life.

Mind and Body Interactions

Individuals with mental health issues can be impacted by several physical health conditions: obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes. Some medications prescribed for different mental health diagnoses can put individuals at a higher risk for these physical medical conditions.

Yet there are still subtler ways poor mental health negatively impacts physical health. When a person knows that they have a mental health condition, they may assume the way they are feeling is simply due to their mental health, even though they may have a physical ailment. A person might think that the reason they can’t get themselves out of bed is because of their depression, but in reality they could also have a thyroid condition or an abnormal blood sugar level. Beyond that, individuals with mental health conditions are often less likely to receive medical treatment for physical ailments due to a lack of providers who understand their emotional needs or lack of access.

The same is true conversely. For example, if you know you have high blood pressure, you may be unaware that you also have anxiety, which may lead to it going untreated. It is therefore always important to assess both your physical and mental health when any problems come up.

Strengthening Your Mind and Body

The same way mental health challenges can produce physical health problems, improving your mental health can improve your physical health.

Focusing on your mental health can help you develop coping skills you need. If you have anxiety or fears about going to the doctor, having those coping skills will help you take on that challenge and lead you to getting the care you need.

Strong mental health can also help you with your physical health maintenance. If your depression is so severe that you can’t get yourself out of bed, then you likely won’t be checking your blood sugar, eating correctly, limiting your salt intake or doing any other task to keep tabs on your physical health.

Conversely, taking care of your physical health improves your mental health. Getting an adequate amount of sleep will always be helpful for keeping you mentally healthy. Other helpful practices are being balanced in what you eat, moving your body, limiting alcohol and not smoking. These all notably improve your physical health, which will go on to improve your mental health.

When physical or mental health challenges arise, make sure to always assess both aspects of your health. Focus on your whole self, and you should see greater levels of improvement.

To read about other mental health myths and the truths that counteract them, click here.

Mandi Ryan, MSN, RN, is the Vice President of Healthcare Integration at Centerstone, a nonprofit health system providing mental health and substance use disorder treatments to people of all ages.

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