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The intrinsic connection between physical and mental health

What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word “health”?

Exercise? Diets? Cardio? Salad?

Usually the word health inspires us to think about something to do with our physical bodies. However, our body and mind are not as separate as they may seem. It’s imperative to remember that our mental health is just as important to maintain for a happy and healthy life.

It’s no secret that mental health has far less of a stigma around it than it used to, but there is still so much to learn, to unlearn, and to discuss. One of the biggest discoveries coming out of the health field today are just how intrinsically our physical and our mental health are connected and affect each other.

The World Health Organization gives us this definition of health. “…A state of complete physical, mental, and social well being … not merely the absence of disease… There is no health without mental health.”

This is what the CDC says about mental health: “emotional, psychological and social well being affects how we think, feel and act. It determines how we handle stress, relate to others and make healthy choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life…”

Let’s take a peek at some astounding discoveries involving physical and mental health:

  1. More than 50% of the population will be diagnosed with a mental illness within their lifetime.

  2. 1 in 5 people experience some form of mental health issues every year (this statistic also includes children)

  3. 1 in 25 people live with serious mental illnesses such as major depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

But what does this have to do with physical health? The truth is, poor mental health has been discovered to be a risk factor for chronic physical conditions. Not only are those with serious mental health struggles at a higher risk of experiencing preventable chronic physical conditions, but those with chronic physical conditions are at much higher risk of developing mental illnesses or mental health struggles.

DEPRESSION: those with depression have a higher likelihood of having diabetes, athsma, cancer, heart disease, even arthritis. They also have a higher likelihood of having a stroke compared to those without depression.

SCHIZOPHRENIA: those diagnosed with schitzophrenia have a higher risk of developing heart and respiratory diseases.

PTSD can increase the risk of heart disease.

ANXIETY is linked to insomnia, restlessness and has been seen to literally change the psychology of ones digestive tract, changing the way it functions and intensifying pain and discomfort.

Those who struggle with mental health are likelier to suffer from sleep disorders like insomnia or sleep apnea. In fact, 50-80% of people with mental health conditions have sleep problems while only 10% of the populations that do have sleep disorders don’t also have mental health struggles.

On the other side of the coin, 1 in 3 people with long term or chronic physical health conditions have mental health issues as well.

CANCER ‘s mortality rate is signifcantly higher among those with anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses.

Even PSORIASIS, a dermatological condition, is linked to anxiety and depression.

There are a few theories about WHY our physical and mental health are connected.

  1. Genetics. New studies are suggesting that the very same genes linked to developing mental health conditions may also be linked to physical health conditions.

  2. Motivation: Mental illnesses can make it much harder to make one care about themselves. This can present as having no energy to take a shower, to move or eat responsibly, as well as making it difficult to impossible to maintain doctor’s appointments

  3. Misdiagnosing mental vs physical conditions. Those with mental illnesses are less likely to receive routine checks (blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, etc) that could help detect physical issues. Not just because of the higher odds of missed or even never scheduled doctor’s appointments, but also because the symptoms sound strictly mind related vs. physical.

There’s another common denominator between physical and mental health. STRESS. It’s truly amazing what stress is capable of doing to our bodies and mind.

  1. 33% of the US population report being under extreme stress

  2. 77% of that population says it affects their physical health, while 73% says that it affects their mental health.

  3. 48% of the population report stress as their main cause of sleep struggles.

  4. Stress is the #1 health concern of high schoolers and is now recognized as a national health crisis for children and adults alike.

  5. At least ½ of Americans say their stress levels are only getting worse.

Stress is a physical and mental response to an external cause/trigger. This external threat causes us to respond in a fight/flight manner. Our senses and emotions are heightened. We struggle sleeping. Our appetites begin to slow, and adrenaline and noradrenaline are pumped into our body in larger amounts. Our body begins to send less blood flow to our skin and digestive tract. Cortisol is released in higher amounts in our body which releases extra fat and sugars into our system for an energy boost.

All of these things are super helpful for when we are running for our life, fighting for survival, etc. but is incredibly damaging for us to live constantly in during our daily life.

Stress is estimated to cost employers 300 billion dollars a year in health care and lost work days. Up to 80% of workplace accidents are stress related (think exhaustion or distraction/inability to focus)

Stress is linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and anxiety.

Long term stress is an oft occurring contributor in many of the leading causes of death in the US: heart disease, cancer, lung disease, cirrhosis of the liver, accidents and sluice. It can also lead to substance abuse, binge eating, smoking, drinking - all of these things hurt our physical body.

What are some ways we can combat stress and improve our physical and mental health?

SLEEP: I’m the worst at getting enough sleep, but it’s so important. Creating bedtime routines that involve getting off of our phones for an hour before sleep, incorporating meditation, stretching or even hot teas and listening to sleep-inspiring playlists or white noise can all aid in better sleep.

HYDRATION & NUTRITION: our body can’t function at its best when it is dehydrated or not getting the necessary protein, fats, complex carbs and fiber. Getting a new water bottle to inspire hydrating better and even tracking our food to make sure we are getting a rounded nutrition can help.

RELAXING: meditation, yoga & breathwork all aid in stress relief. Whether that’s incorporating stretching into your daily routine or downloading free meditation apps on your phone, there’s something for everyone at our fingertips.

EXERCISE: We are supposed to get 75-150 minutes of exercise a week. But even a 10 minute walk has been shown to boost our mood, energy and mental clarity. Physical activity is described as: “movement of your body that uses your muscles, expends your energy, raises your heart rate, speeds up your breath and makes you feel warmer.

For some, exercise is one of the hardest things to nail down. Reword the mental narrative from something you have to do, and hate. Find something you enjoy doing, and consider it just as important as medication, sleep, food, water, and doctor’s appointments.

So what are some barriers that keep us from doing this? I’m not going to be that person throwing around bandaid buzzwords and catch phrases over concerns and roadblocks. Instead, let me offer some suggestions.

PHYSICAL LIMITATIONS: we can’t all throw ourselves into CrossFit, burpees, and marathons. But what about walking a little more? Find low impact classes that help you move your body. We have an almost 90 year old woman that comes to Empower several days a week. She shows up and does everything she can, and doesn’t beat herself up about the things she can’t.

MOTIVATION: eventually motivation wears away and we must rely on discipline. But what are ways to inspire motivation? Workout with a friend, take group classes where your absence will be noticed, or start a text or facebook group for accountability. Pay for a membership at a gym or studio that will move you to want to get your money’s worth.

FINANCES: while health should never be monetized, it is. Reach out to gyms and studios to see if they offer sliding scale options that fit your income. There are a myriad of free workouts on YouTube, instagram, and Pinterest.

TIME: this one isn’t as easily fixed. Sometimes we just have to try to shift that perspective of exercise being as important to your health as doctor, dentist and dermatologist appointments. We have to learn how to feel less guilty saying “no” to others who demand so much of our time and saying “yes” to yourself more often.

BODY IMAGE: we might not be comfortable allowing others to see us as we try new things. At home workouts or private classes are a great alternative.

Exercise can be anything that gets you moving. Swimming, walking, tennis, yoga. Find something you love and it is so much easier to maintain.

More than anything, be patient. There are no quick fixes. Start slow. Be kind. And let EVERYTHING YOU DO BE MOTIVATED BY LOVE.

Self love, self care … they’re never selfish.

Everyone deserves physical and mental health.

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