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Your physical and mental health are intricately connected

| Healthy You | Mental Health

Doctor speaks in exam room with a patient

For overall good health, give equal attention to both.

Sometimes people talk about mental health and physical health as if the two were separate.

They’re not.

In fact, mental and physical health are intricately connected.

“Nothing about the human body is purely physical or mental. What affects you physically can also affect you mentally and vice versa,” said Roberto Cruz Barahona, MD, a psychiatrist at PeaceHealth in Springfield, Oregon.

Dr. Cruz also specializes in consultation-liaison psychiatry, which deeply explores the relationship between mental and physical aspects of illness. (The specialty was formerly known as psychosomatic medicine, based on the Greek psykhē for "mind" + sōmatikos, from sōma for "body.")

Mind-body connection history

Hippocrates was the first physician who acknowledged this mind-body connection. Since then, experts have been learning much about the inter-related nature of these components.

“Your thoughts and emotions start in your physical brain, but you have receptors located throughout your body which explains why you will feel them in your gut or somewhere else in your system,” said Dr. Cruz.

Butterflies in the stomach when you’re nervous. Shortness of breath when you’re scared. Tightness in your neck or back when you’re feeling under pressure.

These are just a few examples of observable symptoms that might show up because of something that’s going on inside your mind.

Often, symptoms like these come and go, depending on the circumstances you’re in. During an uncomfortable situation, you might feel the emotions in your body. And when the situation is over or after you’ve had time to relax or recover, your body will feel back to normal.

At other times, stressful thinking or intense emotions—especially those due to traumatic experiences—can build up inside. That’s when some people might see an illness develop or feel an existing condition get worse.

Relatable examples

For example, it’s not unusual for some people who are under mental or physical stress to develop headaches, cold sores and acne outbreaks. Often when you feel high levels of stress, your immune system takes a dip, which makes you more susceptible to getting sick.

People with conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Crohn’s Disease can also feel a flare up when they are feeling anxious, said Dr. Cruz.

Several conditions can be triggered by psychological factors, he said. That’s why seeking care from a healthcare provider is a good step to counteract any potential declines or setbacks.

Treating the whole patient

Physicians may use a “biopsychosocial” approach to explore a patient’s health challenges. This includes the current and historic biology (e.g., physical, genetic, immunity, medication), psychology (e.g., personality, memory, emotional, coping, trauma) and social environment (e.g., family background, cultural traditions, education). All three areas can influence someone’s health and well-being.

“As doctors, we want to understand the whole patient—not just parts,” noted Dr. Cruz. “We will always seek to rule out a medical or organic cause for a person’s symptoms.” If no physical reason for a symptom can be found, we will look into possible psychological causes.

Ignoring mental or emotional health won’t make things better. In fact, expecting a psychological injury to just go away on its own can make things worse.

The body speaks for the mind

“The human body will find ways to express trauma or other unresolved emotional pain,” he said, “In my experience, patients do better if they don’t try to deny a psychic problem. The longer someone tries unhealthy means of coping such as drugs or alcohol to numb or deaden their pain, the more the pattern is set and the longer it can take them to get back to good health—mental and physical.”

“The pandemic has made people more aware of the importance of taking care of their emotional and mental health,” said Dr. Cruz. “People tend to take better care of their physical health. The best advice is to pay equal attention to your mental health as you do to your physical health.”

Following are recommendations that are good for you physically and mentally:

  • Eat a healthy diet. Good-for-you foods such as fiber, fruits, vegetables and lean protein can help lead to better gut health and give you more energy throughout the day.
  • Don’t drink too much alcohol. Consuming too much alcohol on a regular basis can lead to increased levels of depression and anxiety, poor liver function, and uncontrolled weight gain.
  • Exercise regularly to reduce stress. Increased stress levels can lead to heart disease and stroke.

Here are a few things you can do to care specifically for your mental health:

  • Write your thoughts. Sometimes getting them out of your head helps you feel free.
  • Name your feelings. Labeling a feeling can sometimes help you overcome it.
  • Talk with a friend. Knowing you’re not alone can be a lift your spirits and theirs.
  • Read uplifting material. Books can help you relax and see things anew.
  • Meditate. Take a few minutes each day to sit quietly and focus on breathing.
  • Pray. Some people find great comfort in fostering a faith connection.
  • Listen to or play music. Soothing or upbeat music can feed one’s soul.
  • Cry. Having a good cry, on occasion, can release pent-up emotions.
  • Laugh. Research backs up the idea of using laughter to let go of stress.

If you are concerned about your mental health, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or a PeaceHealth mental health professional.