The Mind-Body Connection

Debra Lobato-Barrera, PhD

May is “Mental Health Awareness” month, a time to reflect on the importance of our thoughts, emotions, and behavior. It is an opportunity to help focus efforts on promoting early detection and effective treatment for people whose lives are challenged by mental and behavioral disorders.

Mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, are very common. In the U.S., one in five people experience some form of mental illness. The World Health Organization reports that depression alone is the leading cause of disability worldwide and is a leading contributor to hospitalization in the U.S.

People with mental health problems have a greater risk of physical illnesses. Similarly, people with chronic medical conditions are more likely to experience mental health problems than people who are physically healthy. When chronic medical conditions and mental illnesses occur at the same time, care becomes more complicated for everyone.

The good news is that through effective mental health treatments and lifestyle behavior changes, patients can make a positive change in their overall well-being. So, in the spirit of Mental Health Awareness, let us examine the close connection between our mental and physical health.

The mind-body connection

Mental health is essential to our overall well-being. Researchers believe that mental health and many forms of mental illness are the result of a complex interaction of genetics, environment, and experience.

Stress is a normal part of life that we all feel from time to time. It can come in response to an illness or trauma, a significant change in life circumstances like changing jobs, or in response to the overwhelming pressures of daily events and responsibilities.

When an event triggers stress, the body responds with increases in blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, blood sugar, and blood flow to the muscles. At the same time, other chemicals are released. These can affect our digestive and immune systems.

The body’s reactions to stressful situations can be quite helpful if it is a way to rapidly respond to a danger, like jumping out of the way of a moving car. But if those same stimuli or stress responses last a long time and become “chronic,” it can place continued strain on the body. This can lead to serious health problems involving almost every part of the body, including the gut, heart, brain, and immune system.

Responding to stress

How you respond to stress, and the changes in your body that result from it, can have a big impact on your overall well-being. For example, if you respond to stress or a depressed mood by increasing alcohol or tobacco use, eating more junk foods, or experiencing sleep problems or relationship trouble, more health complications will arise.

On the other hand, healthy lifestyle changes can improve mental health. They can also help prevent the worsening of chronic health problems, such as diabetes or heart disease. Scientific evidence has shown that positive social relationships are tied to more beneficial outcomes. Both the quality and number of your relationships and social connections can impact your immune system function, inflammation in the body, and the progression of chronic conditions, such as heart disease and cancer.

In addition to your social relationships, research has demonstrated that symptoms of stress, depression, and anxiety can be significantly relieved by changes in health-related attitudes and behavior. Even a small positive healthy change in diet, physical activity, and sleep can go a long way toward improving mental and physical health.

Make some changes

You can reduce your stress and improve your health by making even small changes:

  • You are what you eat. Food can help or hurt your body, your brain, and your mental health. Try to eat a diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and fish. Avoid highly processed foods like refined sugars and flour, which are associated with obesity and inflammation.
  • Get up and move! Increasing your physical activity, even a little, can improve mood, digestion, and sleep.
  • Never underestimate the power of quality sleep. Sleep helps the body cleanse itself and restore energy at the most basic cellular level. Since many mental disorders interfere with sleep, getting professional help to improve sleep may be an effective way of improving your health.
  • Stay connected to people who provide emotional and other support. People who stay connected to friends and family generally have fewer illnesses, recover from them more quickly, and live longer than those who are isolated or alone.

Make changes last

Attempting these lifestyle changes on your own can be a challenge. If you are feeling overwhelmed, are using alcohol or drugs to cope, or simply want support to improve mental, social, and physical functioning, seek help from a qualified professional. Look for an evaluation with a professional who understands the connections between mental and physical health.

While effective treatment is available, sadly, about 50 to 60 percent of adults with mental health conditions do not receive treatment. This may be related to the lingering stigma regarding mental illness or the challenges of trying to find high quality mental health services.

We understand this. That is why we have created the Adult Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Access Center. Our sole purpose is to help patients identify and connect with the most appropriate psychiatric and behavioral health services available within our system.

With one phone call to our access center at (401) 606-0606, we have made it easy to get in touch with our team of knowledgeable, compassionate professionals. They can offer the help you or your loved one needs in diagnosing and treating the full range of mental health, behavioral health, and substance use disorders.

Fortunately, there are effective treatments for mental and behavioral health disorders. Since no two people are alike, there is not a one-size-fits all approach to treatment. But with an approach tailored to fit each person’s needs, all patients can expect to benefit from mental health treatment on their journey to overall well-being.

Learn more about the conditions we treat and how we can help you.

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