How our physical health affects our mental health

By Jessica Tett

I’ve written before about healthy eating and doing a bit of exercise, and how both can make us feel better. This time I’m here for how our physical health affects our mental health – or is that the other way round, is it how our mental health affects our physical health? Once I started thinking about this, I ended up tying myself in quite a few knots – until I realised that actually, they really can’t be untangled: “Health is a state of complete mental, social and physical well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” (World Health Organization, 1948) and statistically, it’s worth remembering that ‘Poor physical health can lead to an increased risk of developing mental health problems. Similarly, poor mental health can negatively impact on physical health, leading to an increased risk of some conditions.’

This is quite a live issue for me at the moment as I was off work for a few days recently with a pretty horrible stomach bug. As well as the pain, the back and forth to the toilet and the exhaustion, I started feeling emotional, really low and also quite anxious. This feeling reminded me of my fairly distant youth when I’d occasionally get hangovers that would leave me full of what I think young people now call ‘The Fear’ – paralysing anxiety that lasts as long as the headache and stomach queasiness. I think this was all the alcohol from the night before not only affecting my stomach and head, but also my feelings. For me, my physical health is tied up with my mental health – and vice versa. Any kind of physical illness can leave me feeling alone, weak and worried for the future. My mind seems to want to spend the hours lying suffering in bed going over all the mistakes I’ve ever made, so I’m in mental as well as physical pain. Knowing that this connection between feeling physically low and then mentally low is reassuring: with time, both will pass. Ideally, I will notice this litany of mistakes passing through my brain, and let them float away.

Whatever’s going on with our mental health can affect us physically: when we’re anxious, we can often feel that anxiety somewhere in our bodies. I hold most of my anxiety in my stomach, others get headaches or shoulder pain. There is evidence that chronic stress can disrupt the bacteria in our guts and lead to inflammation in the intestine – this might be why conditions like IBS get worse when we’re stressed. Equally, having a gut problem is embarrassing and worrying – of course we’re going to feel stressed if we never know when we’re next going to urgently need a toilet! The same studies suggest that taking better care of our gut bacteria as well as addressing our stress can help break this cycle. I haven’t done anything for my poor gut bacteria, but I have noticed that if I’ve got stomach pain from anxiety, and I have the time to rub my stomach – just nice gentle circles – this eases the pain and also the anxiety.

The Buddha probably got it right when he said, “To keep the body in good health is a duty…otherwise we shall not be able to keep the mind strong and clear.” Because I’m someone who hated PE, never does any sports unless forced and is quite childishly ‘anti’ exercise, my immediate response to this is ‘Ugh, I can’t be bothered, why can’t I just sit about all day enjoying myself instead?’ It takes something of an effort to get back into my ‘adult’ head and instead think ‘Yes, that is true, when I feel physically energetic and strong, I also feel happier and more positive.’ And force myself to unroll the yoga mat and load up another Yoga with Adriene video. And if I’m still feeling under the weather after that, then I turn to the Irish proverb: “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.”

I wonder what’s come to your mind as you’ve read this: maybe it’s reminded you of how your mental health suffered when your physical health suffered, or of how physically you do so much worse when your mental health isn’t great. Are you someone who sees your body and mind as two separate things, or are you very aware of how the two are connected and know just where you’ll feel that emotional pain in your physical body? What do you do to keep in balance? I’d love to know how you take care of your physical body when your emotions are all over the place – I know that’s my biggest challenge – just when I really need the yoga is exactly when I really don’t want to do it at all!

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