The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” In other words, being healthy is more than simply “not being sick.” If you want to live a truly healthy life, you’ve got to focus on your mental health as well as your physical health.
The good news is that mental and physical health don’t exist on totally different playing fields. In fact, they’re very closely related. And while we hear a lot about the positive impact physical health (e.g. diet and exercise) can have on your mental health, we don’t always think about the effect of mental health on physical health. But your mental health can benefit and even protect your physical health in real and powerful ways.
Mental health and physical health
How exactly can your mental health protect your physical health? Here are some of the most notable ways.
Mental health leads to a physically healthy lifestyle.
When most people are feeling down, they reach for the carrot and celery sticks before heading out for a quick jog to clear their mind…right?
I mean, maybe that is true for a small handful of people, but I know that for me, it’s much more common that a bad day makes me want to inhale a bag of Doritos while vegging out in front of the TV. The fact is, the less mentally healthy we feel, the less likely we are to take care of ourselves physically.
Taken to the extreme, this could lead to behaviors that are more dangerous than Doritos and Netflix, like alcohol or drug abuse. When our brains are trying to block out negative feelings, they’re more likely to turn to anything that works, no matter how temporary (or harmful) the “fix” is.
In contrast, when we feel mentally healthy and strong, and more in control of our lives, we’re more likely to make choices that will benefit our physical health. We’re more likely to get good sleep, eat nourishing foods, stick to an exercise routine, and so on.
Mentally healthy people care about their health.
Similarly, mentally healthy people are more likely to actively care for their physical health. They’ll take vitamins and medications, visit the doctor regularly, pay special attention to any warning signs that might signal physical distress, and take steps to address those warning signs.
People who are struggling with mental health may feel anxiety about making or keeping appointments, talking to their doctor about potential issues, or experiencing side effects from medications. Those suffering from depression may struggle to find the motivation to set appointments, or to treat certain conditions. Overall, a mental health challenge can be a big hurdle to getting your body the physical care it needs to function optimally.
Mental health leads to stronger relationships
Relationships are extremely beneficial to your physical health. Strong, loving, committed relationships benefit your life in more ways than one. And mental health can lead to those beneficial relationships.
Mental health problems are common among adults (some estimates suggest that nearly half of all adults will experience some sort of serious mental health challenge in their lifetime), and to be clear, those challenges do not inevitably lead to the downfall of a relationship. I know plenty of couples who have wonderful, committed relationships while one or both of the parties struggles with their mental health.
That said, mental health challenges can affect relationships in negative ways. For example, it could add stress to the relationship for both parties. The person with the mental health challenges might feel shame about their condition, while the other could start to feel resentment for their partner’s struggle. Codependency (in which one partner enables the other’s problematic or addicted behavior) is another common problem. And neither of those complications addresses the effects that medications can have on mood, behavior, and physical intimacy.
Ultimately, even though mental health struggles aren’t a death sentence for your relationship, staying mentally healthy is always going to help your relationship more than it hurts it.
Mental health challenges are tied to various physical ailments.
The link between mental and physical health is more than anecdotes and common sense. There is actual data connecting mental health to physical health:
- Depression has been linked to a 50% increased risk of a person dying from cancer
- Depression has been linked to a 67% increased risk of a person dying from heart disease
- People with schizophrenia are three times more likely to die from a respiratory disease and twice as like to die from heart disease
- Optimistic people have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
- Negative emotions like anger are correlated with heart attacks
Other things like diabetes, arthritis, obesity, and asthma also have connections to mental health conditions.
Perhaps this is why mental health is correlated to longer life—because mentally healthy people are more likely to avoid potentially life-threatening conditions.
How to be more mentally healthy
Knowing that your mental health can affect everything from your relationships to the length of your life, the next question is clear: how can you improve your mental health?
We can’t ignore the reality of true mental health disorders and chemical imbalances. However, your happiness is largely within your control. It’s important to do everything you can to care for your mental health. Here are some things to try.
Bottling up your feelings is not going to lead to mental health. Keeping in feelings of stress, worry, or grief can just make those feelings worse. Allow yourself to express your feelings—both positive and negative—in safe and healthy ways. Talk with friends and family about how you’re feeling, or start seeing a therapist who will give you a safe place to get your feelings out in the open.
Introduce positive thoughts.
Do you have control over your thoughts? Absolutely! You have the ability to introduce positive thinking toward your current thoughts. Just the act of thinking differently can start you mind on a new path. This takes time. If you struggle with mental illness, it will take time and effort before you can start thinking differently.
Consider writing one or two positive thoughts to yourself and placing them on your mirror or even on the background of your phone. This way you create positive reinforcement that you experience throughout your day.
Use therapy, a coaching service, or both.
If you’re sick, you call your doctor. If you’re struggling mentally, shouldn’t you also enlist the help of a professional? There’s no shame in asking for the help you need to get your mental health back on track. A therapist can be a great way to learn to express and process your feelings. A coaching service will be more about helping you move forward in deliberate and meaningful ways. Either or both can help you on your journey toward mental health.
If you need help, get help. If you have a mental illness or suspect you might, seek a medical professional to help you. Visit PsychologyToday.com for a list of professionals in your local area. If you are feeling nervous, also reach out to a friend or loved one to encourage and support you.
(Think these services have to cost an arm and a leg? Think again! Design.org’s personalized coaching emails are absolutely free, and will help you start to design a life you love.)
Know your triggers (and how to respond to them).
Different things trigger different people in different ways. Be aware of the things that bring up negative thoughts or feelings for you. Work on responding to those triggers in healthy ways, rather than avoidance or numbing.
Mental health can have a huge impact on your physical health. As you work on improving your mental health, you’ll see the benefits ripple out to other areas of your life. A happier (and healthier) life is within reach.
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