Mental Health is Critical to Physical Health

Mental health and physical healthIt’s incredible that while obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are recognized as ‘silent killers’ by the majority of people – emotional and psychological problems are considered to be simply the consequences of personal or moral weakness.

But, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Unfortunately, as long as society views mental illness in all of its manifestations as being the sufferer’s fault, rather than a genuine health issue that can have negative physical consequences; there’ll be too few resources devoted to this (sometimes fatal) health problem.

Consider this:

  • Emergency rooms are rarely equipped to handle mental health emergencies
  • Mental illness is still considered a sign of emotional or moral weakness
  • The majority of health insurance covers mental health as separate from standard care

What is Good Mental Health?

If you’re able to go through your day easily able to work or study to your full potential, while coping with daily life stresses, stay involved in your community, and experience life in a satisfying way; then you’re experiencing good mental health.

You enjoy good emotional and social well-being and have the capacity to deal with the changes and challenges that affect your life.

While stressful experiences like the death of a loved one or the loss of a job will upset you – being mentally healthy means that you can get through these shocks and move on with life.

The secret of good mental health is maintaining a balance between all the things that affect you; your social status, physical health, economic security, emotional state, and even your spiritual beliefs.

Mental Illness is Epidemic among US Adults

Mental Illness is Epidemic among US AdultsAccording to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH); nearly 20% of US adults or 43 million people are affected by mental disorders of one kind or another. This number doesn’t consider the number of children who also deal with the negative health impacts of mental illness.

If this many people suffered from the flu simultaneously– it would be considered front page news.

Health Effects of Poor Mental Health

When you experience mental health issues, the effect on your physical health can be insidious (elevated stress hormones, poor diet choices) or immediate (self-harm), expressed in many physical symptoms and severe illnesses.

Heart Disease

Changes in mental state and persistent moods can seriously affect the cardiovascular system by creating a constant state of emergency preparedness (the fight or flight reflex).

In this state, the body’s stress hormone levels increase causing blood vessels to constrict and the heartbeat to accelerate.

According to research published in the September 2015 issue of Global Heart; when an individual is deeply depressed or persistently anxious, this constant emergency response can damage the tissues within blood vessels and also makes the heart insensitive to normal signals telling it to slow down or speed up as physical demands change.

This combination of factors is how mental illness can ultimately result in potentially fatal cardiovascular disease. Mental illness should be considered as a much a risk factor for heart disease as diet, smoking, and family history.

Mental Illness and Cancer

A recent study conducted in Maryland has shown that adults suffering schizophrenia or bipolar disorder can have a more than doubled risk for cancer, especially lung cancer.

This study is the latest added to a rapidly growing body of research suggesting that there is a significantly higher risk of cancer in people with a severe mental illness.

There are many theories about what precisely causes the increased incidence of cancer in the mentally ill – but, besides the effect that emotional distress can have on the immune system; coping mechanisms such as drinking alcohol and smoking most likely contribute to many of the cancers recorded in this study.


The mechanism by which mental problems like depression can cause diabetes is well understood.

For many people, food is a way to cope with emotional discomfort, feelings of inadequacy or is merely another expression of addictive behavior. The damage caused to your body’s metabolic processes by high sugar and fat intake can be irreparable.

Early treatment of the underlying emotional issues or mental disorder that causes addictive eating behavior could prevent millions of new cases of diabetes every year.

Having diabetes can also cause mental illness.

According to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association among the ailments that can accompany diabetes; mental-health problems are often overlooked, even though mental health issues can prevent effective self-management, increasing the risk for complications such as:

  • Blindness
  • Amputation
  • Strokes
  • Heart attack
  • Dementia

Without treating the whole person; doctors can’t ensure the best outcomes from the diets and drugs they prescribe to control diabetes.


This is the most serious way that poor mental health will affect your physical health.

Depression and emotional distress can easily push someone to life-ending action. Forty-thousand Americans end their lives by suicide every year, and this number doesn’t reflect the uncounted people who made their deaths appear to be by accident or misadventure.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US.

Facts about Suicide in the US:

  • For every successful suicide, there was an average of 25 attempts
  • Men die by suicide more than three times as often as women
  • White males constituted 70% of suicides in 2015
  • The suicide rate is highest in the middle-aged

If mental health was taken as seriously as physical disease, many of these people could have been saved (and their families spared emotional suffering as well).

What to Do?

how to improve mental healthYou don’t have to wait for society as a whole, or medical professionals in particular, to recognize that our mental health is as vital to our well-being as our physical health. There are changes you can make now that will maintain and even improve your mental health.


If you don’t get regular exercise – you’re not doing the one thing that’s guaranteed to relieve stress, reduce your stress levels, and build up the physical and mental resiliency that helps keep emotional problems from becoming overwhelming. Physical exertion even increases our levels of norepinephrine; a hormone that moderates the brain’s response to stress!

Research demonstrates that people who do aerobic exercises, such as

  • Jogging and walking
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Even gardening, and dancing

All experience reduced levels of anxiety and depression. Among the reasons why aerobic activity helps your mental state, the best bet is that the exercise-related increase in blood circulation creates a positive effect on brain chemistry.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation originates in Buddhist practices and is simply the act of focusing on the moment without concerning yourself with what’s to come (or even what has been).

Researchers from Harvard at Massachusetts General Hospital discovered that two months of regular mindfulness meditation practice made significant changes in the brain’s gray matter. Tests showed strong evidence for improved memory, empathy levels, sense of self, and meaningful stress relief.

Take an Active Role in Your Mental and Physical Health

If you want to optimize your health to avoid serious illness and live a more satisfying life – you need to take responsibility for both your physical and mental well-being.

If you don’t do so already; start a fitness program that includes brain-healthy aerobic exercise. Instead of rushing for a quick drink or sugary snack at the end of the day to relieve stress – give mindfulness meditation a try and learn to control stress from within yourself.

By learning to strengthen your physical and emotional health through personal effort, you’ll reap the benefits of improved resilience in the face of life’s challenges and occasional disappointments.

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George Citroner

GW Citroner is a Hudson Valley, NY based writer whose work has appeared in over 20 publications and on an incredible range of Health & Wellness topics.

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