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How does mental health affect physical health?

Learn how they’re connected, and how what’s good for one is often good for the other

Young African American man sitting on yoga mat and meditating in yoga studio

As public awareness of mental health concerns, such as depression and anxiety, increases, the stigma around taking care of your mental health decreases, according to the World Health Organization. And that’s good news because there’s also a well-established link between mental health challenges and physical illness.

Below, we explore the connection between your mental and physical health. Find out how you can improve your mental health — a noble goal on its own, and one that can help you also live a physically healthier life.

In this article:

The mind-body connection

Exercising and eating well are proven ways to reduce the risks of chronic diseases such as diabetes. But obviously, living a healthy life doesn’t stop there. Taking care of your mental health should also be high on the list of priorities.

Our mental and physical health are closely linked. Some might even say that your mental health is physical health because some mental health disorder symptoms often manifest physiologically. (And our brains are part of our bodies, after all.) That is, feeling mentally and emotionally low could signal that your body isn’t getting what it needs to thrive — whether that’s nutrition, exercise, or both.

For example, a lack of exercise can hinder endorphin receptors, the brain’s components that release “feel-good” chemicals that relieve pain. This can cause symptoms of conditions like major depression, diabetes, and heart disease to become more severe.

Conversely, physical health problems can also contribute to or worsen mental health issues. Taking care of your mental health and reducing stress doesn’t only help you feel happier. It can actually reduce disease symptoms and vice versa.

The impact of stress on physical health

Sometimes, stress is the culprit behind your headaches, muscle pain, stomach discomfort, or sleep problems. Your physical health pays the price when you experience too much stress without managing it.

How chronic stress leads to physical symptoms

Unchecked stress adversely touches just about every bodily system — from chronic musculoskeletal pain to shortness of breath to high blood pressure and even digestive disorders. Your body reacts to stress in negative physical ways if you don’t take steps to maintain or control it.

When faced with a challenging situation like a tough work project or a personal crisis, your body responds by releasing a powerful duo of stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones kick-start your “fight-or-flight” response, revving up your heart rate, blood pressure, and energy levels. In the short term, this physiological reaction is quite beneficial. However, chronic stress exposes your body to a prolonged onslaught of stress hormones, which takes a toll on your well-being.

The effects of stress mirror those of other long-term medical conditions, further cementing the connection between our physical and mental health. For instance, chronic stress can affect our immune responses, making it more challenging to fend off harmful pathogens. This, in turn, increases the risk of infections and can hinder your body’s ability to heal.

Additionally, your body’s stress response can wreak havoc on the digestive system, which can be particularly troublesome if you already grapple with digestive issues like GERD or lactose intolerance.

Stress management techniques for better physical health

Mental health and physical health go hand in hand. If you’re struggling with mental or physical illness, know you don’t need to suffer in silence. There are many ways to start reducing stress and feeling better today.

Remember that finding the right stress management techniques may take some experimentation, and choosing techniques that resonate with you is important. Integrating these practices into your daily routine can help fight stress, improve overall physical health, and enhance your well-being. Paying attention to risk factors like a sedentary lifestyle will make you one step closer to a happier, healthier life.

Depression and its physical consequences

If you’ve dealt with depression, you know firsthand that feelings of fatigue and emptiness are characteristic of the disease — and it isn’t hard to understand how untreated depression leads to poorer overall health.

If you’re depressed, you might feel like every day is a struggle. Depression can make existing painful symptoms feel worse. Even simple tasks feel overwhelming. This ongoing fatigue interferes with daily functioning and contributes to a reduced quality of life and emotional health.

Depression is also linked to an increased risk of heart disease, which may be connected to both increases in chronic pain symptoms and lower motivation to exercise.

Anxiety disorders and their impact on the body

Unmanaged anxiety is a debilitating disease, so it’s exceptionally frustrating to learn that prolonged anxiety can worsen pain and stress.

Respiratory symptoms are common in people with anxiety disorders. Anxiety can cause rapid, shallow breathing or hyperventilation, leading to shortness of breath, dizziness, and a sensation of chest tightness. Over time, stress on the respiratory system can make breathing more difficult, leading to a wide range of physical problems.

Sleep and its connection to physical and mental health

The occasional sleepless night likely won’t have negative effects on your health. But, consistent sleep problems interfere with your abilities to think, learn, and process emotions.

The role of mental health in sleep quality

The connection between mental health and sleep is a two-way street. It’s important to recognize that mental health issues can have a detrimental effect on sleep, while at the same time, poor sleep can worsen existing mental health conditions.

Conditions like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can potentially disrupt our normal sleep patterns. It makes sense that tossing and turning or waking up in the middle of the night can disrupt sleep and make it more difficult to feel well-rested. However, mental health can also make falling asleep harder, robbing the body of the chance to heal overnight.

How poor sleep can impact both mental and physical health

If you’ve ever felt yourself lash out at a coworker or loved one after a sleepless night, you aren’t alone. The effects of sleep deprivation on our mental well-being are profound.

A normal sleep cycle consists of different sleep stages, each of which plays an important role in brain health. A consistently disrupted sleep cycle hinders your brain’s proper activity during each stage. You may notice difficulties with thinking and learning. It becomes much harder for you to process memories, thoughts, and emotions — and your mental health suffers as a result.

Poor sleep health can harm your physical health, too, by raising your blood pressure and destabilizing the balance of certain hormones related to cardiovascular health. It’s also linked to metabolic disruptions, which can be especially concerning for anyone with weight-related problems. Give yourself the energy to fight mental and physical stressors with at least 8 hours of sleep a night.

Improving mental health to enhance physical well-being

You can turn things around in your favor, and it’s OK to do it in small steps first. If you have difficulty managing feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression, seek help from a medical professional or therapist. A doctor or professional therapist can help you find what works for you to improve both health aspects.

The role that Haven Life Plus can play

If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, you might struggle to make time for important long-term tasks like getting financial protection for your loved ones by taking out a life insurance policy. The good news: With Haven Life, applying for (and, if approved, managing) a term life insurance policy can be done easily, and entirely online. We also offer affordable rates so you can get the coverage you need.

As a bonus, eligible Haven Term policyholders enjoy access to Haven Life Plus, a bonus rider that offers no- and low-cost access to a suite of services you can use while you’re still alive. These include a no-cost subscription to the fitness app Aaptiv, which features workouts and mindful meditations that can help you with your mental and physical health.

Start your journey by getting a free life insurance quote today.

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About Sarah Horvath

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Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

Haven Life is not authorized to give tax, legal or investment advice. This material is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or investment advice. Individuals are encouraged to seed advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

Our disclosures

Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (DTC and ICC17DTC in certain states, including NC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111-0001 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. In NY, Haven Term is DTC-NY 1017. In CA, Haven Term is DTC-CA 042017. Haven Term Simplified is a Simplified Issue Term Life Insurance Policy (ICC19PCM-SI 0819 in certain states, including NC) issued by the C.M. Life Insurance Company, Enfield, CT 06082. Policy and rider form numbers and features may vary by state and may not be available in all states. Our Agency license number in California is OK71922 and in Arkansas 100139527.

MassMutual is rated by A.M. Best Company as A++ (Superior; Top category of 15). The rating is as of Aril 1, 2020 and is subject to change. MassMutual has received different ratings from other rating agencies.

Haven Life Plus (Plus) is the marketing name for the Plus rider, which is included as part of the Haven Term policy and offers access to additional services and benefits at no cost or at a discount. The rider is not available in every state and is subject to change at any time. Neither Haven Life nor MassMutual are responsible for the provision of the benefits and services made accessible under the Plus Rider, which are provided by third party vendors (partners). For more information about Haven Life Plus, please visit: https://havenlife.com/plus

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