UC Health: how mental health impacts physical health

Americans continue to experience higher levels of stress due to the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mental wellness can impact the ability to have optimal physical health. How do the two interrelate and what are some helpful tips to achieve better mental and physical health? Barbara Walker, PhD, UC Health psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at UC College of Medicine, provides answers to common questions about this topic.  

Barbara Walker

What is mental health and why is it important to one’s overall health?

Mental health encompasses our emotional, psychological and social well-being. Our mental health is equally important to physical health in that it drives and affects the way we perceive, think, feel and manage life.

How does mental health affect one’s physical health, and vice versa? 

We are whole beings – our bodies and minds are connected and are constantly communicating with each other. For instance, as soon as we have a negative or anxious thought in our mind, our perception of a potential threat or stressor – we unconsciously begin to contract muscle fibers in our body and start breathing more shallowly than we had been moments before. Our brain picks this message up from our body and sends multiple messages to the body through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to prepare it for “fight or flight.” Our bodies and minds were not meant for as many ‘stressors’ as we are reacting to nowadays. Our reactions to these stressors take a toll on various bodily systems over time and may lead to certain acute and/or chronic illnesses and diseases.Our physical health can take a toll on our mental health in so many ways as well. For instance, if we are in pain, injured or diagnosed with an illness, we may become depressed due to limitations this is placing on our lives either short or long term.  

Are athletes more vulnerable to mental health issues? Why?

Absolutely – athletes are human and have all the same propensities for mental health challenges as all people do. They experience pressure and also place a great deal of pressure on themselves to perform excellently with consistency to make teams, maintain positions, gain rankings, maintain salaries, etc.  The good news is that more athletes are acknowledging their past and current struggles with their own mental health. This is allowing others to have a better understanding of these issues, and also giving a voice for others to be more open about their own issues. Ultimately, the result is that hopefully more people will seek help.  

What are some signs and symptoms of mental overload? How can this overload be reduced?

  • Experiencing too many stressors, with not enough recovery: feeling too tired or too wired, and we are unable to sleep
  • Staying in a flight or fight mode – ready to pounce or run
  • Taking comments personally, become defensive and emotional
  • Feelings of irritability, unfairness or frustration
  • Making unhealthy food choices
  • Diminishing of confidence
  • Feeling pressured and unappreciated
  • Being consumed with work after hours
  • Experiencing brain scramble
  • Having tense or braced muscles, which can develop into additional physical symptoms
  • Immune system taxed, which can lead to frequent colds and other illnesses
  • Experiencing shallow breathing
  • Stopping exercising due to perceived lack of time and low energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Creativity and openness remain low
  • “Over caring” – getting close to burnout

There are many positive coping strategies for overload to be reduced. One allowing themselves to take a pause and gain awareness of themselves to assess what is and what isn’t working for their lives is key to reducing stress/mental overload.  

What are tips to help us take care of our mental and physical health?

Be sure to assess and make appropriate self-care changes to:

  • Overall expenditure of energy and recovery
  • Quality and quantity of sleep
  • Quality, quantity, and frequency of fuel and hydration
  • Connecting with others
  • Movement and body language
  • Where and to whom you are spending your energy and attention
  • Breathing
  • Kindness and grace toward self and others

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