Butterflies in the stomach. Sweaty palms. A racing heartbeat. A shaky voice.
These are just a few well-documented cases of how stress or anxiety (aka your mental health) can bring on real physical symptoms. After all, we’ve all experienced these kinds of nerves before a big presentation or an important date. But what happens to the body when these “nerves” turn into longer bouts of anxiety and depression?
The short answer: It can have a serious impact on your health.
And what if you struggle with a chronic illness, like diabetes, high blood pressure, or even cancer? That can impact your mental health.
The good news — understanding this mind-body connection can help you take charge of your whole health — mental, physical and emotional. Even better, there are steps you can take to reduce your stress and improve your health.
Let’s dive in.
How mental and physical health influence each other
Researchers have been studying the connection between mental and physical health for years. They’ve asked the big questions, like “How does our mental health affect our health?” and “Does a chronic condition put you at higher risk of a mental illness?”
Here are just a few interesting findings:
- Depression may cause a wide range of physical symptoms and health conditions, including memory trouble, an increased risk of heart attack and heart disease, and weight gain and loss.
- Anxiety can bring physical symptoms like dizziness and sweating and also lead to long-term health issues, such as gastrointestinal trouble, high blood pressure, eczema and other skin conditions.
- Mental health can also impact the immune system. Researchers found that individuals who express prolonged periods of stress may have a weaker immune system, ultimately making it easier to come down with illnesses like the common cold or strep throat.
- Individuals with chronic conditions are also at higher risk of developing depression or anxiety, according to research from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Boost your mental and physical health
When it comes to staying mentally and physically strong, it comes down to the basics. Most of these tips won’t surprise you, but they are great ways to keep your body in tiptop shape and your mind (and emotions) feeling sharp.
Get moving. Exercise has countless physical and mental health benefits. A quick 30-minute walk (or even less) around the neighborhood can help strengthen your heart, lungs and muscles; and boost your mood with a rush of “feel-good” chemicals like endorphins.
Rest up. A good night’s sleep connects to a stronger immune system and reduced stress — among many other benefits. Adults should aim for seven or more hours of sleep.
Focus on friendships. Your social health is an important part of your physical and mental health. Spending time with friends and loved ones can influence health behaviors and even mortality risk. What better excuse to call up a friend and meet them for a cup of coffee or (even better) a walk around a nearby park?
Eat right. Sure, it can be tempting to reach for that delicious (but not-so-nutritious) snack of potato chips or candy bar. But, noshing on some fresh fruit and veggies will help your body and brain feel stronger than ever. Vitamins and minerals, like B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and probiotics, may help manage symptoms of depression and anxiety and support important body functions like the immune system, brain function and bone strength.
Ask for help when you need it
It can be hard to admit you’re struggling with your mental health. Just remember, you are not alone. The National Alliance on Mental Health Institute (NAMI) estimates that 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience mental illness. Another organization (Mental Health America) found that more than of adults living with mental illness, including anxiety or depression, don’t seek treatment.
There’s no shame in getting help to better manage your mood, emotions and mental health. There are proven approaches to help you cope with feelings of anxiety, depression and fear, including therapy, medication and more.
If you’ve been struggling with your mental or physical health — or both — your primary care doctor or a mental health professional can help. Schedule an appointment and, together, find ways to improve your overall health and wellness so you can feel your best.