The link between physical and mental health

The link between physical and mental health

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Understanding the relationship between body and mind

The connection between physical and mental health is a complex one and achieving balance is not always an easy feat. Valion Health’s Clinical Psychologist Rebecca Van Lloy talks to us about this complicated relationship, and how changes in your mental health can affect your physical health (and vice versa).


Linking body and mind

How our mind and body respond to illness and the links between them is an intricate subject. While we know things like stress, uncertainty, pain or the challenges that come with health conditions often contribute to a change in mental wellbeing, Rebecca says there’s growing evidence that shows it extends far beyond that.

“The link between long COVID and brain changes leading to the development of depression and anxiety are being investigated; a study funded by Diabetes UK and reported in The Guardian found that depression can play a direct role in the development of type 2 diabetes; and the connection between mental health and gut health is mounting,” she says.

But what about physical symptoms that don’t have an underlying physical cause? Rebecca says that this can be even more difficult to understand.


Understanding mental health

Rebecca says it’s helpful to realise that mental health is a continuum and it’s perfectly normal for people to experience ebbs and flows in their ‘headspace’ as they go about daily life. It’s also important to understand that good mental health is more than simply not feeling stressed or the absence of a mental health diagnosis. The World Health Organization says that mental health is a state of mental wellbeing that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realise their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.


Physical symptoms of mental health

Rebecca says that sometimes the stigma attached to mental health means people look for a solution to physical symptoms first before considering their mental health.

“When blood tests or health screenings don’t give answers to a person experiencing chronic pain or neurological symptoms, they may feel like people don’t believe them or even start questioning whether their physical symptoms are real.

“But we know that these physical symptoms are very real and that they can severely impact a person’s quality of life. Unravelling the complex links between mental and physical health is now a key focus of how we think about and approach mental health,” she says.

Rebecca says there are a range of physical symptoms that may be linked to mental health, including:

  • headaches
  • low blood pressure
  • body aches
  • muscle weakness
  • persistent fatigue
  • digestive problems
  • brain fog
  • waking feeling unrefreshed
  • an increase or decrease in appetite and/or sudden weight changes.


The impact of stress

While we know that strategies to improve mental health usually result in feeling better physically and vice versa, it can be difficult for people to recognise this relationship, especially if they’re used to experiencing ‘good’ mental health or there’s no obvious triggering event or cause.

Rebecca says the relationship between physical health and mental health often starts with the impact of hidden stress.

“It’s important to stay tuned in to what’s going on with your physical health as it can be a useful indicator of a change or decline in your mental health before you even realise you’ve shifted from ‘thriving’ to ‘surviving’.

“Good mental health means you can deal with stress and remain focused, flexible and productive in challenging times as well as good ones. It influences how you think, feel and act. When you have good mental health, you don’t need to rely on salt and sugar to manage low energy, you don’t need to binge watch TV to recover from a stressful day, retreat from others to cope, or have that glass of wine instead of going for a short walk at the end of your day,” says Rebecca.


Supporting mental and physical health

Good mental health makes it easier to maintain a balanced lifestyle and engage in ‘healthy’ behaviours, but how can you achieve this if you’re already struggling or operating in survival mode?
Rebecca says unsurprisingly the best ways of supporting mental health to improve physical health and vice versa, are to stay connected, sleep well and eat well.

“There’s a lot of research linking the relationship between our diet, immune activation and our mental health, and there are clear links between what we eat and how we feel,” she says.

Regular physical activity (or even just gentle movement) is also vital in preventing, treating and helping you recover from of a range of illnesses, and researchers are calling for exercise to be one of the main go-tos for managing depression. But while we all know this stuff works, Rebecca says it can sometimes feel impossibly hard to make the right choices, especially when life gets busy.


Start small

Rebecca says that it can be tricky for people who are struggling with fatigue, low energy, loss of motivation or feelings of anxiety to make the changes they know are good for them. And it’s no surprise that problems with motivation and decision-making can also feel overwhelming for people struggling with stress, anxiety and depression.

“The basics seem impossible, and people may experience a cycle of indecision and guilt as they struggle to get the day started or get caught up ‘should-ing’ themselves all day – ‘I should go for a walk, I should call my doctor’.

“People sometimes need a lot of support and encouragement to make these kinds of changes. Overcoming the mental hurdle of getting started can be a genuine obstacle.” she says.

Rebecca says taking small, sustainable steps is the most effective way to overcome the mountain in the mind.

“Start small and be consistent. We tend to think about exercise or activity as big actions, like walking for 30 or 40 minutes or catching up with a friend for an hour. But maintaining the smallest level of activity to keep moving and stay connected, whether it be a 5-minute walk or a 5-minute phone call, is fine,” she says.


Reach out

If you notice you don’t feel like yourself and you suspect your mental health could be impacting your physical health, the best place to start is with your doctor. Your GP can rule out any other reasons for your physical symptoms and discuss ways to support your mental health. It might be starting with a formal referral for exercise or a psychologist, or a social prescription to an activity or group in your local area that helps you get moving and stay connected.

If you know someone who is struggling with their mental health and want to check in on them, Rebecca says it’s helpful to:

  • Avoid giving advice – instead of saying ‘you should go for a walk, it might make you feel better’, it might be more helpful to say ‘feel like going to the park and sitting in the sun with me for 15 minutes?’
  • Validate physical and mental symptoms – it’s important to acknowledge how difficult it can be to achieve even simple activities. Try saying ‘I know you have no energy to go out right now so how about I come over with a healthy lunch and we hang out for half an hour’.

If you’re struggling with your mental health and aren’t sure where to turn for support, read more about navigating mental health support.

And don’t forget to check your Extras cover for benefits towards things like psychology, exercise physiology and support from a dietitian. Our Healthy Lifestyle benefit can also help with the cost of some weight management programs, healthy eating and lifestyle programs, gym memberships and more!


Written by Valion Health.


Valion Health supports eligible Nurses & Midwives Health members through the Cancer Support Program.