Mental health professionals and researchers have been saying it all along; a healthier mind leads to a healthier body and vice versa. Yet many of us fail to grasp the magnitude of this concept, or at best underestimate it to amount to a simple headache or shoulder strain after a difficult day at work. However, mental health and resiliency have been proven to not just affect the way your body feels on a daily basis, but also how your body fights against viruses, responds to injury, recovers from injury, and even how long you live.
For example, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, adults with a serious mental illness, like schizophrenia, die about 25 years earlier than the general population. They are also 3 times more likely to die of heart disease or diabetes, 4 times more likely to die in an accident, 5 times more likely to die of respiratory ailments, and close to 7 times more likely to die of pneumonia or the flu.
Some reasons for these results seem obvious, for example, people who suffer from severe mental illness are less likely to exercise and eat a healthy diet, and they are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol excessively, and consume other substances. They are also more likely to allow their healthcare to fall to the backburner and less likely to make routine medical appointment and fallow medical advice.
However, the connection between mental and physical health may go well beyond these obvious behavioral connections. Research is increasingly pointing to the mind-body connection which sugests that although an emotional or mental state may not cause a disease state, it can accelerate it’s progression, exacerbated it’s symptoms, and make your body’s immune system less able to fight the disease.
A person’s attitudes and beliefs may also play a key role. For example, ill patients who report feeling lonely, isolated, or shamed by their condition are more likely to die sooner than people with the same condition who report more positive attitudes and beliefs about the illness and themselves. Other researchers at the NIH have found that people who hold negative attitudes about aging are more likely to die of heart attacks and strokes than those who hold more positive attitudes, regardless of shared physical and cardiovascular risk factors. Lastly, a recent study conducted by the American Heath Association has found that people with an optimistic outlook were less likely to develop coronary heat disease and less likely to die of any cause during the 8 year course of their study.
So, with these findings in mind, below is a list of things you can do to improve your mental and physical health:
- Exercise regularly. Not only does this have positive effects on your physical health, but regular exercise also has mood-boosting properties, which in turn improve your overall health.
- Meditate. Research shows that people who routinely meditate develop physical and structural changes in their brain that help them better cope with problems and stress, and that improve concentration, problem-solving skills, and emotional resiliency.
- Develop and nurture friendships. Research shows that people who have several close relationships (friendships as well as a romantic partner), have higher levels of life-satisfaction and coping mechanisms, and lead healthier, longer lives.
- Practice gratitude. Spend a few moments each day concentrating on the things in your life you are grateful for. So often we concentrate on what is wrong or missing in our lives, but spending some time thinking about what is working shifts our lens of perception and helps place problems and difficulties in a different perspective.
- Seek support. This could come from a close friend, a partner, mentor, or religious leader. Research shows that people who are more willing to acknowledge when then need support and actually reach out for it are quicker to overcome their struggles.
- Speak to a mental health professional. Get past the idea that psychotherapy is only for “crazy” people and understand that most people can benefit from the support and objective perspective of a professional. Remember, even a small shift in symptoms of depression or anxiety can trigger massive changes in other areas of your life and can vastly improve you physical health.