You’ve probably heard the old adage that you can die from a broken heart. But is that actually true?
The short answer is yes (though unlikely). The truth is, there is a connection between mental health and physical health.
Your whole health includes the physical, mental and social aspects of your life. And when you really think about it, it’s no surprise that our mental and physical health are connected. In fact, research suggests that the two are so closely linked that they can even directly affect one another. For example, depression can increase your risk for diabetes, heart disease, or stroke. And chronic conditions (like cancer or heart disease) can increase your risk of developing a mental health condition.
So, does this mean if you take action to improve your physical health, you can positively influence your mental health? Or vice-versa? Possibly.
Keep reading to learn more about a few of the common connections between mental and physical health symptoms.
Overlapping mental and physical health connections
Many physical and mental health conditions cause similar symptoms to occur — think changes in your eating habits, alcohol use, decreased energy levels, or even physical aches and pains.
Having two overlapping conditions (or diseases), whether mental, physical, or one of each is often referred to as a comorbidity.
Research shows specific physical conditions are more likely to have comorbid mental health conditions. Some examples include:
Diabetes: People with diabetes are 2-3 times more likely to be diagnosed with depression and 20% more likely to experience anxiety than those without diabetes.
Chronic respiratory diseases: People with conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchitis, or asthma are more likely to report symptoms of depression — depression is the second most common self-reported comorbidity among people living with COPD.
Psoriasis: The risk of depression, anxiety, or developing a sleep disorder is higher for those with psoriasis than those without.
While many mind-body connections are established between overlapping conditions, this does not mean that if you have a physical health condition, you will experience a co-existing mental condition. Often, you can control comorbid conditions by making healthy lifestyle choices and remaining conscious of your daily habits.
Side effects from psychiatric medication that affect physical health
Some of the connections between mental health and physical health can come as a side effect of medications or treatment.
Some medications used to treat mental health conditions can have physical side effects. For example, the most commonly reported side effects of antidepressants include four physical changes: nausea, weight gain, diarrhea, and changes to your sleep cycle.
For antipsychotic medications, you might experience physical symptoms such as low blood pressure or a low number of white blood cells (which help prevent infection). The mind-body connection is so strong that someone taking an atypical antipsychotic medication also often has their weight, glucose, and lipid levels regularly monitored by a doctor.
Likewise, some medications used to treat physical health conditions can cause psychological side effects. It’s important to talk to your doctor about any physical or mental side effects you may be experiencing from medication, whether they seem common or not.
How genetic conditions can affect mental and physical health
Both physical and mental health conditions can be hereditary. Your family’s health history (especially your immediate family) can help determine your risk of a genetic health condition.
Common examples of physical health conditions that may be hereditary include heart disease, asthma, diabetes, some types of cancer, and single-gene disorders like cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia.
In addition, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “many psychiatric disorders tend to run in families, suggesting potential genetic roots.” Some genetic disorders can include:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Major depression
In addition, if you lived — or are living — with someone with a mental health condition, you may have experienced toxic stress. Although not a genetic condition, the CDC says that toxic stress can “change brain development and affect how the body responds to stress.”
It’s important to remember that just because someone in your immediate family has a mental or physical health condition does not mean you are destined to develop symptoms, too. If you are concerned about your genetic or environmental predisposition to a mental or physical health condition, talk to your doctor or licensed mental health professional.
Traumatic experiences and environment
While it’s true that our health is a reflection of our lifestyle choices, behaviors, and genes, it’s also true that our health as adults is significantly impacted by our past, especially our childhood.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are stressful or potentially traumatic events in childhood (0-17 years). ACEs can affect anyone, regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or location.
In 1995, the CDC-Kaiser ACE study released a landmark investigation exploring the relationship between early adversity and its impacts on adult health outcomes. The study revealed major findings, including:
- ACEs are extremely common. 64% of Americans have experienced at least one ACE, and 13% have experienced four or more.
- As the number of ACEs increases for any individual, so does the risk for negative physical and mental health outcomes.
While having ACEs can influence a child’s long-term health, ACEs do not guarantee negative outcomes in life. Protective factors, like having an important adult figure in life, can buffer children from the negative influences of ACEs.
Examining your own mind-body connection
In the past, doctors treated diseases without considering the mental health components. But now, we understand that mental and physical health are related. And because mental and physical health are so closely connected (and often cannot be separated), treating and managing some of the most common chronic conditions includes changing our behaviors.
Research shows that the more healthy lifestyle choices you can make, the more likely you are to experience higher life satisfaction and lower psychological distress. Some examples of healthy lifestyle changes include:
- Incorporating more physical activity and exercise into your routine
- Engaging in mentally-stimulating or social activities
- Having moderate or no alcohol consumption
- Abstaining from tobacco
- Keeping a regular weight for your body
- Developing a schedule or routine
Change takes time, so don’t feel like you have to make a lot of these changes all at once. Incorporating just one of these healthy lifestyle habits can go a long way for your overall well-being.
Taking care of your whole health through therapy
Along with participating in healthy lifestyle habits, going to therapy when you’re experiencing a mental health concern or to simply stay on track with your mental health can help ensure you’re doing the most you can for your whole well-being.
This goes back to that mind-body connection. Just like how taking care of your physical health can positively impact your mental health, taking care of your mental health can help you feel physically better, too.
Physical health symptoms caused by emotional distress are called somatic symptoms. You’ve likely experienced somatic symptoms before — a racing heart when you’re afraid, or butterflies or pains in your stomach when you’re nervous. But when negative and stressful emotions are unmanaged, somatic symptoms can become more frequent and severe, and can cause body pains, stomach aches, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, memory problems, weakness, trouble breathing, and more.
When you prioritize your mental health, you’re not only helping to prevent or better manage a chronic condition, but you’re also less likely to experience somatic symptoms.
That’s why going to therapy and seeking mental health support when you’re experiencing a mental health issue is so important to not just your emotional and mental well-being, but your overall health.
You’re not alone
If you have a mental or physical condition, it’s important to acknowledge your mind-body connection and pay close attention to both your mental and physical health. Talk to your therapist and doctor about all of your symptoms — mental and physical. This will help ensure you’re getting the whole-person support you need. If you aren’t currently seeing a therapist but think it could help support your whole health, SonderMind can help connect you with a therapist who’s right for your needs.
If you or someone you know is in a crisis now, call 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also find free resources here.