How your mental health can affect your physical health
Most patients who go to see a primary care doctor are concerned about improving their physical health. They want to live a long life free of chronic health problems that may cause pain, limit their activities, or cause complications that could land them in the hospital. There are many factors that impact our physical health- genetics, environmental exposures, economic resources, and behaviors. However, one large factor in physical health that patients often ignore is mental health.
Mental health and physical health are completely intertwined. The fact that we often separate them in our discussions about health is inherently flawed and reflects the stigma in our society when it comes to mental health conditions. We cannot truly make an impact on a person's long term physical health without also addressing mental health. Unfortunately, we often see a pattern in which patients are specifically neglecting or harming their mental health in order to try to improve their physical health. These habits are often well-meaning and come from the plethora of inaccurate information that is spread by the media, on the internet, and on social media platforms. Common examples are: restrictive or disordered eating patterns, exercising excessively or in a rigid pattern, restricting social contacts to allow more time for exercise or due to rigid eating patterns, using or abusing substances that advertise health benefits and/or increase energy for work or exercise, and sleeping less to allow more time for work and/or exercise.
Common physical health impacts of poor mental health, psychological stress, or trauma include:
Increased risk of autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
Influence immune system function which can affect response to illness or cancer
Digestive dysfunction such as upset stomach, nausea, appetite changes, constipation, diarrhea, and other symptoms
Cardiovascular symptoms such as dizziness, palpitations, chest pain, and difficulty breathing
Other physical symptoms such as headache, joint, and muscle pain
Less likely to follow healthy habits such as eating regular, balanced meals and exercising regularly which can increase the risk of health problems when there is a genetic or environmental predisposition
More likely to smoke, drink alcohol, or use other drugs which can cause health problems
Chronic health problems can also contribute to mental health problems due to the prolonged stress on the body and mind of the person suffering from these conditions. It is much easier to cope with and manage the physical symptoms of a chronic health condition when mental health is well-cared for.
Many physical symptoms that lead patients to seek care from a physician are related at least in part to mental health. This does not mean the symptoms are not real or are "in your head, but this speaks to the tight connection between our mind and body. Testing to look for a cause of these symptoms is often negative which is frustrating for patients seeking answers. The best approach to any physical health problem is to keep in mind mental health and well-being when creating a treatment plan. This will look different for each patient but should include following a trauma-informed approach to care, emphasizing self-care and stress management, and possibly mental health treatment through therapy and/or medication.
If you are struggling with your mental health or physical symptoms you have not found an answer for- we can help! Dr. Berens approaches primary care from a holistic perspective that is trauma-informed and integrates management of physical and mental health symptoms. We are currently accepting new patients- visit our website to learn more about becoming a patient.