July 21, 2023
It’s no secret that being proactive is the best way to stay healthy. Experts recommend a dental cleaning every six months, a yearly check-up with your doctor and regular screenings for certain cancers. But when did you last assess your mental health or take steps to improve it?
It’s easy to think of mental health as separate from physical health. But mental health significantly impacts your physical health, says MU Health care psychiatrist Dr. Meelie Bordoloi. You may be feeling the effects without realizing that stress, anxiety or depression is to blame.
Physical Reactions to Mental Health Issues
Over time, poor mental health can take a toll on your body and increase your risk for chronic conditions:
- Anxiety increases the risk of arthritis, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and high blood pressure.
- Depression heightens the risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
- Stress raises your risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
But mental health doesn’t just affect your physical health “someday.” Mental health issues can immediately affect how you feel and how your body functions in many ways:
1. Increased cortisol levels
Cortisol is a hormone that regulates how your body reacts to stress — when you’re under stress, your adrenal glands release cortisol. But managing stress isn’t the only function of cortisol. It also helps to regulate:
- Blood pressure
- Blood sugar
Chronic stress increases cortisol levels and impacts all these bodily functions. “High cortisol levels can lead to weight gain, increased blood sugar, skin changes, and various medical issues,” Dr. Bordoloi says, “especially if you're not managing your stress well.”
2. Impaired executive function
People with depression often have unusually low activity in their prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain responsible for decision-making, problem-solving and working memory. These skills are collectively known as executive functions. You use these skills daily to work and learn.
Anxiety also impacts your executive function skills. It can cause you to overthink, making it hard to focus.
“These mental health issues may lead to poor work performance or failure to finish tasks,” Dr. Bordoloi says. “In children, it can manifest as defiance and not wanting to do schoolwork.”
3. Digestive distress
If you live with stress or anxiety, you might feel it in your gut. “Your gut health and mental health are closely connected,” Dr. Bordoloi says. “You need to pay attention to both.”
Your mental health influences your gut health by impacting your diet, causing inflammation and altering your hormone levels. These changes may impact the balance of bacteria in your gut, ultimately affecting how it functions.
4. Reduced energy and motivation
Chemical imbalances associated with depression can lower your desire to be active and productive. Dopamine and serotonin are “feel good” neurotransmitters that send signals throughout your body.
“When your levels of dopamine and serotonin are low, as happens with depression, you don’t have a feeling of well-being,” Dr. Bordoloi says. “That can lead to a lack of energy and interest in activities you previously enjoyed.”
Dopamine and serotonin also play an essential role in regulating your sleep. An imbalance can affect how much rest you get and how much energy you have the next day.
5. Pseudo symptoms
Stress and anxiety can cause physical symptoms that mimic the signs of severe physical disorders. These may include:
- Heart palpitations that feel like a heart attack
- Muscle spasms or paralysis when mental health issues disrupt signals from your brain
- Psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (PNES) that look like an epileptic seizure
- Sensory disruption resulting in trouble with vision, hearing, smell, touch or taste
- Trouble swallowing
“In many cases, we cannot know the true cause of the symptoms without testing,” Dr. Bordoloi says. “These are all manifestations of stress and mental health disorders.
6. Sensitivity to future stressors
A period of chronic stress can impact your body forever. Your body’s normal stress reaction adapts to meet the needs of chronic stress. So even after you remove the stress from your life and improve your mental health, your body may remain sensitive to stress triggers.
“This change may not be noticeable until the next trigger pops up,” Dr. Bordoloi says. “But when it does, your body may react strongly, even if it’s only a minor stressor.”
Children and Mental Health
There is no physical difference in how children’s and adults’ bodies react to stress and mental health issues, Dr. Bordoloi says. But when adverse childhood experiences cause extreme stress, that child’s lifelong health can be impacted.
“When a child experiences stress like that at an early age, they may develop physical ailments, such as heart failure and high cholesterol, at a younger age than someone who hasn't experienced extreme stress,” she says. “It can ultimately lead to a shortened lifespan.”
Even though the body’s physical reaction is the same, teens and children may not handle stress as well as adults.
“The frontal cortex is still not very developed, even in a teenager,” Dr. Bordoloi says. “When exposed to stress as an adult, you have more maturity and better decision-making capacity. You’ll react differently than a child without experience dealing with stress.”
Strategies for Managing Mental Health
Keeping yourself mentally healthy often involves proactively taking care of your mind and mood and knowing how to manage acute symptoms when they arise.
Stay mentally healthy
Making minor adjustments to your daily lifestyle can go a long way for mental health, according to Dr. Bordoloi. She recommends:
- Eating a healthy diet consisting of unprocessed, whole foods
- Exercising regularly to help regulate dopamine
- Exposing yourself to sunlight for at least five minutes a day
- Getting enough sleep (experts recommend seven to eight hours a night)
- Keeping a routine, which is especially important for children and teens
- Practicing mind-body exercises, including yoga, meditation, tai chi and Qigong
Manage acute stress or a panic attack
If you find yourself in a stressful situation or managing an anxiety attack, try:
- Deep breathing, which decreases your heart rate and calms your nervous system
- Engaging your senses by squeezing a ball, touching ice or showering in hot water
- Meditating and practicing mindfulness to bring your mind back to the present moment
- Relaxing muscles with progressive relaxation techniques to release tension associated with anxiety
- Removing yourself from the trigger if you can identify it
Next Steps and Useful Resources
Want more mental health tips and tricks?
- Learn about the gut-brain connection.
- Learn the difference between stress and anxiety.
- See if your weirdest symptoms may just be stress.