Your Mental Health Is Your Physical Health

It's common to think of mental health as separate from physical health. But this distinction between mental and physical health is very recent in medical history and is incredibly harmful to our health.


Sahir Dhalla

2 years ago | 4 min read

Why the distinction between mental and physical health is wrong and incredibly harmful

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It’s common to think of mental health as separate from physical health.

When you mention that you’re going to the doctor, no one bats an eye and we feel more comfortable saying it. Talking about therapy, on the other hand, still feels like an uncomfortable topic to many, with mental health care heavily stigmatized in today’s society.

But this distinction between mental and physical health is very recent in medical history. Most ancient and traditional medicine can be seen to address the mind alongside the body, although not always by that name. Some cultures called it your chi or prana; others called it the humors of your being. Regardless of the term, all these treatments aimed to heal you internally to fix external ailments, while modern Western medicine tends to focus solely on the exterior.

It was learning this that greatly helped me recover from my lowest points and continues to improve my struggle with mental health on a daily basis.

Your mind is your brain

The mind is a set of functions and processes that make up your conscious experience of the world. It is this non-physical seeming thing that is caused by physical processes and changes within the brain, allowing you to have cognition and consciousness.

But as spiritual as a construct like a mind seems, it is rooted and affected by physical changes. Feelings of happiness, for example, can be traced to neurotransmitter levels like serotonin. Stress and anxiety, meanwhile, are more affected by cortisol levels, a hormone that increases in stressful situations.

All our thoughts and experiences are caused by the firing of neurons in our brain, giving us the capacity to think, reason, feel, experience, and so much more. Considering how inextricably linked our mental world is to our physical world, how could we say that mental health is entirely separate from physical health?

We know physical activity improves mental health

One common way this culmination of mental and physical health affects us is how exercise and physical activity improve our mental health. There’s a reason why individuals who feel more depressed or anxious are often prescribed exercise.

At a chemical level, physical activity causes your body to release endorphins and serotonin that have a positive impact on our mood and well-being. More indirectly, though, being outside makes us more in touch with the world, giving our bodies access to sunlight, fresh air, and natural sounds that have a calming effect on the mind.

When I’m fatigued and have low energy, I found that working out and staying physical, even a little bit, had incredibly profound impacts on my well-being and mental health. It made me more energetic, focused, and happy in my daily life while also making sure I got enough food and sleep — more than I used to before I worked out.

But what’s less known is that this works the other way around as well, that mental activity and care improve your physical health.

Mentally healthy individuals get less sick

Research shows that mentally healthy people are less likely to get sick, live longer, and have better relationships. Looking after your mental health physically strengthens parts of your body, making your immune system more responsive, your brain more efficient, and your body less prone to damage.

One profound example of this is loneliness and social contact. Loneliness is when we have less social contact and connectedness than we need and desire, and this threshold is different for everyone. While we may consider loneliness to be just a mental health concern, it has intense physical impacts too. Loneliness leads to increased stress-like symptoms, which create the creation of more cortisol and noradrenaline — a precursor to adrenaline — than a healthy brain is used to.

Over the pandemic, I found myself incredibly lethargic, far more than I had been over the past few years. But as soon as I was able to return to social life, my physical and mental self improved in a number of ways. I was able to work on projects more and got tired less. I found myself less plagued by panic attacks and had better control of my depressive symptoms. Despite enjoying my own company, loneliness was having more profound impacts on me than I ever realized.

By increasing these neurotransmitters, the body and brain know that something — a stressor — is messing up the system. With long-term stressors, the brain physically changes, with areas responsible for memory like the hippocampus shrinking, while other parts like the amygdala increase in activity. These changes result in shorter working memory, increased irritability and anxiety, and make the person more prone to stress in the future.

Mental health concerns change your brain in drastic and distinctly measurable ways.

Healing our physical self mentally

We need to start focusing on mental health, not just as a luxury, but as an essential part of a holistic medical system. While traditional medicine may use terms like one’s soul or energy that seem very metaphysical, their teachings often have correlations in neuroscience that we can explore. As we learn more about the brain and our body’s nervous system, it’s becoming more and more apparent just how much of our physical health is reliant on mental and emotional stability.

Western medicine is great at treating the symptoms of mental issues but often falls short of addressing the causes themselves.

This article was orignally published in Invisible Illness


Created by

Sahir Dhalla

Hi! I'm Sahir, a university student studying neuroscience, philosophy, and artificial intelligence. It's a strange mix, but works together in fascinating ways and helps me write the content I do.







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