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Exploring the Link Between Physical and Mental Health

Author: Yara WHRD Center

We have all experienced those perplexing headaches or pains whose origins remain a mystery. Despite undergoing comprehensive physical health assessments and consulting your family doctor, the elusive cause persisted. You even sought guidance from specialists, yet no clear answers. More recently, there has been a significant shift: doctors now often ask about your mental well-being during routine screenings. They inquire about recent experiences of trauma or heightened stress. This shift reflects a growing recognition of the intricate connection between our physical and mental health. In this article, we will uncover the compelling ways in which our mental well-being is related to our physical state, reshaping how we approach our overall health.

Modern perspectives on well-being have expanded the notion of health beyond physical aspects alone. The World Health Organization defines health as encompassing complete physical, mental, and social well-being, moving beyond the absence of illness. Achieving a fulfilling life entails acknowledging the link between physical and mental well-being, as well as the reciprocal impact of mindset on physical health.

Recent insights emphasize that individuals facing significant mental illnesses are more prone to experiencing chronic physical conditions. Notably, experts from the Kings Fund highlight that 46 percent of those with mental health issues also experience physical ailments. Emerging scientific findings suggest that individuals grappling with severe mental health concerns might undergo accelerated aging compared to the general population. (The King’s Fund, n.d.).

This relationship works in both directions: individuals dealing with chronic physical conditions have a higher vulnerability to mental health struggles such as anxiety and depression compared to those with better physical health. The Mental Health Foundation reveals that nearly one in three individuals with persistent physical health issues also grapples with mental health problems (Nature’s Best, n.d.).

The relationship between mental and physical health unveils a range of interconnections. Mental health concerns such as stress, anxiety, and depression can act as catalysts for various physical ailments. Headaches and migraines can intensify due to these issues, while chronic stress and anxiety can escalate muscle tension, leading to overall discomfort. Digestive disorders like stomachaches, irritable bowel syndrome, and acid reflux can emerge from disrupted mental well-being. Sleep disturbances, brought about by mental health disorders, lead to exhaustion, daytime fatigue, and hindered physical performance. Moreover, extended periods of stress, anxiety, or depression can compromise the immune system, increasing vulnerability to infections.

Mental health’s sway extends to weight fluctuations through altered appetite and eating patterns. Depression and stress can perpetuate fatigue, reducing engagement in physical activities. Skin disorders, fueled by the body’s stress response, find their roots in mental health conditions. Cardiovascular health is at risk as chronic stress and anxiety contribute to heart rate elevation, high blood pressure, and inflammation. Cognitive functions can also be affected, with concentration, memory, and decision-making abilities impaired by mental health issues. Sexual dysfunction surfaces in depression, anxiety, and chronic stress, affecting libido and leading to sexual satisfaction. Bone health is also compromised, as stress and certain mental disorders lower bone density, making one susceptible to fractures.

Depression and the Immune System

Depression, the most common mental disorder in the U.S., goes beyond affecting mood, impacting the immune system. This disorder suppresses the body’s immune response, making us more susceptible to illness. Simultaneously, a compromised immune system worsens conditions like allergies. The link between depression and the immune system is bidirectional. Chronic stress triggers brain immune responses, potentially causing inflammation that in turn fuels depression. Recent research on mice demonstrated how stress-induced cytokine release damaged a brain region linked to depression. This highlights the potential for immune reactions to trigger depressive symptoms. Stress weakens immunity and raises the risk of depression, forming a self-perpetuating cycle. This intricate interplay underscores how physical and mental health intertwine in complex ways (Akers, 2023).

Fatigue linked to mental disorders such as depression and anxiety is often dismissed as merely psychological, but research points to its real connection to physical tiredness. A study by Bangor University employed a stationary bike exercise to exhaustion, with mental demands preceding it. Participants reached exhaustion 15% earlier after cognitive tasks. This strong link between mental disorders and fatigue underscores how persistent tiredness affects physical well-being, leading individuals with chronic depression or anxiety to engage less in physical activities and quit prematurely. Additionally, fatigue from mental health issues can disrupt self-care routines, increasing vulnerability to illnesses. (Akers, 2023).

The worrisome impact of anger and anxiety on heart health is evident. An Australian study aimed to confirm if immediate emotional reactions, reminiscent of those seen in movies, could genuinely instigate heart attacks – and regrettably, this cinematic portrayal proved accurate. Dr. Thomas Buckley, the study’s lead author, affirmed this concept, stating that their findings support previous research and anecdotal evidence, demonstrating that instances of intense anger can indeed trigger heart attacks. Within a mere two-hour window following an episode of intense anger, distinguished by visible cues such as tense body language and clenched fists or teeth, coupled with an overpowering sensation of impending eruption, an individual’s risk of experiencing a heart attack escalates by a substantial 8.5-fold factor (The University of Sydney, n.d.)

Long-Term Illnesses: Depression is associated with various chronic ailments such as diabetes, arthritis, cancer, and asthma. Additionally, schizophrenia, another mental health disorder, can elevate the risk of chronic or respiratory diseases. Managing chronic conditions becomes more challenging when accompanied by mental health issues, adversely affecting one’s physical well-being. Anxiety, for example, escalates the risk of heart attacks by 9.5 times within the subsequent two hours. Although younger individuals typically are not as susceptible to heart attacks, the anger and anxiety linked to impulse control disorders can negatively impact their developing hearts.

Sleep Quality: The relationship between mental health and sleep is reciprocal. Conditions like chronic depression and stress hinder obtaining sufficient, restorative sleep, crucial for daily functioning. Poor sleep can also exacerbate mental health symptoms, complicating both falling asleep and staying asleep. Sleep and overall health are interconnected, where one’s state can influence the other. Left untreated, sleep disorders like insomnia or sleep apnea can arise, further affecting mental well-being.

Digestive Well-being: The mind-gut connection holds truth, evident in moments of “butterflies” in the stomach due to nervousness or excitement. Mental health conditions can disrupt digestive tract function and heighten discomfort. Such mental health conditions include chronic depression, anxiety, and stress, often originating from prolonged mental health concerns.

Lifespan: The intricate interplay between mental and physical health significantly impacts longevity. Untreated mental health issues can diminish life expectancy by exacerbating existing conditions or weakening the immune system, further highlighting the important role of mental well-being in determining overall lifespan (Ackers, 2023).

Brain: Chronic stress, serving as a manifestation of various mental health conditions and their associated symptoms, exerts a substantial impact on the body, particularly on the brain. Chronic stress activates the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) and releases cortisol, which can increase neural connections in the fear center of the brain and cause deterioration in the part of the brain responsible for learning and stress control. Cortisol can also cause the prefrontal cortex to shrink, leading to difficulty in concentration, decision-making, and social interaction. Epigenetic changes caused by stress can be passed down through generations. (Murgia, 2015).


In essence, the advice to social activists, particularly those who have endured trauma due to their activism and arrests, is to recognize the interaction between mental health and physical well-being. This awareness is gaining momentum among medical experts and aligns well with the World Health Organization’s comprehensive view of health. It is crucial to understand that mental well-being exerts a great influence on the body, transcending routine physical evaluations. The undeniable bidirectional relationship between mental and physical health manifests in different ways. For instance, mental health struggles like stress, anxiety, and depression can manifest as physical ailments such as headaches, digestive disorders, and weakened immune systems. Conversely, chronic physical conditions can compound mental health challenges, fostering a complex interplay that disrupts cognitive function, energy levels, and even longevity.

For those who have endured the traumas of activism-related arrests, understanding these interconnected dynamics highlights the importance of addressing mental well-being as an integral component of your recovery and resilience journey. Prioritizing mental health through practices like exercise and meditation can significantly alleviate the distress that arises from these experiences. This self-care not only cultivates emotional strength but also enhances physical well-being. By nurturing your mental health, you empower yourself to persist in your activism with renewed vigor. Remember, tending to your mental well-being is an act of empowerment, resilience, and self-advocacy on your journey towards a holistic and fulfilling life.


Bringing together physical and mental health – The King’s Fund. (n.d.). https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/sites/default/files/field/field_publication_file/Bringing-together-Kings-Fund-March-2016_1.pdf

Gaan Akers, L. (2023, April 17). How mental health and physical health are linked: Hillside. Hillside Atlanta – Behavioral Health Support for Youth, Adolescents, and Their Families. https://hside.org/link-between-physical-and-mental-health/

Hidden killers: Heart attack triggers you haven’t heard of now revealed. The University of Sydney. (n.d.). https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2016/09/07/hidden-killers–heart-attack-triggers-you-havent-heard-of-now-re.html

Murgia, M. (2015, June 16). How stress affects your brain [Video]. Ted Conferences.  https://ed.ted.com/lessons/how-stress-affects-your-brain-madhumita-murgia

Natures Best. (n.d.). What’s the link between physical and mental health? Natures Best. https://www.naturesbest.co.uk/pharmacy/pharmacy-health-library/whats-the-link-between-physical-and-mental-health/