Your physical and mental health go hand in hand

[4 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • Your physical and mental health go hand in hand, which is why you need a provider that treats both.

  • The three most important aspects of good mental health are exercise, diet and proper sleep.

  • Providence Swedish primary care providers are integrating mental and behavioral health into their clinics.

When you have difficulties managing both your mental and physical health, you can fall into a vicious cycle — mental health challenges can decrease your interest in physical activities, while physical health issues can create significant problems with your mental health.

The statistics show that many Americans suffer from this issue: About half of all people are diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their life. Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems. 

So, how can you keep yourself from becoming one of the many people who are trapped in the cycle of poor health? And if you do suffer from poor mental health, how can you find a way to become healthier?

Fight or flight

When you experience extreme stress, such as when you realize you’re about to be in a car crash or even if your boss is upset with you, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. Your body produces higher levels of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which can be harmful to you if it occurs often and for long periods of time.

“Chronic stress can impact every part of your body,” says Jenni O’Donnell, Psy.D., clinical program director for Providence Swedish Primary Care Integrated Behavioral Health. “For example, stress over a long period can create difficulties with memory formation, anxiety and focus.”

According to Arpan Waghray, M.D., chief executive officer with Providence’s Well Being Trust, a constant fight or flight response may also cause you to start experiencing physical symptoms like headaches, muscle tension, digestive issues, pain and even suppression of your immune system. If you’re coping with a chronic medical illness like congestive heart failure, you’re at a much higher risk of having conditions like depression and anxiety, he said.

The recipe for good health

The key to balancing your mental and physical health is to focus on three important aspects of life: “Regular exercise, healthy diet, adequate sleep — there’s a direct correlation with boosting your mental health,” said Waghray.

Exercise

The National Institutes of Health recommends that adults complete at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. Exercise releases endorphins, or feel-good chemicals, in your body, which boost your mood and help alleviate depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.

In addition to aerobic exercise, you can also participate in strength training, yoga and dance — all of which get your body moving so you can feel better both mentally and physically.

Diet

It’s essential to eat foods that are healthy for your body, because they will help you feel better mentally, too. “What’s good for your heart is good for your brain,” Waghray said.

He recommends the Mediterranean diet, which includes eating heart-healthy, plant-based, whole-food meals with smaller portions of lean meat, chicken and fish.  

Sleep

It is incredibly important to get enough sleep every night so you can be prepared for the day ahead. “Sleep is a foundational block for all our mental and physical health,” O’Donnell said. “If you’re not getting restful, rejuvenating sleep, you don’t have the brain capacity for memory, learning or productivity, and your body isn’t doing all the repair and restorative work needed when sleeping.”

Stick to a regular sleep schedule for bedtime and waking, because it will improve your body’s internal regulation and sleep quality.

Find activities that help you feel better

In addition to the basics of exercise, diet and sleep, find activities that replenish your depleted batteries while also helping you emotionally, O’Donnell said. Such self-care activities are highly individualized — they could include going to the gym after a long day, visiting with friends or just spending some much-needed time alone to recharge. Any of these activities could have a positive impact on your mental well-being.

According to O’Donnell, anxiety management relies on learning to refocus on the present using mindfulness and meditation skills — because anxiety is an emotion that lives in the future. “By truly being in this moment, you can calm your body, physically connect, and reduce the cortisol and adrenaline hormones coming up with a fight or flight response,” she said.

Integrated care at Providence Swedish

Because physical and mental health are so closely connected, Providence Swedish is integrating behavioral and mental health into primary care clinics.

For example, through asking the right questions, a primary care provider could learn that a patient’s struggles with underlying anxiety are causing insomnia. They can then refer the patient to an embedded mental health professional within the same clinic, which makes it easier for the patient to get the help they need without having to make multiple calls.

“Our physical, mental and emotional well-being are completely intertwined,” O’Donnell said. “We’ve found you can’t treat one without the other, which is why we’ve integrated behavioral health into primary care.”

Contributing caregiver

Jenni O’Donnell, Psy.D., is the clinical program director for Providence Swedish Primary Care Integrated Behavioral Health.

Arpan Waghray, M.D., is the chief executive officer with Providence’s Well Being Trust.

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Related resources

Mental health help is just a mouse-click away

Ways to prioritize your mental health

Addressing mental health disparities

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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