How does our mental health affect our physical health?

We all know that our mental health can be impacted by physical illness, but have you ever thought about how that connection goes both ways? Kate Conibear explains how our mental health can affect our physical health

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful

A few years ago, I was ill with a bout of depression. I felt incredibly low, was hardly sleeping, and felt a crushing lack of self-worth. I remember being at work when, all of a sudden, I felt incredibly dizzy and shaky. I was suffering with intense migraines and felt exhausted.

My doctor diagnosed me with labyrinthitis, an inner ear infection, and I was signed off sick for three weeks. The only thing that made me feel remotely better was to lie in bed in the dark. I spent days in bed, unable to look at screens, or eat properly. All I could do was sleep.

This kept happening to me. Every few months I would develop another ear infection. I live with bipolar disorder, and have mania, which fills me with energy. I’m often ‘on the go’ for months on end, then when this feeling goes away, I crash and become depressed. 

I began to notice a pattern, and that these inner ear infections were somehow linked to my mental ill-health…

How does mental health affect us physically?

Have you ever really thought about all the various physical symptoms we get with mental illness? Your stomach twisting in knots when anxious, migraines when stressed, insomnia, a racing heart, catching more colds and the ‘flu – the list goes on and on.

While the impact of physical illnesses on our mental health is more understood, the way our mental health can impact us physically seems less discussed – and yet research suggests they are intrinsically linked.

On a societal scale, understanding this connection is important as, when mental health problems exacerbate physical illness, they can affect outcomes and the cost of treatment – in fact, The King’s Fund and Centre for Mental Health estimates that the effect of poor mental health on physical illnesses costs the NHS at least £8bn a year.

The best way to understand the connection is on a personal level. Take Liz, who lives with borderline personality disorder, mixed anxiety and depressive disorder. She believes her mental ill-health led her to develop irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). “It plays up when I go into crisis,” Liz says. “When my mental health is suffering, I also tend to get an extreme illness – or at least that’s how it feels. I generally feel aches and pains throughout my body.”

Olivia, who has bipolar disorder, noticed an impact of her condition on her physical self as well. “When I experience depression, I feel it in my bones. I feel unstable when walking. My entire body feels cold and detached. When I experience hypomania, my heart races, my head spins. When I experience anxiety, my stomach knots, and it triggers IBS episodes.

“Because of my psychosis, I take anti-psychotics that are known to cause weight gain and heart conditions. I’m constantly tested through ECG, blood tests, scans… It’s a difficult balance to maintain,” Olivia adds. “Mental illness has not just affected me psychologically; I live with several physical health issues. It’s like your whole body is either completely shutting down or revved up.”

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