The relationship between stress and physical health
Historically the connection between mind, body and environment was accepted, honoured and nourished. As western medicine has developed so has dualism; the idea that our bodies and minds are separate. Similarly, as mental health has come to be explored and destigmatised we have started to understand it using a medical model, for example, by trying to understand depression using the same model that we use to understand cancer or diabetes. What these modern methods are often forgetting is that not everything that affects us is physical; our minds and our environment interplay with the physical, leading to physical illnesses and ailments.
In the book ‘When the body says no’ (Mate, 2011), the author highlighted the connection between our mental health, environmental experiences and our physical health. He argued that sometimes, our physical health steps in to protect our mental health. So, someone may contract a virus or more serious condition that causes them to slow down their pace, learn to say no to others and generally look after themselves. He also highlighted that people’s coping responses develop from their early experiences which can have an impact on how we deal with physical ailments.
This connection has also been found in research into Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Such research has found that people who have experienced trauma, abuse, separation from caregivers and other similar experiences as children are more likely to experience a range of negative outcomes as adults. Some of these adult experiences are psychological or social, such as mental health problems and lower academic achievements. However, some are physical including heart disease and liver disease. Such research clearly demonstrates the impact of environmental and psychological stress on our physical health.
The missing link between what happens to someone in their early life and how they experience physical health in adulthood is thought to be the processing of stress. Our childhood bodies and minds are capable of working through occasional and routine stress, such as the stress of being told no or of being temporarily separated from a caregiver for routine childcare. However, when a child is subjected to high-levels or near-constant levels of stress they have to process this differently. The brain is physically changed by these experiences and these children grow up with different coping mechanisms.
The mind-body-environment connection
To stay well we must consider the connection between our minds, our bodies and our environment. Our previous blog spoke through several ideas for fostering the mind-body connection. In addition, try not to underestimate the impact of your environment; the people around you, the comfort of your home, your working environment and even the weather can have a big impact on your emotional and physical wellbeing.
If you have noticed a connection between your physical and mental health or you are finding yourself frequently physically ill and would like to explore the possible connection to your mental health further, then contact Dr Julie Hannan on [email protected].
Maté, G. (2003). When the body says no: Understanding the stress disease connection. Wiley.