On the connection between physical health and mental health

CW/TW: depression, suicide, cancer, long term illness

I was inspired to write this blog after having a tough time with both my physical and mental health recently. A few months ago I had a flu-type virus which meant I was unable to work for two weeks. Because of this, not only did I suffer physical effects such as tiredness and low energy, but I felt even more useless than usual; “if I’m not well enough to work, what’s the point? I’m no good to anyone.” I admit that I struggled with not only the usual negative thoughts that come with depression, but at some points I felt lower than I have done in a long while. It also happened to come at a time where I was struggling with work; stress and my ongoing depression was having an impact on my ability to focus, and I felt very stuck on a particular piece of work I had to complete. All these issues were piling on top of one another, and I began to question if I should be continuing… With work, with life… It was a scary time. I can confidently say I’m out of the worst of it, and although it may seem like a sad and negative situation, it has given me something to write about with passion.

“Physical health” and “mental health”… What do these phrases have in common? Perhaps the most obvious commonality is that they are both concerned with health, which has an impact on our overall sense of well-being. With this in mind, should we treat them separately? Should we prioritise one over the other? You may already have answers to these questions, but please read on for my opinion and some facts about how physical and mental health and intrinsically linked.

Now, in terms of definitions: physical health is about your body and how well it is functioning; similarly, mental health refers to how your mind functions. This does not necessarily mean that they should be thought of as separate entities; instead, they should be viewed as aspects of the human being that exist and work alongside each other – or sometimes against each other.

Previously, physical healthcare has remained very separate from mental health services. It has also been the case that physical health conditions are more commonly and openly treated than mental health conditions. This is perhaps due to the unnecessary stigma around mental health conditions (Mental Health Foundation); although these days, it is encouraging to see that mental health is being more openly talked about, particularly in the online world (in my experience, anyway). Despite this, there is more funding for research on physical health conditions than mental health conditions (MQ). In their report, mental health organisation MQ state that:

“…just over £9 [is] spent on research per year, for each person affected by mental illness. By comparison, £612 million is spent on cancer research each year, which translates to £228 per person affected – or 25 times more per person.”

This is a worrying finding, and shows the inequality between physical and mental health research. We can, of course, acknowledge that cancer is an understandable cause for concern amongst the public, given the diagnosis and mortality rates reported by Cancer Research UK and the Office for National Statistics (ONS). However, mental illness should also be a huge cause for concern – in 2017, suicide was confirmed as the cause of 5,821 deaths in the UK (ONS); perhaps this number is not as high as those reported for deaths caused by cancer, but it is a huge number nonetheless, and one we should seriously be working on reducing.

And so, on to the connection between physical and mental health…

Physical health may affect mental health, and mental health may affect physical health. For example, experiencing a long term physical illness such as diabetes may lead to developing symptoms such as low mood and fatigue, due to the chronic and relentless nature of the physical condition. It has been reported that two-thirds of people with a long term physical health condition will also have a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety (NHS England). Even less “serious” physical health conditions, such as the common cold (or the flu, as mentioned in my introduction), can make us feel a bit rubbish about ourselves.

Similarly, people with mental health conditions such as depression may struggle with finding the motivation to exercise, for example, which can have a detrimental impact on their physical health (this is something I know very well from experience). In terms of research evidence, some studies report that serious mental health conditions may reduce life expectancy by between 10-20 years (Oxford University) – which is a truly shocking finding.

The connection between physical and mental health is strong, and there is an increasing demand for physical healthcare to incorporate psychological treatment, and vice versa. Organisations that are part of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapy (IAPT) programme in England are increasingly expanding their services to provide support to people who live with long term physical health conditions.

Integrating physical health and mental health services is an excellent way of promoting overall well-being for people who use these services. Not only will this integration improve outcomes for service users, but it would also be financially beneficial for our strained healthcare providers (The King’s Fund).

The bottom line for me is that we should be looking at our health and treating illness in a holistic manner; we should be considering the whole person, rather than splitting health into strictly separate categories.

For more on this subject, I would recommend dipping into the following links:

Mental Health Foundation – Physical and Mental Health

MQ – How does mental illness impact our physical body?

The King’s Fund – The connection between mental and physical health

Science Daily – Body and mind need care in mental illness

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this post. Please feel free to leave a comment; let me know if there’s anything I haven’t made clear, or if you have any thoughts you want to add!

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On silence

You may (or may not) have noticed my silence over the last few weeks. I’ve certainly noticed it myself. I’ve felt somewhat guilty for not posting. I mean, a good blogger has stuff written up and ready to post whenever, right? Okay, so I’ve not been doing this for long, maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. But I thought this is something I was passionate about? And it is… But I’ve been busy. Or have I just felt busy? Just overwhelmed at the amount of stuff that I have to do, stuff that’s coming up in the near future and the longer-term future. So I’ve needed to think. And maybe I’ve had too many thoughts. Too many negative, exhausting thoughts. And some nicer thoughts sprinkled in occasionally. But yes. I have been silent. And I’ve also been ill. In fact, I still am. I’ve had to take time off work this week and for that I feel guilty too. There’s so many things I could be doing, should be doing. But I can’t, because this illness is exhausting. It’s even tiring just writing out this stream of consciousness, but I felt like I just had to get something out there.

So, to the topic of silence. In real life, I am often quite silent (except at the moment, where I am coughing *constantly*). I feel that I do a lot more listening than talking. I usually only speak when spoken to. I’m not anti-social; but I do sometimes struggle with social anxiety and “just being shy”. Sometimes I just don’t have anything to say, and I’m beginning to learn that that’s okay. And, generally, I like to process my thoughts and feelings before I say anything; I’m quite mindful in that sense.

Being quiet was a key feature of my school career. I’d often be described as conscientious, but teachers would want me to speak up or participate more in class. But, for the reasons mentioned above, I stayed silent. And has it held me back? On the whole, I don’t think it has. There are times where I certainly would have benefited from talking more, but in the grand scheme of things… I’ve achieved most of the things I’ve wanted to so far. I’ve gone through school, gained A Levels, a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, held multiple jobs, got engaged, got married, moved cities, and most importantly I have an incredible set of family and friends.

I guess what I’m trying to say is… Don’t mistake silence for weakness. Sure, there can be awkward silences, or strained silences, or silences caused by bad situations. So it’s important to check in on people if you feel they are being more silent than usual. But there can also be comfortable silences, thoughtful silences, powerful silences. Don’t be afraid of silence; sometimes it’s necessary.

Personal experiences of anxiety: presentation edition

I, like so many other people, deal with anxiety on a daily basis. It creeps its way into so many aspects of my life. As I write this, anxiety is preventing me from calling my local medical centre to book an appointment. But the topic of this blog post isn’t about something I do on a daily basis, or even with some regularity; in fact, it’s about something that’s quite rare. It’s about the experience of anxiety that consumes me whenever I have to give a presentation.

I was inspired to write about this because a couple of days ago, I was talking to my husband about being invited to present at an event focused on making a positive difference, be that for patients, or for the workforce (I work in the NHS – see my introduction post for context). That doesn’t sound too bad, right? Someone wants me to present the work I’m doing that is having, or will have, a positive impact on others, to a room full of interested people. Well… I was taken aback by how strongly I reacted to this conversation, physically and mentally.

The simple thought of standing in front of a crowd of people made me feel sick – an intense, negative version of feeling “butterflies” in my stomach. The feeling where you are convinced that you might actually throw up. I became shaky, trembling, uneasy. Fear and dread began to take over my entire body, to the point where I felt frozen in my chair. I felt regret for bringing this topic to the conversation, as it made me feel so unwell. And all of this happened just because I thought about presenting; what would happen if I were to do this for real?

Well, I have recently had to give a presentation at work, on a much smaller scale, about a project I am working on which focuses on “evidence-based practice” (I will discuss this topic in a future blog post). Incidentally, this would likely be the topic of my presentation at the aforementioned event. But in this instance, I had to present some data to five other people, all of whom I work closely with for four days of the week, every week. The experience of presenting to this group actually went quite smoothly, as I felt I had a good grasp on the data and had prepared fairly well. Before the meeting, however, I was a bundle of nerves; I experienced sleeplessness the night before, and physical sickness on the morning of the presentation. I put myself under a great deal of stress, and worked overtime, to ensure I was prepared for this one-hour meeting. For one hour of my life that went quite well, I made myself physically and mentally ill in order to “prepare” myself for presenting. It doesn’t seem to add up.

Previous experiences have also resulted in me feeling unwell. I distinctly remember (and re-lived it on social media, thanks Timehop) the anxiety that accompanied preparing for and giving a presentation based on my undergraduate dissertation six years ago. Part of our dissertation grade was based on this presentation, and even though it was a small part, it still amped up the pressure on final year students at the time. I remember waiting in a corridor, outside the room I was going to present in to two people; my dissertation supervisor, and another colleague of his – both lovely people. And despite the pleasant nature of my small audience, I was absolutely overcome by fear. Once again, I felt physically sick, and was legitimately worried about needing to throw up before, during, and after my presentation. I felt faint, weak, as if I were fighting to survive. This time, these feelings didn’t stop while I was presenting, and were revealed in physical actions; I was audibly shaky, stumbling over my words, and became clumsy using technology which I was usually so familiar with. I left the presentation thinking, “was that even worth it?”

While I do acknowledge the benefits of presentations, and therefore practising the skills required to present successfully, in my experience the negatives outweigh the positives. As I was formulating my next sentence for this post, I thought to myself, “sure, but the negative consequences of presenting do not last forever”, but perhaps in my case they do. As I stated near the beginning of this article, even the thought of presenting causes me distress, and at this moment it feels like it’s something that I might never overcome. Only time will tell, but it is something that is likely to affect my career and future opportunities; presenting is a skill that often is highlighted as part of “essential” criteria on job applications, and will particularly impact me if I continue down my chosen pathway of research. On the plus side, there are always poster presentations…

What are your thoughts? Do you struggle with presentations, or find them a breeze? Have you found ways to cope with any anxiety brought on by presenting or the thought of presenting? Let me know!

Improve your mood by… Caring

Welcome to a new post from Review of the Mind. In this post, I will be pulling out some information from a research study that has caught my attention, as well as some critical thinking. However, this is by no means an extensive or exhaustive review.


I recently came across a summary of an article on ScienceDaily. The headline: “A simple strategy to improve your mood in 12 minutes”; well, that’s pretty catchy, right? The article summarises research from a paper published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, titled “Caring for others cares for the self: An experimental test of brief downward social comparison, loving-kindness, and interconnectedness contemplations.”

Phew! Let’s break that down and define some of these terms:

  • Downward social comparison – Tess Knight states that this, “…refers to comparing ourselves to those who are worse off than us on the comparison point.” (2012)
  • Loving-kindness – This term is often found in research on meditation and mindfulness; Feldman, Greeson and Senville (2010) describe loving-kindness meditation as a way to “…increase feelings of…compassion for one’s self and others…”
  • Interconnectedness – This is about observing what experiences you may share with another person, and therefore what “connects” you to someone else.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s see what the article says…

Well, unfortunately I only have access to the abstract (a brief summary of the study), and to what ScienceDaily has to say on their article. Access to scientific articles is a huge problem – something I will no doubt talk about in a future post.

However, from the sources available to me, I can conclude the following…

The researchers asked volunteers to walk around a building, while noticing things about the people they encountered, to see whether this would have any impact on mood.

Volunteers were split into 4 groups: a control condition, a downward social comparison condition, a loving-kindness condition, and an interconnectedness condition.

The term “control condition” refers to a condition in an experiment where nothing has been changed or manipulated, and acts as a sort of baseline. In this case, people in the control condition of this study were asked to look at people and just notice physical appearances. This is in contrast to the experimental conditions, where something is fundamentally different; in the case of this study, the experimental conditions are “downward social comparison”, “loving-kindness”, and “interconnectedness”, as the participants in these 3 groups were asked to do different things besides just noticing physical appearances.

In the downward social comparison group, the volunteers were asked to look at people and think about, “how they may be better off than each of the people they encountered.”

For those in the loving-kindness group, they were asked to look at people and think to themselves, “I wish for this person to be happy.”

Finally, for the interconnectedness group, the researchers asked volunteers in this condition to think about how they are connected to the people that they encountered.

So, what did the researchers find?

The researchers found that adults who practised loving-kindness thoughts “had lower anxiety, greater happiness, greater empathy, and higher feelings of caring and connectedness than those in a control condition.” Sounds good to me!

The researchers also found that the interconnectedness condition “resulted only in beneficial effects on social connection.” This is to say, people felt more connected to each other after observing what they had in common with other people they encountered.

Finally, it was reported that downward social comparison did not have any beneficial effects on mood.

What do these results tell us? Well, we can make a few inferences:

  • Wishing people well – and really, genuinely meaning it – can boost your mood
  • Spotting similarities between yourself and other people makes you feel more connected to them – but doesn’t necessarily affect your mood
  • Comparing yourself to others by believing you are better than them in some way doesn’t seem to have an effect on your mood

So. That’s that. Nothing else to see here…

…Well, actually, there is.

Here are a few personal thoughts about this research:

  • The title certainly pulled me in; possibly due to my own biases or views on the world, in which I am a proponent of kindness. The link between kindness and increased wellbeing certainly appeals to me;
  • The results from the loving-kindness condition make sense to me; it’s similar to, in my own experience, the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you help other people;
  • In terms of connectedness, I would expect to find some boost in mood, even if only a tiny one. In my head, it would make sense that feeling connected to someone, and perceiving that you’re “in the same boat”, would make you feel less alone in your experience and therefore a bit happier. Maybe?

Aside from my opinions, there are a few important things to note:

  • This was a brief exercise and looks at short-term outcomes – you would need a study spanning a longer period to figure out what effects these thoughts might have in the long run;
  • The participants were all university students, who put themselves forward for this study, and therefore their experiences are not necessarily representative of everyone else in the world;
  • The results are based on an experiment under controlled conditions, rather than something that has occurred naturally in the real world.

What I’m getting at here, is that controlled psychological studies are not perfect – but we can’t expect them to be! It is highly unlikely that any scientific study will accurately represent real life 100% of the time.

This isn’t to say we should ignore the results from this study, or any others that might share similar drawbacks; this research does offer insight into some concepts that we can test for ourselves in the real world. For example, you could try wishing others well and see how you feel. Keep a mood diary and become a scientist in your own right! If you do this, please let me know how you get on ☺


Thanks so much for taking time to read this post. Please feel free to leave a comment; let me know if there’s anything I haven’t made clear, or if you have any thoughts you want to add. I’m open to constructive feedback – I’m still new to writing in this format so if there’s anything I can do to make this better, please let me know!

Introduction

Hi there! My name is Eloise and I’d like to welcome you to my blog.

My main interests are psychology, mental health, and the research that focuses on these areas. I have been passionate about psychology ever since I began studying the topic during my A Levels. This led me to completing a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and a Master’s degree in Mental Health Research. I am currently working as a Research Assistant in an NHS mental health trust, so I am hoping that this blog will aid me in creating quality content related to my field of work.

My intention for this blog is to make psychology and mental health research accessible to the public – and, from time to time, to use this platform to explore my own thoughts and feelings on various topics (which I will separate into the category, “Mindful Musings”).

The idea for this blog came to me around 3 years ago, in the run-up to starting my Master’s degree, with the help of my husband. We both thought it would be a good opportunity for me to practice my writing skills before I started university once again, thus preparing me for the work ahead. Despite good intentions, I never really got started; the most I did was track down a few articles on the topic I was most interested in at the time (the impact of social media on mental health), and write brief summaries of the articles. It’s possible these summaries may end up on the blog in some form or another, but time will tell.

And so, I classify myself as a beginner in the blogging game. Some may end up enjoying what I put out there, and others may not; but I am keen to learn and open to feedback from anyone who takes the time to read what I write!

Writing this first introductory post has been rather enjoyable in itself, so that’s a good start. Let the review of the mind begin…