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!

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!