The Link Between Physical and Mental Health

By Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC | March 7, 2019

Staying healthy is a central goal in many people’s lives, and parents want to promote good health for their children in any way they can.

Health advice is everywhere, but much of it focuses only on the body. As researchers continue to investigate what influences our health, we’re finding that physical health and mental health are more closely linked than we realized. If mental or physical health swing out of balance, an individual will suffer.

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Understanding how our bodies and minds work together or against each other strengthens your ability to make positive choices for your health and the health of children in your care.

What Is Mental Health?

The broad definition of mental health refers to the well-being of an individual on emotional, social and psychological levels. The state of someone’s mental health has significant sway over the way they act, process emotions and make decisions. A person in good mental health can maintain healthy relationships, express a wide range of emotions and manage the difficulties of change.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as the state of well-being where every individual realizes their own potential, manages the normal stresses of life, works productively and fruitfully, and can contribute to their community.

Most people think of mental health as the absence of diagnosable disorders, but mental health is best represented as a continuum. On one end of the spectrum are people who exhibit active resilience and are capable of taking life’s uncertainties in stride. On the other end of the spectrum are individuals whose disorders cause severe impact on daily functioning. If someone falls in the center of the spectrum, they would likely describe their mental health as “fine.”

It’s possible, even common, for people to fall somewhere in the middle. Even if you don’t have a diagnosed condition and feel you function well enough in your day-to-day life, you may lack the resources to cope with a sudden change. These are some of the signs that someone’s mental health is shifting:

  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and activities
  • Loss of energy
  • Increasing irritability and mood swings
  • Loss of performance at school or work

These symptoms indicate a decline in mental health and potentially point to a developing psychological disorder. According to the CDC, some of the most common diagnosed mental disorders in children and teens include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Impulse Control Disorder

What Is Physical Health?

Physical health represents one dimension of total well-being. The term refers to the state of your physical body and how well it’s operating, taking into consideration everything from the absence of disease to fitness level. When it comes to kids and teenagers, we often pay much more attention to physical health over mental health. Parents and guardians pour a lot of energy into ensuring kids grow up physically healthy, but they may not have a complete picture of what physical health entails. Physical health has two central components.

1. Nutrition

Good nutrition is essential for everyone, but growing bodies need even more resources. A host of vitamins and minerals is essential to physical health, as are the right amounts of protein and carbohydrates. Balancing your child’s diet gives them a much better chance of remaining physically healthy.

2. Activity

It’s increasingly challenging to ensure kids get enough exercise and physical activity. With the proliferation of screens in every area of life, children and teenagers are becoming more sedentary. Although the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) activity guidelines recommend youth ages 6 to 17 get 60 minutes or more of physical activity each day, the majority of children don’t get anywhere near that.

TV is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to creating a sedentary lifestyle. Kids who watch three or more hours of TV per day are 65 percent more likely to become obese than children who watch less than one hour a day. Screen time of all types has negative effects on health, ranging from sleep loss to learning difficulty.

3. Additional Components

Other components to physical health include regular dental and vision checks to monitor development as well as ensuring kids get enough sleep to fuel their growth. Your child’s regular check-ups are the perfect opportunity to bring up any questions you have regarding physical health and catch any developing issues early on.

How Mental Health Affects Physical Health

Doctor writing on a form

The difference between physical and mental health is not as pronounced as you might think. For years, researchers have been asking a complex question — how does physical health affect mental health, and vice versa? The answer is predictably complicated, but we do know that mental illness impacts physical health directly and indirectly. Take a look at some of the concrete ways your body and mind influence each other.

1. Depression and the Immune System

Depression, the most common mental disorder in the United States, doesn’t just impact mood and motivation. It can directly affect the immune system by suppressing T cell responses to viruses and bacteria, making

it easier to get sick and stay sick for longer. A weakened immune system can also lead to a jump in the severity of allergies or asthma.

Some research suggests that it may be the other way around, and the immune system may actually cause depression. Stress — especially the chronic type — triggers an immune response within the brain itself. That inflammatory response may be a driving cause of depression.

A recent study on immune inflammation and depression involved the manipulation of immune receptors in mice. Researchers exposed the mice to repeated stress and observed that stress caused the mouse brains to release cytokines. Cytokines are a type of protein associated with inflammation, and their release led to damage in the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that plays a critical role in depression. In other words, the researchers were able to trigger depressive symptoms as a result of the immune system’s response to stress.

A strong immune system is a hallmark of physical health, but the addition of stress increases the chances of depression. In turn, depression may further weaken the immune system, resulting in a discouraging cycle.

This case illustrates the fact that many health problems have both a physical and a mental element.

2. Mental Illness and Fatigue

Depression, anxiety and other mood disorders often result in persistent feelings of tiredness and exhaustion. Some inappropriately suggest that “it’s all in your head,” but research shows this is not the case. Being mentally tired leads to physical tiredness.

A study from Bangor University in Wales, the United Kingdom, had participants ride a stationary bike until they reached the point of exhaustion. They defined exhaustion as the inability to keep up with a pace of 60 revolutions per minute for five or more seconds.

Participants performed the test in two different situations. In one situation, they rode the bike like usual. In the second setup, participants first engaged in a 90-minute task with elements drawing on memory, fast reactions and inhibiting impulsive responses to stimuli.

After participants engaged in the mental challenge, they reported feeling tired and a little listless. Most importantly, the participants reached the point of exhaustion 15 percent earlier.

Mental illness is closely linked with fatigue, and that persistent tiredness can easily lead to declines in physical health. When someone is chronically depressed or anxious, they are less likely to engage in exercise and to quit early when they do. Fatigue from mental illness can also interfere with basic hygiene, increasing vulnerability to disease.

3. Anger, Anxiety and Heart Health

Angry outbursts and the stress of anxiety are bad for the heart. An Australian study set out to see if acute emotions can cause heart attacks like you see in movies — and unfortunately, the trope is true.

Dr. Thomas Buckley, lead author of the study, said, “Our findings confirm what has been suggested in prior studies and anecdotal evidence…that episodes of intense anger can act as a trigger for a heart attack.”

In the two hours following a bout of intense anger, which the study defined as tense body language, clenched fists or teeth, and feeling “ready to burst,” a person’s risk of heart attack becomes 8.5 times higher.

4. Chronic Diseases

There is a correlation between depression and several chronic diseases, such as diabetes, arthritis, cancer and asthma. Schizophrenia is another mental health condition that can lead to an increased risk of respiratory or chronic disease.

In addition, mental health conditions can make it more difficult for someone to manage chronic diseases, negatively affecting their physical health.

In the case of anxiety, the risk of heart attack rises 9.5 fold in the following two hours. While youth are generally a long way away from having to worry about heart attacks, anger and anxiety involved in impulse control disorders can negatively affect their growing hearts.

5. Sleep Quality

Your child’s mental health can affect their sleep, and vice versa. Conditions like chronic depression and stress can make it more difficult for someone to get a healthy amount of sleep, which is necessary to function well throughout the day.

A lack of sleep can also exacerbate symptoms of these mental health conditions, making it harder to fall or stay asleep. Sleep goes hand in hand with an individual’s physical and mental health, as one can easily affect the other. When left untreated, a person can develop a sleep disorder like sleep apnea or insomnia, which can also affect mental health.

6. Digestive Health

Many people have heard of the mind-gut connection — and there is a lot of truth to it. Think about a time when you felt “butterflies” in your stomach. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with your gut — you feel this way because you are nervous or excited.

Mental health conditions can alter digestive tract function or cause increased discomfort. Common conditions that affect gut health include:

  • Chronic depression
  • Anxiety
  • Stress

Most digestive health concerns stem from chronic or prolonged mental health conditions.

7. Life Expectancy

Since a person’s mental health can impact their physical health — and the opposite is also true — in numerous ways, it also plays a role in their life span. Untreated mental health conditions can lower life expectancy because they can worsen existing health conditions or affect your immune system.

What You Can Do to Improve Mental Health

If you or a child in your life is struggling with depression, anxiety or another psychological disorder, there are steps you can take on your own to improve mental health.

1. Start With Self-Care

Self-care is any action you take with the intention of preserving or improving your current mental state or your mental health overall. Self-care activities serve two central purposes — setting healthy boundaries and developing the ability to cope with life’s ups and downs. Here are three tips to get you started.

Solidify a Sleep Schedule

Not getting enough sleep can exacerbate mental health problems. According to Harvard Medical School, individuals with a history of insomnia are four times as likely to develop depression. Conversely, more than 50 percent of people with anxiety and up to 90 percent of people with depression experience sleep problems of some kind.

Sleep routines are especially important for kids. Without enough sleep, children can suffer from weakened immune systems and problems in academic performance, behavior, and decreased mental health overall.

Creating a schedule and routine around adequate sleep is an effective step toward improving mental health for yourself or a child in your care. Developing a sleep routine can be as simple as setting a concrete bedtime, limiting or removing screen access for an hour before bed and capping off the night with your favorite herbal tea blend or a glass of warm milk.

Get Outside

Many children and adolescents don’t get enough time outside, and the problem is even worse for adults. Depression reduces the desire and motivation to get out of the house, but getting out of the house and walking

around in nature has been shown to reduce depressive symptoms.

Make time for at least two outside excursions per week, even if it’s just a quick walk around the block or down to the park for 20 minutes. Making outside time a routine helps improve your own mental health and sets an actionable example for any kids in your care.

Schedule Time for Activities

Working with your hands is a time-tested way to reduce the symptoms of depression and improve mental health. Half of your brain’s cortex is dedicated to the hands, so a hands-on hobby gives your brain a good workout.

You don’t need to take up mechanical engineering to benefit from hands-on activity. An art or cooking class will activate the same effects. Children’s brain development requires a healthy mix of cognitive and physical activity, so any hobby involving the use of hands alongside the mind will help them develop and maintain better mental health.

2. Foster Healthy Mental Practices

You can easily start improving your mental practices and mindfulness. One way you or your child can do this is by trying out relaxation or coping skills when you feel your mental health is starting to decline. Common practices include:

  • Meditation or Mindfulness practices
  • Breathing exercises
  • Gratitude or reflection journaling
  • Yoga
  • Stretching and gentle movement
  • Visualization exercises
  • Fidget toys like stress balls, spinners or rings
  • Body scan or progressive muscle relaxation

If you’re unsure how to start these practices, you can research them on the internet. Many of them, such as meditation, breathing exercises and yoga, have guided videos or audio playlists and apps.

3. Develop Your Support Network

While you or your child may benefit from speaking with a professional therapist or mental health counselor, you should also build a support network of people you care about. Talking things over with family, friends or trusted adults can help you feel better, reduce the weight on your shoulders and encourage you to problem-solve.

A strong support network can help you have more self-confidence and a greater sense of belonging. You can also share positive experiences, which can help you gain a new perspective. Offering your support to others and having it given to you in return can be highly beneficial for your mental and emotional well-being.

Spend time with family and friends, eat lunch with someone and visit relatives you don’t see often to foster social relationships.

4. Seek Appropriate Treatment

Self-care is a crucial component to mental health, but in many cases, mental illness requires help from qualified experts. Counseling and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) teach individuals how to cope with mental illness that disrupts their everyday lives. Self-care can go a long way, only as a supplement to treatment programs designed to address your or a child’s disorder at the root.

ways to improve your mental and physical health

What You Can Do to Improve Physical Health

For a child to get the most benefit from self-care and mental health treatment, they should also incorporate habits that improve how physical activity affects their mental health. Here are three long-term changes you can make to improve a child’s health and yours:

1. Limit Screen Time Using a Clear Schedule

We’ve already covered how screen time results in a sedentary lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean you need to ban your child from screens altogether. Technology is an inevitable part of modern life, so teaching kids how to consume media in moderation is key. Try discussing screen time limits with older kids, to make it clear this is a matter of leading a balanced life, not a punishment.

You can also consider putting screen time limits on your child’s phone or different apps. For example, many Android phones allow you to set time limits for specific apps, such as social media platforms.

Your family could implement a guideline suggesting everyone turn off or put their phones on Do Not Disturb at least one hour before going to sleep. Encourage yourself or your child to read, journal or meditate during that time instead.

2. Teach Your Kids About Healthy Food Choices

Eating well is tough for many adults, but learning more about food allows you to instill good habits in your child. If you aren’t sure where to start, visit the MyPlate website from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to see guidelines, resources and suggestions on healthy eating. The site allows you to browse by audience so you can find materials designed to appeal to kids, teens and college-age individuals.

Many foods offer essential physical or mental health effects. These foods include:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Foods with omega-3 fatty acids
  • Dark leafy greens
  • Nuts and beans
  • Lean proteins
  • Complex carbohydrates
  • Fiber
  • Antioxidants

Eating better foods will help you feel healthier, both in a physical and mental sense. You and your child can work together to develop a plan that allows them to enjoy eating the things they like while getting the nutrients they need.

3. Encourage Regular Exercise Through Fun Methods

It’s much easier for a child or teenager to incorporate healthy exercise habits than it is for an adult. Kids also have more time and more options to fit in exercise, from P.E. at school to local sports clubs. Making physical activity a routine part of life provides kids with a built-in, healthy coping mechanism that improves mental health in the long run.

Exercise can mean several things, ranging from a daily run to a pickup basketball game to a half-hour of chasing friends around the yard. Your child’s interests might change over time, but finding exercise techniques they can enjoy helps build better habits.

Exercise does not need to be vigorous — a simple walk through your neighborhood or on a trail can provide much-needed physical and mental benefits. Other exercise examples include:

  • Playing a game like tag or basketball
  • Skating, skateboarding or scootering
  • Swimming
  • Running or jogging
  • Playing sports, whether recreational or as part of a team
  • Going to a playground

Remember that while one person might enjoy school sports, another might prefer to take a walk or go on a bike ride with friends. All are valid forms of exercise that can help you or your child feel healthier.

Hillside®: Your Partner in Behavioral and Mental Health

The link between physical and mental health is complex in general, and even more so when it comes to growing children. If you have questions about mental health or disorders concerning a child in your life, you may be scared and unsure of what to do next. Bring your questions to Hillside®, Atlanta’s leading non-profit mental health treatment organization for youth. If you’re ready to facilitate healing for your child, contact us and learn more about treatment options for kids and teens struggling with their mental health.


  • Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC

    Director of Clinical Education & Outreach - Gaan has been working with children, adolescents, and families for over 10 years in various settings. In her current role, she provides education and training for mental health professionals, parents, and the community. She lives in Atlanta with her husband. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, climbing, and cooking. She is a donut aficionado and a national park enthusiast!

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