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How are Mental and Physical Health Connected?

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Mental health in word tag cloudTo commemorate Mental Health Awareness Month, we asked a number of our clinicians the question:

How are Mental and Physical Health Connected?

From Amy Drucker, MSMFT, LMFT:

Picture someone who reports to you they are tired, what is easily defined as a physical state of inadequate rest. Sure, they appear and look tired — a little sluggish, moving slower, perhaps their eyes are a little puffy and red from lack of sleep. In essence, they physically look a little run down. Appearance aside, this same person likely did not need to make the disclaimer to you they were tired because yes you could see they were, but also because there is a good chance they were interacting with you in such a way you couldn’t help but experience them as irritated, short or blunt with their answers, perhaps even rude — it’s safe to say they are just plain old grumpy and unhappy.

This is an example, albeit simple and hopefully temporary, of how our physical experience can impact our emotional experience. The physical implications, and where more pronounced mental health issues start to show, are when someone is more than just tired — their physical and emotional experiences are more long lasting: Depression, anxiety, stress — these all have physical implications that can alter our physiological states, which then creates a feedback loop for the emotional state experienced.

When we experience stress, an all too common facet of everyone’s mental health, our body releases the hormone cortisol. Cortisol in healthy amounts is adaptive and necessary for functioning, but when we are constantly stressed, we are producing far more cortisol than needed, and our body creates a new baseline for functioning, one where we are more likely to feel physically activated, perhaps even on edge. Anxiety is similar in this feedback loop phenomenon as well. When someone feels anxious, there is an obvious physiological experience that goes hand in hand with the sensation of anxiety (rapid heart rate, spike in blood pressure, sweating, some even report a change in vision and auditory sensations). The awareness around the physical sensations, or the physical sensations themselves, can trigger an emotional response, usually more anxiety. Because our physical and mental health are so intertwined it is no surprise that those who exercise regularly tend to experience more positivity and overall well-being; those who meditate frequently appear and even physically look calmer — facial muscles and posture looser; those who remove chemical substances from their lifestyle tend to look differently — healthier.

Think about it: When you have a cold, physically you are the host to some lovely bacteria or virus which is sucking the life out of you so naturally you are physically worn down, but you probably also experience some level of sadness, restlessness, irritability, perhaps even depression for the duration of your being bedridden. When our physical sensations are how we stay in touch with the world, and our emotional experiences are how we perceive and interpret the world, how can these two realms of our health not be intertwined in our human experience of being.


The Family Institute offers affordable family, couples and individual counseling at our Evanston, downtown Chicago, La Grange Park and Northbrook locations. Visit our website to learn more.

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