Written by David Shivers
The relationship between mental health and physical well-being was the topic of a program presented to the Kiwanis Club of Dougherty County on August 20.
Albany resident and Troy State University psychology professor Robin Walsh presented the connection mental health and physical health as a two-way street, noting “mental health affects physical health and physical health affects mental health.”
According to Walsh’s presentation, “It is believed that stress is the main culprit that robs the body of its health status. There are known links between stress, illness, and the immune system’s ability to fight off illness.”
Unrelenting mental or emotional stress can have numerous unhealthy effects on the body, including high blood pressure, stroke, migraines or other headaches, cancer, frequent colds, asthma, substance abuse, eating disorders, diabetes, pain, heart disease, sleep problems and insomnia, depression, anxiety, obesity, autoimmune diseases, or skin conditions.
According to Walsh, “Even bug bites can be delayed in healing when a person is under a lot of stress.”
She also noted, “Stress can actually change the shape of our blood cells. Normal healthy cells are round, smooth and shapely. Happy cells do their job well, and can help you to stay healthy. Stressed cells are distorted in shape and don’t function well.”
Physical stress warning signs can include aches and pains, gastrointestinal symptoms, nausea and dizziness, chest pain and/or rapid heartbeat, and loss of sex drive. Signs can also be cognitive (memory issues, inability to concentrate, poor judgment, pessimism, anxiety, or constant worrying) or behavioral (dietary or sleep disruption, isolation, procrastination or neglect of responsibilities, alcohol, tobacco, or drug use to relax, or nervous habits such as nail-biting or pacing). And there are emotional red flags: moodiness, irritability or temper loss, agitation, feeling overwhelmed, a sense of loneliness or isolation, or depression and general unhappiness.
So, how to prevent or counter warnings of stress overload?
Exercise can play a key role in stress-busting. “Playing sports, hiking, or getting a massage can rejuvenate us and relax our mind,” Walsh reminded. Physical activity is among a number of options that can help reinforce the positive mind/body link, including joining a community organization, eating well, being optimistic, getting good sleep, making time for hobbies, family and friends, relaxing, achieving balance, and otherwise learning to manage stress.
Feeling happy and content has been demonstrated to increase longevity, according to Dr. Walsh. “Studies show older people who feel happy and content are up to 35 percent less likely to die during any given five-year period, regardless of whether they have chronic health problems, depression, or financial security,” she concluded.