Improving Mental Health Is Vital for Physical Health
It’s not just in your head. New studies show that what affects the mind impacts the body and the heart. This is called “the mind-heart-body connection.” An increasing number of experts agree that psychological health affects heart health, the risk of stroke, and other conditions which were initially directly attributable to other external forces. This is a great reason not to overlook mental health.
A new scientific statement by the American Heart Association was published in the journal Circulation. It associates negative psychological health conditions such as anger, anxiety, chronic stress, depression, and pessimism with potentially harmful biological responses such as digestive issues, heartbeat irregularities, high blood pressure, inflammation, and reduced blood flow to the heart.
As general and work-related stress has increased throughout the years, experts have found that it is associated with a 40% increased risk of developing or dying from heart disease. Therefore, the statement suggests doing mind-body programs and undergoing regular mental health screenings as well as psychological therapy. These actions can lead to better cardiovascular health.
More than stress
Although chronic stress indeed leads to the development or worsening of chronic diseases, more factors are at play.
Researchers believe that chronic stress contributes to heart diseases through immune system-related inflammation and maladaptive behaviors that humans are prone to during stress. These behaviors, like overeating, overuse of alcohol and substances, and smoking, add to the inflammation.
When combined, these factors contribute to heart disease by damaging the walls of small blood vessels that feed the heart and large blood vessels, carrying pumped blood out to the brain and body.
The good news is that people can reverse the damage. The key is to understand the vagus nerve.
In an interview with Healthline, Dr. James Doty, a professor of neurosurgery at Stanford and author of the best-selling book “Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart,” said that the vagus nerve is the conduit of the mind-body connection.
The vagus nerve, which originates in the brainstem and is connected to every organ in the body, is associated with the human fight-or-flight response and the rest and digest system. It regulates internal organ functions, such as digestion and heart and respiratory rate.
According to Doty, people can control their response to outside events by controlling how their autonomic nervous system engages.
Although the discovery of the mind-body connection goes back only two to three decades, experts have only learned so much about the vagus nerve in the last decade, thanks to new imaging tools and new ways to measure how the mind affects the body.
More importantly, because of these advances, experts are learning how to train individuals to use their minds to impact their bodies positively, which not only leads to a decrease in the occurrence of most diseases but also increases longevity.
Improve your mental health
A network of nerves connects the brain and heart called the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The former is the gas pedal; the latter is the brake pedal. When the parasympathetic nervous system isn’t trained well, there is chronic stress, anxiety, panic attacks, and even broken heart syndrome.
To improve your parasympathetic nervous system, you can practice the following:
- deep breathing
- light to moderate aerobic exercise
- get regular massages
- improve your nutrition
These interventions can help the psychological and physical symptoms of anxiety and panic.
Besides doing the activities mentioned above, we also highly recommend taking better care of your overall health. When these are regularly implemented, they can help buffer toxic stress:
- Practice healthy sleep hygiene
- Get at least 10 minutes of sunlight each day
- Don’t neglect social interaction
- Prioritize mental health care
The bottom line
Contrary to older knowledge, the mind and the body are inseparable. For example, studies have supported that hope can heal cancer, and experts commonly find heart disease and depression together.
Now that we have this knowledge, it’s crucial to prioritize mental care to maintain both mental and physical health. You can enlist the help of a psychologist or a mental health professional. However, it’s also vital to examine your current lifestyle and determine whether it harms or benefits your mental health.