Your Mind Matters: The Links to Chronic Illness

 mental_illness_brain.jpgStress is the single most important determinant of health.  Stress affects all aspects of your health from energy levels and focus to thoughts, feelings, and behaviour.  Stress can make it more likely you’ll develop chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes, and it can also lead to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.  Your mental and physical health are inextricable – if you’re not mentally well, you cannot be physically well and vice versa.  Long story short, your mind matters.  A lot.

Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”  So, what do we know about the links between physical and psychological health?  Not only is poor mental health a risk factor for a variety of chronic conditions, but people with chronic illness are also at a higher danger of developing mental health issues.  We will discuss some of the links between mental and physical health, but let’s first take a closer look at how we define chronic and mental illness.

Defining Chronic and Mental Illness

Chronic disease is non-communicable and prolonged in duration.  Typically, chronic illness will not resolve on its own, and it is almost never completely cured.  Shockingly, chronic diseases are the leading cause of death and disability in the United States, with nearly half of Americans suffering from a chronic illness.  The most common examples of chronic disease are heart, diabetes, cancer, and arthritis. 

Mental illness refers to a range of conditions that interfere with a person’s thoughts, feelings, mood, and behaviours.  Mental health conditions often have a significant negative impact on a person’s daily functioning and ability to interact with others.  Reduced ability to manage daily routines, difficulty going to work or sustaining a comfortable home life, or an inability to effectively cope with stress are some manifestations of mental illness.  Common mental health disorders include depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Understanding the Links

Unfortunately, identifying the causes of mental illness can be difficult while risk factors for chronic disease are much better understood.  However, we do know that having a chronic disease is a primary risk factor for developing mental health conditions and vice versa.  Chronic diseases and mental health disorders are indiscriminate – they can affect any person of any age, culture, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status.  If we look at just one common mental health condition – depression, we can start to understand the powerful links between mental and physical health.  For example, depression is reported in 17% of individuals with a cardiovascular disorder, 27% of people with diabetes, 42% of cancer patients, and more than 50% of people suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

So why do mental illness and chronic diseases commonly co-exist?  Simply put, mind and body are both impacted when there are changes in physiological or emotional processes.  Imbalance in one area of your health will almost certainly change other aspects of your health as well.  Let’s consider just one mechanism of health.  A person living with a mental illness may experience physical symptoms associated with both the illness and the treatment.  Mental illness affects hormone regulation thereby interfering with natural processes such as sleep.  Altered sleep cycles impair cognitive function and energy levels which make it harder to adopt healthy behaviours, while making unhealthy habits such as unhealthy eating or substance use more likely.  Then, that person is at an increased risk of a range of physical conditions.  As you can see, our health relies on a complicated interplay between mental and physical health.

In The Five Pillars of Optimal Health, you can learn about some of the emotional barriers to your health and what steps you can take to promote both physical and mental well-being.