The Mind-Body Connection: How Stress Affects Your Physical Health


For far too long, Western cultures have thought of the mind and body as separate entities. But anyone who’s spent even one day walking around in human skin, living a human life, knows that the mind and the body share an intimate connection.

Want proof? Think about how your pulse races when you see someone you love. Remember how your stomach churns when you’re getting ready to deliver a speech. Consider the cottonmouth and sweaty palms before a big test. 

If your emotions don’t have an effect on your body, then you must be a cyborg. But if you’re a fully flesh and blood human like the rest of us, then it’s important to understand how your mental well-being impacts your physical well-being and vice versa. Read on to learn more.

Understanding Mental Illness

If you’re going to understand physical health and how to achieve it, you first need to understand mental illness, including not only what the term actually refers to and who it affects.

First, mental illness is not a behavior, a choice, or a habit. It’s also not a joke or a fiction invented to excuse “bad” or inappropriate behavior. Mental illness is a physiological condition that derives from the brain — the way it is structured, the way it functions, or some combination of both. 

Above all, it is not a choice and, in the vast majority of cases, it does not get better on its own. Just as you wouldn’t expect a cancer or heart patient to just heal themselves through willpower and positive thinking, you can’t expect someone suffering from mental illness simply to cure themselves without treatment.

Unfortunately, though, that’s often what we’re expecting persons with mental illness to do, especially when they’re young. Studies show that 10% of young people aged 5 to 16 have a diagnosable mental illness. And yet 70% of those fail to receive a timely diagnosis or appropriate and sufficient treatment.

Barriers to Mental Healthcare

It’s not only children who are suffering from inadequate mental healthcare. Millions of adults are also experiencing significant barriers to care, ranging from insufficient insurance coverage to a lack of understanding of mental illness to fears of stigmatization.

That means that every day, everywhere you go, you are meeting people who are suffering unknown and in silence. You or someone you love may well be among them.

Hearth and Home

If the Great Recession of 2008 taught us anything, it’s that those gifts we’ve always counted on, such as having enough food on the table, keeping the lights on, and a roof over the family’s head, can no longer be taken for granted. This trickles down from guardian to child, especially when it escalates.

The global economic downturn has called the world’s attention to the prevalence of housing insecurity. As more and more people struggle to keep themselves and their families well-fed and well-sheltered, the collateral damage to physical and mental health continues to mount. Children who face instability in their housing — and even homelessness — are more likely to struggle in school, often because of the stresses of bullying and not knowing where they will be sleeping from night to night, among other things.

The Tell-Tale Heart

It’s not just that undiagnosed or insufficiently treated mental illness is wreaking havoc on minds and spirits all across the globe, but it’s also taking a profound toll on our physical health. 

But you don’t have to reach the level of diagnosable mental illness to experience the mind-body connection. Stress, so abundant in our modern world, is ravaging human health. For example, studies show that chronic stress can significantly impact the vascular system. This can lead not only to often debilitating pain in the lower extremities, but also to increased risk for life-threatening strokes, pulmonary emboli, and heart-attacks.

Chronic stress can also contribute to the development of high blood pressure, the so-called “silent killer.” HBP is yet another major risk factor for a life-threatening illness, from kidney failure to heart attack and stroke.

The Takeaway

The connection between mind and body is real and it is profound. Mental illness continues to remain a misunderstood and woefully undertreated public health scourge. Meanwhile, the stresses of modern life continue to escalate, particularly as both the memory and the effects of the Great Recession linger. As housing insecurity continues to plague citizens the world over, the impacts on physical and mental health accumulate. 

Chronic stress and psychological suffering not only deprive sufferers of the quality of emotional life they deserve, but they’re also depriving people of their physical health. Chronic stress, for example, has been proven to contribute significantly to vascular diseases and high blood pressure, which in turn cause the risks of lethal heart attacks and strokes to skyrocket.

It’s not always easy to find peace of mind in today’s pressure-packed, high-risk world. But failing to care for one’s mental and emotional health is not only robbing our lives of joy and undermining our relationships with those we love the most, it’s also robbing us of our physical health, of the long and happy lives with our loved ones that we so desperately want and so richly deserve.