How our physical and mental health are interconnected—and how to take care of both

When we’re stressed, our skin breaks out. When we’re scared, we might get lightheaded and nauseous. And when we’re nervous, our heartbeat picks up and our palms sweat. It’s clear that our physical and mental health are linked, but to what extent?

Let’s start by defining physical and mental health. Physical health is our ability to function: to see, to walk, to breathe, to eat… Factors such as nutrition and exercise directly impact this. Mental health is about feeling happy and stable. Your mood, motivation, emotions, excitement for everyday life, and the ability to remain focused and present are all factors of mental health.

And while it might not be readily apparent, our mental health, emotions, and physical condition are all intimately connected. If you neglect one of them, others will suffer; but if you care for them all, you will be strong, healthy, and happy.

Surprising allies

We all know what it feels like to get “butterflies in our tummy” on a first date. The excitement of meeting someone who we feel emotionally attracted to sparks a physical feeling in the stomach. Similarly, some people get very nervous—flushing scarlet red—when on stage or speaking in front of a group of people. Both of these phenomena are physical signs of what’s going on in your mind. 

And this isn’t limited to short-term mental feelings. It happens with long-term, recurring mental disorders as well. Anxiety, for instance, can make us physically sick to our stomach, make our muscles ache, and even cause numbness in our hands and feet. Depression weakens your immune system, making it more likely that you’ll catch diseases—and not be able to fight them off. 

But what about mental signs of your physical state? If you’ve ever underslept and had to work the next day, you’ll know: when you don’t care for your body, your brain bears the brunt, slowing down, getting distracted, and even feeling grouchy.

Clearly, the body and mind work hand in hand to protect our overall well-being. In fact, there’s a field of medicine that’s built on the belief that the mind and body are integrated, meaning they are seen as one functioning entity, rather than separate systems with overlap. When medical professionals follow this school of thought, they are said to use a “holistic health approach,” examining health issues from several angles to get to the heart of the problem.

Tips for a holistic health approach

Between studying, working, and socializing, it’s easy for health to get pushed to the backburner. But there are small things you can do to care for your overall well-being from a holistic perspective. Here are a few:

  • Keep your diet balanced and healthy. Our food quality and source plays a major role, and staying hydrated is vital.
  • Watch your lifestyle choices. Limit your consumption of alcohol and nip that smoking habit in the bud.
  • Spend time in nature. Escape the pollution of the city and reconnect.
  • Get 7 or 8 hours of sleep per night. 
  • Exercise regularly, even if it’s a quick yoga sesh.
  • Cherish relationships (romantic and otherwise). Develop strong connections with people, especially family and friends. 
  • Expand your mind: Express your creative side, stay curious, and pursue your passions. 
  • Do your best to be present. Be conscious of your surroundings, giving your full attention to whatever you’re doing at the given moment (you can start by closing some of the 10 tabs you have open right now). 
  • Understand your emotions for a deeper awareness of how they influence your behavior and well-being. Work toward emotional intelligence and maturity.

Graphic by Catinca Popescu

Remember, too, that you don’t have to be perfect. It takes time to develop and keep healthy habits. But the tips above are a good starting place to help you balance your body and mind for optimal well-being and health. 

IE promotes holistic health through initiatives like the IE Center for Health, Well-being, and Happiness. If you’re interested in learning the science behind concepts like the ones discussed in this article, the center recently launched a series of courses for IE students, piloted in fall 2019, such as ‘Nutrition for Optimal Brain Performance.’ Learn more about the center and get in touch here.

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Kim Riemensperger is a graduate student in the Master in Customer Experience & Innovation, class of 2020, at the IE School of Human Sciences & Technology. She is originally from Germany but has lived in four different countries. Kim strives to be an agent of change of the environment and healthcare, and is passionate about researching, writing about, and communicating global challenges that the world is facing.