The Relationship Between Physical Health and Mental Health

The relationship between physical health and mental health is closer than some may think. This puts those living with a chronic illness at a higher risk of mental health problems and vice versa. It’s important to know how to support the mind and body if experiencing a health-related mental health problem.

Mental health can be impacted by physical health in almost any diagnosis. However, it is especially present for those living with chronic diseases that require long-term treatment and care. Such diseases, symptoms, and/or treatments can negatively impact their quality of life. However, there is good news! A number of psychotherapeutic techniques and theories can be easily adapted to medical populations, and these adaptations can be learned via continuing education for mental health providers.

The Relationship Between Physical Health and Mental Health

Your physical health can affect your mental health in a variety of ways. For instance, patients with multiple sclerosis have a higher risk of mental health issues such as anxiety (approximately one-third) and depression (up to 50% lifetime prevalence). 

Research shows that this puts them at risk of developing new physical health problems such as high blood pressure, decreased engagement with physical activity or health-promoting behaviors, sleep disturbance, and many other physical co-morbid conditions.

This makes understanding the relationship between mental and physical health extremely important. Physical health problems can cause you to develop mental health conditions, and those mental health problems can lead to more physical health conditions.

Click here to learn more about the connection between multiple sclerosis and depression!

What is a Chronic Disease?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, six in 10 American adults have a chronic disease and four in 10 have two or more diseases. Chronic disease is defined as a physical health condition that lasts a year or more and requires ongoing medical treatment. 

Common chronic diseases in the United States include:

  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease 
  • Stroke
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Chronic diseases can limit enjoyed activities, daily living, or both. This can have a negative effect on a patient by limiting their social and physical activity, greatly reducing their quality of life.

To learn about the importance of exercise for multiple sclerosis patients, click here!

Reduced Quality of Life

A chronic illness, the accompanying symptoms, and often the treatments themselves can change the trajectory of an individual’s life. They have to rethink how to live each day, potentially give up previously enjoyed hobbies, or have difficulty engaging in daily tasks and social activities like they did in the past.  

Additionally, an individual’s environment and their access to social supports, like understanding family or friends, also play a role in their quality of life. If their community is not accessible and they now require the use of an assistive device for mobility, it reduces the ways they can interact with the world. If the chronic illness is “invisible” like with diabetes or long-COVID, family, friends, and co-workers may not fully understand the impact of symptoms or even be dismissive. 

As noted above, psychiatric disorders such as depression can be compounded by lifestyle issues experienced by chronically ill patients, such as:

  • Poor sleep habits
  • Loss of social engagement
  • Reduced physical activity

This can result in a negative feedback loop that leads to worsened mental and physical health. The loss of physical activity can cause existing health issues to worsen, resulting in obesity, frailty, or a more sedentary lifestyle. This can then result in increased psychological stress, playing into the negative feedback loop.

A Worsening Feedback Loop

Patients and mental health professionals alike should also be aware that the negative feedback loop doesn’t always start with physical health problems. There is evidence that those living with a psychological illness face a higher risk of chronic health problems. For example, an English study found that patients with depression face a nearly 100% increased risk of heart problems, potentially due to low physical activity.

The risk of mental health challenges often worsens if an individual is living with multiple chronic diseases. It’s estimated that patients with two or more chronic illnesses have a significantly higher risk of depression compared to those with only one chronic condition. 

The type of chronic disease also matters. Psychological problems may worsen as a patient’s chronic illness progresses or if it becomes terminal. Decreased function can lead to increased financial stress on the patient or loved one, or they may require an increased level of support and care. If a disease is terminal, individuals are often having to face things like the fear of dying or leaving family and friends without them.

Psychotherapy for the Mental Health Problems Triggered by Chronic Disease

Considering the mental health issues facing chronically ill patients, psychological treatment may be an important factor for their overall well-being. This could be in a one-on-one or group setting. Certain forms of therapy have also been found to treat chronically ill patients better than others.

For instance:

  • Self-hypnosis has been used to treat pain and anxiety in palliative care.
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) may be ideal for patients with symptoms that interrupt daily life such as cancer, chronic migraine, or IBS.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) protocols have been developed for treating chronic pain.

Mental health professionals can better serve their clients or patients by learning more about the medical diagnosis and which psychotherapeutic strategies are most effective in those populations. 

Continuing Education for Mental Health Professionals

Treating individuals with chronic disease and mental health symptoms can be a challenge for providers and patients alike. Providers may need to brush up on skills or develop new ones to provide the best treatment possible. Patients don’t want to face the increased stress of educating providers about their condition in order to get the treatment they need.

Find Empathy seeks to bridge this gap with continuing education for mental health professionals. Our health-based continuing education courses are designed to be completed on your own time while allowing providers to strengthen their skills in treating patients with major health problems.

All you have to do to get started with Find Empathy is listen to our podcast. Next, create an account with us so you can complete all of the required continuing education materials. This is followed by a post-test assessment and course evaluation so you can receive full credit.

You can access a course by clicking the link in the podcast show notes. You can also do it by:

  1. Clicking here to create an account or sign in
  2. Finding the podcast episode you want to listen to
  3. Finishing the course requirements

At Find Empathy, we believe that mental health continuing education should be as easy as possible. We have created a straightforward process for whether you want to explore all of our courses or dive right into our podcasts.

Do you want to provide the highest quality of mental healthcare to your chronically ill patients? Click here to get started today!

Physical health can affect mental health in a variety of ways. Those with chronic illnesses are especially susceptible due to the long-term care and treatment required. Chronic diseases can have a severe impact on a patient’s quality of life. Fortunately, there are a number of psychological treatments available to patients and continuing education options for providers.

Find Empathy’s purpose is to empower mental health professionals to better serve patients living with challenging chronic illnesses and medical diagnoses. Through our easy and accessible continuing education courses and credits, mental health providers are able to become medically informed on health psychology topics to help improve patient care and clinical outcomes.

Meghan Beier, PhD

Meghan Beier, PhD

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