When it comes to treating physical illnesses, we usually focus on physical causes. As a yoga teacher and a med student, I'm fascinated by the relationship between mental/emotional health and physical health. For example, heart disease is linked to poor diet, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle.
These are major risk factors, but more and more, we're realizing how big a role our psychological state plays in our physical health. Depression increases the risk for coronary artery disease four-fold, and raises the mortality risk the risk in those who've already suffered heart attacks.
But depression itself, and not just the behavior that results from it, might play a direct role in the development of heart disease. Depression damages blood vessels by increasing sympathetic activity (the “flight or fight” response), increasing platelet aggregation (which plays a role in blood clotting), and impairing the function of the blood vessel lining itself.
We need to investigate the link between emotional and physical health further, but it seems clear that being healthy involves a larger responsibility to our bodies and ourselves than just eating well, exercising, and avoiding unhealthy habits. It’s easy to put our emotional health on the back burner.
When we get busy, taking care of our emotional health is usually the last of our priorities. But mounting evidence that our emotions can influence what’s happening inside the body on a cellular level makes it harder to dismiss our feelings. Like the air we breathe and the nutrients we take in, emotions play an integral role in our physical health.
When it comes to tackling issues like depression, the solution might not be as tangible as getting enough kale in your diet or doing yoga three times a week. Emotional health is often not directly attributable to any one thing; it’s a reflection of what’s happening in every aspect of life. Because of this, knowing how to “fix” our internal state can seem like an insurmountable task.
What’s important to consider is that we don’t necessarily need an immediate solution. More benefit may lie in actually just trying to develop more awareness of our emotional state, rather than trying to fix it outright. There’s something to be said for connecting to something instead of trying to change it. Mindfulness can take many forms, but at the root it simply means paying attention. And while it may not offer an answer in entirety, it’s a promising place to start.
The link between depression and heart disease is just one of several new examples of the influence that the mind and body have on each other. It makes you realize how ineffective it is to simply treat the symptoms of disease.
The need to approach a patient from a broader perspective, taking into account both body and mind, is becoming more and more apparent the more we investigate these connections. There’s been a subtle but hopeful shift in the way we understand the development of disease, a trend that will undoubtedly continue to evolve as we learn more about the mind-body connection and its role in healthcare.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock