You’re walking home from work. The sun is setting, it’s getting dark. You turn a corner and bam! A bear. A huge grizzly up on its hind legs, roaring at you. All muscles and teeth. Do you scream and bolt? Try to scare him off? Whatever you choose to do, your body is ready. Your mind makes sure of that.
When you encounter stress, your brain switches on ‘flight or fight mode’ by releasing adrenaline and cortisol – hormones that inform every part of your body that it’s time to fight or flee.
Your heart will start pounding – to supply your muscles with the good stuff: fresh blood. You’ll start breathing quickly – so your lungs can take in more oxygen, ensuring that the blood your muscles receive is oxygen-rich. You’ll probably start trembling – because every muscle in your body becomes tensed and ready to go. Your pupils will dilate – to let in more light and sharpen your vision.
Once the bear is gone, and you no longer feel threatened, adrenaline and cortisol levels go back down. Your heart will stop pounding, your will muscles relax, you’ll breathe easier, and your pupils will go back to a more socially acceptable circumference.
It’s not all in your head.
Fight or flight is handy for those times you bump into the neighbourhood bear. It helps you stay alive. But if you have an overly sensitive stress response, fight or flight switches on too frequently or when you don’t need it, which is not helpful.
People with anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder spend a lot of time in flight or fight mode – and not just when they encounter grizzlies. For these people even relatively stress-free tasks – like going to the grocery store or talking on the phone – can cause a pounding heart and rapid breathing.
But if your brain is constantly perceiving threats – even where there are none – your body and organs will stay on high alert and end up overused and overworked. So, if you don’t effectively deal with mental illness, your physical health will take a hit too.
4 ways mental illness affects your physical health.
1. Heart. Anxiety can lead to a prolonged rapid heart rate, which can cause your heart to malfunction and stop beating. This is called cardiac arrest. It’s also associated with increased blood pressure which increases the risk of heart disease and having a heart attack. Depression, which often goes hand in hand with anxiety, can increase your risk of heart disease too – by causing inflammation which is involved in the clogging of arteries.
2. Digestion. Earlier we explained that fight or flight boosts your heart, lungs and muscles to prepare you for action. The other side of this story is that it switches off the bodily functions you don’t need in that moment. For example: if a bear is about to digest you, you probably don’t need to worry about digesting last night’s burrito. So, fight or flight stops blood flow to your stomach, blocking digestion. This is great when you’re facing a legitimate threat. But for someone with an overactive stress response, it’s annoying, because their stomach misses out on the blood flow it needs to do its job, which stuffs up their digestion. This is why common symptoms of anxiety include nausea, diarrhea, a churning stomach, and loss of appetite.
3. Pain. For many people, depression, back pain and headaches go together. This is thought to be because the chemical serotonin plays a role in mood regulation AND pain reduction. When serotonin levels are low, depression can set in AND disrupt a person’s ability to manage pain. Then there’s the fact that exercise and sleep can work wonders for pain – both of which are hard to achieve when you’re depressed.
4. Fatigue. If you’re always moving through cycle after cycle of fight or flight, then one moment you have a pounding heart and tense muscles, the next moment you don’t. This is physically exhausting. Anxiety can also cause an overactive brain and ongoing, stressful thoughts. This is mentally exhausting. This level of fatigue makes doing ANYTHING hard – but exercise becomes especially difficult, because anxiety/depression can make your body feel like it’s run a marathon before you get anywhere near a gym.
Take control of your mental health.
To us, this says you can’t be your best by focusing only on your physical health – you absolutely HAVE to look after your mind too. Which is why HeadUp has a mood check-in feature.
When you track your emotions in the app, we can help you identify whether your bad moods are fleeting and nothing to worry about, or persistent and need attention.
With enough check-ins, our data scientists can then connect your mood data to your physical data to help you understand how sleeping better, managing your weight, and doing more exercise can improve your mental health – and vice versa.