How mental health affects physical health

GuestExpert Staff Posts: 3
edited June 2017 in Health and wellbeing
Note from BCNA: The following is a guest post in a series we're bringing you this year.

Dr Helen Donovan is a health psychologist specialising in initiating and maintaining long-term health behaviour change. Her experiences encompass:
  • health coaching with individuals and groups
  • developing, implementing and evaluating workplace health behaviour change interventions
  • program management of health promotion programs
  • lecturing in health behaviour change at Deakin University
  • training fitness professionals in the health coaching methodology.
Helen is also a group fitness instructor and loves to continually update her knowledge on the interplay between the biopsychosocial aspects of health.

Helen was also on the team behind Revitalise with BCNA.

Why is focusing on your mental health often the best remedy for your physical health?

We have all heard before that our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and that the two are linked, but how much do we really believe that to be true – and therefore make choices that reflect that belief?

Do you feel like you’re putting a whole lot of effort into healthy eating and exercise, but still feeling tired, overweight and stressed?

When you’re stressed or anxious, there is a cascade of biochemical responses that occur in the body. This ‘fight or flight’ response is very useful in the short term, giving us a boost of energy and increasing our alertness to deal with perceived ‘threats’ in our environment. However, if stress becomes chronic, the elevated cortisol levels (the primary stress hormone) create physiological changes that inadvertently contribute to the build-up of fat tissue and to weight gain; cortisol increases appetite, and increases the storage of unused nutrients as fat. Our immune system suffers, we feel constantly unwell and lethargic, and this can lead to a downward spiral of behaviours that do not support our health.

Have you noticed when you are stressed you are much more likely to reach for food (especially sugary or fatty food)?

Often we describe ourselves as ‘emotional eaters’, but actually this desire to eat when we are stressed is a direct response to the biochemical reactions occurring in your body. You can start to shift this response with one simple little practice, described below. Do you also notice other behaviours? You might skip the walk you were planning, or even stay up late watching TV even though you’re exhausted?

All of the related issues (poor sleep, irritability, weight gain, fatigue) then have a flow on effect through our lives – we don’t sleep well so we are more tired in the morning; this leaves us with less physical energy and resilience to make the effort to exercise or prepare healthy food; so we become more tired and more stressed. And so it goes on.

The good news is, you can start to adjust your stress response RIGHT NOW, IN THIS MOMENT! You need one single minute of your time. Wherever you are, sitting or standing, take five full, deep breaths.

Notice as you deepen and slow your breath, your heart rate slows and your blood pressure decreases. This is directly impacting on your stress response – you have the control! It sounds simple (and it is!) but it has also been shown to be clinically significant! As you take these breaths, bring your awareness to your body and notice if you are holding tension anywhere (neck, shoulders, jaw, …). As you exhale, consciously let go of this tension. Keep scanning your body as you breathe, from head to toe, relaxing every muscle. EXPERIENCE how different you feel after those five slow breaths.

How can you do this both preventatively, and reactively? That is, how can you remind yourself to do this regularly throughout the day? Could you link it to an existing task (every time you go to the toilet!); or put a reminder somewhere you will see regularly?

Practicing this strategy reactively means when you notice you are feeling stressed or anxious, practice the slow deep breaths. Notice how this helps to create a little gap between the stressful thoughts and the reaction –  use this gap to remind yourself that you know what’s happening in your body, and there are other choices beyond the usual reactions.

You are your best health coach. What are the three things that you are most likely to do when you are stressed or anxious? After taking 5 deep breaths, what would be three realistic alternatives? How can you remind yourself to practice these alternatives in the moment? Just like any changes, the more you practice, the easier it gets.

Would you like to try a guided breath or mindfulness meditation? Try the free Calm app – available for download from iTunes or Google Apps. You can use it for two minutes or twenty minutes. Just like healthy eating and physical activity, practicing a little bit consistently, makes a significant difference.


  • socoda
    socoda Member Posts: 1,767
  • iserbrown
    iserbrown Member Posts: 5,511
    Coping mechanism for white coat fever! 
  • primek
    primek Member Posts: 5,392
    Great blog
  • Hopes_and_Dreams
    Hopes_and_Dreams Member Posts: 760
    Fantastic! And thanks BCNA for bringing us guest posts this year, great idea
  • Isaidso
    Isaidso Member Posts: 31
    Great read and I look forward to other guest posts. It happened to be just what I needed right now! 
  • kayvie
    kayvie Member Posts: 157
    Fabulous read and information. Great initiative BCNA to give us guest posts.
  • Gerryb
    Gerryb Member Posts: 106
    love this, I even had a chance to practice mindful breathing during an allergic reaction to paclitaxol two weeks ago. It helped me to keep calm. I got this from a midwife I was working with suggested saying smell the roses and then blow out the candles.
  • iserbrown
    iserbrown Member Posts: 5,511
    What a great saying "smell the roses and then blow out the candles"

  • Brenda5
    Brenda5 Member Posts: 2,423
    Bump. Very helpful post this one and I often forget to just breathe.
  • alexinbrisbane
    alexinbrisbane Member Posts: 223
    Thank you Dr Helen Donovan & BCNA
    It was great meeting you at the Brisbane Forum a few weeks ago too.
  • kmakm
    kmakm Member Posts: 7,974
    Highly applicable to my stressed life
  • Sister
    Sister Member Posts: 4,960
    Too much stress at the moment to read it!
  • kmakm
    kmakm Member Posts: 7,974
    Took me a while to get to it and through it myself @sister!
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