When considering the holistic health of an individual, one’s mental health plays a vital and inextricably connected role.
Our physical, mental and spiritual health are all linked to encompass a full view of holistic health. The Bible even speaks to the connectedness of our body, soul and mind when it speaks instructions on our relationship with the Lord in Jesus’ command to love our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind in Mark 12. Due to this connection, our mental health can have a profound effect on our overall health.
On an anatomical level, our mental health is connected to our physical health in a literal sense via the vagus nerve and the psoas muscle. Our psoas muscle is a muscle system that spans from the diaphragm to our upper femur. When our body is in flight, fight or freeze, this is the muscle that helps us respond to all three. Where the psoas muscle connects at the diaphragm, it also connects to our vagus nerve. Our vagus nerve runs from our diaphragm to our brain, and it helps to stimulate the shift to our parasympathetic nervous system, which is where rest and digestion occurs.
Thus, the vagus nerve provides the shift out of our flight, fight or freeze. Fear, trauma, anxiety or other adverse mental health experiences can cause us to continually tighten our psoas muscle, thus resulting in it becoming shorter over time, which can potentially lead to other physical health problems.
When our mental health is suffering, we can also experience other physical ailments. Stress, anxiety and fatigue, to name a few, can affect our digestion or the presence of ulcers. Anxiety disorders can also increase the risk for cardiovascular disease or contribute to heart palpitations or chest pain. Depressive disorders have also been shown to increase the risk of long-term physical disorders. Conversely, positive psychological well being has been shown to reduce those risks associated with the heart. There is a growing body of research that links happiness or joy to both reduced mental and physical disorders.
When we recognize the connection of our body, mind and spirit, we can have a holistic approach to preventative measures that can improve our mental health, which can also improve our physical health, and vice versa. One example of a preventative measure is allowing our brains to have down-time — even as little as 10 minutes — throughout our days. Another preventative measure is intentionally taking deep breaths that extend below our diaphragm, which stimulates the aforementioned vagus nerve to help shift to our parasympathetic nervous system. Another example of a holistic approach to mental health is getting plenty of leafy greens into our diet. Leafy greens, or consuming other fruits and vegetables, can help to decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as helping with cognitive ability.
As an individual considers the many ways that they can improve their overall health, the importance lies in recognizing the connection between our mental, physical and spiritual health. The experiences of our mind, both positive and negative, can affect our physical and spiritual health. The ways in which we address our physical health can affect our mental health, both positively and negatively. The wonderful thing about this mental, physical and spiritual connection is that it provides a plethora of ways that we can care for ourselves as we move towards positive holistic health.