AwareNow: Issue 28: The Mental Edition

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MENTAL HEALTH AND THE PICTURE OF HEALTH What does ‘the picture of health’ really look like? The truth is most of our ‘health’ can’t be seen, and a lot of it can’t be touched, because it’s in our mind. While we tend to think of our mind and body as separate, they aren’t. Our mental health and physical health are interconnected. Both are equally important. Today we explore the full picture with Amy Byerley, PhD, Pediatric Psychologist at Spectrum Health’s Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. ALLIÉ: Let’s take personal opinion out of the equation and focus on science. What does science tell us about the impact our mental health has on our physical health and vice versa?

AMY: We are only at the beginning of scientifically observing and understanding the complexity of interactions and connections between our mental and physical well-being. As humans, when we experience emotions, stressful events, and trauma, our physical body reacts immediately in order to protect and keep us alive. Our brain and body hold on to traumatic experiences and emotions, recalling and connecting them long after the stressful or traumatic event is over. This can cause serious long-term health issues. Over time, we tend to disconnect from emotions and physical sensations connected to the stress response.

Research has indicated that childhood trauma in particular is highly correlated with mental, emotional, and physical problems later in life. Additionally, daily life stressors and stressful events and changes negatively impact our overall emotional and physical health. To deal with the related emotions, we often resort to a number of unhealthy coping mechanisms in order to avoid associated distress, such as by avoiding issues and experience of emotions, using or abusing substances, withdrawing from social connection, over eating, overspending, over working, or getting lost in the world of social media.

Simply removing unhealthy coping strategies is not sufficient for addressing mental health concerns; we must instead address root causes for these symptoms. The process of healing involves gradually reconnecting and integrating our emotions with our body and physical sensations. Over time, we can fully reconnect with our physical body, to become a more integrated, whole being. When our bodies and minds can work together to resolve emotions and trauma, we are able to heal and enjoy the fullness of our lives.

ALLIÉ: As opposed to physical health conditions that can be more easily diagnosed with measurements and vitals, mental health conditions can be much more difficult to diagnose. Is that why so many mental health issues go undiagnosed?

AMY: Lack of diagnosis, under diagnosis, and inaccurate diagnoses of mental health concerns are common, and limitations of directly observable or measurable symptoms are likely part of the difficulty with identification of mental health concerns. Clinical providers do have a set of shared criteria used to assist with reliably identifying mental health conditions. However, it can be challenging to arrive upon the most accurate diagnosis for a variety of reasons.