Health and Healthcare Systems

This is how stress affects every organ in our bodies

Model of a brain.

Mental health is connected to physical well-being Image: Unsplash/Robina Weermeijer

Michelle Meineke
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare
  • Mental health is a global crisis with half the world’s population developing a mental disorder in their lifetime.
  • Our minds and bodies are deeply interlinked, so caring for them as a joint priority is vital to our overall well-being, says Dr Ruma Bhargava, the World Economic Forum’s Global Health Executive.
  • Mental Health Awareness Month highlights how looking after our bodies directly helps us look after our minds.

Have you ever felt stressed and then noticed butterflies in your stomach? Or felt anxious and noticed your heart pounding harder in your chest? Well, you are not alone, as every single one of the more than 8 billion people on the planet likely has too.

What we think and how we feel are the same; our mental and physical well-being are not separate entities that we control individually. Thinking of our minds and bodies “in isolation would be a mistake,” Dr Ruma Bhargava, Global Health Executive at the World Economic Forum explains ahead of Mental Health Awareness Month.

Understanding this link – fundamental to your well-being and that of everyone you know – is more important than ever. One in every two people will develop a mental health disorder in their lifetime, a large-scale Harvard study shows.

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“Stress and anxiety affect each of organ in our body. If we feel stressed, depressed or have anxiety issues, then our bodies react. We feel our temperature increase and we are not able to control our movements, for example,” Dr Bhargava says.

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“Similarly, if we have physical health conditions, like diabetes, hypertension or obesity, then we have severe mental health problems.”

The Effects of Stress on Your Body
An overload of mental stress has a direct and often immediate impact on how our bodies feel, move and function. Image: Healthline

Understanding the bigger picture

This deep connection between our minds and bodies is not a recent discovery. The phrase “a sound mind in a sound body” was coined by a Greek philosopher more than 2,500 years ago and many historical medical theories are based around this sense of unity.

Today, the spotlight is back on how to understand and benefit from this ancient link – especially as mental health issues are on the rise.

The far-reaching negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the potential geopolitical recession add to the stresses of everyday life. The same applies to climate change, with higher temperatures linked to increases in aggression and anxiety, as well as neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s.

6 mental health facts you should know
The physical and social impact of poor mental health are far-reaching and can be very serious. Image: University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences

“If we consider our immune system as an army protecting us from invaders, like bacteria and viruses, this gets weakened with mental health issues. It then makes us susceptible to most common colds and infections,” Dr Bhargava shares.

The impact affects all age groups. A study with 30-year-old men showed that heavy stress shortens their life expectancy by 2.8 years and 2.3 years for women of the same age. Such facts can motivate us to think more about how our minds and bodies can work harmoniously together to strengthen our own “army”, and live happier and healthier lives.

The more we understand this connection, the faster we can act on it. This is where collaborative efforts, such as the Forum’s Global Future Council, can help, such as developing novel public-private initiatives to shift mental health treatment.

Opening our minds at work

Ending taboos around mental health in and out of the workplace is a must, Dr Bhargava stresses. Depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion every year in lost productivity, so it also makes commercial sense to improve what and how we share our feelings.

“Workplaces are the foremost setting where a person grows into an adult and where mental health should be nurtured,” says Dr Bhargava. Open communication should be “infused into the leadership”.

With more than 1.3 billion formal workers globally, the Forum’s Healthy Workforces Initiative also aims to enhance how we talk about and manage our minds and bodies at work.

How can we create more balance?

Today, more than one billion people worldwide are obese, which weakens mental and physical health. Accordingly, one cardinal rule of good mental well-being is to eat well, making sure the food on our plate is fresh, as unprocessed as possible and full of “natural colours”, Dr Bhargava says.

The effort can significantly pay off, research shows. Eating plenty of fruits can increase life expectancy by 1.4 years while eating vegetables can extend it further.

Let's talk about mental health
Being outside in nature is vital for our mental and physical well-being and we can do it every day for free. Image: University of Liverpool

“Move away from your screens.” That is another crucial piece of advice from Dr Bhargava to keep a better balance in life. A poll revealed that British adults spend nearly 5,000 hours a year staring at screens, including phones, computers and TVs. This means a British adult will look at a screen for 34 years – nearly half of their life expectancy.

Spending at least 20 to 30 minutes immersed in a nature setting is associated with the biggest drop in cortisol, a major stress hormone. This then helps reduce heart and stomach issues, plus many other physical ailments.

Experiencing a high level of natural diversity brings mental health benefits for up to eight hours at a time. That potentially equates to 56 hours a week of feeling good in exchange for a short daily walk. Dr Bhargava says: “We have beautiful nature. Go and spend time there.”

Finally, spend time with people you love and like. Emotional intimacy is fundamental to how we mentally and physically thrive as humans; it is wired into our DNA. Being able to depend on family and friends and share your concerns while listening to theirs enhances our mood and relieves physical strain – breaking the “vicious cycle” Dr Bhargava describes.

As “owners” of our minds and bodies – each unique to us – we can leverage these three steps to help us enjoy happier and healthier futures.

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