When you get sick or have a physical problem, do you head to the doctor? A medical doctor is typically a good first step when we’re faced with health related problems. But it’s all too easy to stop at that step.
Often, we view our mental health, physical health and lifestyle as existing on separate planes – and there’s good reason for that. How we care for our mental and physical health, and who we go to for help, differs. Lifestyle can often be an afterthought or seen as unrelated to our health in any substantial way.
But, when we take a closer look, our physical health is tied to all aspects of our life.
Take the example of heart disease. Heart disease is currently the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. In 2010, coronary heart disease alone was projected to cost the United States $108.9 billion.
This is a physical health problem for which we would see a medical doctor for treatment. Depending on the extent of the problem, treatment might include medications, surgery or other medical interventions. In this day and age, your physician would likely provide you with information about lifestyle, but treating the disease with medical intervention is the primary focus.
But in the case of heart disease it’s connection with both lifestyle and mental health is basic. It’s a mistake to treat heart disease medically, while overlooking or undervaluing how lifestyle and mental health impact the course of the disease. According to Antonio Puente, PhD, a psychologist who has worked closely with the American Medical Association, psychology is linked to all health-related problems.
Heart disease, for example, is exacerbated by lifestyle choices, such as eating a diet high in saturated fats and cholesterol, physical inactivity, obesity and excessive use of alcohol.
Heart disease is also affected by our mental health. For example, high stress levels can increase blood pressure and create additional strain on the heart. Anxiety and depression often decrease our adherence to treatment and cause us to cope unhealthy ways, say by drinking too much alcohol or by smoking. Medical health problems often exacerbate mental health problems. The result is often a reciprocal relationship, in which physical health problems intensify anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, which results in decreased treatment compliance, problematic coping and more physical health problems.
Puente contends that medical health problems respond well to behavioral interventions. Psychologists have the expertise to help people change unhealthy lifestyle choices, cope more effectively and improve their mental health. That, along with knowledge of scientific evidence, can have a significant impact on how you prevent and manage conditions like heart disease.
The mistake we so often make when we go to a medical doctor is to overlook the mental health and lifestyle choices that are fundamental to our physical problems. Treating health problems by acknowledging the impact of lifestyle and mental health can be challenging, but the impact can be life changing.