Mental and Physical Wellness
By: Jodi Sheffield
Co-collaborator: Dr. Lola Ashaye
Summer is here and in full force, which often means frequent daily trips to the local pool, family vacations, and time spent outside (Bless those of you who are attempting to enjoy Texas preheating to 100+ degrees). Summer time also means finally having the time to schedule and attend your annual physical exams and check-ups with your healthcare providers as well as to prioritize the self-care plan that was part of your New Year’s resolutions in January that have been neglected since January 15th.
So how can we ensure that we get the highest quality of care at our summer appts with our PCP, our therapist, our OBGYN, our gastroenterologist, etc? How can we prepare our hearts, minds and bodies to be the healthiest versions of ourselves from head to toe? Funny you should ask. I have some thoughts on the matter.
Over several years, I have had the privilege of working as a therapist with a variety of client populations with diverse acuities and presenting concerns. In this time, I have noticed a consistent pattern. A pattern of hesitancy and fear to create a treatment team composed of their healthcare providers, to give permission for their healthcare providers to communicate with one another in order to provide the highest quality of care. Where does this hesitancy come from? What is the source of these fears and doubts surrounding their healthcare providers communicating as a team?
A possible answer to these questions is simple, yet complex in its powerful influence over the way our communities understand mental health. Stigma. Even with the increased attention from the media sources like TikTok & Reddit, mental health continues to be disparaged as a moralized, “made up” issue that is divorced from physical wellness and care. As a stigmatized matter, mental health issues are often overlooked and misdiagnosed, which leads to continued suffering for those in deep emotional and psychological pain that can, if unaddressed, lead to physical illness. Put simply, “there is no health without mental health” (WHO). Stigma has led to negligence in caring for our minds as well as our bodies.
We also may be reluctant to provide consent for continuity of care due limited knowledge on how mental and physical health are intricately linked. Ignorance regarding the direct relationship between one’s mental and physical health that, at its worst, could lead to significant health risks for more severe, acute mental and/or physical health conditions. To avoid this, I start educating clients on this crucial connection before I even meet them for our first appointment. When you schedule an appointment with a therapist, you receive intake paperwork to complete prior to your first meeting that involves answering questions regarding demographic information, current and past relational dynamics, psychological and emotional concerns and medical conditions, including physical symptoms and current medications. This intake paperwork is crucial to helping your therapist become aware of your presenting concerns, ie. emotional, psychological and physical symptoms, to paint a more holistic picture of who you are. The more whole the picture, the more effective the assessment, diagnosis and treatment process will be.
Knowledge is more than power when it comes to our healthcare decisions, it could be a life changer, a life saver. The research suggests that “there are multiple associations between mental health and chronic physical conditions that significantly impact people’s quality of life…” (Canadian Mental Health Association). For example, we often underestimate the impact of stress on our physical health. According to Dr. Lola Ashaye, a Family Medicine and Lifestyle Medicine at InTouch Primary Care Sugar Land TX, stress can actually make you physically ill. Dr. Ashaye explains that when we're stressed, it affects our body in many ways. It changes how our cardiovascular system works, how our metabolism functions, and even how our digestion works. It can also make us more sensitive to pain. These effects are widespread and contribute to 50 to 80% of illnesses, according to research studies. So, stress isn't just something we should brush off – it can have a real impact on our well-being.
Stress impacts our well-being in various ways, in particular our gut. Yes, you heard it right. Our gut. Scientific evidence reveals that there is a connection between the brain and the gut. John Hopkins Medicine describes this connection in their article “The Brain Gut Connection”, stating “ If you’ve ever “gone with your gut” to make a decision or felt “butterflies in your stomach” when nervous, you’re likely getting signals from an unexpected source: your second brain. Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, this “brain in your gut” is revolutionizing medicine’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think (2021). As our second brain, our gut is composed of nerve cells that line the digestive tract and “communicate back and forth with our big brain” (John Hopkins Medicine, 2021). Our digestive system experiences the weightiness of our emotional and psychological distress in a tangible, painful way that embodies the intimate communication between our brain and our gut.
To seek holistic health for ourselves and our loved ones, it is of utmost importance to understand how interrelated our mental and physical health is to make more informed healthcare decisions. Creating a collaborative treatment team of providers is a great place to begin to bridge the mind-body gap that exists in our communities and healthcare institutions. The bridge begins with you, the client!
Connection Between Mental and Physical Health. CMHA Ontario. (n.d.). https://ontario.cmha.ca/documents/connection-between-mental-and-physical-health/#:~:text=The%20associations%20between%20mental%20and,of%20developing%20poor%20mental%20health.
The brain-gut connection. JHM. (2021, November 1). https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-brain-gut-connection