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Why Your Physical Health Might Be Hurting Your Mental Health

If you live with a chronic illness or have survived a major health event, you know the experience can have unexpected consequences. For some, this can lead to negative feelings and emotions, and even mental health issues such as depression.

Sarah Laughon, MD, is a practicing psychiatrist and assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine. She’s also the director for the consultation-liaison psychiatry service at UNC Hospitals. That means she works with nurses and other medical staff treating patients in the hospital to make sure their mental health is being maintained along with their physical health.

“Our medical and surgical colleagues reach out to us when they are concerned about their patients’ behaviors. These behaviors may manifest in a number of ways and may be due to many different things,” Dr. Laughon says. “Patients may lack motivation to work with physical therapy or they aren’t eating; they might also be withdrawn or visibly upset and tearful.”

Dr. Laughon works with outpatient clinics as well. No matter the location, most of her patients are coping with a life-changing medical condition.

Life Isn’t the Same After a Medical Diagnosis

A variety of conditions can lead to low mood, unhappiness and depression, Dr. Laughon says. The key factor is often people feeling like they can’t enjoy life the way they used to.

Chronic pain could keep a grandfather from playing with his grandchildren. An injury could keep an athlete from playing the sport she loves. Complications from diabetes could require an amputation that changes how someone navigates life. A car accident or fire could alter a person’s appearance and affect how the world treats him. And of course cancer could bring anyone’s life to a standstill.

“If a person is physically limited, their quality of life is highly impacted,” Dr. Laughon says. “They often are not able to do the things they want, which can impact nearly all aspects of a person’s life.”

People with an illness may lose the ability to work and may struggle financially. People who have to stop driving give up some of their independence. Relying on family and friends can lead to excessive feelings of guilt.

“Patients can experience an increase or decrease in appetite that leads to weight gain or loss. Sleep can also be affected, which as we know has an enormous effect on how we feel,” Dr. Laughon says. “Even libido can be impacted, which has a big influence on mental health.”

Steps to Take Care of Your Mental Health

You can help protect and improve your mental health during or after an illness or injury with these strategies:

  • Be mindful of how you’re doing.

Be aware of any changes in your mood or negative feelings that could be symptoms of depression, such as a loss of interest in things that once made you happy, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, irritability or suicidal thoughts. If you have suicidal thoughts, get help immediately, either by calling 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.

  • Talk to your doctor about your mental health.

Talk to your doctor about your emotional well-being. Make sure he or she knows about changes in your life and about struggles you’re facing.

  • Embrace your treatment plan.

If you are diagnosed with depression or another mental health disorder, it’s important to find the right treatment plan for you. Just as your physical health requires many areas of work, your mental health does too, Dr. Laughon says.

“If you go to the cardiologist and he or she says you have heart disease, they might prescribe some medications,” Dr. Laughon says. “But they will also tell you to adjust your diet, get more exercise and maybe change some other lifestyle factors as well. Depression should be treated the same way. Medications have their place, but engaging in talk therapy, mindfulness or other types of meditation, along with better eating and sleeping practices is key.”

It’s good to take advantage of all resources available, which includes smartphone apps to improve your mental health, Dr. Laughon says. “These apps can help people develop new coping skills, improve mood and sleep, teach mindfulness, build resilience, and reduce stress.” It’s important to choose carefully; look for an app that was developed by mental health professionals and has a high number of positive reviews.

  • Develop a support network.

Choose friends and family members you want to share your struggles and experiences with and ask them to keep checking in with you.

Finding support groups where members are going through something similar can help guide you forward. “While many people’s individual experiences are unique, the feelings people experience are often quite common. Realizing you are not the only one with certain struggles, thoughts and emotions can often help people feel less alone and more supported,” Dr. Laughon says.

Many hospitals and organizations, such as the American Cancer Society and the American Diabetes Association, offer in-person groups and online forums. (Doctors can often recommend a group.) Having more than just your doctor to talk to about your mental health can have a big influence on how you feel.

Mental Health Problems Can Hurt Our Bodies

Just as your physical health can affect mental health, the opposite is true as well. If you are depressed, you may be less likely to stick to a healthy lifestyle, adhere to prescribed medications, engage in physical therapy or attend scheduled appointments with your doctor.

If your depression is undiagnosed or not maintained leading up to a surgery, it could also affect your recovery.

“It’s known for certain organ transplants that if a patient has a significant psychiatric diagnosis that isn’t well-treated, their risk of death or poor long-term outcomes after surgery is very high,” Dr. Laughon says. “We’ve gone to great lengths at UNC Medical Center to have mental health screening as a part of the process for kidney, lung and heart transplants, and we work with medical teams and their patients pre- and post-surgery.”

So if you have an upcoming surgery, it’s important to work on your mental health ahead of it. Talk to your doctor about developing a treatment plan or tweaking an existing plan to help prepare for surgery. Work on building a support network for your physical and emotional needs.

Surgery can be stressful even if everything goes perfectly. But if depression is well-managed before and after a surgery, there’s a better likelihood of a strong recovery, Dr. Laughon says.

And whether you’re facing surgery or not, the most important thing is to ask for help when you need it.

“While a person may not hesitate to seek help for a physical condition, unfortunately many are reluctant to seek help for mental health conditions. People may see this as a weakness or something they should be able to fix themselves,” Dr. Laughon says. “But treatment for depression and other psychological suffering is available. When patients neglect to get help for mental health conditions, their physical health also suffers.”


If you need help managing a chronic illness and/or a mental health condition, talk to your doctor. If you need a doctor, find one near you.