How mental health affects physical health during pandemic

Posted at 11:41 AM, Nov 18, 2020

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — We've learned how the COVID-19 pandemic affects our mental health and many have experienced it firsthand.

But what about our physical health?

Dr. Timothy Ainger, a clinical neuropsychologist at UK HealthCare, says people often look at mental health and physical health as separate entities. In reality though, they are both controlled by the same thing: the brain. Making that connection of how one affects the other can help us pinpoint a problem we're facing and find a solution.

“When people are in a depressed state, they are showing decreased physical energy sometimes, but that's a reflection of the decreased mental energy that they're having and that can lead to less time spent exercising, less time and energy put forth into eating well, a weaker stress response, weaker immune responses, weaker energy, weaker ability to control their problem-solving skills, weaker issues focusing," Ainger said.

He added that those issues can result in a downward spiral, but can be turned around.

One of the more obvious impacts is a lack of energy leading to a lack of physical activity. This has been heightened by gym closures or the general fear of being exposed to the virus in a public place.

“The guidelines suggest that we should be active for about 150 minutes every week, which is about two-and-a-half hours of moderate activity,” said Dee Dlugonski.

Dlugonski works with the University of Kentucky's Sports Medicine Research Institute and says this activity can be as simple as a brisk walk. She also says it's not just important to think about how we can be active, but how inactive we are while at home.

“Sedentary behavior has its whole host of risks that are just sitting down,” she said. “Even if we just start by standing up more, trying to stand up once an hour or once every half hour... could really be helpful to your health.”

So, even if you're feeling down and don't have the energy for an intense workout, simple steps can build up and make a difference.

However, the way our body reacts to stress isn't always that obvious.

“Biochemically what happens in the body, when we're under stress and exhaustion is we're running a loop on our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and it has this stress response of things that we want to happen when we're in high stress or tense environments,” Ainger said. “We want our pupils to dilate. We want our guts to inhibit digestion. We want to release blood glucose.”

Ainger says COVID-19 fatigue has put many of us in a prolonged state of stress, making the body's reactions occur over a long period of time. That can make us more vulnerable to physical complications, which can lead to issues like hypertension, diabetes, or a weaker immune system.

So, even if you haven't noticed any physical health impacts over the last eight months, that doesn't mean they don't exist.

If you notice any changes in your health, in addition to finding any time to be active, it can help to talk openly with both a mental health and physical health professional to find the root of the issue.