Linking mental and physical health with the power of social connection
The intricate connection between mental health and physical well-being has been at the forefront of health discussions globally.
Recent insights into the power of social connections, and the damage of loneliness, underscore this link, revealing the importance of community involvement for overall well-being.
So ‘the mentl space’ podcast sat down with fitness manager of Optimal Fitness in Dubai, Tony Deeney and Clinical Psychologist Dr. Thoraiya Kanafani (known as Dr. T), to explore that connection between the social, the physical and the mental.
Dr. T emphasised the innate social nature of human beings, saying, “We’re social creatures, right? We cannot live in isolation. There have been so many research studies of individuals who have tried to live by themselves, but they haven’t been able to succeed. So the fact that we have social connections and a sense of belonging, not just to other individuals but also to a community, encourages and flourishes our identity.”
The role of loneliness as a major health risk was discussed. Citing a report where the US Surgeon General equated the health impact of loneliness to that of tobacco, mentl founder Scott Armstrong underscored the need for a deeper understanding of our social fabric’s role in health.
Explaining how loneliness can show up in our physical and mental health, Dr. T noted, “we can develop physiological symptoms such as headaches, stomach problems, nausea, dizziness, we can even experience gut issues.” The interdependence of physical and mental health was highlighted with Dr. T asserting, “mental and physical health are the exact same thing.”
Optimal Fitness’s Deeney shared a personal anecdote about the value of a communal space like a gym in creating a sense of belonging and identity. He elaborated, “A gym environment is a great place for people to come and meet like-minded people. The group classes are a great way to do that. It’s that sense of achievement that gives them a purpose. We knew everyone’s first name, we made them feel valued when they’re here. That sense of community is very important for some people.”
From his personal experience, Deeney attested to the mental health benefits of physical exercise, stating, “It’s a big part of my life. It really does help with the times when you might be feeling a little bit down. You always have the gym, you sweat, and you can forget about your worries.”
Dr. T further underscored this point by explaining how the body responds to stress and exercise. “When you’re working out at the gym, you’re actually activating your sympathetic nervous system. But at the gym, you’re also releasing adrenaline and cortisol stored in the body from trauma or any kind of chronic stress.”
Summarising the process, she said, “You’re allowing your body to go from immobilisation stress into a sense of relaxation. And so that play that you have with exercise, where you’re increasing your sympathetic, and allowing everything to release from your body, allows your body to build more resilience to dealing with stress as you move forward in life.”
The podcast went on to discuss insights from:
- The body stores emotions from traumatic experiences, stress, and day-to-day difficulties.
- The autonomic nervous system plays a crucial role in the connection between mental and physical health. It consists of the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for “fight or flight” responses), the parasympathetic nervous system (controls “rest and digest” functions), and the enteric nervous system (often called the “second brain,” it regulates digestion and produces crucial neurotransmitters).
- Exercise activates the sympathetic nervous system, helping the body to release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Afterwards, the parasympathetic system kicks in, promoting relaxation and recovery.
- Regular exercise builds resilience to stress and contributes positively to mental health.
- Mental health shouldn’t be dismissed as “woowoo” or stigmatised, especially among men. It’s a scientifically backed concept with significant implications for our wellbeing.
- Both physical and mental health are interconnected and essential for overall wellbeing.
- There’s a “mind-muscle connection” when you exercise that goes beyond aesthetics and affects how you feel.
- Breathing exercises, like those in yoga, can help manage stress.
- He advocates for a holistic health approach, combining physical training, nutrition, therapy, and mental health practices.
- Both mental and physical health require consistent effort and training — they both need “reps.”
- High-performing athletes often leverage this connection between physical and mental health, which is a mindset that can benefit everyone, not just professional athletes.
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