One of the most common New Year’s resolutions people make is to get healthier. This can often mean increasing physical activity, make healthier food choices and losing weight. But others might want to improve their health by quitting smoking, drinking alcohol or using other drugs.
Any and all of these things will help improve a person’s physical health – and each can also have a positive impact on a person’s mental health as well. But while the link between physical and mental health is increasingly clear, quitting substance use can be more difficult. Looking a little more closely at each can help us understand why.
Doctors have known for years that physical activity stimulates the production of chemicals in the brain called endorphins, which help relieve stress and improve mood. This is important because one of the most common factors that can impact health is stress, and over time the negative effects of too much stress can be substantial.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, strain on the body from stress may not only lead to physical health problems including heart disease and high blood pressure, but also mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that regular physical activity can reduce the risk of depression, while also helping to keep thinking, learning and judgement skills sharp as people age.
Although people will gain the most benefit from exercising three to five times a week for 30 to 60 minutes, research has found there is a health benefit – physical and mental – to almost any type of physical activity. Even something as simple as walking can enhance your mood. Physical activity can also help people feel better about themselves, boosting confidence and self-esteem.
But as much as increasing physical activity may be difficult at first, quitting substances such as alcohol and other drugs can be more challenging. In fact, prolonged or heavy use of drugs or alcohol not only change the way people think but can result in changes to the brain itself.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), drug addiction is a chronic disease characterized by uncontrollable drug seeking and use that can cause harmful changes in the brain and can compromise a person's ability to choose not to use drugs.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) recognizes this as well, noting that changes in the brain’s wiring are what cause people to have intense cravings for the drug and make it hard to stop using the drug. According to the APA, people with addictive disorders may be aware of their problem, but be unable to stop it even if they want to.
In other words, although some people may be able to “kick the habit” on their own, most people with addictive disease will need help in order to stop using substances.
Of course, there are many factors that can impact mental health and the risk of substance use – including heredity, trauma and brain injury, among others – and not all are preventable. Nor does living a healthy lifestyle guarantee an individual will never have mental illness or a substance use disorder.
Still, good physical health may help reduce the risk of mental illness and substance use, help alleviate symptoms and is an important part of recovery. That’s why doctors treating mental illness and addiction almost always recommend exercise as part of an individual’s recovery plan.
Ultimately, your mind and body are connected on many levels – and being truly healthy includes both physical and mental health, and what you put in your body. If you are concerned you might be dealing with mental health issues or a substance use disorder, talk to your doctor or a local mental health clinic as soon as you can – because recovery is always possible.
Best wishes for a happy and mentally healthy New Year!
Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities in a 12-county region of northwest Georgia that includes Bartow, Cherokee, Floyd, Fannin, Gilmer, Gordon, Haralson, Murray, Paulding, Pickens, Polk and Whitfield counties.