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Mental wellbeing enhances resilience and protects against disease

Mental wellbeing protects against mental (1) and physical (2) health problems by:

  • Increasing resilience (3) to common emotional, social and financial stressors
  • Increasing protective factors such as academic achievement (4) (5) and participation in community life (6),
  • Reducing risk factors including sickness absence and poor productivity, (7) and risk taking behaviour (8).

The prevention of mental illness is achieved often more effectively when programmes aim to promote mental wellbeing at population level as well as to prevent disease. This is particularly so for programmes to promote mental health in childhood.

Mental wellbeing enhances health through mind-body links

Neuroscientific advances over the last half century have demonstrated that the brain and body do not operate independently of one another. Neurotransmitters in the brain are mirrored all over the body, and receptor sites in the body and brain both respond to the same locally and globally delivered neuropeptides. (9) It would appear that emotions, conscious or unconscious, have physiological manifestations, and many of the pathways by which emotions could influence physical health have been described. (10)

The best recognised of these relate to the stress response and involve the neurotransmitters adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. (11) (12) The stress response regulates blood flow in the body, the immune response, digestive processes and reparative mechanisms, all of which play a part in disease. Persistent stress creates what has been called ‘allostatic load’ and sub-optimal functioning leading eventually, as it does in any other system, to breakdown of physical health.

Levels of emotional or psychological distress responsible for physical health problems can fall far short of diagnosable mental illness. They are manifest in ordinary every day time pressure, in interpersonal difficulties at home and at work that are not easily resolved, in worries about making ends meet and finding and keeping satisfying gainful employment.

Evidence based interventions to reduce stress

An early but expanding research base is providing evidence relating to mechanisms for moderating stress and controlling its effects on the body including relaxation exercises and mindfulness, (13) (14) yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong, (15) exposure to the natural environment, (16) practising heart rate coherence, (17) positive social contact and touch, (18) smiling and laughter, (19) and sleep. (20)

Tackling individual level stress affects social wellbeing

Other neuro-scientific advances have demonstrated possible mechanisms for the transmission of emotions between individuals. Emotional states are arguably as infectious as communicable diseases. The identification of mirror neurones (21) (neurones which fire when an individual watches another executing an action or experiencing emotions, and which also fire when the watcher executes the same action or experiences the same emotion), although not without controversy, provide a fascinating mechanism which could account for this ‘infectious’ component of emotions and ultimately the inter-relationship between individual mental wellbeing and collective or social wellbeing.


1) Kidd JM. Mental capital and wellbeing making the most of ourselves in the 21st century. UK Government Office for Science. Report No:SR-C10,2008

2) Cohen S, Pressman SD. Positive affect and health. Curr Direct Psychol Sci 2006; 15:122-5.

3) Friedi L. Mental health, resilience and inequalities. WHO Europe.2009.

4) NICE. Promoting children’s social and emotional well-being in primary education, HN12. London. 2008.

5) NICE. Promoting young people’s social and emotional well-being in secondary education, 2009.

6) Huppert FA. Psychological well-being: Evidence regarding its causes and consequences. Foresight State-of-Science Review: SR-X2, 2008.

7) Harter JK, Schmidt Fl, Keyes CLM. Well-being in the workplace and its relationship to business outcomes: a review of Gallup Studies; 2003.

8) Keyes CLM. Promoting and protecting mental health as flourishing. American Psychologist 2007; 62: 1-14.

9) Candace BC, Molecules of Emotions, Why you feel the way you feel. New York: Touchstone Publishing; 1999.

10) Anthony D. Pathways linking positive emotion and health in later life. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2010 ;19 (6): 358-362.

11) McEven BS, Lasley EN. The end of stress as we know it. Dona Foundation; 2001

12) Du Dusek JA, Otu HH, Wohlbueter AL, Bhasin M, Zerbini LF, Joseph MG, Benson H, Libermann TA, Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response, Plos One; 2008

13) H Horowitz A. Origin’s Origin, Ethology, 2010;116(4):381-382

14) Shapiro SL, Carlson LE. The Art and Science of Mindfulness: Integrating Mindfulness Into Psychology and the Helping Professions. Washington DC: American Psychological Association; 2010

15) Sanduland ES, Norlander T. The effects of Tai Chi Chuan and wellbeing. International Journal of Stress Management 2000; 7: 139-149

16) Faculty of Public Health. Great outdoors: How our natural health services uses green space to improve wellbeing. UK. Faculty of Public Health; 2010

17) McCraty R, Atkinson M, Tomosino D. Impact of work place stress reduction program on blood pressure and emotional health in hypertensive employees. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 2003; 9(3) :355-369

18) Unvas-Moberg K. Oxytocin may mediate the beneifits of positive social interactions and emotions. Psychoendocrinology 1998; 23(8): 819-835

19) Keltner 2009

20) Diekelmann S,Born J. The memory functions of sleep. Nature review Neuroscience, 11(2)2010.

21) Rizzolatti G, Sinigaglis C. Mirrors and the brain: how our minds share actions and emotions. Oxford: Oxford university Press; 2008

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