Mental wellbeing enhances resilience and protects against disease
- 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.
3) Friedi L. Mental health, resilience and inequalities. WHO Europe.2009.
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