The importance of mental health and how it affects your body

24 October 2022 dot 6-minute read
Mental health Feel Well Healthy Mind Physical health Feature
Taking care of your mental health does not have to be a solo effort. (Credit: AIA) 
In 2020, AIA published a study called "Healthier Together," which conducted surveys and interviews with experts across the Asia-Pacific region. This is what the findings revealed: people saw caring for their mental health as vital to achieving good physical health.
The study identified eight ingredients that impact people the most in leading Healthier, Longer, Better Lives. When AIA asked survey respondents to identify the most critical of the eight, the top answer across all markets was having an optimistic outlook. Optimism was defined as looking for the positive things in everyday situations and finding joy and gratitude in what you have now.  
While a positive mindset includes not letting the negativity of the past affect your future, it does not mean forcing a smile in difficult situations and ignoring what is going on. Instead, you must learn how to manage your emotions effectively for better mental health.

Stress response

Stressed out by commuting? After stepping off the train, breathe in, tense your body, hold for 10 seconds and then slowly breathe out. (Credit: Getty Images)
One step you can take towards building an optimistic outlook is setting aside time to examine your stress response cycle. Dr Emily Nagoski and Dr Amelia Nagoski – twin sisters who co-authored "Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle" – describe stress as a "tunnel". In this tunnel, you must work through uncomfortable feelings to make it out to the other end.
Stress is not necessarily bad for you. The Drs Nagoski point out that the problem is getting stuck in the middle (of the stress tunnel) or "never having an opportunity to take your body through the cycle."
For the Nagoskis, it's essential to know the difference between your stressors (the things that cause your stress) and stress itself – the physiological reaction that occurs in your body in response to any perceived threat.
If commuting is an unpleasant experience, your entire body may go into stress mode – from your digestion to your immune system – as you prepare to board a train or bus. You feel relief once you get off because the stressor (in this case, the commute) is gone.
But eliminating the stressor does not really take care of your body in the long term. After all, you will commute again and put your body through the same conditions. So, you'll need to know how to tend to your physiological health because, ultimately, you can't avoid stress altogether.

Physical symptoms of stress

Listen to your body, which will tell you when it needs tending. When you find yourself overwhelmed, your body produces higher-than-normal levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones push you to power through difficult situations but can also cause problems for your body when you're faced with unrelenting stress. 
You'll notice the following physical manifestations in stressful situations:
  • Headaches
  • Neck and shoulder pain
  • Back pain 
  • Upset stomach
  • Lump in the throat
  • Heavy chest
  • Tight muscles
  • Lack of sleep
  • Fatigue
Some people may develop a cold, experience skin rashes or have bowel problems when they are under too much stress. Stress may even trigger asthma attacks and increase the risk of hypertension, heart attack or stroke.
Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional if you're experiencing these physical symptoms. While they may be related to the state of your mental wellness, it is possible that they can also be symptoms of another underlying health condition.
Chronic stress can damage your respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, nervous and reproductive systems. If you are at high risk for stroke, diabetes or heart disease, having medical protection insurance can help alleviate your stress about the future.    

How to support your mental health

Taking care of your physical health is always great news for your mental health. Here are three concrete steps you can take today.

1. Make time to exercise

Exercise has always been known as an immune system and mental health booster. (Credit: Getty Images) 
Working out doesn't have to be intense. Walking, swimming, dancing or any other activity that improves your heart rate can help reduce anxiety and other stress-related emotions. You can exercise as little as 30 minutes a day, three to four times a week. 
Neuroscientists say a single workout lifts the mood because it immediately increases neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline, also known as happy chemicals.

2. Get seven hours of sleep

Sleep helps the body recover and recharge. If you are unable to sleep well, you may feel sluggish both physically and mentally. You may find it challenging to focus, become forgetful and get easily irritated. In addition, insufficient sleep leads to an increased production of cortisol – a hormone that keeps your body in a state of stress.
When you are constantly deprived of rest, the ensuing high-stress levels can lead to anxiety and other mood disorders. If you have been diagnosed with depression or mental health issues, lack of sleep may worsen your symptoms.      
Talk to a doctor or mental health professional to help you figure out what's causing your lack of sleep. In the meantime, having a bedtime routine can help your body prepare for sleep, training your mind to know when it is time to relax.

3. Engage with people who make you feel comfortable

Sharing a healthy diet with other people keeps your blood sugar steady and puts you in a good mood. (Credit: Getty Images) 
Find the person with whom you can have meaningful and judgment-free conversations. The chance to reflect on your day with a supportive companion can help with burnout, relieve stress and build your resilience.
It doesn't have to be a one-on-one conversation. Having lunch or dinner regularly with family and friends allows you to connect. Talking and listening will help you slow down, take your mind off stressful matters and reap the benefits of community and social interaction.
Having a positive mindset is tough when you're under a lot of stress. Most of the time, you can probably manage to push away negative thoughts and sort out your emotions after taking a break. However, when your thoughts turn despondent, even in the absence of your stressors, this may sometimes lead to serious issues for your mental health.
When these kinds of feelings take hold of you, so much so that you cannot sleep, find your appetite affected or are constantly tired, consult a doctor or mental health professional. 
Poor mental health and lack of sleep often go hand in hand, says Asher Low, a mental health advocate and a member of the AIA Voices community. Watch as Low explains the connection.
AIA Voices is a community of influential and educational voices from around Asia to talk about life, health and wellness. A platform to educate, motivate and inspire people to make positive behavioural changes on their health and wellness journey. Providing an opportunity for communities across Asia to connect, collaborate, and learn from each other. Designed to drive AIA One Billion, our ambition to engage a billion people to live Healthier, Longer, Better Lives by 2030.
AIA. AIA Healthier Together Study and Survey. [online] [Accessed on 10 June 2022]
World Health Organization. April 29, 2020 Doing What Matters in Times of Stress: An Illustrated Guide. [online] [Accessed on 10 June 2022]
TED. June 14, 2021. The cure for burnout [online] [Accessed on 10 June]
TED. November 2017. The brain-changing benefits of exercise. [online] [Accessed on 10 June 2022]
American Psychological Association. November 1, 2018. Stress effects on the body. [online] [Accessed on 10 June 2022]
Journal of Affective Disorders. March 15, 2019. Examining a training effect on the state anxiety response to an acute bout of exercise in low and high anxious individuals. [online] [Accessed on 10 June 2022]
Biological Psychology. March 2018. Exercise reduces depression and inflammation but intensity matters. [online] [Accessed on 10 June 2022]
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. May 6, 2022. Mental Health. [online]   [Accessed on 10 June 2022]

This is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a financial adviser, or medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.