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The secret to better health? Treating mind and body

Portrait image of Dr. Paz By Hal Paz, MD, MS

Man and woman hiking

Most people know that our current health care system draws a hard line between mental and physical health. Cancer and heart disease are physical. Depression and anxiety are mental. But that distinction isn’t totally accurate. And that misconception matters ― or should matter ― to doctors and patients alike. 

Why is the mind-body connection so important?
Recognizing how the mind and body overlap allows us to treat all kinds of health issues more effectively. I’ll give you two very different examples. First, studies show that people with heart disease experience more cardiac symptoms, both in number and severity, when they feel under stress. So treating physical causes and symptoms is only half the job. Patients also need emotional support to help them cope with the burden of illness.

Read about the psychology of heart-healthy behavior.

Now consider mental illness. We know that people can be predisposed to depression by their genes, physical illness, life experience or a combination. A successful treatment plan addresses both the physical factors ― such as chemical imbalance in the brain ― and the emotional elements. 

This holistic approach applies to other conditions besides depression. I’m thinking of the opioid epidemic. Addiction is a chronic physical illness by definition, but it has an emotional component as well. Some addicts are self-medicating for mental health disorders. To prevent a relapse, you need to treat those underlying issues. 

Who is watching out for your mental health?
Since the 1960s, doctors have been taught that what goes on in the brain is separate from what goes on in the body. As a result, psychiatry isn’t fully integrated into our health care system. It’s considered another specialty, like cardiology or oncology. This first came to my attention when I regularly saw patients as a pulmonologist. Who else is going to ask someone with pulmonary fibrosis how they are coping with carrying around an oxygen tank? 

Shifting to a system that treats the whole person will be a real challenge. But there are care settings where health professionals are already attuned to these things. At the Veterans Administration hospital where I volunteer, doctors recognize that traumatic injuries can influence mood, and that mood influences physical healing. They also see how physical and emotional challenges have a profound impact on someone’s ability to be successful at work and in social relationships. 

Outside the VA, specialists often assume that a patient’s primary doctor is exploring questions about stress or mood. But only 40% of Americans have a primary care physician, and far fewer have a psychiatrist or therapist. To ensure individuals get complete care, all doctors need to be asking more questions and making referrals to mental health resources. We share responsibility for our patients’ wellbeing. 

What can you do as a patient to get the care you need?
Confident, empowered patients who ask questions and push for clear answers often experience better health outcomes. Here’s how you can enhance your mental and emotional well-being:

  • Find a primary care doctor you trust. Develop a good relationship with him or her. The best ones take a broader view of your health, rather than seeing each symptom in isolation.
  • Get comfortable talking about emotions. Make stress, anxiety and coping strategies regular topics of conversation with your health care providers. 
  • Take advantage of mental health programs and treatments. Compared to a decade or two ago, we have more advanced medications and non-pharmacological therapies. And we have a greater understanding of the meaningful benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy (a form of talk therapy) for patients with depression.

This whole-person approach to wellness is the reason Aetna offers members many mind-body programs. Personalized strategies emphasize the importance of mindfulness, getting more sleep and reducing stress. Not long ago, those life strategies were viewed as irrelevant to a person’s health care. But these are all things that boost one’s mood. An added bonus? They make a huge difference in improving physical health.

Read about Aetna's partnership with the Campaign to Change Direction, a national initiative to raise awareness about mental and emotional health.

The more we focus on understanding the interaction of physical and emotional health, the better we’ll be at anticipating and treating complex issues. You can help yourself and your doctor by being open about any emotional challenges. Together we can create a new health care model that treats the whole person, not just brains and bodies.

About the author

Dr. Paz is Aetna’s executive vice president and chief medical officer. In that role, he leads policy decisions and drives innovations to improve patient experience. He is trained as a pulmonologist, a specialist who focuses on people with lung conditions.