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Causes of Mental Illness: Spiritual vs Physical

Mental illness, also called mental health disorders, refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behaviour. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviours. [1]

Physical: relating to the body as opposed to the mind. “A range of physical and mental challenges" [2]

Causes of Mental Illness

● Inherited traits: Mental illness is more common in people whose blood relatives also have a mental illness. Certain genes may increase your risk of developing a mental illness, and your life situation may trigger it.

● Environmental exposures before birth: Exposure to environmental stressors, inflammatory conditions, toxins, alcohol or drugs while in the womb can sometimes be linked to mental illness.

● Brain chemistry: Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring brain chemicals that carry signals to other parts of your brain and body. When the neural networks involving these chemicals are impaired, the function of nerve receptors and nerve systems change, leading to depression and other emotional disorders. [3]

Mental illness is common. About 1 in 5 adults has a mental illness in any given year. Mental illness can begin at any age, from childhood through later adult years, but most cases begin earlier in life. The effects of mental illness can be temporary or long lasting. You also can have more than one mental health disorder at the same time. For example, you may have depression and a substance use disorder. [3] The connection of spirituality and physicality being the cause of mental illness goes through so many perceptions of the human mind.

Spiritual link to Mental Illness?

Being spiritual may give life deeper meaning, but it can also make you more susceptible to mental illness, new research suggests. A study found that people professing to be spiritual, but not conventionally religious, were more likely to suffer from a host of mental challenges. They suffered problems including abnormal eating conditions, drug abuse, anxiety disorder, phobias and neurosis. They were also more likely than others to be taking medication for mental health problems.

However, it is equally valid to conclude that mental health problems cause people to develop a spiritual understanding of life, potentially through searching for alternative answers and explanations for their problems (as the American blues singer Bonnie Raitt put it, ‘Religion is for people who are scared to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there’). [4]

Until the early 19th century, psychiatry and religion were closely connected. Religious institutions were responsible for the care of the mentally ill. A major change occurred when Charcot1 and his pupil Freud associated religion with hysteria and neurosis. This created a divide between religion and mental health care, which has continued until recently. Psychiatry has a long tradition of dismissing and attacking religious experience. Religion has often been seen by mental health professionals in Western societies as irrational, outdated, and dependency forming and has been viewed to result in emotional instability. [5]

Researchers also found that those surveyed described using positive religious coping, negative religious coping or experiences, discussed their relationship with God/Higher Power and unpacked the role of their support systems and faith. [5] Positive religious coping included prayer, reading religious texts, support from their religious and spiritual communities and identifying religious and spiritual meaning in difficult situations. [5] Negative religious coping or experiences included having a negative experience with a religious organization not being supportive or receiving hurtful messages from the religious community. [5]

Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels

Physical link to Mental Illness

The brain is part of your body just like your legs or your heart, mental illnesses are brain-based conditions that affect thinking, emotions, and behaviours’. Since we all have brains – having a mental health problem at some point during your life is common. [6]

Unlike other general physical illnesses, mental illnesses are related to problems that start in the brain. The brain is an organ. Just like any other organs in our body, it can experience changes (healing or injury) based on life experiences like stress, trauma, lack of sleep, and nutrition. Generally, when someone has a mental illness, something has changed in such a way that their brain and the way that it works has also changed. [6]

Mental illnesses can affect the rest of your body. Because of changes in physical activity, sleep or other factors still being researched, people with mental illness are more likely to be at risk for other physical illnesses, like diabetes or pain. Ultimately it is important to remember that it’s not one or the other, physical or mental, but that your whole body is interconnected. Therefore, taking a whole-body approach to getting healthier is so important. People who pay attention to their sleep, what they eat, or increasing exercise along with tackling negative moods and thoughts can reach greater improvements in their quality of life and their symptoms, you might have heard of having a “fight or flight” response to danger. When we see danger, our bodies get ready to either fight the danger (fight) or run away (flight). [6]

Our bodies become filled with two stress hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. This increases heart rate and blood pressure, suppresses the digestive system, and affects the immune system. This is meant to help us exert a lot of physical energy, which we’d need if we were fighting or running away from danger. After the threat goes away, our bodies usually return to a resting state. This is an evolutionary response that’s meant to keep you safe. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it helps you avoid or deal with danger. [7]

“A certain level of anxiety known as ‘optimal anxiety’ can be very helpful in raising one’s motivation to an optimal level,” Manley explains. “In this way, anxiety — and the bit of stress it creates — provides the energy and interest required to complete many daily tasks.” But if you’re in a constant state of stress or anxiety, it can wreak havoc on your body (headaches, migraine, muscle tension and soreness, digestive issues, sleep issues). [7]

A distinction between mental and physical illness is still made, both by the lay public and by many doctors, and the terms ‘mental disorder’ and ‘mental and behavioural disorder’ are still used in the two most widely used official nomenclatures, the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases (ICD) and the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). This has the unfortunate effect of helping to perpetuate two assumptions that have long since been abandoned by all thinking physicians, namely that mental disorders are disorders of the mind rather than the body, and that they are fundamentally different from other illnesses. [8]

It is important to know that both physical and spiritual are factors that sum up causes of mental illness. Our lives are greatly affected by the both factors we greatly depend on to survive and it gives willingness to rely on.


2. Mayo Dictionary Definition of physical [Internet] Mayo Clinic. [cited on 18 November 2020]. Available from:

3. Causes of mental illness. Indian J Psychiatry. 2008.[cited on 18 November 2020]. Available from:

4. 2. Spirituality 'link' to mental illness [Internet]. 2020 [cited 18 November 2020]. Available from:

5. Simon Dein P. Religion, Spirituality, and Mental Health [Internet]. Psychiatric Times. 2010 [cited 18 November 2020]. Available from:

6. Is mental illness physical or mental? [Internet]. MHA Screening - Mental Health America. 2020 [cited 18 November 2020]. Available from:,that%20start%20in%20the%20brain

7. Ferguson S. Yes, Mental Illness Can Cause Physical Symptoms — Here's Why [Internet]. Healthline. 2020 [cited 18 November 2020]. Available from:

8. International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems [Internet]. 10th ed. Geneva: World Health Organization (WHO); 2010 [cited 18 November 2020]. Available from:

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