In 1992, John Gray published the best-selling book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. In it Gray writes about how men and women are wired differently, specifically about the way they adapt to situations, handle stress, ask for support, and communicate. Since then, there have been several other books and research publications on how women’s’ brains are wired differently from men’s’.
Mind-body connections refer to how our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and attitudes can positively or negatively affect our body functions. Each thought can set off a cascade of cellular reactions within our nervous system that influence the molecular pathways in our body. Scientific research can now prove that mind-body interventions can also be used to help augment conventional medical therapies.
The neuroscience of wellness and the undeniable connections between the mind and body have long been neglected in modern medicine. Below is a representation of how I would look at wellness
Image: Social Wellness and how it contributes to mental and physical wellness
To rethink women’s Mental Health, we need to first understand how gender is a key determinant of mental health. Women suffer from common mental disorders like depression, anxiety and somatic complaints more than men. Per some research, depression may be more persistent in women than men.
Women are also more disproportionately exposed to sexual violence and hence have a higher rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Women’s hormones, reproductive cycles and emotional and social experiences affect decisions about administration of medication, therapy and wellness programs. Several women face symptoms of depression during pregnancy and post-partum. Premenstrual moods and emotional changes during menopause are common amongst women. The concerns and fears around breast cancer, uterine cancer and other gynecologic problems should also be considered when medical and wellness programs are structured.
With inadequate access to mental healthcare and the social stigma tied to mental disorders, women require more targeted wellness approaches.
Physical Health is closely tied to one’s emotional health. Poor emotional health can lead to a weakened immune system. Facing stress, anxiety or abuse can likely affect your body in several ways and manifest as physical symptoms like back pain, change in appetite, chest pain, headaches, constipation or diarrhea and insomnia. The relationship between environmental factors (E.g.: social interactions and lifestyle choices) and your physical health via gene expression is now a major area of study called Epigenetics. Understanding how women adapt to these changes and utilizing it to structure wellness programs could be vital to target populations who are more susceptible to chronic diseases in the future.
The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week. There are several reasons why women may not meet this. Lack of motivation and a sedentary lifestyle can hinder their involvement with fitness initiatives. Interventions that could help involve women in physical activities should be built into communities. Group activities like daily walks in community parks and group yoga classes could improve not only their mental health but also reduce chances of chronic illnesses.
Social Health refers to one’s ability to interact with people around them. It involves using good communication skills, respecting others around you and creating a support system of family and friends. Social wellness encompasses and is closely tied to mental and physical wellness. Social relationships affect mental and physical health and vice versa. Sociologists have established that there is a link between health outcomes and social relationships. Effects of social relationships emerge in childhood and cascade throughout life to foster a cumulative advantage or disadvantage in health.
Neuroscience and neuroimaging have found that there are significant and measurable changes in people as a result of their social interactions. The concept of neuroplasticity explains that the brain can change and isn’t fixed in its working. The changes in our social environment and experiences play a key role in governing an individual’s resilience to future adversities. Tied to mental and physical well-being, there is growing research to support the role of cognitive therapy and physical exercises on altering neuro-plasticity and thereby improving these two aspects of a women’s life. Understanding these differences between communication patterns is key to more targeted wellness approaches. Physical and mental wellness programs need to involve communities. Support groups have long been used to bring together people facing similar situations. They have helped people gain a sense of empowerment and feel less isolated and lonely during a crisis.
“There is no one giant step that does it. It’s a lot of little steps.” Bridging the gap between the bench (neuroscience) and the bedside (wellness interventions) and engaging in open conversations about the mental, physical and social well-being of women can help tackle take us further in our journey towards tackling several unmet needs in healthcare.