People who suffer serious mental illnesses (like PTSD) live shorter lives than the general population. According to The Journal of Clinical Psychology (2007;68[suppl 4]:26-33), they lose from 13 to over 20 years of life compared to mentally healthy people. Many factors contribute to reduced life expectancies for people with diseases like PTSD, anxiety and panic disorders.

One major problem is the multiple barriers that make it difficult for people with serious mental illness to get good quality health care. Many are unable to acquire and hold regular, full-time employment so, unless they can qualify as a dependent of a spouse or parent with medical insurance, they must depend on public assistance medical programs or pay cash (lots of it).

Then there's also the problem that, compared with the average American, people with serious mental illness are more likely to engage in unhealthy lifestyle practices.

-Mentally ill people often fail to get regular physical exercise, engage in poor eating habits (including overeating), and are more likely to be smokers and use/abuse other controlled substances (including alcohol).

-They often have irregular sleeping habits that lead to inadequate sleep.

-And many fail to schedule or show up for appointments with their health care practitioners.

These unhealthy behaviors, combined with the side-effects from the antipsychotic medications many take, increase their risk for cardiac and metabolic diseases.

People with serious mental illness are considered an at-risk population, with elevated medical morbidity (illnesses) and mortality (death) rates, mainly due to cardiovascular disease and, increasingly, complications of diabetes.

Because of these factors, their therapy must include assessment of medical risk factors, starting from their initial psychiatric evaluation. Prior to initiating antipsychotic therapy, the therapist should explain the risks of medications and alternative treatments, add preventive strategies and physical evaluation and ongoing monitoring.

Since even mentally healthy people eat for reasons other than hunger, it's no surprise that people suffering from anxiety, panic and stress eat more than their bodies require and eat high fat and sugary "junk" foods. Using food as a means of self-medicating, they're just trying to feel better!

And it's a vicious cycle. Deteriorating physical health contributes to poor self-image and feelings of isolation. And we all know, the less you exercise, the less you want to be physically active. It gets easier and easier to sit, alone, in front of the T.V. with your chips and soda instead of going out to take a walk or visit friends.

Therapy models that assist people with stress and anxiety disorders in making informed decisions about healthier lifestyle behaviors, including tobacco use, alcohol use and excess weight are evolving. The challenge is how to integrate them into routine behavioral health care.

Patients must be educated and motivated to participate in their own recovery. The stress reliving benefits of regular exercise and weight control are overwhelming. In addition, the cost of preventatives like walking shoes and gym memberships are minuscule compared to the costs of medical intervention to treat the symptoms. Check with your doctor but if they don't support you, find one who will help you get fit physically and mentally.

The growing problems of premature death and chronic physical illness, like diabetes and obesity, calls for all health care providers, both mental and physical, to work with patients who suffer from stress, anxiety and other mental illnesses in a more integrated way.

It's up to the therapist, the patients and their families to demand a holistic approach to bridge the existing gap between mental and physical health that improves and saves lives. But right now, get up and take a walk, go for a bike ride or participate in a yoga class! Whatever you can do to get up and moving will help ward off the mental affects of stress, anxiety and even PTSD and the physical problems of obesity.

Author's Bio: 

Dell deBerardinis is a psychotherapist in private practice in Texas. She specializes in helping people identify the roots of the problems that prevent them from living joyfully. Then she uses revolutionary techniques to help her clients free themselves from their anger, fears and anxieties!

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