Mind-Body Connection in Physical Therapy: Integrating Mental Health Practices

Catherine Ortega, EdD, PT, ATC, OCS
Posted 2/ 2/24

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Do you ever get the feeling that there are too many things to do? Do you question how you will avoid the burnout that so many people seem to be concerned about? Prioritizing overall health can assist with tackling these kinds of concerns. Basic pillars of health include sleep, movement and stress management.


With regard to sleep, ask yourself, “Do I feel rested when I wake-up in the morning?” Do you have a night routine? Are you able to unplug from your phone with enough time to let your mind and body settle before you try to go to sleep? Lack of sleep contributes to impaired memory and learning, suppressed immune system response, and negative mood, along with other adverse health factors. What can you do to get a better night of sleep? A few suggestions are: 1) limit caffeine in the evening, 2) do not schedule anything before your sleep time, 3) try to establish a regular nighttime and morning routine, so it becomes a habit for your body and mind, 4) stop using electronic devices at least 45 minutes before you get into bed.


What about movement? Physical therapy is a profession committed to getting people to move; so, as a practitioner, we should “walk the talk” and model what we are trying to get others to do. Ask yourself, “How often do I exercise? What kind of activities do I like to do?” The reason this is important is because time and time again, studies have found that exercise buffers the combined effects of stress, anxiety and depression (Hashim et al, 2023). The key to adding some movement in your life is to make it part of your schedule. Integrate it into your daily routine so that moving for 15 or 20 minutes becomes a habit. Remember that every step adds up, so marching in place counts. Walking across a parking lot, taking the stairs, it all adds up. Get moving with some consistency to help your body and mind release and relax.


Stress can be that consistent, niggling, daily drag on our system. Stress is also well-documented and shown to decrease immune system function, increase irritability, decrease concentration, decrease short-term memory, and impair other aspects of executive function. Take a moment and think about how your body feels when you’re stressed. How would you rate the level of stress that you have experienced in the last month, on a scale of 0 to 10? Is this above a 4? If so, time to pay attention and do something about this, for your well-being. For your health.

It is so easy to clump all this together and over-simplify issues. So easy to call it all mental health management. That said, stress management is a helpful starting point. Take some time to do something you enjoy. Try some mental health relaxation.

Mental Well-being

Taking some time each day to promote mental health is just as important as promoting our physical health. Elite gymnast Simone Biles brought attention to the importance of mental health when she opted to drop out of international competition, recognizing she was not at her best and needed to focus on her mental health. Though this may sound drastic, it serves as a crucial reminder of the importance of mental balance as part of overall fitness and daily function. 

Taking a small bit of “me time” each day is crucial for calming and focusing the mind. It doesn’t require much time; just a few minutes in the morning can make a big difference. Reflect on your current feelings and your day ahead. If negative thoughts arise, consider positive aspects and express gratitude for things like a comfortable bed, food, clothes, and shoes.

The Power of Breath

Breath is the essence of life and its management is fundamental to balance and health. Deep breathing, often overlooked as a therapeutic intervention, focuses on the rate of breathing, naturally slowing it down and diverting the mind from stress. Inhalation through the nose activates parasympathetic fibers, increasing oxygen levels in the blood and promoting healing. Exhalation releases carbon dioxide (CO2) and waste products. Whether you are breathing through the nose or mouth, various brain centers are impacted which affects mental awareness, consciousness, and internal balance. (AllenR, 2017; CayY, GoldbergJL, Change JL, 2020; RecintoC, etal 2017).

Nose breathing for inspiration is frequently linked with mouth breathing for exhalation to enhance exchange of full lung volume. It is helpful to breath in through the nose then slowly breath out through partly closed lips, using a 1:2 ratio for inhalation and exhalation. For example, breathe in for 4 seconds, then slowly breathe out through partly closed lips for 8 seconds. Note how after a few repetitions, your entire body begins to relax.

None of this is meant to over-simplify the concept of mental health and stress management, but rather to highlight the importance of balance to maintain good health. We can all strive for balance with our physical, emotional, and mental health for good personal and professional outcomes. Only by taking care of yourself will you be able to take care of others.

Interested in conquering time management during your journey through physical therapy school? Explore helpful tips in this article by my colleague, Scott Burns.