Beyond dualism for improved mental health

In the early 1600’s the French philosopher Descartes argued in his thesis on mind-body dualism that the nature of the mind is completely different from that of the body. This distinction that the mind is somehow separate from the body – despite it being a 400 year old idea – still pervades today, not least in our continued differentiation between physical health and mental health. The logic of making such a distinction is aided by the language capacity of humans, in that language creates an inner-world of the ‘self’ that we hear through our own thoughts as ‘truths about the world’ (Hayes, 2019). The fact that we are able to conceptualise a ‘self’ that can observe the world ‘out there’ leads us to the conclusion that this self must be somehow separate from the physical. The continued belief that the mind and body are somehow separate has led us to treat them as disconnected entities. Illnesses of the body are treated by doctors whereas illnesses of the mind are treated by psychiatrists and psychologists, despite many holding the belief that our categorisation systems for mental disorders are inadequate (Bullmore, 2018).

Emerging ideas suggest that mental illnesses such as depression are actually symptoms of physical illness – caused by inflammation in the body as an infection response (Bullmore, 2018). Time will tell whether this is wholly accurate but it raises what many have intuitively believed for a long time – mental health is a physical issue. More specifically, mental health is ‘health’ and perhaps the labelling of it as separate to physical health is part of the problem.

I created the picture below a while ago to explain that mental health can be improved by top down (through thinking) and bottom up (through the body) strategies.

If we are to consider a more integrated model of health, it becomes necessary to replace mental health with health and consider both top down (psychological, spiritual) and bottom up (physical, nutritional) strategies as essential components of good physical health.

At Performance Mindsets Consulting, we have recognised that this requires a shift in thinking and a need to work across the traditional boundaries of physical and psychological health. This is why we partner with Saorsa – Beyond Fitness, who specialise in physical training to build events and experiences that integrate the physical and psychological needs of people in pursuit of improved health and fitness. From a psychological perspective, we firmly believe that struggle is normal and is something to be embraced, not avoided. It is our struggle that defines who we become.

We use physical challenges – such as obstacles like an eight foot wall – as metaphors for life’s challenges, and equip people with the skills of psychological flexibility and the physical capacity to move and train well. These things in combination help people pursue a life of meaning with increased vigour and courage. Saorsa is Scottish-Gaelic for ‘Freedom’ and we truly believe we are equipping people with a capacity for freedom in their lives.


  1. Bullmore, E. (2018). The Inflamed MindA radical new approach to depression. Simon & Schuster: Australia.
  2. Hayes, S. C. (2019). A Liberated Mind – The essential guide to ACT. Vermillion: London.

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