What is mental health?

Mental health is an umbrella term used to describe a variety of psychological conditions and emotions. Statistics show that over 50% of adults in the UK believe they have suffered from a diagnosable mental health problem at some point in their life. This article will focus on three of the more common conditions: anxiety, depression, and stress.

 

What is depression?

Depression can best be described as a constant feeling of sadness or low mood.

It’s common for people to go through periods of feeling sad or low. In these cases, it’s usually triggered by something you can pinpoint and goes away relatively quickly. But with depression you might:

  • find it hard to pinpoint the cause
    feel persistently low for weeks or months

Depression is the biggest mental health disorder globally.

What are the symptoms of depression?

Depression not only impacts your mental state — symptoms are often both psychological and physical.

Common psychological symptoms include:

  • being unable to enjoy activities that normally make you happy
  • hopelessness
  • a decrease in your self-esteem
  • feeling tearful
  • feeling guilt-ridden
  • feeling irritable and intolerant of others

Common physical symptoms include:

  • low energy
  • loss of sex-drive
  • aches and pain
  • difficulty sleeping
  • lack of appetite

What causes depression?

The causes of depression can vary. It might be triggered by big life events, like losing a loved one.
Or it could be a series of seemingly unconnected events that cause you to slowly descend into a depressed state. This domino effect can be hard to spot — it’s often friends or family who spot depression.

Common factors that can play a part in or spark depression are:

  • stressful events — like the end of a relationship or losing your job
  • personality traits — like low self-esteem or being very critical of yourself
  • family history — like having a sibling or parent who has suffered from depression
  • childbirth — some females can develop postnatal depression
  • loneliness — being cut off from friends and family also increases the risk
  • illnesses — some illnesses like heart disease, cancer, or head injuries might affect your mental health
  • alcohol and drugs — these can worsen your mental state and make it harder to cope long-term

Some research also suggests a link between inflammation in your body and symptoms of depression.

How to test for depression

If you feel depressed for most of the day for more than two weeks, you should see your GP. Your GP will ask you some questions about your symptoms. They might also carry out urine or blood tests to rule out other conditions — for example, an underactive thyroid. You can also begin by taking the NHS depression self-assessment questionnaire.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, worry, or fear. It’s an increasingly common condition in the UK, with about 22% of women and 15% of men feeling anxious all or most of the time.

It’s normal to feel anxious from time to time. But anxiety becomes a serious issue when it persists and affects your daily life. This is called an anxiety disorder.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

Like depression, the symptoms of anxiety can be both physical and psychological.

Common psychological symptoms include:

  • restlessness
  • feelings of dread
  • feelings of guilt or shame
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irritability

Your symptoms might make you less social and you might find work more difficult and stressful.

Common physical symptoms include:

  • dizziness
  • tiredness
  • trembling or shaking
  • dry mouth
  • heart palpitations
  • shortness of breath
  • feeling sick
  • pins and needles
  • difficulty sleeping

Some people might have only one or two symptoms, while others can have much more.

What are the different types of anxiety?

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
The is the most common type of anxiety which involves worrying about lots of different things. You might also feel on edge, get tired easily, and have trouble concentrating.

It’s common to have depression or other anxiety disorders if you have GAD.

Panic disorder
This means you suffer from regular panic attacks — caused by no particular trigger.

Common symptoms of panic disorder include:

  • a sense of dread or fear
  • chest pain or heart palpitations
  • hot flushes or chills
  • feeling that you might be dying or having a heart attack
  • ringing in your ears
  • numbness or pins and needles
  • shortness of breath

Some people might experience an anxiety attack. While a lot of the symptoms are similar to a panic attack, they’re different things. Unlike a panic attack, an anxiety attack tends to build up gradually and is related to something stressful or threatening. The symptoms might also be less severe.

Social anxiety disorder
This type of anxiety causes you to have an intense fear or dread of social or performance situations — before, during, or after the event. This is also known as social phobia.

Common situations include public speaking, meeting new people, dating, or eating in public.

Phobias
A phobia is an overwhelming fear of a particular object or situation. If you have a phobia you might find yourself arranging your day to avoid the thing that causes you anxiety.

There are lots of types of phobias — for example, a fear of spiders, a fear of blood, a fear of heights, and a fear of choking.

Other conditions where anxiety is present include:
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — anxiety caused by a very stressful, frightening, or distressing situation

What causes anxiety?

There are no specific causes of anxiety but certain factors might increase your risk of developing it. These factors might include genetics, stressful life experiences, caffeine, alcohol, and other drugs.

How to test for anxiety

Anxiety is a very complex issue so, there’s no simple test for it.

If anxiety is affecting your daily life you should see your GP. They’ll ask you about your symptoms and might do a physical examination, run some blood tests to rule out other conditions, and also do a series of physical and mental tests too.

What is stress?

Stress is what happens when your body reacts to a difficult situation — triggering the release of stress hormones, called your fight-or-flight response. The hormone levels temporarily rise and then drop again to normal.

In small doses, the two hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) are both healthy and natural — they give you strength and energy. Stress only becomes an issue when it lasts for a long period of time, as too much exposure to cortisol can damage your body.

In some cases, your body can release the hormones even in situations that aren’t actually dangerous, like a traffic jam. If this happens a lot, it’s likely that your body’s stress response system is constantly fired up — meaning you’re constantly exposed to cortisol. This is called chronic stress.

Side effects of chronic stress
Long-term, raised cortisol levels can lead to:

  • weight gain
  • sugar cravings
  • digestive issues
  • high blood pressure
  • difficulty sleeping
  • fatigue
  • poor concentration
  • irritability
  • a weakened immune system

It can also increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease, weak bones, and mood disorders, like depression.

How to test for stress

While it’s easy to tell if you feel stressed or not, you can take a saliva test to find out your cortisol levels. This might help tell you whether your everyday stress is having a negative impact on your health.

Tips for improving your mental health

If you’re suffering from mental health issues, your GP or psychotherapist will give you personalised advice on things you can do to improve your health. But there are a number of lifestyle changes that can also help.

Eat a balanced diet
Focus on eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and essential fatty acids (found in oily fish). These help keep your brain healthy and balance your stress hormones.

Also, because your gut and your brain are closely linked (in what’s called the gut-brain axis) what you eat might affect your mental health.

Practice mindfulness
Things like yoga or mindfulness can improve your overall wellness and reduce feelings of anxiety or stress.

Connect with family and friends
Having a strong social support group and connecting with family and friends is a great way to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress. It also helps build confidence and a sense of community-= — both factors that help mental health.

Get enough sleep
Aim for at least 7 hours of sleep every night. If you find it hard to get enough sleep, a short nap can sometimes help.

Exercise regularly
Aim for at least 75 vigorous minutes of activity or 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week. Including some strength training is important too — aim for two sessions a week.

Avoid too much alcohol
Drinking too much can worsen your mental health long-term so try not to drink more than 14 units a week — about 6 pints of beer or 7 glasses of wine.

References

Black, C. N., Bot, M., Scheffer, P. G., Cuijpers, P., & Penninx, B. W. (2015). Is depression associated with increased oxidative stress? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 51, 164-175.

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NHS. 10 Stress busters. Retrieved 20 August 2019 from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/reduce-stress/

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Mental Health.org. Statistics. Retrieved 20 August 2019 from https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/.

Dantzer, R., O’Connor, J. C., Freund, G. G., Johnson, R. W., & Kelley, K. W. (2008). From inflammation to sickness and depression: When the immune system subjugates the brain. Nature reviews neuroscience, 9(1), 46.

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