In recent years the subject of mental health has been gaining more and more publicity, as we start to become both more conscious of the effects mental health have on our general wellbeing, and also more accepting. Removing the long held stigma surrounding mental health is paramount to us being able to research, treat and, most importantly, prevent the often complex diseases surrounding mental health. Amazingly, since 1949 the US have run their Mental Health Awareness Month in May, but it is only in the last decade that people have really started to accept mental health as an intrinsic part of our overall health. The UK also host Mental Health Awareness Week from 14th-20th May. The US are focussing on fitness, with the hashtag #4mind4body, highlighting the impact of good exercise and physical wellbeing on the mind, whilst the UK are exploring stress. Whilst not a mental health problem in itself, when stress is not dealt with effectively it is potentially the largest cause of mental health issues today. We wanted to explore both of these themes this May, and so we’ve written a little bit about each, to inspire everyone to think about their fitness, their stress levels, and their overall mental health.
What is stress?
Stress itself is not inherently bad. Medically speaking, it is a coping strategy that our body uses when we consider ourselves to be in danger or under threat. When a threat is sensed, the brain temporarily shuts down unnecessary functions such as digestive systems, and channels all energy into preparing the body into removing the threat. It does this by pumping the hormones adrenalin and cortisol around the body through adrenal and pituitary glands. Adrenalin gives our muscles a sudden boost of energy to be able to either fight or run away from the threat, and the cortisol then helps our bodies maintain a heightened awareness and readiness until we are sure the threat has gone.
The problem comes when we live our lives in what our bodies consider to be a dangerous or threatening environment. A stressful work environment, for example, suggests to the body that we are constantly in danger of losing our job or facing an ‘attack’ from an unfriendly boss. Over time these stress responses build up, and we find that our bodies trigger a stress response for increasingly smaller issues. Have you ever jumped out of your skin at someone knocking on your door? Or been disproportionately annoyed at someone speaking loudly on a train? When we are living with chronic stress - repeated stress responses from our body with no time to recover from one to the next - we are constantly on edge, and this can have dramatic effects on our physical and mental health.
The effects of stress on our brain
Physically, we are placing our muscles, hearts, organs and pretty much entire body under constant strain, which will inevitably make them weaker and less efficient. This can lead to increased risks of cancers, heart diseases, obesity and generally lower our immune systems. It is the mental effects of stress, however, that are interesting, and have only recently started to be explored.
Research at Yale has shown that the brains of people who live with chronic stress actually stop working as efficiently. The prefrontal cortex, the front part of our brains which develops in adolescence, begins to shut down and even in some cases shrink. This part of our brain deals with how we process emotions, how we make decisions and how we plan ahead. This means that by constantly living with stress, we are in fact making it harder to deal with the long terms effects of that stress. This vicious cycle is stopping our bodies from working and can lead to a myriad of mental health issues. Depression and anxiety, the two leading mental health issues in the US and UK, are brought upon by problems coping with every day life, and this new research suggests our brains are actually struggling to process emotions, make decisions, and plan for the future.
How to reverse the effects on our brain
The question we are now asking, having established that stress is having a profound effect on our whole bodies and specifically the brain, is how can we combat this issue? As a society we have become used to leading a stressful life, and the impact of this over many years now means that a whole generation or more are dealing with unprecedented mental health implications. The solution lies partly in the focus of this year’s US mental health awareness month - #4mind4body. Taking care of our bodies, exercising and staying fit both physically and mentally are some of the best ways we can reverse the effects of chronic stress. Exercising has been proven to release endorphins to counteract the high cortisol levels that stress causes. We are actually supposed to release endorphins after a stress response, to calm the body down and return to a restful state. For people with chronic stress this process is often not efficiently carried out, and the body has no chance to calm down throughout the day. Exercising can rebalance those hormones and combat many other physical risks associated with stress like heart disease and obesity.
It’s not just exercise that helps our mental wellbeing either. Proper diets, positive social interactions, or even something as simple as 10 minutes of slow breathing are all a great help in calming the body down and helping us return to a healthy, relaxed state. Many people see these steps as unnecessary or ‘not for them,’ but persistent steps in calming down and caring for your body can enable your pre-frontal cortex to continue working efficiently, and therefore help prevent mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
The #4Mind4Body challenge
This May the US are running a challenge every day for the whole month, called 'Fitness #4Mind4Body' challenging participants to a small change which can help with mental and physical wellbeing. The week is split into different themes such as #MindfulMonday or #WorkplaceWednesday, and every Saturday they will even be focussing on stress with #StressFreeSaturday. Anyone can get involved, and share their experiences and triumphs through the hashtags.
We hope you can understand a little more about how stress works, and why it is so important to have a healthy mind and body to help combat mental health issues, this May and beyond!
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