Everyone knows that health is important, because without good health, our lives can be compromised, but our mental health is equally as important, because our mental health can have a huge impact on our physical health. However, many of us dismiss our mental health, putting it on the backburner whilst we try to battle through life, without realising the true problems that this can lead to later on. Better awareness of mental health is needed so that we can all start taking small and simple steps early on to improve our own, and other’s mental health, and to address problems before they become too challenging.
In the US, Mental Health Awareness Month runs each year during May, and in the UK, Mental Health Awareness Week runs in the same month. In 2023, the UK week runs from 15th to 21st May, focusing on the theme of ‘anxiety’. This year’s theme has been chosen because anxiety is a normal emotion that we all feel from time to time. However, anxiety is also one of the most common mental health problems and a quarter of adults report that anxiety impacts negatively on their life by stopping them doing things they want to do some of the time.
The anxiety ‘time bomb’
A survey of 3000 adults aged 18 and over, conducted in November 2022 by the Mental Health Foundation found that the UK population is experiencing widespread levels of “stress, anxiety and hopelessness in response to financial concerns”. The data reported that 29% of adults experienced stress, 34% experienced anxiety and 10% said they felt hopeless because of financial worries during the previous month. And the situation does not look like it’s improving anytime soon. In fact, the Foundation warned the Government of a significant rise in mental health problems in future months if adequate support was not forthcoming. Anxiety can lead to people being unable to face everyday situations. They may fear going out, or crowded places, become intolerant of too much noise or develop phobias, and if not tackled early, chronic anxiety can lead to more serious or long-lasting effects.
Effects of anxiety on the body
- Increased rate of breathing
- Shallower breathing
- Churning feeling in the stomach
- Faster or irregular heartbxeat
- Feeling of restless or being unable to sit still
- Feeling light-headed or dizzy
- Pins and needles
- Headaches, backache or other aches and pains
- Sweating or hot flushes
- Increase in blood pressure
- A sense or feeling of doom
- Panic attacks
Anxiety can affect the cardiovascular system, the digestive system, the nervous, immune, endocrine and respiratory systems – virtually all systems in the body are affected by anxiety as the body sets into its traditional fight, flight or freeze response.
Anxiety and other disorders
There are several types of mental health disorders where anxiety plays a large role including:
- Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Social anxiety disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Panic disorder
Self-help ways to address anxiety
One of the first things to do is to try to identify the triggers that set off anxiety, and avoid these if possible, or talk to others and put in an action plan to tackle problems if you can. If you are concerned about finances for example, then talking to the Citizen’s Advice could help you to get help and identify a solution or plan to get you through.
There are some established self-help methods that can improve anxiety:
Breathing and mindfulness
Focusing on breathing can help counter some of the physical effects of anxiety and there are many different breathing techniques which people advocate including:
- Square breathing – breathe in through the nose for 4 counts, hold the breath for 4 counts, breathe out through the mouth for four counts, and then hold again for 4 counts before repeating
- 4-7-8 breathing technique - close your mouth and quietly breath in through your nose, counting to four. Hold your breath and count to seven. Breathe out through your mouth, making a whoosh sound while counting to eight. Repeat at least 3 more times
- Yogic breathing – yoga is known to have a calming effect on the body and there are many different yogic breathing techniques to choose from. You can learn more about different techniques here
- Mindfulness is about focusing on the present moment and using all your senses to achieve this. You can sit quietly and try the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. Find a quiet space and name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you like about yourself
Exercise has a proven positive effect on mental health but it is important to choose a form of exercise that fits with you, your interests and lifestyle. Dancing, walking, swimming and even gardening can all count as forms of exercise, and doing something that feels good will help boost your overall mood.
The old phrase “a problem shared, is a problem halved” is a good thing to remind yourself of if you are feeling anxious, so try to find a trusted person to talk to. There are also many general and specialist charities available to help and you can find an extensive list of charities which specialise in talking therapies here.
Getting out into nature has been found to help mental health, so making time to switch off from the material world and spend some time in a natural environment can have a positive effect. It could just be finding 15 minutes to sit in your local park, or a day trip to the beach, or even tending some pots on a balcony or looking after some indoor houseplants.
Challenge negative thoughts
A lot of people who suffer from anxiety say their heads are filled with negative thoughts that they cannot seem to switch off or sort through. One tip to sorting these out is to write them down and then challenge them. People often use words such as “always” and “everyone” in these negative thoughts, so it is good to challenge the use of these words. For example, someone might say “everyone hates me”, but by challenging the use of “everyone”, you can start to think of people who love you such as family and friends, which gives a more balanced perspective on the problem.
If feelings of anxiety start affecting your life, seek medical advice from your GP earlier rather than later. Together, we can tackle it.