What is mental health?
Mental health (or mental well-being) refers to a state of wellness rather than the absence of illness. It’s about being cognitively, emotionally, behaviourally and socially healthy – the way you think, feel, behave and form relationships all contribute.
The World Health Organisation defines mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
You can also think of mental health as a sliding scale with feeling good and functioning well on one end. At the other, are symptoms affecting your thoughts, feelings and behaviour which can be characterised as a mental health condition (or mental illness).
High levels of mental health are positively associated with increased learning, creativity, productivity, positive social behaviour and relationships, physical health and life expectancy.
Mental health conditions can negatively impact day-to-day functioning and relationships and are associated with poor physical health and distress.
Beyond Blue explains that whilst you may not be experiencing a diagnosed mental illness, it’s still possible that your mental health may not be flourishing. On the other hand, it’s possible to be diagnosed with a mental health condition while also feeling well in many areas of your life.
Poor memory and concentration; mood swings and irritability; brain fog; cognitive dysfunction; constantly worrying and looping anxious thoughts are all related to experiencing long-term stress and can lead to anxiety and depression.
When you’re stressed, you tend to feel unhappy – perhaps sad or angry – and when you feel this way for long periods of time, you can suffer emotionally. If you remain stressed and unhappy over the long-term, it can feel as though it’s altering your personality and you may even forget who you are without stress – potentially leading to more severe mental health issues.
Stress can influence your behaviour in a number of ways. For example, you might turn to a specific vice to try to alleviate the feeling, withdraw from others, or start eating more or less food than you need.
Stress and your physical wellbeing
Is stress a bad thing?
There’s no shame in feeling stressed. Everyone experiences stress at some point and different things will be stressful for different people. There are no hard-and-fast rules about what should or should not stress you out.
It might surprise you to learn that stress is not necessarily a bad thing. Some people thrive on that rush of adrenaline as it helps them to work better, or faster, to meet an impending deadline. However, the modern lifestyle lends itself to long-term stress through prolonged exposure to stressors which opens us up to suffer from more debilitating effects, both physically and mentally.
How can I prevent stress?
Whilst stress is an unavoidable part of life, if it continues long-term it can cause issues for your health. Avoiding stress wherever possible is ideal, but arguably more important is learning to effectively deal with stress. The first step is usually to deal directly with the cause of the stress and once the situation is rectified, focus on recovering and returning your body to a balanced state.
Reducing long-term stress and its effects requires a multifaceted, holistic approach. Using techniques to deal with stress both in the moment and once it has passed, as well as making sure your body is physically supported by receiving the right balance of nurturing nutrients, can all help to reduce long-term effects.
Some techniques that can help you manage stress and break the cycle include breathing techniques, regular exercise, prioritising sleep and of course, proper nutrition.
Why do I feel stressed?
Stress is an evolutionary response from our ancestors who operated in an environment where “fight or flight” were normal everyday options – like when coming face-to-face with a tiger.
Our stress response was designed to protect us in dangerous situations. The hypothalamus (a small region at the base of your brain) releases a surge of stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol which prepare your body to react quickly and either stay and fight or run away – resulting in the physical sensation of stress.
These days, however, this innate stress response isn’t needed as frequently as it was at the beginning of human evolution. Fortunately, we now encounter fewer fierce felines! Instead, the perceived “danger” has become much more subtle yet pervasive.Today, daily life is made up of so many small stressors – traffic, meetings, social and family pressures, deadlines, parking, the list goes on – making stress an all-too-common feature of our modern lifestyle. From a psychological perspective, these conditions known as stressors are situations or events that you find demanding, challenging or threatening to your physical or mental health.
While our stress response does still have a place in certain situations, the key is to manage your stress response and ensure it is not stuck in the “on” position for a prolonged period of time.
What are the physical effects of stress?
When your brain releases stress hormones, your body has an immediate physical reaction, increasing your breathing and heart rate; heightening your awareness; and tensing your muscles – ultimately preparing you to take physical action.
While stress hormones are helpful in the moment when needed, elevated levels over the long-term can potentially lead to additional physical impacts on systems throughout your body:
|Cardiovascular system: increased blood pressure and risk of cardiac events|
|Endocrine system: increased blood sugar levels|
|Gastrointestinal system: slowed digestion, irritable bowels, ulcers, heartburn|
|Reproductive system: decreased fertility by impacting sperm production and quality in men and affecting menstruation and PMS in women|
|Immune system: weakened immune function|
Other effects of chronic stress include frequent headaches, insomnia, weight gain, anxiety and depression.
This is why it’s important to try and regulate your stress response and soothe the production of stress hormones once the situation has passed, to help you mitigate any negative effects.