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Let’s Celebrate Mental Health Awareness Week!

Photo by Steven Depolo (Flickr)

by Rebecca Clark

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week run by the Mental Health Foundation. This year’s focus is on stress, after research found a third of us are experiencing mental health issues predominantly due to stress. The main focus of the week is to encourage conversations about the causes of mental health problems and how we can help each other combat these issues.

A survey over the last year commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation and completed by YouGov found that 74% of us have been so stressed that we have felt unable to cope. 4,169 adults were questioned in the UK, and as surveys of this kind on stress are rare, the results are ground breaking. While stress is not a mental health issue in itself, it can lead to problems such as depression and anxiety and even can cause physical problems such as cardiovascular disease.

But what actually is stress? The Mental Health Foundation defines stress as ‘our body’s response to pressures from a situation or life event’. This involves the stimulation of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis in the brain and thus the release of stress hormones such as cortisol. This is called the ‘fight or flight response’. While this can be advantageous in helping us push through a difficult event, if our body is constantly overloaded by these hormones this can lead to chronic stress and an overwhelming ‘fight or flight response’. Everyone has a different tolerance of stress and thus we cannot draw a blanket line, and it is important to recognise this.

The causes of mental health problems are varied, and everyone has different triggers. YouGov found that half a million people experience work-related stress and so the type of job you do is a starting point. Feeling stressed at work is inevitable – you have a week to write an important report or you have an influential presentation in the morning. Sound familiar? Everyone is bound to feel overwhelmed at points, but maybe the solution is not to stop feeling stressed altogether but altering how we deal with the inevitable day-to-day stress and the pressure we put on ourselves too. A previous survey found that people aged over 55 years old experienced the least amount of stress with 30% never experiencing stress compared to 7% of people aged 18 to 24. This further shows that people’s careers are having an impact.

The Mental Health Foundation also found a link between stress and our physical health. Stress can affect the gastrointestinal system as our brain and gut are in constant communication. Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Stomach Ulcers are common problems associated with stress, and an INTERHEART study in 52 countries also found a link between psychosocial stress and myocardial infarctions. Stress has also shown to affect the immune system, and recent studies have shown that an inflamed immune system is an indicator for depression.

At present, there isn’t enough research on chronic or long-term stress. The Mental Health Foundation is prompting their latest report with YouGov to ‘form part of the Government’s Grand Challenge in England’, and to ‘create a holistic and prevention focused mental health research programme that aims to significantly reduce the prevalence of mental health problems across the next 20 years’. But the main aim of this week is to encourage people to take the time to reflect on their mental health and start the conversations we all should be having. So when was the last time you felt stressed? And how are you going to make the correct adjustments to help make your mental health the strongest it can be?


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