While there is a lot of focus on how infectious disease outbreaks, like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, can impact our physical health, their effect on our psychological wellbeing is often overlooked. But the current coronavirus outbreak is scary. Add this to the fact that many of us are spending more time than ever before stuck in our homes and it’s easy to understand how our mental health could be affected by what’s going on. With that in mind, we have compiled this short list of things you can do to protect your mental health during this testing time. 1. Stay informed (but avoid speculation) It’s important to stay informed about the COVID-19 outbreak and access information from high quality, reputable sources. Rumour and speculation only serve to fuel anxiety, which is why you should avoid less than trustworthy news. Also, don’t feel as though you have to constantly watch, read or listen to updates. Limit you consumption to once or twice a day to reduce overwhelm. 2. Stay connected It can be easy to feel isolated right now, especially if you are used to going out and interacting socially with other people. Overcome this feeling by staying as connected as possible with your friends and family. We’ve never had so many methods of communication available to us, so take advantage of technology and keep social conversations going. 3. Stay busy When we’re not keeping ourselves occupied, there’s a tendency for our minds to run wild – especially while there is an ongoing global pandemic. This can lead to negative thoughts, including lots of ‘what if’ scenarios. Use the extra time you’ve got right now to complete all those tasks around your house you’ve been meaning to do for ages. It’ll keep your mind occupied and give you a sense of achievement. [Related reading: 5 simple ways to stay physically active while you’re stuck at home]
While exercise has long been thought to help boost mental health and there’s evidence to support this, less is known about whether physical activity can actually prevent the onset of mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Indeed, previous studies have suggested that low levels of physical activity are associated with a greater incidence of several common mental health problems, but few studies have investigated whether the opposite is true: more exercise = less risk of developing mental health disorders – until now. By conducting a systematic review and meta-analysis of four different studies, the researchers from University College London were able to assess the impact of physical exercise on mental health risk. Publishing their findings in the Journal of Affective Disorders, the researchers said low and medium levels of cardiorespiratory fitness are associated with a 47% and 23% greater risk of common mental health disorders, compared with high levels of cardiorespiratory fitness. In other words, doing more physical exercise does seem to have a positive impact on a person's mental health risk. The research makes for interesting reading when you consider that mental health issues are growing and not everyone benefits from therapies and medication. The researchers are now planning to explore this avenue further to see if they can identify the underlying mechanisms of the relationship between exercise and mental health.
New research suggests that tickling the ear with a small electric current could help rebalance the body’s nervous system in people over-55 and help them age more healthily. The therapy works by stimulating the vagus nerve, the longest of the nerves that connect the brain with other parts of the body such as the heart, lungs and gut. The vagus nerve is usually difficult to access and usually requires surgical intervention so that electric stimuli can be delivered. However, one small branch of the vagus nerve reaches a part of the outer ear and that’s where the researchers from the Universities of Leeds and Glasgow — both in the United Kingdom – stimulated it from. Patients who received the electric stimuli for 15 minutes a day over a 14-day period noted improvements in body, sleep and mood. As we age, our body’s nervous system gradually becomes out of balance and the sympathetic branch begins to dominate. This makes us more prone to diseases, such as hypertension and heart problems, as well as anxiety and depression. The researchers found that the electric ear tickling therapy – named so because that’s how it feels – helped rebalance the body’s nervous system by increasing parasympathetic activity and decreasing sympathetic activity. People with the greatest imbalance at the start of the trial showed the biggest improvement at the end.
Most people feel nervous ahead of surgery, even if the procedure they’re about to undergo is straightforward. To calm these nerves, patients are often given medication. But a new study suggests that music could be just as effective. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, a special song written to reduce anxiety, blood pressure and heart rate performed as well as a sedative for calming patients ahead of surgery. For the trial, 157 surgery patients were either given the drug midazolam or play the so-called “world’s most relaxing song”, Weightless by UK band Marconi Union, while they were being given an anaesthetic to numb a part of their body. Patient anxiety was equally reduced in both groups, suggesting the music was an effective alternative to the drugs. The great news about this is the music medicine is both free and completely safe, whereas the drugs cost money and can have side effects. Speaking about the findings of the research, Dr Veena Graff, assistant professor of anaesthesiology and critical care at the University Of Pennsylvania Perelman School Of Medicine, said: “Music lights up the emotional area of the brain, the reward system and the pleasure pathways. “It means patients can be in their own world, they can be comfortable and have full control.” Intrigued what the world’s most relaxing song sounds like? Listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2JNM-xPZXgI
People who have sedentary jobs could significantly boost their lifespans by taking short, regular movement breaks, a new study has found. It’s no secret that individuals who spend a lot of time sitting down are more likely to develop certain adverse health conditions, such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases, as well as having increased risk of osteoporosis, depression, anxiety, colon cancer and high blood pressure. However, just a small amount of exercise, the study suggests, could lower the risk of early death. According to the research – the findings of which are published in the Annals of Internal Medicine – individuals who sat for less than 30 minutes at a time had the lowest risk of early death. For example, workers who had a movement break (involving some low-intensity exercise) every 30 minutes had a 17% lower risk of death than their counterparts who did not have any breaks. Moreover, individuals who broke up periods of sitting every 30 minutes with moderate- to high-intensity exercise lowered their risk of early death by 35%. Speaking about the findings of the research, Keith Diaz, an assistant professor of behavioural medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City and study lead, said: “If you have a job or lifestyle that involves a lot of sitting, you can lower your risk of early death by moving more often, for as long as you want and as your ability allows — whether that means taking an hour-long high-intensity spin class or choosing lower-intensity activities, like walking.”
How’s your blood pressure? Do you even know? If you haven’t had it checked recently, your blood pressure could be creeping up (getting higher) and you might not have even realised. In fact, high blood pressure (also known as hypertension) is often called a “silent killer” because it rarely causes symptoms until a person’s health is already severely damaged. That’s why keeping an eye on your blood pressure and looking out for any potential symptoms is so important. Failure to seek treatment when you have high blood pressure can lead to serious health complications such as stroke and heart disease. This is ironic when you consider that hypertension can usually be treated with lifestyle changes and/or medication. So what high blood pressure warning signs should you be looking out for? First and foremost, the only way to check whether you have high blood pressure or not is to have it checked by a health professional, or check it yourself providing you know how to and have the necessary equipment. Remember, just because you feel ‘fine’ does not mean you aren’t at risk of hypertension. If your blood pressure becomes extremely high (above 180/120 mmHg), something referred to as ‘hypertensive crisis’, you may experience any of the following symptoms: Severe headaches Nosebleeds Severe fatigue Chest pain Irregular heartbeat Vision problems Back pain Severe anxiety Blood in your urine Shortness of breath (difficulty breathing) Hypertensive crisis is a medical emergency and immediate intervention is required to prevent serious damage to blood vessels and major organs. So, in short, you are unlikely to know whether you have elevated blood pressure or not until serious damage has occurred. Get your blood pressure checked regularly and heed any advice from medical professionals on how to keep yours at a healthy level.
The physical health problems associated with diabetes are well understood and publicised. For example, diabetics have an increased risk of developing cancer, kidney disorders and cardiovascular disease. But what about the mental impact of living with diabetes? It’s not something that gets a lot of attention, but the findings of a new study could see it thrust under the spotlight. That’s because the study by researchers from Finland found a worrying connection between diabetes and the risk of someone dying by suicide or alcoholism. According to the study, diabetics are more than 10 times more likely to die as a result of alcoholism – predominantly cirrhosis of the liver – and 110% more likely to commit suicide than the general population. The highest risk was seen among diabetes patients who rely on regular insulin injections to avoid serious health complications. Professor Leo Niskanen, of the University of Helsinki, who led the study, said diabetes patients who have to monitor their glucose levels and administer insulin frequently suffer tremendous mental strain. “This strain combined with the anxiety of developing serious complications like heart or kidney disease may also take their toll on psychological well-being,” he said. Is it time we started talking about the mental health implications of living with diabetes? [Related reading: Type-2 diabetes could actually be detected up to 20 years in advance, researchers say]
More than a third of mothers have experienced a mental health issue related to parenthood, an online survey has found. According to the YouGov poll of 1,800 British parents, in comparison, just 17% of fathers had experienced similar parenthood-related issues. Of the mothers who experienced a mental health issue, more than two-thirds sought professional help as a result. Their conditions included acute stress, severe anxiety and postpartum depression. One of the biggest factors that weighs on the minds of new mums is criticism. Of those surveyed, 26% said their parents were the most critical of their parenting skills, followed by 24% who cited their spouse/partner and 18% other family members. Quite shockingly, 14% said they had been criticised by complete strangers. In comparison, 5% of the 800 fathers said the same. Trouble at work is also not uncommon for new parents. About 30% of mothers who responded said they had felt discriminated against at work because they were a parent, compared with 14% of working fathers. In terms of emotional support, 60% of women said they had received it from their friends, 56% from their partner and 18% went online. However, 15% of mothers and 25% of fathers say they didn't receive any emotional support at all. If nothing else, the survey highlights the struggles many mothers and fathers go through following the birth of a child. Support is crucial in helping these parents get through such difficult times.
The benefits of a full night’s sleep are well known. Insomniacs across the world will tell you what sleep deprivation can do to your mind and body. But now it seems that just a few nights of bad sleep could impact your mental health too. A team of scientists from the University of Oxford in the UK ran a small experiment using four volunteers who normally sleep just fine. The volunteers were fitted with monitors to track their sleep. For the first three nights of the study, they were allowed to sleep normally. For the next three nights, their sleep was restricted to just four hours per night. Each day of the study, the volunteers filled out questionnaires about how they were feeling and kept video diaries. Three out of the four volunteers said the experience was unpleasant, while one said he was largely unaffected. However, tests showed that his mood was significantly impacted, with positive emotions falling and negative emotions rising. Doctoral student Sarah Reeve, one of the scientists who ran the experiment, was surprised by how quickly the volunteers’ moods changed. "There were increases in anxiety, depression and stress, also increases in paranoia and feelings of mistrust about other people", she said. "Given that this happened after only three nights of sleep deprivation, that is pretty impressive."
The slogan for British yeast extract Marmite is 'You either love it or hate it'. And while many people in America may not have even heard of it, a new study will come as good news for lovers of the popular food stuff. A by-product of beer brewing, Marmite is a sticky, almost black coloured food paste with a very distinctive, powerful, salty flavour. People in the UK usually eat it in sandwiches or on toast. According to a study conducted by researchers from the University of York in the UK, Marmite could help boost brain function. The study found that participants who ate one teaspoon of Marmite every day displayed a reduced response to visual stimuli - an indicator of increased levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. Simply put, GABA "clams" the human brain and helps restore the optimal balance of neuronal activity required for healthy brain functioning. Low GABA levels have previously been linked with anxiety, depression, epilepsy, and autism. That's why researchers have been looking at ways to increase GABA levels in the brain. Speaking about the findings of the research, Senior author Dr. Daniel Baker, of the Department of Psychology at York, said: "Since we've found a connection between diet and specific brain processes involving GABA, this research paves the way for further studies looking into how diet could be used as a potential route to understanding this neurotransmitter." The study serves as a great reminder of how diet has the ability to alter brain processes.
Being a scout or guide as a child could improve your mental health in later life, a study has found. According to the analysis of some 10,000 people conducted by researchers from the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, ex-scouts and guides were 15% less likely to suffer anxiety or mood disorders at the age of 50. It's thought that the lessons learned in resilience and resolve that organisations like the scouts and guides offer could have a lasting positive impact. The findings indicate that programmes which help children develop self-reliance and teamwork skills, and encourage outdoor activity, may have benefits for life. Talking about the findings of the research, Prof Chris Dibben, lead researcher, from the University of Edinburgh's School of Geosciences, said: "It is quite startling that this benefit is found in people so many years after they have attended guides or scouts. "We expect the same principles would apply to the scouts and guides of today and so, given the high costs of mental ill-health to individuals and society, a focus on voluntary youth programmes such as the guides and scouts might be very sensible." Chief Scout and TV survival specialist Bear Grylls said: "I am really proud that scouting provides young people with an opportunity to develop the skills they need to be resilient and deal with what life throws at them."
When it comes to lowering a child's anxiety before surgery, iPads and tablets can have as much effect as sedatives, according to preliminary research presented at the World Congress of Anaesthesiologists in Hong Kong this week. The French team behind the research conducted a simple experiment with more than 100 children (aged 4-10) and their parents. Prior to undergoing an outpatient surgical procedure that required a general anaesthetic, half of the children were given the sedative midazolam, while the other half were allowed to play games on an iPad. All patients and their families reported similar levels of anxiety relief ahead of the surgery. However, the parents in the iPad group said they were happier with how the anaesthesia process went. This sentiment was echoed by the nurses involved in the procedures. "Our study showed that child and parental anxiety before anaesthesia are equally blunted by midazolam or use of the iPad," said Dr. Dominique Chassard, study author and an anaesthesiologist at the Hospices Civils de Lyon in France. "However, the quality of induction of anaesthesia, as well as parental satisfaction, were judged better in the iPad group," he added. The French researchers did not offer any reasons for why playing games on a tablet was so helpful, but possible reasons range from them being a simple distraction to allowing the child to have an experience that feels less medical and, therefore, less threatening.
Patients who are seeking and undergoing bariatric surgery commonly suffer from mental health conditions, such as depression and binge eating disorders. However, following successful bariatric surgery, the rates of these conditions fall, according to a study published in JAMA. Bariatric surgery is a highly accepted method of promoting weight loss in obese individuals and can also serve to reduce their risk of developing conditions such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain kinds of cancer. Dr. Aaron J. Dawes, from the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, led a research team which wanted to discover how common mental health conditions were in people seeking and undergoing bariatric surgery. The findings of their research show that 23% of bariatric surgery patients were affected by a current mental health disorder, with depression (19%); a binge-eating disorder (17%); and anxiety (12%) the most common. Following surgery, a fall in the rate of depression was observed. Of the 27 studies analysed by the research team, seven revealed an 8-74% drop in the rate of depression after surgery, while six reflected a 40-70% reduction in the rate of depressive symptoms. The report authors noted: "Previous reviews have suggested that self-esteem, mental image, cognitive function, temperament, support networks and socioeconomic stability play major roles in determining outcomes after bariatric surgery." They suggest incorporating these factors into future studies, which would help form part of "an optimal strategy for evaluating patients' mental health prior to bariatric surgery." Photo via: Bassett Healthcare Network