Spring is almost here, which means change is in the air. As you head into the warmer part of the year, think about changes you’d like to make to feel better. One of the best ways to improve your overall health is to improve your mental health. According to Dr. Lisa Baker, mental health issues like depression and anxiety are extremely common, affecting approximately 9.7% of US adults per year. The good news is that there are many things you can do to improve your mental health. Here's what Dr. Baker had to say.
Q: Why is mental health important?
Dr. Baker: Mental health is important because it affects every aspect of our life. Furthermore, mental illness is common. Mood disorders will impact *1 out of 5 adult Americans in their lifetime. Our mental health affects personal relationships with our partners, children and other family members. Mental health affects our work performance and productivity. Even more importantly, our mental health impacts our ability to take care of ourselves, and thus, our physical health.
Q: How do mental health issues affect physical health?
Dr. Baker: The connection between mental wellness and physical wellness is well known. The most obvious connection would be someone who suffers from depression. People often become fatigued when they’re severely depressed. If someone struggles with fatigue, it makes getting out of bed, bathing, getting dressed and eating healthy foods challenging. Asking a depressed person to exercise can be an unrealistic expectation. Over time, that lethargy causes muscles to atrophy, or grow weaker, and leads to obesity. In turn, obesity and physical inactivity lead to higher blood pressure, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.
Anxiety is the other main category of common mental health. Anxiety triggers the fight-or-flight nervous system to be over stimulated which leads to a rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, elevated glucose and insomnia. Over time, chronically elevated blood pressure and higher glucose will cause vascular disease, clogging arteries which increases one’s risk of heart attack and stroke.
Q: What are some of the main drivers of poor mental health?
Dr. Baker: There are four major factors linked to our mental health.
- Folks who are struggling to pay their bills and provide food for their families, have chronic stress. Chronic stress increases cortisol and adrenaline, and can cause changes in brain chemistry.
- Relationship stress.
- Intimate partnership instability in a marriage, or unhealthy work dynamic with supervisor or coworker. If someone is stuck in a chronically unhealthy, toxic relationship, this will increase the risk of mental health problems.
- Prior trauma either in childhood or adulthood.
- Medical illness.
Q: What are some symptoms of poor mental health?
Dr. Baker: If someone feels sad, hopeless, or down, that’s easy to recognize as a symptom of depression. But other symptoms are easy to overlook. The most common are fatigue and trouble sleeping. Generally, that can be either difficulty falling asleep or waking up in the middle of the night, over and over again, for no specific reason. Irritability is another symptom, especially among interactions with family members.
With anxiety, it’s more obvious. People generally report that they’re worrying excessively about things that don’t require that much stress and mental time.
Q: What are some simple ways we can support our mental health?
Dr. Baker: Sometimes it’s simply going back to the basics and resetting. When I talk to patients, I ask them to look at their daily habits. Are they eating? Are they sleeping? Are they ingesting too much caffeine, alcohol, or other substances? Then, we distill it down to the basics. Cut it down to one cup of coffee. Eat meals, don’t skip them. Try to get physical exercise at least 4-5 days a week. It doesn’t have to be much, but something to get the body moving and get rid of that extra adrenaline. Just a 10 minute walk break at lunch may be enough. Lastly, make time for sleep. Sleep is often sacrificed when we have too much to do in a day, but trying to find ways to get sleep patterns restored is crucial.
Q: When should we talk to a provider or health coach about our mental health issues?
Dr. Baker: A health coach is a great resource to help one build a plan and refocus on your body’s basic needs and some strategies to improve your mental health including mindfulness. If that doesn’t work, then it’s time to reach out to your provider to discuss other treatment options like counseling, light therapy, and/or medication. If you are having thoughts about self-harm, then you should have a conversation with your provider immediately or seek urgent medical attention if you’re at risk of self-harm.
Q: What can a provider or health coach do to help us with our mental health issues?
Dr. Baker: A health coach can help people pull out of patterns that are destructive to mental health. When we get into the rat race of working 10-14 hours a day, we no longer have time to prepare good food for ourselves, connect with our loved ones, get the sleep we need, or exercise. A health coach can help build a plan to address much-needed behavior changes.
A provider acknowledges that whatever a patient is experiencing is hard, and instills a feeling of hope that things will get better. That’s an essential part of my job. If a person opens up about their depression, I acknowledge that it’s common and treatable. Treating mental illness requires therapy and work, but is completely treatable.
1. Harvard Medical School, 2007. National Comorbidity Survey (NCS). (2017, August 21). Retrieved from https://www.hcp.med.harvard.edu/ncs/index.php. Data Table 2: 12-month prevalence DSM-IV/WMH-CIDI disorders by sex and cohort.