Category Archives: Mental Health

Blue Monday Is Nonsense. But, We Can Still Learn from It.

Let’s talk truth.  “Blue Monday” is a marketing campaign that got more recognition than it deserved.  The concept was brought about by a travel company in 2005 to try and get people to spend money.  It worked!  Somehow jargon has been confused with scientific truth.  The idea that there can be a most depressing day of the year trivialises the impact mental health issues have on the lives of so many people on a daily basis.

Charities such as MIND have pointed out that the idea that mental health issues such as depression can come down to bad weather and over spending is insulting and belittling.  They are encouraging the public to donate to mental health charities or reach out to someone in need of connection.  They also encourage those who are suffering with poor mental health to reach out for help.  Links are at the end of this article.

Truth can be brought to light by fiction.  Here are some real truths about mental health and what we can do to better support ourselves and those around us.

Some Days Are Better Than Others

When struggling with mental health, there are up days and down days.  The reasons for the ups and downs are personal and not always predictable.  Those who support people with mental health issues often become confused when they see their colleagues and loved ones able to cope one day and struggle the next.  Accepting this can allow people to look for possible triggers, take extra care on the down days and gain a better understanding of how and when support is needed.

The Weather Matters

Remember when your Auntie could tell you if it was going to rain because her knee acted up?  There is truth in this.  Weather plays a significant part in our mental health.  Many people with pain conditions like fibromyalgia, see dramatic increases in pain and brain fog when the pressure drops with a rainstorm.   Also, the sun brings us vitamin D which studies show most people in the UK are significantly lacking.  One of the little-known benefits of vitamin D is that it helps to regulate mood and sleep.  The NHS are suggesting that due to Coronavirus, most people in the UK should be taking a supplement  because of all of the time we are spending indoors between March and October.

Money Can’t Buy Happiness

We’ve all heard of “Retail Therapy” which is the concept “Blue Monday” is exploiting.  Spending money can give a small and very temporary boost in mood.  Unfortunately, the temporary boost of buying something can prevent you from getting help when you need it.  It can often come with unfortunate financial ramifications as well.  Interestingly, studies have shown that resisting buying something can also give a temporary mood boost.  Gambling is another unhealthy way people try to cope with anxiety and depression.  Betting on events has increased 60% since COVID on some betting sites.  Organizations like GAMCARE are there to help when the urges become strong.  Pay attention to why you are spending money.  If you are using it regularly to cope, it is time to find a healthier alternative. 

 Education and Awareness Are a Year-Round Need

Recent years have shown an increase in the amount of education and awareness brought to mental health issues.  This has opened up the conversation for many people who would not seek help out of fear from ridicule or that “stiff upper lip” mentality.  This is an ongoing and continual process.  Organisations’ wellbeing programs have gone beyond being a perk and are now considered vital, as part of a healthy working environment.  Continued development in this area helps build understanding for when people need consideration and support.  As this support goes beyond awareness days and becomes part of our culture, the mental and physical health of our world improves.

If you or someone you know needs support, please reach out.  Help is there. 

You can call your GP or even a friend.

Charities such as  MIND, The Samaritans, CALM and Childline are there for immediate and professional help and advice.  

How healthy eating can improve our mental health

It’s ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ and in lockdown, we are spending a lot of time thinking about food (at least I am) since we have to constantly provide it for our families. So I asked our expert speaker on nutrition, Tracey Bennett to explain how what we eat impacts on our mental health………

Nutrition has been sorely neglected as a factor in the development of mental health.  The brain like any other organ needs the right balance of nutrients in order to function properly.  A 30% rise in teenage depression over the last decade has been linked to too much salt from fast food and not enough potassium from fruit and vegetables.

The problem is that fast food tastes good and that combination of sugar and fat is highly addictive.  That temporary high is quickly followed by an energy slump which leaves you wanting more.  The more that you eat it the more you need to get the same amount of pleasure.  Additionally, too much sugar has been linked to reducing the protein (BDNF) which has been associated with increased anxiety. 

These foods kill the healthy bacteria in your gut which is thought to play a really important role in your mental health; serotonin which helps to regulate sleep, appetite and mood is largely produced in the gut.

Any processed foods high in fat, salt and sugar have a similar effect on your gut bacteria as well as artificial sweeteners found in so many so called ‘healthy’ foods.

 A poor diet can lead to a range of nutritional deficiencies that can affect your well-being.  A recent study in the UK showed that 92% of teenagers and 77% of adults were most at risk of an Omega 3 deficiency.  This essential fatty acid, found primarily in oily fish, has a protective effect against depression, concentration and memory problems.

It is not easy to ensure that you get the right balance of nutrients and often the problem can be what we eat between meals.  Not buying those unhealthy snacks that are difficult to ration is probably the best option as it can take up to a month to re-educate your taste buds. 

Try replacing them with healthy snacks that not only reduce stress but increase well-being:

  1. Pumpkin seeds are rich in zinc which aids depression, magnesium to reduce stress and helps to create serotonin.
  2. Blueberries are bursting with antioxidants and packed with vitamin C which helps to relieve stress.
  3. Try putting your blueberries in a natural yogurt.  They build up your healthy bacteria and have been found to have a positive effect on brain health.  A study found that not only do yoghurts reduce social anxiety in some teenagers but they also increase happiness.
  4. Natural popcorn is a tasty source of whole grains that is high in fibre which helps to relieve stress and anxiety.
  5. Avocadoes contain choline which gives you a double boost of serotonin and dopamine.
  6. Walnuts have countless benefits such as improving mood, regulating the appetite and boosting brain function.
  7. When you do fancy something sweet, dark chocolate is rich in magnesium.  Dipping fruit such as bananas or strawberries in melted dark chocolate will help to reduce stress.

Undoubtedly, what we eat affects how we feel and a healthy balanced diet can be a powerful aid for people dealing with depression and anxiety.  But the converse is also true as our emotions can dictate what we eat.  For many of us there is an internal struggle between the healthy foods that we know we should be eating and those tempting foods that we would like to be eating.  When we are feeling low, or stressed or bored we can often turn to food for a bit of a boost.  This kind of emotional overeating can also take a toll on our mental health as it doesn’t give us the comfort that we need and we end up feeling even worse.  Left untreated, emotional eating can lead to weight gain, low self-esteem and eating disorders.

Ways of Overcoming Emotional Eating and Improving Mental Health

  • Talk about your feelings:

With a friend or family member, or if you prefer write them down.  Emotional eating is often a distraction to stop you thinking unpleasant thoughts but you end up swallowing your feelings rather than dealing with them.

  • Keep a mood diary:

This will help to identify any kind of emotional eating and will give you an opportunity to develop some strategies for dealing with it.  For example, if stress is your trigger have some activities in mind for when this might happen such as engaging in meditation and other relaxation techniques.

  • Get Moving:

Exercise boosts our endorphins and makes us feel good.  It also reduces the stress hormone cortisol leading to a reduction in depression, anxiety and insomnia.

  • Limit your exposure to social media:

Social media can distort your attitude to body image and make you feel bad about yourself and much more likely to comfort eat.

  • Use affirmations:

Every time you have a negative thought about yourself, try using simple affirmations to encourage yourself such as ‘it is the inner person that counts’ or ‘I can do anything’.  They have been shown to positively rewire the brain and enhance your mood.

  • Help others:

Doing something for someone else will definitely help you to feel better about yourself.

Using these strategies alongside a healthy balanced diet is not necessarily a panacea for all types of mental health issues as your first step may be getting help from a doctor.  Nevertheless, in conjunction with any other medical advice, they will help to boost the improvements.

Of course we serve as essential role models for our children, so they will be influenced by how we eat.

Tracey Bennett delivers a very popular session on Healthy Eating Matters: How to instil healthy eating habits in our children.

Please get in touch for further details.

Recognising the signs of Mental Health in Children

No parent, teacher or carer wants to bear witness to a child suffering for any reason. Mental illness is exceptionally difficult to watch because you can’t see or comprehend the source and it can be so incredibly painful.  We know that presently 1 in 10 children in every primary and secondary school is experiencing some form of mental  disorder. 13% of children aged 8 and up will experience a severe mental disorder before they are old enough to drive; sobering statistics.

Mental disorders among teens and young adults have been rising steadily for the past decade. The reasons could be environmental (i.e. family, school & social media), situational (i.e. a traumatic event), physical (i.e. hormones & genetics), or indeed a combination of these. But we also know that we as a society are slowly becoming more willing to open up about our needs and thus the recognition of the complexity in young people’s lives is increasing. I also believe that social media has played its part in the ongoing impact of mental health needs.

In 2017, according to a study from the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 13% of people between ages 12 and 25 had symptoms akin to major depression (they may not have been diagnosed) within the previous year—a 57% increase from 2008.

Now more than ever, opening up the conversation means so much and continues to make a positive difference to children’s lives.

 Does your child need support?

One of the biggest challenges for parents and carers is recognizing and identifying the difference between a psychological issue and the normal developmental changes that happen during these formative years. Adolescence involves the very greatest brain changes for a person. It is very much a rollercoaster, both positive and negative; mood swings, disinhibition and dysregulation are to be anticipated and expected. Ultimately it means that adolescents are also vulnerable to mental health difficulties too.

If you suspect that something is not going well for your child and are concerned about their mental health needs it is important to look at their behaviour at home, school and within their social groups.

Family functioning.

It’s normal for family members to squabble and have disagreements, as well as for kids to push back against parental rules and boundaries. However if your child is suddenly getting into frequent or escalating conflicts with family members that don’t get resolved, that’s a warning sign of a potential problem.

Academic functioning.

School is a major portion of any child’s life, so significant changes in results or attitude and application about school or schoolwork that are out of the ordinary could be an indicator of a potential difficulty. Teacher input is often a helpful first step.

Social functioning.

Is your child struggling to get along with friends and classmates? Has she withdrawn from or become reluctant to participate in social activities? If yes, these are all warning signs and it is important to gently notice and identify these feelings for your child.

Common Symptoms of Mental Illness in Children

Psychological problems can largely be divided into two areas; externalizing or internalizing.

As you might guess, externalized behaviour problems are easier to spot, because signs include things you can see: behavioural changes, fighting, hyperactivity and destructive behaviour. Internalized problems are often emotional (such as depression) and thus much more difficult to spot.

Here are six symptoms to watch out for:

Mood changes.

All children (and adults) are prone to mood swings. But pay attention to the point where children are very sad for extended periods of time or become lethargic and withdrawn, not enjoying or engaging in previously exciting activities. 

Intense feelings of anxiety.

Be alert for a child who’s overly anxious, especially if it leads to physical symptoms like a racing heart. While a little bit of anxiety is normal and can be a good thing—if it motivates your child to study or practice, for instance—“too much impairs performance, and children really suffer.” Two easily overlooked physical signs are: unexplained headaches or stomach-aches.

Difficulty concentrating.

A teacher might report that your child is having unusual trouble sitting still or paying attention, or you may notice this problem at home.

Changes in eating or sleeping habits.

If your child is suddenly suffering from insomnia—or, conversely, tries to sleep all day—it could be a signal to seek psychological support.

Quick weight loss.

A noticeable lack of appetite or quick weight loss could indicate developing issues with concern to a possible eating disorder, especially in adolescents.

Experimentation with illicit substances.

Many adolescents try cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. If this behaviour coincides with declining grades or a change in peer group it is again an area of concern and it is vital that the channels of communication remain open with the young person.

As a Chartered Educational and Child Psychologist of 15 years, Hannah Abrahams specialises in working with Children, Young People, Parents and Carers in supporting the development of their emotional, cognitive and learning needs as well as their mental health. She is highly experienced and has worked in many challenging settings including running a team of Psychologists working with the survivors of the Grenfell Tower. As well as being a lead in Trauma and Bereavement she specialises in working with Children diagnosed with Autism and communication difficulties. Hannah regularly talks as an expert on BBC Radio and TV.  She would be delighted to open up further conversation and supportive, nurturing and creative advice about mental health issues facing young people and how in today’s busy world you are best equipped to navigate and best support children’s wellbeing.

Helping children manage stress during exam season

The summer term has started, and so has exam time so we are looking at helping children manage exam season stress.  Children in years 2 and 6 are taking the controversial SATs, secondary-aged children are sitting life-changing GCSEs and of course those older children whose future education is hanging on their A-Level performances.  The effect of these tests and exams can resonate through whole families.

Let’s get down to how parents can actually support and help their children deal with stress during the exam period. It’s totally normal to feel some nerves before exams and this can be motivating and help zone in on the task in hand.  However too much anxiety means one can’t think clearly, reason, plan well and make good decisions which impacts on studying and exam performance.

When anyone is stressed the amygdala kicks in. We tend to become emotional, angry, fearful or frustrated.  The pre- frontal cortex is the part of the brain that distinguishes humans from animals.  It’s what tells the amygdala to calm down so we can cope with stress.  It helps to regulate blood pressure, heart rate and glucose levels which all influence how we feel about a situation.

Here are some very practical tips to quieten down the amygdala and enable the pre-frontal cortex to function: 
  • Talk to your child regularly and try to understand the cause of their anxiety so they feel heard and understood. Is it feeling unprepared, pressure from parents, teachers or peers, unrealistic expectations, overwhelm with too much to do and not enough time? Don’t dismiss them or try to just make the feeling go away.
  • Ask your child to spend 5 minutes listing all the things that take up their mental space and energy. Look at every item and place them into two categories: control and concern. Control are things you can actively do something about and concern are things you have no influence over.  People who handle stress well, minimise stuff in the concern circle and spend energy on addressing the things they can control.
  • Have a longer term study timetable but then focus on one day at a time. Help them prioritise, break tasks down into manageable chunks and set small, realistic, achievable goals.
  • Engage in physical activity which helps to boost energy levels, clear the mind and work off excess adrenalin so they can feel calmer.
  • Eat little and often, avoid too much caffeine or sugar which affects concentration. Keep hydrated as water helps the electromagnetic activity in the brain.
  • Get enough sleep which can still be regarded as study time as the brain processes information taken in during the day.
  • Learn, model and share stress management skills such as relaxation, breathing techniques, mediation mindfulness, massage, yoga, EFT and  visualisation
  • Schedule in some unstructured downtime, ideally with a social component.
  • Remember your child’s strengths and passions – encourage some activities that they are good at which involve laughing.
  • Limit screens and access to social media as this swallows up hours of precious time. Also steer clear of peers who make them feel more stressed.
  • Having a positive attitude and the right mind set will determine how motivated they feel, how much they learn and ultimately how well they do. Athletes, for example work on their mental state as well as physical and use psychologists to ensure peak performance.

Now I’m going to go away and follow this advice for myself between now and mid -June.

Just “chill out mum” as my kids tell me!!!