If you're feeling anxious or depressed because you can't afford to fuel up your car or buy groceries, you aren't alone. With the cost of living at an all-time high in the U.K., and individuals still reeling from pandemic lockdowns, who could blame you? Though you can't change the economy, there are simple actions you can take to stay sane and even boost your mental health.
Dips in mental health for a variety of reasons have been stark across the globe. In Great Britain, 17% of adults reported experiencing depression in summer 2021, up from about 10% pre-pandemic. (In early 2021, the rate reached as high as 21%.) The U.S. has seen a similar disruption in mental health: According to statistics published in April 2021 in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the percentage of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression in the U.S. rose from 36.5% to 41.5% between August 2020 and February 2021.
Anxiety and depression can seriously impact a person's well-being, and they should be taken seriously. If you are in the U.K. and struggling, help is available via the Shout Crisis Text Line (text "SHOUT" to 85258) or via Samaritans' free helpline at 116 123. The charity Mind offers guidance on how to find a therapist through the NHS or through charity organizations.
In the U.S., the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) runs a free 24/7 helpline in English and Spanish at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). SAMHSA also hosts a treatment locator at findtreatment.samhsa.gov. The American Psychological Association's Psychologist Locator is another resource for finding treatment, as is Psychology Today's Find a Therapist tool. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.
That said, research shows that there are do-it-yourself strategies and lifestyle changes that can improve anxiety and depression symptoms. Here are 10 evidence-based ways to combat these common mental health problems so you can keep your mental health relatively intact even as the cost of living soars.
1. Go outside to reduce 'doom spiraling'
As far as a do-it-yourself mental health boost goes, getting outdoors is a great return on investment. Research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015 found that walking outside for 90 minutes reduced rumination, which is a pattern of negative, repetitive thoughts. (A more colloquial term for rumination is "doom spiraling.") People who walked in nature also showed a decrease in activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is part of the brain associated with emotion, compared to people who walked in a busy urban area, suggesting there's a unique benefit to natural space.
A 2015 meta-analysis of multiple studies on nature and mood, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in 2015, found that time in nature is linked to a moderate increase in positive emotions, and a smaller but significant decrease in negative emotions. Outdoor time has also been linked to improved attention and mental flexibility, according to a 2019 review published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.
2. Move your body
When you're feeling depressed, exercise may seem like the least appealing thing you could possibly do. But moving your body can benefit your mind, sometimes to a surprising extent. In a 2007 study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, people with major depression were randomly assigned to a group exercise program, home exercise, an antidepressant or a placebo pill for 16 weeks. At the end of the study, 45% of people in the group exercise classes and 40% of the home exercisers no longer met the criteria for major depressive disorder. This was statistically similar to the 47% rate of recovery seen in the antidepressant group. (Both exercise and antidepressants outperformed the placebo statistically, as 31% of placebo-takers recovered.)
Exercise may also ward off anxiety by training the brain not to panic when it experiences the physical symptoms of fear or worry, such as an elevated heart rate or rapid breathing, according to 2011 research published in Psychosomatic Medicine.
A large 2019 study published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry found that it doesn't matter what you do — any exercise was associated with better mental health compared with no exercise. The biggest benefits were seen in team sports, cycling, aerobics and gym activities. More wasn't necessarily better, either: The most benefits were seen at durations of about 45 minutes just three to five times a week.
(Check out these home workout ideas to help you get fit without breaking the bank or leaving your apartment.)
3. Practice meditation to activate emotional control
Decades of research suggest that meditation can have mental health benefits. For instance, meditation practices can activate brain networks associated with emotional control, according to a 2020 review in Frontiers in Biosciences. Meditation can also reduce blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol, a 2017 review in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found. In a 2019 review published in the journal Psychological Medicine, mindfulness-based techniques appeared to edge out basic relaxation techniques in treating anxiety.
It's worth noting that, as with many therapeutic strategies, some people may experience negative side effects or even worsening symptoms with meditation. A 2020 study in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica found that 8.3% of people had negative experiences with meditation, usually in the form of worsening or new depressive or anxiety symptoms after meditation practices. If meditation feels bad, don't push it.
Related: The 8 benefits of yoga
4. Connect with others and break negative thought patterns
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted social lives, Americans were reporting high levels of loneliness. According to a survey commissioned by the health insurer Cigna, 61% of Americans reported feeling lonely in 2019. (Loneliness was measured by the UCLA Loneliness Scale, 20 questions designed to assess social isolation and feelings of loneliness.)
That's bad news for mental health, because loneliness is linked to depressive symptoms as well as a whole host of health problems, from poor sleep to poorer immune function to early death. Research does show that loneliness can be beaten back, though: Interventions such as support groups or increased opportunities for social interaction can help people make connections, according to a paper published in 2013 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review, but there were even better results for programs that helped people build social skills and break negative thought patterns about socialization. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps unravel distorted thought patterns — such as the idea that surely everyone at that dinner party secretly hated you — was one promising intervention, that review found.
5. Stop doom-scrolling
Stop the doom-scrolling. In general, smartphone use is only slightly related to stress and anxiety, research has found, but certain types of screen time definitely take a toll on mental health. For example, in young people with high levels of "FOMO" (fear of missing out), stress can lead to overuse of smartphones, which, in turn, can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as sleep disruption, a 2021 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry found. The bottom line? If you're already stressed, turning to your phone for relief may backfire.
6. Hug someone
It's deceptively simple, but human touch can make people feel less lonely. In a study published in 2020 in the Nature Public Health Emergency Collection, researchers found that people in the U.K. — a "low contact" society — reported less neglect in their personal relationships if they had just been touched (a light rub on the back of one hand) compared with people who hadn't been touched. A study conducted during COVID-19 social restrictions found that those who had been deprived of intimate touch (meaning physical contact with a family member or romantic partner), reported the most anxiety and depression. The results appeared in September 2021 in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
7. Flex your gratitude muscles
When everything looks bleak, it's not easy to find a silver lining. But the very act of searching for that silver lining — practicing gratitude — can help make the world a brighter place. In one now-famous experiment, researchers asked participants to keep journals noting either daily hassles, things they were thankful for, or neutral life events. The participants also tracked their moods. People who listed things they were grateful for over a 21-day period reported more positive moods and fewer negative moods than those who listed neutral events. They also reported feeling more satisfied with their lives overall and more optimistic. Other studies have since found similar effects. For example, expressing gratitude within a relationship can boost people's happiness in that relationship, according to 2012 research.
8. Just breathe
When the fight, fight or freeze response kicks in, the body automatically prepares for danger: Your heart rate rises, breathing quickens and the pupils dilate to bring in more light. When there's no actual danger to be found, though, these responses aren't particularly helpful. Sometimes breaking the physical cycle is the first step. One 2016 study found that practicing yogic breathing — deep, slow breaths, alternated with fast, stimulating breaths, could help reduce depressive symptoms in people who didn't respond well to antidepressants.
Deep, slow breathing can also help reduce anxiety by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, according to a 2019 review in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. This is the portion of the nervous system that controls automatic processes. Known for its role in "resting and digesting," the parasympathetic nervous system calms the body and mind.
(Check out our roundup of the best yoga mats to get started on your meditative breathing routine.)
9. Put sleep first
Depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances go hand-in-hand. Ruminating and worrying can make it hard to sleep; at the same time, lack of sleep can exacerbate anxiety and negative feelings. A 2020 study published in the journal Sleep found that when people slept poorly, they were more prone to anger the next day.
Lack of sleep, especially deep, non-rapid eye movement sleep, impairs the medial prefrontal cortex, part of the brain that is responsible for many of our self-referential thoughts and emotional processing, according to 2019 research in the journal Nature Human Behavior. Sleeplessness also disrupts the communication between this higher processing center and the limbic system, a network in the brain that controls fight-or-flight responses and other basic functions of survival.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends these tips for better sleep: Stick to a regular schedule, avoid electronic devices in bed, watch your caffeine intake and get some exercise during the day.
10. Manage your health conditions
People with chronic health conditions have higher rates of depression than the general population. According to the Cleveland Clinic, an estimated one-third of people with a chronic condition also experience depression. With some conditions, rates are even higher. For example, 40% to 65% of people who have a heart attack experience depression. Experiencing pain can be a major factor in why people with chronic illness become depressed, according to 2021 research from China published in the journal BMC Psychiatry.
Chronic conditions can also limit people from doing the activities that bring them joy. For that reason, the National Institute of Mental Health advises sharing any symptoms of depression with a health care provider. Doctors may be able to adjust medications that can impact pain and mood, or recommend pharmaceutical treatments for depression that don't impact other medications a patient may be taking.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.