The Exercise and Mental Health Connection

exercise lifts moods

The mind-body connection is so intertwined that one’s well-being hinges on the health of both of these major areas of the human organism.  An ailing body poses a psychological impact on the otherwise healthy mind.  Likewise, an unhealthy mind also impacts a person’s physical health.  For an individual to be considered in top form, both mind and body must be in good shape.

A person who wishes to achieve a balanced state of well-being in both mind and body should have a good level of physical activity as part of his lifestyle priorities.  People with jobs that demand some cardiovascular and muscle toning movements daily, such as fire fighting; construction work; and farming, are lucky to have some measure of fitness incorporated into their lifestyle.  Exercise does not just mean sports-related activities such as running, cycling, or weight lifting.  It also encompasses everyday movements that get tasks done like walking to the store, scrubbing floors, and lifting grocery bags.  The lowly house chores demand daily muscle movement and cardiovascular toning if one just does some manual cleaning.  For instance, floor scrubbing by hand can work your core area and back muscles.  Taking out heavy garbage bags and moving furniture also works on your gluts, thighs, arm, core, and back muscles.  You just have to know the proper form of deadlifting heavy weights so that you avoid any injury.

What Physical Activity Can Do For Your Mind

Many people underestimate the power of physical activity.  There is more to exercise than just muscle strengthening and cardiovascular endurance.  The human body is hard-wired to move frequently and the brain responds to these movements.  The amount of physical activity we do daily does have an impact on our brains.  Daily high levels of physical movements equate to more psychological positivity while an almost daily sedentary lifestyle may play an indirect or direct role in accelerating the degree of mental health issues over time.

Exercise Maintains Our Cardiovascular Health through the Sympathetic Nervous System

Research at the Wayne State University School of Medicine in Michigan discovered physical changes in brains of rats which were kept sedentary for three months.  These rats’ neurons acquired extra branches that connected to the sympathetic nervous system, part of the brain that controls our involuntary functions like breathing, heart pumping, constriction of blood vessels, and digestion.  Too many neuron branches apparently overstimulate the nervous system.  Because this system regulates the heart and blood vessels, an overactive sympathetic nervous system can spell hypertension and other cardiovascular illnesses.  It can also cause depression, anxiety, and disturbed sleep, among other things.  This just goes to show how dangerous long periods of physical inactivity can become.

Regular Exercise Improves Mental Healthbenefits-of-exercises1

Those who suffer from depression or anxiety disorder stand to gain a lot from a regular exercise regimen.  There is much scientific evidence that physically active people have significantly lower incidences of anxiety and depression than sedentary people.  Regular exercise helps minds cope with stress and maintain good moods.  A ten-minute brisk walk may even help alleviate a low mood, albeit temporary, much like a quick fix for a headache does.

According to a study, people who regularly do vigorous exercise may be 25% less likely to develop depression or anxiety disorder in the next five years.  Exercise can actually form part of a therapy for some people who respond quite positively to it.  For mild depression, exercise may even take the place of antidepressants as a treatment alternative.

Physical activity stimulates the brain towards the production of endorphins, those feel-good hormones that give one, the “runner’s high.”  Endorphins are natural sedatives and analgesics which reduce one’s perception of pain, tamp down stress, boost self-esteem, and improve sleep.  Regular exercise then improves mood and maintains it with the constant flow of “euphoric” endorphins.

Regular Physical Activity Promotes Good Sleep

One of the most telling symptoms of depression and anxiety is sleep deprivation.  A stressed person usually has a difficult time keeping to a healthy sleeping pattern.  Sleep deprivation contributes to fatigue, a form of stress, which exacerbates very low moods, worry, nervousness, and irritability.  It also impairs memory, perception, and other cognitive functions.

Regular exercise however has proven to be beneficial to insomniacs in the long term.  A study revealed that people with sleep problems reported improved sleep and rest after participating in a four-month long regular exercise program.  The key word here is regular because one just cannot expect better sleep patterns after one or two bouts of physical activity.  Steady sessions of exercise however builds up the body’s propensity toward better sleeping patterns.  This is why many physically active people tend to have better sleep quality than sedentary ones.  Better sleep quality translates to better mood states and reduced degrees of anxiety and depression.

Getting the Habit to Move

One has to incorporate some extra physical activity into his daily routine.  Instead of riding a car to work, have you thought of walking or biking to it?  How about getting that usual cup of coffee from a cafe a little further down your usual route?  Once you make a habit out of some extra activities, it would not be that hard to get moving more everyday.

 

Emotional Issues in College Life

Girl, at table, having trouble studying

The transition from high school to college is one of the milestones that mark one’s transition from childhood to adulthood.  For emotionally healthy young people, the transition is a challenge, positively met with plans, goals, and tests of their newfound independence.  For those with some emotional instability, the transition may compound brewing stress and anxiety, a crippling disadvantage that may outweigh any educational gains hoped for.  Before a student can take on the more demanding life college brings on, he must be in good physical, mental, and emotional shape to cope with inevitable triumphs and pitfalls coming his way from a new environment.

Common Mental Health Problems in College Students

Stress in college is the overwhelmingly huge trigger for mental health problems that may have been absent, hidden, or controlled during high school.  A May 20, 2013 article in the Guardian states, “Those who do experience mental health problems cite coursework deadlines (65%) and exams (54%) as triggers of distress.  Financial difficulties (47%), pressures about “fitting in” (27%) and homesickness (22%) also contribute to mental ill health.”

Common symptoms of mental illnesses plaguing a significant percentage of college students are:

  • Depression — the most pervasive problem among the other mental issues.  Depression can be dangerous as it carries the high risk of suicidal tendencies.  Depression should not be left untreated.  Students afflicted with depression must be aware of the triggers and symptoms and seek professional help in school if available or outside.
  • Anxiety Disorders — Seventy five percent of people who have had panic attacks, social phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and the like have had anxiety symptoms before the age of 22.  Anxiety can be debilitating when it morphs into extreme worry based on unrealistic perceptions.
  • Eating Disorders — Anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating are common eating disorders that affect more female than male students.
  • Self-Harm  — Cutting, burning, or banging one’s head for the purpose of inflicting pain are signals of deeper emotional disorders.
  • Substance Abuse — The abuse of alcohol, prescription drugs, or recreational drugs is also a pervasive phenomenon.  Even mentally healthy individuals may fall prey to a drug habit when they start using drugs to stay awake for exams or simply to have fun.  The danger of substance abuse is addiction, sexual promiscuity without safety measures, and even sexual assault.
  • Sleep Deprivation — Drugs, depression, or simply a radical change in lifestyle of which college life can bring on, can trigger insomnia.  Bad sleep habits and chronic sleep loss can exacerbate any mental or physical health condition and even dampen coping mechanisms of mentally healthy individuals.  Insomnia is also a symptom of depression and anxiety.  Students need to factor in their sleep as an important necessity, one as vital as food is.

What Parents Should Know

Any adolescent can develop a mental health problem.  The problem is, parents often think these problems happen to other people’s children, not their own.  It is important to ascertain that your child has the emotional and mental capability to weather the ups and downs of being on their own in college.

Studies are showing that the greatest impediment to success in college is emotional instability caused by depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.  For the majority of emotionally challenged students, emotional instability can spell missed opportunities in their academic and social milieu.  For some whose mental health is in a more dangerous or debilitating condition, their lives could be at stake if their issues remain unaddressed.  Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among the college populace.

It is important to catch the first signs of a deteriorating mental health so that symptoms can be easily reversed.  In such a case, communication, lifestyle changes, and treatment must be addressed in order to effect positive changes and boost coping mechanisms.

college mental issues

What Colleges Should Know

Colleges should be sensitive and alert to the fact that one in five of their student population may likely be suffering some form of mental health issue; but, only a rare few of their students actually avail of the university’s counselling services.  In fact, only a handful would probably admit that they are suffering from anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, impulse control issues, personality disorders, substance addiction, or other mental health problems.

In this regard, universities may need to seriously look into their current student services that aim to address mental health problems.  Are counselling services diverse enough to meet differing personal and psychological needs?  Expanding institutional services or creating partnerships and referral services outside the school to include those such as women’s health centres, spiritual or religious organizations, substance abuse clinics, and the like may be of huge help in boosting student morale and health.

Sleep Problems

young man in bed with eyes opened suffering insomnia and sleep disorder thinking about his problem

Waking up tired?  Have a difficult time falling asleep at the right time?  Do you fall asleep during the day?  If you have answered yes to one or all of these questions, then consider that you may have a sleeping problem.

Having occasional bouts of late night sleeping and morning sleepiness do not mean that you have a sleeping problem.  The chronic inability to get a good night’s rest however qualifies for a sleeping disorder; more so if this sleep inability starts to impact negatively on your day-to-day life.

Lack of sleep can affect your moods, energy levels, and cognitive functions.  You may start to become depressed, irritable, forgetful, and always exhausted.  Together with diet and exercise, sleep is an integral component of optimal human health.  Take one of these legs off from the diet-exercise-sleep triad and you get an individual with an imbalanced state of being.  Adequate rest is vital for the maintenance of both physical and mental health.

Common Types of Sleeping Problems

Sleeping problems must be addressed if one is to maintain that balance.  Sleep problems come in many forms and it is good to be aware of many of them.  Here are three common examples of sleep disorders:

Insomnia

Insomnia tops the common sleep problem list as about one third of the British population are insomniacs, according to The Guardian.  Insomnia is so common that the issue is affecting the country’s productivity and degrading overall British health.

Insomnia is a condition in which one has difficulty falling asleep at the right time or getting back to sleep when awakened at night.  Insomniacs may also find themselves frequently waking up at night and experiencing difficulty in getting right back to sleep.  Insomnia is a problem because the sleep deprived sufferers are inclined to fall asleep in the daytime, often during their supposed productive hours, a bad tendency which impacts their day-to-day work, school, and family life.

Chronic insomnia has often been linked to depression and anxiety.  Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)  has proven to be effective in breaking the cycle of poor sleep by modifying thoughts and feelings that give rise to stress which cause insomnia.

Sleep Apnoea

Sleep Apnoea is characterized by chronic heavy snoring and breathing pauses of about 10-20 seconds.  This condition affects the sleeper’s breathing pattern so that the sleeper is often jolted out of their natural sleeping rhythms.  A person with sleep apnoea spends most of the night in light sleep and hardly any in deep REM stage where sleep is most restorative.

Because those afflicted with sleep apnoea are chronically sleep deprived, they often experience these accompanying symptoms:

  • Sleepiness during the day.  This is dangerous because one may be falling asleep while driving or working with heavy machinery.  Chronic sleepiness at work impairs productivity and job security.                                                                                                    sleep on the job
  • Irritability
  • Severe mood swings
  • Personality changes
  • Sore throat and a dry mouth first thing in the morning
  • Waking up many times to urinate
  • Impaired cognitive functions.  Have difficulty learning, remembering, and concentrating.
  • Morning migraines

Sleep apnoea needs medical intervention but it is a treatable condition.

Oversleeping

Here’s a classic case where too much of a good thing becomes bad.  Hypersomnia or oversleeping is the polar opposite of most sleeping disorders as this entails getting too much sleep instead of less; yet as a chronic condition, it is cause for concern.

The average or normal beneficial sleeping duration is 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night for adults.  Should you be averaging more than this, you may be oversleeping.  Chronic oversleepers feel extremely sleepy and lethargic throughout the day.  Napping does not refresh them.  Hypersomniacs often experience low energy levels, tiredness, anxiety, and forgetfulness.  Despite their long hours of sleep, oversleepers crave more sleep and exhibit the symptoms of the sleep deprived.

Oversleeping has been linked to other medical problems such as obesity, diabetes, depression, and cardiovascular disease.  Studies have also discovered that hypersomniacs have significantly shorter life spans than those who sleep normally.

Sleep Problems and Mental Health

When sleeping difficulties become chronic, these problems can escalate to become mental health problems.  If the sleep problem is a by-product of a mental health issue, the lack of sleep or too much thereof may exacerbate the originating mental health disorder.  This may seem like a chicken-and-egg thing; but the crucial thing here is that sleep problems must be dealt with as soon as possible.

Constant sleep issues exhaust a person both physically and mentally so that he may experience:

  • Deterioration of self-esteem — Fatigue can undermine an individual’s ability to face day-to-day decisions and challenges.  Forgetfulness, inability to focus, learning difficulties and other cognitive issues may degrade his opinion of himself, diminishing his ability to cope and opening the doors for depression and anxiety to step in.
  • Loneliness — Because of exhaustion from inadequate rest, the sleep deprived can lose interest in social activities, causing a self-imposed social isolation.  Loneliness can further escalate into mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
  • Negativity — Chronic tiredness may engender negative thought processes such as hopelessness and irrational thinking which may morph to or exacerbate mental health problems as well.
  • Psychotic episodes —  Sleep deprivation may trigger mania, psychosis, or paranoia in people already suffering from a psychotic disorder

Treatments

Sleep clinics and talking treatments such as CBT, stimulus control therapy, and relaxation therapies are common types of treatment.  Talking treatments given for free by the NHS are available; however, waiting lines may stretch too long for comfort.  Alternatively, a private therapist may be more of a help.  If you decide on one, be sure to check that he or she is properly trained and accredited by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) or the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP).