According to a new report, we're more stressed than ever - and Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year, is approaching. But there are things that can help, as Lisa Salmon reports.
By Lisa Salmon
Dark days, foul weather, an almighty financial festive hangover, and goodness knows how long to go until your next holiday - sounds like a recipe for the January blues.
Indeed - January 21, dubbed Blue Monday, is said to be the most depressing day of the year. And the Beat Blue Monday campaign predicts that the combination of economic misery, broken New Year's resolutions and bad weather could make this one of the worst Blue Mondays ever.
However, there are things you can do to try and beat the blues, and often it's little things that make the biggest difference, when it comes to giving your mind a well-needed boost.
The Beat Blue Monday campaigners have come up with 10 suggestions of simple ways to help revive sapped spirits, from contacting a friend or relative for a chat, to indulging in some pampering or going to a cafe you've never been to before. (For more details visit www.beatbluemonday.org.uk) January blues isn't the only thing us Brits are battling. The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) recently carried out research into the state of our stress levels, and found that almost half (47%) of adults revealed they were stressed every day or every few days, and 59% said their life is more stressful than it was five years ago. Money (26%) and work-related issues (28%) were the main cause of stress for 54% of the 2,000 Britons questioned.
Stress isn't always problematic. In small degrees, stress is a normal response and can actually be beneficial, such as making us perform better under pressure.
Certain situations trigger the release of stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol which, among other things, raise blood pressure and increase heart rate, preparing the body for 'fight or flight'.
With short-term, or 'normal' stress, hormone levels will return to normal once a threat has passed. However, when stress is ongoing it can develop into more serious mental health problems, like depression and anxiety disorders, as well as having a significant impact on physical health, which is why it's so important that stress is properly managed.
The MHF have just published a new guide, How To Manage And Reduce Stress, on this subject, which is available to download for free from their website (www.mentalhealth.org.uk).
"Too many of us still aren't making managing stress a priority," says the MHF's chief executive Dr Andrew McCulloch. "It's important to recognise the symptoms early to help figure out ways of coping, and save you from adopting unhealthy coping methods such as drinking or smoking."
McCulloch says the length of time people feel stressed is key to any health implications it may have.
Feeling continuously stressed for two or three weeks or more can be a health risk, but just a day or two of stress is perfectly normal, he says.
The degree of stress is also crucial - if it's causing secondary symptoms like palpitations, not being able to concentrate, headaches and insomnia, mental and physical health may be affected.
"Prolonged, unpleasant, dysfunctional stress is what affects health," explains McCulloch.
The most common physical signs of stress include sleeping problems, sweating and loss of appetite.
Very stressed people may have headaches, muscle tension, pain, nausea, indigestion and dizziness. Faster breathing and palpitations can also occur.
Long-term constant stress means the 'stress hormones' remain at heightened levels, which can seriously damage health.
The results can include heart disease and other cardiovascular problems such as stroke, McCulloch warns. The endocrine system, which produces hormones, can also be affected, leading to metabolic problems, possible overeating and eventual type 2 diabetes.
Gastric conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or ulcerative colitis may also be linked to stress.
"What's written on the mind is written on the body," explains McCulloch, "and where it comes out depends on the individual. It's often multi-factorial, as people who are continually stressed often drink a lot, and might smoke and eat a lot of comfort food, so they're damaging their cardiovascular system at the same time as they're stressing it out. It's a double whammy."
What may make it even worse for some people at this time of year, he says, is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression which occurs in the winter months when there's less sunlight.
Consultant psychiatrist Dr Jim Bolton agrees that SAD may be one contributory factor to the current high levels of stress and depression.
Bolton emphasises that stress is a normal part of life, and points out: "When we're in a challenging situation, a bit of stress or anxiety can keep us alert and help us cope better. But if stress is too intense or goes on too long, it gets in the way of us coping."
He says research has shown that people in jobs with a lot of uncontrollable stress are more likely to develop high blood pressure and heart disease.
Warning signs that stress is getting too much include feeling lower or more worried than usual and not getting any better, he says. Such feelings can affect work, normal routines and relationships, and become so bad that a person thinks life isn't with living.
But, as the MHF points out, there are effective ways to try and deal with stress.
In their surveys, they also asked people how they cope with stress, with 41% saying spending time alone helps, 40% opting to talk to family and friends, and 39% saying hobbies help.
Worryingly, 18% said they drink alcohol, and 10% smoke, to help them cope.
Only 6% would consider visiting a GP or a medical professional for stress-related issues.
But professional help may be needed when stress seriously affects your life, and the first port of call should be a GP.
"People aren't incompetent at managing stress, it's just that they've got more stress to manage," explains McCulloch.
Top tips for combating stress Here are some of the MHF's suggestions to help you cope: :: Identify stress causes, sorting them into those with a practical solution, those that will improve in time, and those you can't do anything about. Try to let go of those in the second and third groups - there's no point worrying about things you can't change or that will sort themselves out.
:: Review your lifestyle - are you taking on too much?
:: Eat healthily - there's growing evidence that food affects mood.
:: Keep smoking and drinking to a minimum.
:: Exercise - even a couple of hours a week can make a huge difference.
:: Relax - balancing responsibility to others and responsibility to yourself is vital in reducing stress.
:: Try mindfulness meditation, which has been proven to reduce the effects of stress. Visit the MHF's Be Mindful website (www.bemindful.co.uk) for an online course in mindfulness.
:: Get some sleep.
:: Have fun!
And here are some of the personal stress-relievers members of the public shared with the MHF: :: Walking in the countryside.
:: Reading a book.
:: Doing something good for someone else.
:: Dancing in your room to your favourite music.
:: Spending time with children - they really put things in perspective.
:: Sitting in a cafe with a cup of tea and a magazine.
:: Reminding yourself it could be worse and counting your blessings.
:: Having a cuddle.
:: For the Mental Health Foundation guide How to Manage and Reduce Stress, which includes useful contact numbers, visit www.mentalhealth.org.uk. :: For more information on stress, anxiety and depression, visit the Royal College of Psychiatrists website on www.rcpsych.ac.uk.