Why The Biology of Your Mental Health Matters

Why The Biology of Your Mental Health Matters

The start of a new year signifies the end of the holiday season and ushers in the pressure to revisit our life goals.

Transitioning from a holiday mindset to a busy schedule can feel overwhelming and take a toll on our mental health. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological and social well-being, and affects all spheres of our life. Our moods can change on a daily, weekly or even yearly basis depending on many factors. The culmination of late workdays, unhealthy eating habits, strains with our relationships, or changes in our routine can lead to dampened mental state.

Mental health is a complex phenomenon that has both biological and lifestyle roots. Scientists  believe that fraught struggles can be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, irrespective of external events.[1] According to evolutionary psychiatrist Randolph Nesse, some roots of mental illnesses may lie within our genetic makeup. Depending on which genes are turned on or off, our body creates different proteins, hormones, and molecules that can affect our mood and the way we respond to stressful situations.[2] While some of us may be more susceptible to struggling with certain life events because of family history and genetic makeup. Our biology doesn’t necessarily paint the full picture.

Other factors such as our social environment and our personal experiences also play a large role in either protecting or negatively impacting our mental health. According to the Mental Health Foundation, we are shaped by deeply personal experiences and the social circumstances that we find ourselves in. During stressful situations, we experience physical changes in our body. After experiencing a stressor, our brains release stress hormones called adrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream. These hormones increase our heart rate, speed-up our breathing, and tense up our muscles. Usually after a heightened situation, our stress hormones return to their normal state and our body feels relaxed again.[3]

However, faced with long term stressors like a tough work situation, arguments at home or looming thoughts of illness, our bodies are constantly alert and enter a chronic state of worry. This means that our stress hormones are constantly being released and putting our responses into overdrive. The mind and body constantly feel under attack, heart rhythms are faster than normal, and the body starts to curb functions that are considered non-essential in demanding situations, like immune responses and digestive functions. Ultimately, long-term stress can lead to chronic heart disease, a loss of immunity and the development of more serious mental health challenges.[4]

While it’s difficult to biologically track how long-term stress grows into a more serious issue, scientists are working more than ever to uncover the relationship between mental health, stress, and biology to develop new medicines that can help treat internal challenges. In the meantime, we have the power to make changes that can help us manage the long-term impact which overwhelming events can have on us.

Whether or not you are currently experiencing mental health challenges, it’s never too late to implement management strategies into your daily routine. Stress management can preventatively help you take care of your mental health, improve your quality of life, and can even lead to a longer, healthier life.[5]

Incorporating small steps into your lifestyle to help create positive purpose. These can include, connecting with loved ones and maintaining consistent social interaction, being more active, incorporating mindfulness and reflecting on our feelings, and practicing gratitude by listing out 3-5 things we’re thankful for each day.[6] These activities focus on the healthy release of serotonin, the ability to tune into  how  feelings are offset with positive reinforcement, and a shift to a more optimistic mindset, all of which have been shown to reduce feelings of long-term stress.[7][8][9]

Our doctors at (med)24 recommend that you try to incorporate at least one of these tips in your day-to-day routine to find out what works best for you.

 

If you’d like to speak with someone or understand what steps you can take to preventatively care for your mental health, please reach out to our Mental Health and Mindfulness Team, who can help better navigate your feelings.

Should you feel in a complete state of despair and urgently need to speak to someone, please dial 999 immediately.

 

 

REFERENCES:

  1. Mental Health Foundation. (2022). Isn’t it all about our biology and genes? Mental Health Foundation. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/our-work/prevention/isnt-it-all-about-our-biology-and-genes
  2. Woolfson, A. (2019). The biological basis of mental illness. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00521-2
  3. Mayo Clinic. (2022). Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037
  4. Doughty, B. (2018). Stress and our mental health - what is the impact & how can we tackle it?. MQ Mental Health. https://www.mqmentalhealth.org/stress-and-mental-health/?lang=en_us
  5. National Health Service. (2022). Mental health issues. NHS Better Health. https://www.nhs.uk/every-mind-matters/mental-health-issues/stress/
  6. Long, B. C., & Flood, K. R. (1993). Coping with work stress: Psychological benefits of exercise. Work & Stress, 7(2), 109-119.
  7. Astin, J. A. (1997). Stress reduction through mindfulness meditation. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, 66(2), 97-106.
  8. Naseem, Z., & Khalid, R. (2010). Positive Thinking in Coping with Stress and Health outcomes: Literature Review. Journal of Research & Reflections in Education (JRRE), 4(1).