Stress and all that other crap. Let’s talk mental health #MHAW15

I think I have suffered with depression since my teens. I say ‘think’ because sometimes it’s hard to know. Back in the 80’s they didn’t know so much about it, especially in teenagers and we certainly didn’t talk about it so freely. All I remember was that I felt fed up and sad and lost my identity a bit. I was offered counselling but apparently refused point-blank – I don’t remember this at all!

Since then I have been up and down the roller-coaster and more recently have experienced much anxiety. Having both depression and anxiety is exhausting and surprisingly, they often go together. I really struggle to rest , to even sit down. My mind rarely switches off which at times can be a bonus as I seem to get loads done! On other days however (and what I am trying to manage right now) I feel emotional and burnt out. All I want to do is sleep and I find it hard to get-up-and-go. Anywhere. Motivation is a real struggle so you end up in a vicious cycle that’s hard to break. It’s really crap.

So what have I done to manage all this crap?

I take an antidepressant (more on that in a bit) and have had counselling with CBT 3 times since my teens.  For me, it has really helped me work through my feelings. Most importantly I have a better understanding of what is going on in my head; figuring out why I feel the way I do. To talk about and accept my feelings and behaviour is a huge step towards learning how to manage them. For so long I have been an ‘I can do it on my own’ kinda gal. For reasons I won’t go into here I rarely ask for help and blimey I can be stubborn! One of the hardest things for me to come to terms with about my mental health is that I can’t do it on my own. I have learnt it’s OK to ask for help and that actually this is a sign of strength, not weakness.

In some ways I am fortunate that I now know my triggers for anxiety and depression; for some there is no obvious explanation at all – that’s when talking therapies can be so useful. The books and professionals say life changing events and stress can play a part and I would certainly agree with that. There has usually been a different trigger for the return of my symptoms but through counselling we have revisited some of my childhood memories more than once. It’s pretty frustrating  when events in your past rear their ugly head and bug you, but the more I work through these, the more secure I feel about myself. I often joke to my husband that he has married a ‘fruit loop’ but I know in my heart I am not going mad, I am the 1 in 4 who has a mental health issue. It can happen to anyone at anytime.

Anxiety and depression can also be really tough on the family. My husband and close family (especially my mom) who know about all this, worry about me a lot and I am very conscious about my son picking up vibes. I have to battle with myself so I don’t end up feeling guilty – another symptom of depression arghh! It’s tough on them when they want to know if I’m OK but am just not in the mood for talking or answering questions. I know I lose patience (and the less said about my moodiness the better!) but am so grateful they have learnt to take deep breaths and give me space when I need it. They are also there whenever I need them and I know I am very lucky to have such big rocks to support me.

So what about exercise and healthy eating? Before I got married and had a child I was one of ‘those‘ people. You know, the annoying ones that had to tell everyone on Facebook about what training they did that night. One of those that exercised 6 days a week and lived in lycra and trainers at home. My body was a temple and all that. So why the hell do I struggle so much now to go for a walk or a swim? Why don’t apples taste as good as biscuits?! I am very much aware through my line of work how important diet and exercise are when it comes to mental health, yet these are the last things I feel like thinking about, never mind doing.

Only very recently have I made a concerted effort to be more active and plan my eating more. If I want to be more active, I need to eat better. I know that eating better and being more active will help me feel better. It’s getting started that’s the tricky bit! So around 3 weeks ago I started with yoga and pilates. Something that is not overly demanding physically, yet gives me time out and helps with relaxation. I have had to make a real effort to go on some days but I do feel the benefit of going as soon as I get there. Funnily enough, since I started these classes I actually want to eat more nutritious food. Bonus!

Last week my medication dose was increased. I knew it was the right thing to do. I don’t plan on staying on this dose, but I am hopeful it will get me through this ‘dip’. I started taking an antidepressant this time round in January 2014 and it is amazing how changing the level of a chemical in your brain can make such a difference. It took nearly 2 months but as a result I feel less overwhelmed and much more in control of daily stresses. When originally asked if I would consider taking an antidepressant, all I knew was that I wanted to feel happier. If taking tablets was going to help me, it was a no-brainer.

For family, friends and colleagues that know me, you may not have known this about me. I have become an expert at the smiley, cheery face, the ‘I’m fine thanks’ response and at the end of the day, life carries on. We can create whatever persona we want to on social media, so who really knows how I am feeling. This week is Mental Health Awareness Week so why not talk about my mental health? Depression affects around 1 in 12 people so more than likely, you know someone who suffers or has suffered in the past. This is something I am not ashamed of. I hold a professional job, I run a household, I have a loving family. I am human, I laugh (would like to do more please) and cry (not a lot) and am positive I will win in the end. I want to help lift the stigma of depression. Society has stereotyped views about mental illness and this makes it so much harder to deal with.

Writing this has been therapeutic for me but if anyone else out there can relate to this post or is spurred on themselves to talk about mental health, please feel free to share.

If you are worried about your mental health, there is a lot of help out there if you know where to find it.

Try The Big White Wall, NHS Choices and The Mental Health Foundation for starters and of course, go and see your GP

Thank you 🙂

Chocolate fact of the day no.2

Is chocolate addictive?


Are you a true ‘chocoholic’?

I never used to eat much chocolate; I liked it but never felt the ‘need’ to have it and probably didn’t really allow myself to have it within my ‘healthy regime’. Then I fell pregnant and life has never been the same.  About 4 months of pretty much constant nausea,  I had to find foods that would help settle my stomach.  Oddly enough Bounty Bars seemed to do the trick! (Along with shortbread biscuits 😉 ) Since then I have never really lost my ‘sweet tooth’ and every now and again I do get that chocolate craving.  I don’t class myself as a chocoholic but I do appreciate why people develop such a strong desires for it. Sometimes  I feel quite guilty for the whole ‘you must practice what you preach‘ thing but then again, life is too short to worry about the small things all the time!

Studies have shown that people can exhibit 3 signs of addiction in relation to food:

  1. Intense craving
  2. Loss of control over the use of it
  3. Continued use despite negative consequences

I don’t often hear about people craving lettuce or cucumber, but this is because we most often crave food that contains sugar or fat and chocolate contains both; it’s no wonder we fall for that sweet, smooth velvety explosion in the mouth, although some purists would say chocolate addiction is not a true addiction. What do you think?

Some will scoff at this weakness for chocolate, passing it off as nothing more than an easily-overcome gluttony; something that could be avoided, if  only you had the willpower……… but I think its more complicated than this.

It is accepted that chocolate has a certain hedonistic appeal, that we gain pleasure from eating it, that it is better than sex but many people also claim it helps reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and depression too.

So what does it contain that can influence our feelings so strongly?  It’s to do with activation of ‘reward pathways’ in the brain; we experience pleasurable feelings so we seek them out again.  Chocolate works on the brain very much in the same way as drugs do.

In addition to sugar and fat, chocolate contains or causes the release of several substances that can make it feel “addictive”. None of these chemicals however are strong enough to explain this feeling acting on their own and research is not particularly convincing either.

  1.  Chocolate contains tryptophan; an essential amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin – a calming chemical messenger that is involved in regulating mood.  Chocolate increases the levels of serotonin, causing feelings of happiness and elation.
  2. Enkephalins; These are our own natural painkillers (that work with endorphins), that give us a sense of euphoria. Chocolate may increase the release of enkephalins in the brain which doesn’t necessarily make us want chocolate more, but   may increase our desire and impulse to eat it.
  3. Theobromine found in chocolate is a close relative of caffeine.  Like caffeine it has stimulant properties and is potentially addictive.  The level of theobromine in chocolate varies from bar to bar though; milk chocolate contains the lowest levels of theobromine so it  is quite unlikely this alone is responsible for chocolate cravings. 
  4. Anandamide also found in chocolate is produced naturally in the brain too.  This chemical activates the same cannabinoid receptors as marijuana that causes a person to feel “high”. Enzymes break down anandamide shortly after it is produced by the brain, thus limiting the duration of the pleasurable “high”. Chocolate does not contain enough anandamide to produce a global high like marijuana and it has also been suggested the anandamide found in chocolate is broken down by stomach acid before it even reaches the blood stream.
  5. Phenylethylamine is a chemical found in the body that is similar to amphetamine. It helps mediate feelings of giddiness, attraction, euphoria and excitement. Researchers believe phenylethylamine causes the brain to release dopamine in the pleasure centers of the brain, which peaks during sex. This may be why women report to prefer chocolate to sex. 

So chocolate contains and causes the release of ‘addictive’ chemicals and I think the power of these chemicals is variable; perhaps depending on personality type? and in more ‘susceptible’ individuals they find it harder to resist these effects.  As with many aspects of nutrition science, we need some more research…………..

Chocolate and migraines coming tomorrow……………