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Every year in the UK, Mental Health Awareness Week is run, in order to build awareness of the issues faced by a growing number of people struggling with mental health. Research has shown that 16 million people experience a mental health problem each year. Why am I writing about it and encouraging you to get involved? Because amongst others, people who live with HIV often suffer from mental health issues, so it is close to my heart.

One of the key factors in causing mental health problems is stress. By tackling stress, we can go a long way to tackle mental health problems such as anxiety and depression and, in some cases, self-harm and suicide. We can’t afford to under-estimate stress or avoid making the changes needed for a less toxic approach to living.

What is Stress?

Stress is not a mental health problem itself. The stress response is a survival strategy that keeps us safe. It was a vital adaption we made when trying to survive being eaten on the savannah. When we sense threat or danger, our amygdala (the part of our brain that controls emotions like fear and anxiety) switches on. When this happens, the brain shuts down any unnecessary functions. Hormones like cortisol flood our blood with glucose, giving us a power surge, so that we can respond in two ways; flight or fight.

Stress can be described as what happens to us when we can’t control what is happening to us. Our brains can’t tell the difference between worrying about a lion that is about to eat us and dealing with someone who cuts you up in traffic. The physiological response is the same. Many of us trigger our stress response repeatedly every day – day in, day out. This leads to what the scientists call ‘allostatic overload’. Instead of out-witting the lion and hiding in a nearby cave, repeated stressful events is like being chased all day by a lion. Does this sound like one of your days? It turns out that this is very bad for us – it makes us sick and causes mental health problems.

Don’t Let Stress Become a Way of Life

Chronic stress – caused by always being in rush, for example – increases our risk of addictive and destructive behaviour, of developing anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. It can also increase risks of physical health problems including heart disease, insomnia, muscle pain and it damages our immune system. This is not good news when your immune system is already compromised, when you have AIDS.

Having a serious illness, like HIV, can be itself be a source of major stress. Living with HIV challenges your sense of well-being and can complicate existing mental health conditions. HIV and some opportunistic infections can also affect your nervous system and can lead to changes in your behaviour. One of the most common mental health conditions that people living with HIV face is depression. Depression can range from mild to severe and the symptoms of depression – including persistent sadness, anxiety, feeling “empty,” helplessness, negativity, loss of appetite and disinterest in engaging with others – can affect day-to-day life.

Celebrate Life

Good mental health will help you live your life to the fullest and is essential to successfully treating HIV. To help manage your mental health, it is important to know when, how, and where to get help. Remember that as well as treatment there are other ways to improve mental health:

  • Exercise – regular exercise may help improve symptoms of depression and decrease stress. When you exercise, your brain releases chemicals called endorphins. These chemicals help improve your mood.
  • Meditation – recent studies suggest that mindfulness meditation can help ease depression, anxiety and stress.

You can also look for ways to celebrate life! Join me for the forthcoming launch of my new book on 2 May 2018, when we’ll be doing just that! Get in touch if you’d like an invitation to what promises to be the most positive event of the year! Call me on 07752 518 925 or click here to email me.

You can also find out more about how to get involved in this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week at the Mental Health Foundation website.

ACAS has a very useful guide to mental health in the workplace here, which contains a number of useful links, including one to Mental Health First Aid.  As part of the training to be a Peer Mentor for PositivelyUK we were encouraged to train to be a Mental Health First Aider – which I did!

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