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Feeling anxious or depressed? You're not alone: The Natural Alternatives.

Last week, the latest results from an annual survey produced by the University of Melbourne, called HILDA, were released. HILDA stands for Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia. This longitudinal study has been running for 18 years and tracks both economic and personal well-being, with a particular focus on work force patterns and family life. You can think of it as being a kind of 'life check up' for our country, except instead of measuring our physical health, it measures more sociological factors, such as how we're doing financially as individuals, and how our work life interacts with our family life and affects our relationships.

Among the results of the latest survey, we've discovered that kids are leaving home later in life, we are spending long than ever commuting to and from work (4.5 hours / week), poverty is on the increase, more men are unemployed, more women are working than before, childcare is ridiculously expensive, and we've got even less spending money than we did 10 years ago during the GFC.

Not a particularly bright picture really, is it?

But what's caught the attention of many analysts among these results is an increase in the incidence of mental health conditions, particularly anxiety and depression.

The incidence of anxiety in our society is apparently now running at a whopping 3.2 million people, or 13.1%. If you're in a room with 7 other people, chances are at least one of them suffers from anxiety, if it's not you. However, if you're a young adult female, you only need to be in a room with 4 other women of your age for it to be likely that at least one of you suffers from depression or anxiety. Clearly, something is going wrong here.

So why are these conditions on the rise?

There can be many triggers for anxiety. Here are a few of the obvious suspects.

- Something is new to you. You are faced with a situation you have not encountered before, and you are not sure how to navigate. This taps right into our basic survival instincts. The reality is that while things have always been changing (that is, after all, how we have developed and progressed, and the reason we're no longer living in caves), the rate of change continues to increase. We will live through more changes in our work and family lives than our grandparents did.

- Uncertainty about the future. Here we are at survival level again. Most of us live in the anticipation that we will carry on living! If that prospect becomes uncertain, we feel threatened, and all sorts of hormones and neurotransmitters are released to help us deal with possible danger ahead. Note that the question of our survival does not have to be anything as dramatic as life or death. It can be the survival of our current situation. To the person with a 4 bedroom house and a 6 figure salary, the prospect of losing this, and being in a 1 bedroom unit on $50K is likely to send them into a tailspin. The person that is currently in that 1 room unit might be quite happy with their existence.

- Something challenges our beliefs about the world, or ourselves. Most of us believe in cause and effect, not in chaos. We believe that when we work hard, we will be rewarded for our efforts. We believe that when we treat others well, they will reciprocate. When something happens that challenges those beliefs, we experience psychological discomfort. (Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance). You work hard but instead of reward, someone else gets promoted. (Or even worse, your shifts are reduced, or you get fired or made redundant). You believe that you've done everything you can to be a good partner, parent, or child, but you end up divorced, estranged, or disowned! The world no longer makes sense, and you are no longer sure how to 'survive' in this crazy world!

- Something is outside of our control. It is little wonder that mental health will suffer when we feel powerless to improve our situation. For many young adults, out of reach property prices may be a good example. Here we are back at survival again. Shelter is one of our most basic psychological needs. Faced with the prospect of never being able to own a home, it's not surprising that young adults are worried (i.e. anxious) or depressed, as their ability to provide a secure shelter for themselves and their family appears hopeless.

Let's come back to those original survey results. The more time you spend commuting to/from work, the more likely you are to be dissatisfied with your job. When you do eventually arrive home at the end of a long day in a job you don't like and the commute from hell, you're more likely to be in a bad mood, so your relationships suffer as a result. This causes you further stress, increasing the likelihood that you'll resort to negative coping mechanisms or escapist behaviour to take the edge off the day. Depending on your weakness, this could be consumption of alcohol, recreational drugs, 'reality' TV, or shopping (and in the process, adding to that credit card debt that worsens your situation and causes your further stress!) The last thing you feel like doing is going to the gym and then spending time preparing a healthy and nutritious meal. No surprise that mental health problems are on the rise really.

So what can we do about this?

If you visit your GP, you may well be prescribed medication to help. This approach can be seen as either being symptomatic, and failing to address the cause, or it assumes that anxiety and depression are the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, which medications attempt to address.

The latter may be true in some cases, but have a look at the results of the HILDA survey again. Do you think it's likely that the reason more people are anxious or depressed is because there is something wrong with their brains? That somehow, all at the same time, more brains are malfunctioning than before? Or is this a symptom of our not-perfectly-healthy society?

(Just to present an alternative viewpoint.... some commentators have said that mental health conditions are not on the rise. It's just that there is less stigma about admitting that your life isn't perfect, so it is now talked about and reported more, and it only looks as though it is increasing. We'll leave you to be the judge of that one).

Back to modern medicine. Thankfully, Medicare doesn't just cover anti-depressants, and GPs will usually also refer to a psychologist for counselling, which can play a valuable role in assisting mental health conditions. When you are in the midst of your own mental health quagmire, it may not always be obvious to you that contributing factors include your job, or relationships, or housing security etc. Having someone help you to see things in perspective often brings great relief as you realise you are not just going crazy.

Are there any natural alternatives?

Naturopaths, Nutritionists, Herbalists and Homoeopaths take a holistic approach to health. While they too have 'medications' in their toolbox (of the natural variety), they will be considering not just your physical health, but other aspects also, such as your lifestyle, diet, environment, social support network, etc. They are trained in basic counselling skills and will be able to make suggestions and work with you on many facets that may be influencing your mental health.

While there's little that your complementary medicine practitioner can do about house prices or the economy, there may well be other areas in which their expertise can be just the ticket. You can think of your mental health as the chain that's as strong as its weakest link. Your body and mind are not independent of each other! When you are physically healthy, you will be more mentally resilient. What's more, physical imbalances can have effects on our neurochemistry that can aggravate or trigger any tendency towards depression or anxiety. Eating the wrong foods or having an unbalanced diet, a bowel flora imbalance, poor digestive function, blood sugar levels that are too high or too low (or that oscillate between the two), poor liver function, thyroid imbalances, or any chronic inflammatory condition.... all these situations can upset our brain chemistry and make us feel anxious, depressed, or both. Are anti-depressants really the right approach when we haven't ruled out these other possibilities first?

Assuming this survey is accurate in tracking trends in our society, mental health conditions are likely to continue to increase in line with our growing cities and increased house prices, people living further from work and having longer commute times, increased employment uncertainty, and changing family dynamics. There is therefore a continued and increasing need for complementary medicine professionals and the role that they play in our society in helping you to live a happier and healthier life.

Want to learn more about natural medicine?

If you want to learn more about complementary medicine, Switch on Health has several short courses and accredited qualifications that you will love, including Advanced Diplomas in Nutrition, Herbal Medicine, Naturopathy and Homeopathy. Browse the short courses or learn more about their accredited Advanced Diploma programs.


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