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Mental health

Combatting winter blues: how mindfulness can boost women’s mental wellbeing

By Jasmine Eskenzi, founder of The Zensory

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Jasmine Eskenzi

The winter season can be a difficult time for many, especially with short days and bitter coldness. Could mindfulness help?

At this time of year around two million people in the UK are preparing themselves to combat seasonal depression, otherwise known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

According to the NHS, the nature and severity of SAD can vary. Many people experience lethargy, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating whilst others suffer from a more severe depression.

Whilst mental health problems affect both men and women, women are more likely to be affected by depression than men. In fact, one in five women compared with one in eight men have a mental disorder.

Concerningly, the number of women suffering from poor mental health, especially in the winter, is increasing but what if we could use tech to combat it? 

In recent years there’s been a boom in tech-for-good products. Many entrepreneurs, academics, and businesses are finding ways to deliver inclusive products with positive social and environmental impacts. Crucially, these products address critical challenges that society is currently facing.

With so many women experiencing difficult battles with SAD each year – and with no real cure – it is time that we take it seriously.

Why are women more likely to suffer depressive episodes in winter? 

The science behind SAD is still relatively unknown. However, some evidence seems to suggest that it is related to the body’s level of melatonin.

Melatonin is secreted from a small gland in the brain and regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Darkness is also known to stimulate its production. As a result, when it’s darker for longer, we may feel more lethargic and fatigued. It’s also thought that the darker days could mess with our internal clocks and sleep patterns, as well as reduce the amount of serotonin our brains release.

All of this can make you feel generally more sluggish. But why are women more likely to suffer from SAD?

Again, the science is still relatively unknown. It might be simply that women are more likely to disclose their feelings of winter depression or that they’re more likely to go to the GP about it.

Similarly, women are more prone to depression in general, given hormonal fluctuations and depression being a side effect of many natural changes that happen within women’s bodies.

What’s being done to help? Fortunately, funding in the femtech space doubled in 2021 to US$1.4bn, according to Business Insider. 

How mindfulness can help boost women’s mental health and wellbeing

There are many things you can do to boost your mental health and wellbeing that are relatively cheap – if not completely free – easily accessible and can be done anytime, anywhere. Tech is at the forefront of this movement. 

One thing you can do is listen to binaural beats. Binaural beats are powerful auditory illusions that put the brain into a certain mood state by manipulating the brainwaves.

Two tones are played with slightly different frequencies at the same time, with no highs or lows, lyrics, or breaks. Different frequencies can be used for different desired outcomes. For example, listening to binaural beats in Alpha frequency (eight to 13Hz) can make you feel more positive and relaxed.

For maximum effectiveness, you should listen for longer than three minutes using headphones. The good news? You can do it in the office or on the go. 

A more holistic approach includes using all of your senses to feel refreshed, known as ‘sensehacking’.

Sensehacking basically means using your senses to boost your mood. One way you could do this is by using colourful visual touchpads combined with binaural beats. Or, perhaps, by investing in essential oils that, diffused around the home or office, can make you feel relaxed.

But first, it’s important to work out which sensory modality you respond to best. That could be visual cues, movement (kinaesthetic), auditory etc.

The debilitating effects of SAD are part of the reason, we founded The Zensory – an app which aims to help users create a multi-sensory routine that leaves them feeling more focused, positive, creative and productive.

Having seen my mum and sister suffer from the disorder, I asked, what if there was a way to help people suffering from mental disorders, like SAD, using our senses?

Our senses are always readily available and free to use. Apps like The Zensory provide a virtual toolkit that combines a litany of sensory activities designed to boost mindfulness.     

To reduce symptoms of SAD you can also try and increase the amount of time you spend outdoors during the day, invest in a specific SAD lamp or try psychosocial treatments.  

Easy ways women can incorporate wellbeing into their daily routine 

It can be overwhelming to know where to start with a good wellbeing routine.

Luckily, using technology, you can build habits that stick. With push-notifications, the ability to take mindful moments on the go, and the accessibility of tools small and large, prioritising yourself and your wellbeing is undoubtedly becoming easier.  

Mental health

Eight steps for coping with a chronic illness diagnosis

By Dr Becky Spelman, psychologist and founder at Private Therapy Clinic

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A chronic illness diagnosis can disrupt every aspect of someone’s life.

Emotionally, a diagnosis may cause fear, anxiety, sadness, and frustration. Physically, it can lead to changes in a person’s daily routine, limitations in activities and the need for ongoing medical assistance.

Socially, it may result in isolation, as the person may feel misunderstood or unable to take part in certain activities. Financially, the cost of treatments and medications can add additional stress to individuals and families.

Increasingly, younger women are being diagnosed with long-term conditions, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, endometriosis and autoimmune diseases, which occur far more in women than men.

Coping with the psychological effects of a chronic illness, however, is just as important as managing the physical symptoms. Here, we explore some healthy ways that may help.

Knowledge is power

Take some time to research your condition, its symptoms and treatment options. You can ask your medical provider to provide you with the relevant information and head to reputable websites such as the NHS website. Understanding your chronic illness can help you to alleviate anxiety and gain a sense of control

Be kind to yourself

It is essential to show yourself kindness and compassion when you’re living with a chronic illness. Know that it is okay to have bad days and that you are doing your best. Make time for self-care activities, rest when you can and be patient with yourself as you adjust to your new reality.

Surround yourself with support

You don’t have to go through this alone. Call on trusted friends, families or a therapist who can provide you with emotional support at this time. Tell them about the diagnosis and any worries you have, it can be therapeutic to express your emotions to others.

Make time for self-care

Self-care, such as exercise or mindfulness, can help you to cope with a chronic illness by promoting emotional wellbeing, reducing stress and providing a sense of control and empowerment.

Try journaling 

Journaling is a great way to acknowledge and process the emotions surrounding your diagnosis. It can help to prevent them from becoming overwhelming and impacting your mental health.

Manage your expectations

You may have to alter your goals and manage your expectations after being diagnosed with a chronic illness, and these should align with your capabilities and limitations.

Accept that some tasks may take longer to complete, and celebrate every achievement along the way. This will help you to stay motivated as you navigate life after a diagnosis.

Seek therapy 

Therapy can be immensely beneficial for someone coping with a chronic illness diagnosis. A therapist can provide a supportive and non-judgmental space for you to process your emotions, fears and anxieties related to the condition.

They can also offer coping strategies, tools and techniques and diagnose any underlying mental health concerns that may arise, such as depression or anxiety and provide further guidance.

Stay positive 

A positive mindset, including focusing on gratitude, can also help to enhance your overall mental health and quality of life.

The diagnosis of a chronic illness can profoundly impact a person’s life. Regularly utilising strategies to navigate the emotional journey of living with a chronic illness can significantly improve a person’s life.

Dr Becky Spelman is a psychologist and founder of Private Therapy Clinic. 

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Mental health

Women on the pill less likely to report depression, study shows

A new study has shown the prevalence of major depression amongst pill users was significantly lower

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Women taking the oral contraceptive pill are less likely to report depression, researchers have found.

The research, which analysed data from 6,239 US women aged 18-55 years old, found that the prevalence of major depression amongst users of the oral contraceptive pill (OCP) was significantly lower, at 4.6 per cent, compared to former OCP users (11.4 per cent).

The study,  published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, was led by researchers at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), alongside experts from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and University of California, Davis.

The researchers have suggested two possible explanations for their findings, which are contrary to a commonly held belief that OCP can cause depression.

One is that taking the pill can remove concerns about unwanted pregnancy, therefore helping to improve the mental health of OCP users.

It is also possible the results could be influenced by “survivor bias”, where women who experience signs of depression while using OCP stop taking it, moving them into the category of former users.

Contraception is a crucial component of preventive health care,” said lead author, Dr Julia Gawronska, postdoctoral research fellow at Anglia Ruskin University.

“Most women tolerate taking the oral contraceptive pill without experiencing depressive symptoms but there is a subset of women that may experience adverse mood side effects and even develop depression, and the reasons are not entirely clear.

“Unlike some previous studies, we found that women currently taking the oral contraceptive pill were much less likely to report clinically relevant depression compared to women who previously took the pill.”

She added: “Taking the pill could provide positive mental health benefits for some women, simply by removing their concerns about becoming pregnant. The ‘survivor effect’ could also play a part, with women who experience symptoms of depression more likely to discontinue taking it, placing them into the group of former users.

“However, stopping taking the pill without a suitable alternative increases the risk of unintended pregnancy.

“It is important that women are fully supported, provided with full information, and offered alternative forms of contraception if necessary.”

The cross-sectional study used data collected by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the US.

In both users and former users, researchers found that widowed, divorced or separated women, obese women or those with a history of cancer were more likely to report depression.

In former users, depression was more commonly reported in Black or Hispanic women, smokers and those with lower levels of education or experiencing poverty.

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Motherhood

Maternal depressive symptoms could start in early pregnancy, study finds

Maternal depression can negatively affect a child’s nutrition, physical health, cognitive functions and socioemotional development

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Maternal depressive symptoms could begin from early pregnancy and last up to two years after childbirth, a large-scale international study has shown.

While health professionals often emphasise the postpartum stage after childbirth as a high-risk period for the onset of depression, this latest research has found that maternal depressive symptoms can appear from early pregnancy.

The study, led by researchers from A*STAR’s Translational Neuroscience Programme of the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS) in Singapore, involved seven prospective observational cohorts across the UK, Canada and Singapore.

The researchers analysed the maternal depressive symptom trajectories of 11,563 pregnant women, spanning multiple decades in the largest such analysis to date. Each cohort included depressive symptoms measured at multiple perinatal time points and analysed independently.

The data was based on prospective maternal self-reports of depressive symptoms, eliminating the potential bias collected from retrospective reports.

The study showed three distinct clusters of mothers with stable low, mild, and high symptom levels over the perinatal period – the period from the beginning of pregnancy up to two years post-birth. The trajectories of depressive symptoms were present for all mothers.

This was true even in the case of those who met clinical cut-offs for probable depression indicating that more serious instances of depression in women begin prior to the birth of the child.

“Several recent studies, including one conducted locally suggest that maternal depressive symptoms may begin before conception, which is why interventions, guidelines for care, and public health policies aimed at alleviating maternal depressive symptoms should target as early as preconception, at least during pregnancy, in addition to the postnatal period, for more effective outcomes,” explained Dr Michelle Kee, research scientist at A*STAR’s SICS and first author of the paper.

Professor Michael Meaney, the director of the translational neuroscience programme at SICS, said: “The medical media continues to refer to maternal depression as ‘postnatal depression’, implying that the onset of symptoms occurs following the birth of the child.

“This extensive analysis shows that the onset of symptoms is in the prenatal period and remains largely stable thereafter. This is true for women in the community as well as for those experiencing more severe symptom levels.”

He added: “The results of this study point to the early antenatal period as a crucial time point for the identification of stable trajectories of maternal depressive symptoms and emphasises the critical importance of prenatal intervention.”

Associate Professor Helen Chen, senior consultant, department of psychological medicine at the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, said: “This study provides strong evidence across populations that it is crucial to address depression during pregnancy so that mothers are well and ready to receive their babies, rather than to wait until the postnatal period, for postnatal depression has traditionally been the focus.

“Given what we know about the impact of perinatal depression on child development and health outcomes, the paper will help to inform healthcare systems to direct resources upstream to the antenatal period.

“This will benefit our mothers and their children, and population health of future generations.”

Previous findings from the Growing Up in Singapore Towards healthy Outcomes (GUSTO) project showed that prenatal maternal mental health plays a significant role in the brain development and health of babies.

Research found that maternal depressive symptoms can negatively affect a child’s nutrition, physical health, cognitive functions, socioemotional development and academic achievement, in some cases increasing the risk of ADHD and depression.

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