The pandemic had the impact from a mental health perspective of moving people en masse towards the vulnerable end of the spectrum. Those that were already ill became worse, those that were close to the edge moved over it and those that were towards the centre of the scale moved closer to the edge. Psychotherapist Noel McDermott examines how the cost-of-living crisis will continue this process, as lack of money, or indeed the perception of losing it a huge factor in mental health.
The link between ill health and poverty is one of the best researched areas and strongest correlations. We have had legislation in place since the 1940’s to prevent people falling into this absolute poverty involving starvation and unintentional homelessness. Debates around this issue in the context of the UK are around the issues of relative and actual poverty and the impact this has on life chances. There is a well-researched vicious cycle between poverty and ill health being linked. There is also a direct correlation between unemployment and suicide, which has been researched on a global basis.
Simply put, from a psychological health perspective, the more stress one faces in life, the higher the risk of developing acute and then chronic mood disorders and triggering other severe and enduring mental health problems due to the impact of stress hormones and our maladaptive coping strategies. Additionally psychological distress is evidenced to increase mortality rates across the board. Literally stress kills, not just from mental health responses narrowly defined, but also from all causes of mortality (heart disease, cancer, etc). The relationship is in our genes which respond epigenetically increasing for example entanglement in our telomeres.
Stress and adults:
In adults the presentation of stress around these issues will be seen in increased anxiety, depression, suicide, hospitalisation for severe mental illness, increased alcohol consumption, poor diet, substance misuse, absenteeism from work, relationship problems and increase in domestic abuse. We will also see a rise in crime including violence and crimes of poverty (shoplifting).
Stress and children
In children the presentation of stress around these issues will be seen in increased eating disorders, deliberate self-harm, mood disorders – anxiety and depression, substance misuse, problems both academic and behavioural in school and regression in young children.
Remediating these issues from a personal and familial level where an increase in your income is not possible involves looking at the impact of stress and how better to manage it. It is also important to recognise that fear of economic insecurity can have just as much of a damaging impact psychologically as actual poverty. You can be secure economically but because you fear losing it all, you can become quite ill psychologically.
Psychological sequela economic insecurity
Keys to managing the psychological sequela economic insecurity involve breaking the vicious cycle of ill health and increased poverty:
- Understand stress hormones can be managed
- Our subjective experience of distress can be reduced even if the objective reality cannot
- Reducing the vicious cycle of stress leading to ill health, leading to increased financial insecurity through work absence etc will be of benefit to us
If we as adults remediate and manage our stress responses to the cost-of-living issues we all face, we in turn help our kids manage. They copy us and take their cues from us.
Signs we are (dis) stressed
- Increased hormonal activity such as adrenaline and cortisol (heart beating fast, muscular tension, needing to evacuate the bladder a lot more, increased sweating, hyper vigilant, acuity in sense of sight and hearing)
- Unhelpful thinking styles and thoughts such as being black and white/all or nothing, catastrophic thinking, racing thoughts, discounting anything positive, viewing yourself as a failure, viewing the world as hostile and a threat
- Problems with appetite, sleeping, sex drive
- Dysregulation and anger
- Alcohol use/drug use
- Hypersexual behaviours
How to manage stress better
- Recognise the signs and take action
- Learn balanced thinking from cognitive behavioural therapy
- Learn relaxation techniques
- Improve sleep hygiene
- Develop EQ and the ability to talk about distress (sharing with another human who cares about us produces reward hormones which are the opposite of stress hormones)
- Exercise and especially if you have too much cortisol do fight or flight exercise (sprinting, HIT, kick boxing etc)
- Have a healthy eating plan and good hydration
- Learn mindful meditation (this reverses the epigenetic damage to the telomeres)
- Learn self-compassion
More than anything so far, the cost-of-living issues are the most damaging to our health potentially. We need to see it for the risk it is psychologically and recognise psychological is biological is sociological. They are all affected equally in this and all three are equally damaged.
Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience in health, social care, and education. He has created unique, mental health services in the independent sector. Noel’s company offer at-home mental health care and will source, identify and co-ordinate personalised care teams for the individual. They have recently launched a range of online therapy resources to help clients access help without leaving home.
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