How the cost of living crisis will impact the nation's mental health

After months of lockdown and the stress of the pandemic, the UK’s collective mental health wasn’t in a great state.

Then the cost of living crisis came in to make things even harder.

It’s not so surprising that struggling to survive makes us unhappier, but what’s important to highlight is just how significantly economic hardship impacts our wellbeing.

‘The pandemic had the impact from a mental health perspective of moving people en masse towards the vulnerable end of the spectrum,’ explains psychotherapist Noel McDermott. ‘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.

‘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. 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.’

The cost of living crisis will raise stress – from the looming dread of increased energy bills to the day-to-day struggle of trying to make ends meet.

Over time, this persistent stress can trigger or worsen mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders, depression, suicidal ideation, and addiction.

Signs of excessive stress

  • 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
  • gambling/shopping

Obviously, the ideal solution to this would to fix the cost of living crisis. But while we wait for this to be sorted out, Noel suggests the best approach is to recognise the impact of stress and learn how to better manage it.

He also notes that even if you’re not pushed into poverty by the latest changes, you are still at risk of mental distress – ‘fear of economic insecurity can have just as much of a damaging impact psychologically as actual poverty,’ Noel explains. ‘You can be secure economically but because you fear losing it all, you can become quite ill psychologically.’

Part of handling stress is turning away from unhealthy coping mechanisms – substance abuse, self-harm, overeating – and trying new methods.

How to better manage stress

Noel recommends these steps:

  • Recognise the signs and take action
  • Learn balanced thinking from cognitive behavioural therapy
  • Learn relaxation techniques
  • Improve sleep hygiene
  • Develop emotional intelligence 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,’ Neil adds. ‘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.’

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