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October 10, 2013
by LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

7 Lifestyle Challenges that Cause Mental Health Symptoms

October 10, 2013 02:00 by LuAnn Pierce, LCSW


Today is World Mental Health Day. I feel compelled to write about some reasons people show up for mental health treatment for issues that can usually be remedied without psychotropic medication or long-term psychotherapy. Often people who are suffering greatly are encouraged to hear from a professional that s/he is not ‘crazy’. However, they are not always as happy to hear that taking a pill is not the best or only solution to their problem.

Many of the solutions to these underlying problems require much more time to correct and quite a bit more effort than taking medication. Nonetheless, we need to realize that psychotropic medication does not permanently reverse the chemical imbalance or trauma caused by life circumstances - it only masks the symptoms. This means that when the medication is stopped, the problem is still there. The symptoms that were temporarily relieved by medication are usually also still present. In many cases, there are new symptoms to address created by side effects of the medication.

Practitioners who provide functional medicine are trained to examine underlying systems in the body that can cause symptoms often attributed to other health or mental health conditions. I would encourage you to find a provider in your area who is trained in functional medicine. Spend the time and money to ensure that the underlying cause of any illness or symptoms is addressed, rather than only masking the symptoms with medication.  Many of these practitioners accept insurance and cost no more than seeing any other medical provider.

Here are a few things to rule out before seeking relief from a mental health practitioner.

Hormonal Changes in Women and Men

Men and women go through hormonal changes at mid-life, after surgery, during certain treatment regimens, during and after pregnancy (and as a result of the food we eat). The effects of these changes often begin much earlier than we realize, in some cases late-30s and early 40s. Unless you have significant life changes going on that may be triggering your symptoms, it is worthwhile to find out if there are underlying hormonal imbalances or food sensitivities at play.

Anyone who has surgery or treatment for prostate, breast, cervical, uterine or ovarian cancer (or fibroids) should be assessed. Get your hormones checked. Talk to your medical provider about your symptoms. See if they think a hormone blood or saliva test could offer useful information. Men are not exempt from hormonal changes.

Adrenal Fatigue: The Latest Stress Syndrome

Adrenal fatigue or exhaustion occurs when the cortisol in our body is depleted. This happens to people who have chronic stress or multiple life crises that trigger the stress response, among other medical causes. Adrenal fatigue and exhaustion resemble ‘burnout’ and create depressive and anxiety symptoms. The symptoms and details are too lengthy to mention here, but Dr. James Wilson has written extensively about the condition and treatment. Consider this information and seek testing if this sounds familiar. The recovery process is a long one, but worthwhile. Total recovery may take up to two years, but improvement is often felt within weeks of starting treatment. 

Thyroid Problems

Overactive and underactive thyroid cause mental health symptoms. Hypothyroidism, caused by an underactive thyroid, creates depressive symptoms; hyperthyroidism creates anxiety symptoms. It is a good idea to have a full thyroid panel to determine if your levels are in the normal range. ‘Normal range’ and which levels to test can differ depending on your medical provider. Educate yourself before talking to your doctor about the test. Low thyroid is different than hypothyroidism.

Blood Sugar Regulation

Hypoglycemia, low blood sugar, is often associated with anxiety, irritability, confusion, inability to concentrate and nervousness, among other things. People who experience hypoglycemia often do so if they do not regulate their food intake carefully. When the blood sugar drops, symptoms occur and people are often frantic. They need food – not Xanax. This is another blood test that is usually done in a routine physical. The test can help identify an underlying problem that mimics a mental health condition and is often well-controlled with the proper diet.

Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency

There is no way to overstate the significance of sleep. Ask any new parent who is adjusting to the sleep schedule of an infant and you will hear about ‘baby brain’ and other symptoms of sleep deprivation. Both getting enough sleep and sleeping at the time when your body is prepared to sleep are important. Many health and mental health problems are linked to lack of sleep. Critical things happen in our brains and bodies while we sleep, including development of neural pathways. There are many practical things you can do to reset your body’s clock to go to sleep earlier or sleep longer.   

Medication Side Effects

Medications often have serious side effects. In many cases, those side effects include symptoms of anxiety, restlessness, confusion, lack of energy, irritability and others.  It is very important to read about and/or talk to your doctor or pharmacist about side effects of any medications you are taking. This is particularly important if you take more than one medication, as there are often drug interactions that can be quite dangerous. Always ensure that any medical provider you see knows about all the medications you are taking. Also be aware that stopping certain medications requires medical supervision. Don not try to stop taking medications without advice from your medical provider – especially drugs like Paxil.   

 A Life that is out of Balance

Sadly, we have become so busy doing things that we forget to take time to just be. Making time in your day – every day – to do nothing but rest and relax is critical to good mental health. The stress associated with our overly-scheduled lives is responsible for 85% of visits to medical providers.

Part of learning to manage stress includes prioritizing our responsibilities and making time for ME.  While most the things on our ‘to do lists’ are probably important, none will matter if we become so overwhelmed by doing that we don’t take time to be. Taking psychotropic drugs to manage stress instead of making lifestyle choices or changes that lead to a saner way of living is short-sighted at best.

What can you delegate or do at a later time? Choose a sane and healthy life over one that is chaotic and exhausting. Look at the big picture, and remember, you are setting an example for your kids and loved ones about how to live and what is important. Boundaries, as it turns out, are quite important.

Take care of yourself first, and teach others to do the same. Others, including our children, are not nearly as reliant on us as we think. They will figure out how to do what needs to be done without us. And we will figure out how to ‘be’ without doing for others what they can do for themselves.

Feeling guilt for taking care of our own needs is misplaced – let it go. Making lifestyle changes will keep you saner, promote independence in your kids and loved ones and prevent resentment (and therapy) in the final analysis.

About the Author

LuAnn Pierce, LCSW LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

I offer solution-focused counseling to people in Colorado and Wyoming from the comfort of your own home via teleconference or telephone.

LuAnn Pierce, LCSW can be found at
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