Mental Health: How to have a hammam at home

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Exploring the mental health national emergency in England, the relationship between anxiety and heart health, and the potential of heat therapy and the ancient art of communal bathing as therapeutic rituals for managing anxiety and self-care.

With World Mental Health Day having just passed us by on October 10, it's an annual reminder of the integral role mental health plays in societal health and happiness, emphasising the importance of awareness, stigma reduction and championing the cause. (Forbes)

National mental health emergency

England's mental healthcare is in a state of national emergency due to services being overwhelmed by a surge in demand following the COVID-19 pandemic, according to NHS leaders. The situation emphasises the critical need for more investment in community mental health facilities, supported housing, and addressing the shortage of mental health professionals. (The Guardian)

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“Mental health has slipped down the government’s set of priorities and patients and services are being forgotten. This is a national emergency which is now having serious consequences across the board, not least for those patients in crisis,” said Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation.” (The Guardian)

In the UK, over 8 million people experience an anxiety disorder at any given time (Mental Health UK). In England, 6 in 100 people are diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder each week (Mind). Less than 50% of people with generalised anxiety disorder access treatment (Mental Health Foundation). In the workforce, an estimated 822,000 workers are affected by work-related stress, depression, or anxiety each year. (Health and Safety Executive, Champion Health)

All of which poses the risk of anxiety-related chest pain, broken heart syndrome and damage to long term heart health. Prioritising mental health and managing anxiety is crucial.

What is the relationship between anxiety and heart health

Anxiety and heart health are mutually connected

Anxiety levels and heart health can elevate each other, due to biological links with stress and depression. “Managing anxiety can improve your quality of life and take stress off your heart…Emotional turmoil triggers the release of stress hormones, which act on the same brain areas that regulate cardiovascular functions such as heart rate and blood pressure.” (Harvard Medical School)

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People with anxiety disorders, especially generalised anxiety disorder, face a higher risk of heart issues, particularly when combined with existing heart conditions. Chronic anxiety can disrupt stress responses, potentially causing high blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms, inflammation, and increased blood clotting. Effective anxiety treatments include psychotherapy, medication, relaxation, and exercise, all beneficial for heart health. (Harvard Medical School)

A 2022 study of around 1,500 men averaging 53 years old found that anxiety, particularly when linked to traits like worry and neuroticism, is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes risk factors, leading to long-term cardiometabolic health risks. (Lee LO, Grimm KJ, Spiro A 3rd, Kubzansky LD.)

A survey of 2,777 readers with heart conditions by the British Heart Foundation found that 68% reported psychological and emotional effects, with anxiety being the most common symptom (77%). Over half experienced depression, tearfulness, or fear, and 38% felt misunderstood in how their condition affected their lives. (British Heart Foundation)

Anxiety-Related Chest Pain

Anxiety can cause chest pain, and distinguishing it from potential heart problems is crucial. (Kimberly Holland, Rachel Nall and Alana Biggers) Anxiety attacks trigger the body's fight-or-flight response, which can prepare the body for an impact that doesn't actually exist. (Huffington Post)

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“If you experience this fight-or-flight stress reaction infrequently, your body should fully recover within 30 minutes. But if you experience it frequently, your body can’t recover as quickly. This can lead to increased muscle tension, and this tension may become painful in your chest.” (Kimberly Holland, Rachel Nall and Alana Biggers)

Broken-Heart Syndrome (Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy)

Broken-heart syndrome is a temporary heart condition mainly impacting women aged 58 to 75 due to intense emotional or physical stress. It mimics heart attack symptoms but often leads to complete recovery without lasting heart damage. (Harvard Medical School)

So, what can we do?

Heat therapy and ancient communal bathing traditions can offer therapeutic solutions for managing anxiety and self-care, vital for long-term heart health and well-being.

Heat Therapy

Heat therapy is an ancient practice, which enhances overall well-being by improving blood flow, reducing pain, and inducing relaxation through the release of endorphins, which can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. (Mental Health Center of America)

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A 2022 study found that “heating therapy reduced both subjective and objective pain and anxiety in the experimental group compared to the control group. Heating therapy also decreased the systolic and diastolic blood pressure and pulse rate in the experimental group compared to the control group. Women reported significantly greater satisfaction than men.” (Oh Suk Kwon, Bokyeong Kwon, Jihye Kim, Bo-Hwan Kim)

Heat-based healing across cultures

Ancient global bathing traditions like Russian banyas, Finnish saunas, Japanese onsens, Moroccan and Turkish hammams, and Hungarian thermal spas can offer therapeutic and culturally specific rituals for stress management, relaxation and socialisation.

As “almost every part of the world has its own therapeutic bathing traditions dating back centuries or millennia. The ancient Egyptians marinated in water spiked with aromatic oils. The Romans sweated together in laconica (dry heat rooms) and sudatoria (wet steam rooms). The Japanese have geothermally heated onsen springs; the Swiss and Germans have entire towns devoted to the ‘water cure’...the end goal remains the same. You have to get the city out of your pores somehow.” (The New Yorker)

Russian Banyas

Russian banyas, deeply rooted in Russian culture, consist of three wooden rooms: an entrance, a heated steam room (parilka), and a cooling space where visitors endure 70-degree heat, while wearing swimwear and a felt hat to stay cool. Then cool off in cold showers or plunge pools, enjoy steam created by water on hot rocks.

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Parenie massages are a traditional thermal treatment, involving birch, oak, or eucalyptus twigs (venik) being brushed over your body to induce sweating, improve circulation, and promote relaxation, potentially reducing stress and blood pressure. An intensified version involving using two masseuses may include a honey and salt body scrub, and typical visits last around three hours, offering a blend of sauna, socialising, and treatments. (Harper’s Bazaar)

Finnish Saunas

Finnish saunas are renowned worldwide as essential sanctuaries for stress relief and are deeply rooted in the nation's connection to nature and a source of national pride.

These compact wooden rooms reach temperatures of 70°C to 100°C with low humidity, offering a quintessential Finnish experience. This includes sitting on wooden benches, creating steam with water poured on heated rocks (löyly), and often ending with a refreshing dip in a cold lake or shower.

Saunas are so integral to Finnish life that in 2020, they were added to UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. “You can find sauna cars on Ferris wheels, saunas in conference rooms, floating sauna rafts, sauna buses, and even a sauna inside of a Burger King. Family homes have saunas as well — ones so high-tech that they can be switched on from a phone on the way home from work” (Travel + Leisure)

Japanese Onsens

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​​Japanese onsens are renowned for their mineral-rich hot springs, steeped in tradition and mythology, and deeply cherished in Japan. As “Japan is an archipelago, located on a volcanic belt, that boasts roughly 20,000 hot spring facilities.” (Japan House)

Visitors carefully cleanse themselves before enjoying gender-segregated indoor or outdoor onsen baths, offering a serene escape that embodies traditional Japanese culture and well-being.

Moroccan and Turkish Hammams

Influenced by Roman and Byzantine bathhouses, hammams originated in Arabic culture for prayer preparation and became popular in the late 1400s, often located near mosques and medinas. Turkish and Moroccan hammams in North Africa and the Middle East offer gender-segregated steam baths, promoting relaxation, socialisation, and well-being with cultural nuances.

“Ottoman Turks inherited the Roman bath concept—architecture and tradition—as it existed in Asia Minor. They adapted it to Turkish tastes, and called it “hammam.” (CN Traveller)

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Hammam masseuses use "kessa" gloves for a soothing and purifying experience. Visitors progress through warm, hot, and cold areas to perspire, exfoliate, cleanse, and conclude with a cold-water shower and a relaxing massage. (Jumeirah)

Hungarian Thermal Spas

“'Spa' comes from the Latin phrase 'sanitas per acqua' or 'health through water'. Emperor Marcus Aurelius built the first thermal baths in Hungary 2000 years ago and in the 16th century, the Ottoman Pashas of Buda added the magnificent hammams which are still used today.” (CN Traveller)

Europe's largest medicinal bath, the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath in Budapest, draws water from two thermal springs at 74°C and 77°C. Since the 1930s, Budapest has been known as the 'International SPA City', features numerous thermal-water sites due to its unique geological conditions, with the thin Earth's crust and intensified solar heat efficiently infusing minerals into the waters, making these baths integral to Hungarian life, and often prescribed by doctors. (CN Traveller)

How to have a Hammam at home

If venturing out is a challenge, we recommend considering creating a 'Spathroom' for Hammam-like escape in your own space for healing and self-care, as recommended by the experts from Mobility Plus:

Create a ‘spathroom’

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A "spathroom" involves creating a spa-like bathroom within your home, designed as a personal sanctuary for relaxation and self-care, featuring elements like ambient lighting, calming scents, plush towels, and soothing music to enhance physical and mental well-being and escape daily life's stresses. (The Stylist)

Hammam at home

You can recreate a hammam-like experience at home, although it won't be fully traditional or authentic. A hammam entails steam, heat, water, body scrubbing, and relaxation.

To replicate this at home, have a steamy shower, exfoliate, cleanse, and create a relaxing ambiance with dim lighting, music, candles, or essential oils. Alternate between hot and cold water, and stay hydrated.

These steps can recreate some aspects of a hammam experience at home, but remember that a true hammam involves a distinct cultural and communal ritual. Nonetheless, creating a spa-like atmosphere at home can be a great way to relax, rejuvenate your skin, and practice self-care.

Avoid heat or ice therapy if you have:

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  • Blood circulation issues
  • Heart conditions
  • Fragile or unhealed skin
  • Reduced skin sensation
  • Are using drug-delivery patches in the treatment area
  • Exercise caution if you have unstable medical conditions such as diabetes or epilepsy

Before trying heat or ice therapy, it's important to first consult with your GP for guidance and to rule out any undiagnosed heart conditions. If you have diabetes, exercise caution when applying heat or ice to your legs and keep a close watch on your skin's safety. (NHS)

Overall, prioritising mental health, including managing anxiety and its symptoms like chest pain, is crucial for long term heart health and wellbeing. Heat therapy and insights from global bathing traditions can aid stress management. Whether you visit a hammam or establish a home spa, self-care and relaxation are essential for a balanced and healthy life.

Here are some essential helplines:

Disclaimer: This story has been researched by Mobility Plus and is not intended to be official medical advice. Heat and cold water therapy needs to be avoided if you have a heart condition and exercise caution especially if you have diabetes or epilepsy. Please first consult your GP for advice and to check if you have an undiagnosed heart condition.