STRESSING MENTAL HEALTH
Jay Reeve, PhD, Chief Executive Officer
Stress is a fact of life. Everyone experiences it, and no one handles it perfectly every time. But the causes, and consequences, of stress are more complicated than most people realize. This month, the Health Council of the United Way of the Big Bend is presenting a forum on stress and healthy lifestyles that looks at data gathered in a recent survey of Leon County residents to try and discover how widespread stress is in the Big Bend (answer: very), and what can be done about it. That discussion hasn’t happened yet, but there are a few things about stress that it is worth keeping in mind:
1. Stress Is Anxiety
The word “stress” is pretty imprecise. Really, all stress is a form of anxiety, so when you hear someone talking about being “stressed out” what they mean is that they are becoming anxious. People usually attribute this experience to something in their life (job, relationship, kids, etc.), but the feeling of anxiety is heavily dependent on individual neurochemistry and on childhood experience. For instance, adults with histories of abuse or neglect report much higher anxiety levels than others throughout their lives, even years after the abuse or neglect has ended, and even with otherwise similar life circumstances. The take away message here is that different things stress out different people, in very different ways.
2. Anxiety has a Neurochemical Basis
When folks are feeling anxious, what’s happening is that their autonomic nervous system is releasing adrenaline into their bloodstream. Adrenaline increases heart rate and perspiration, lowers physical reaction time, and heightens sensitivity to sight and sound. This is part of the “fight or flight” response that prepares people to either run or fight when they are physically threatened, and it happens to all animals. Among humans, this reaction can also be triggered by emotional stimuli – an important test, a big game, falling in love – both good things and bad. The problem emerges when this reaction gets triggered by daily occurrences, and people become sensitized to the flood of adrenaline. Under those circumstances, containing, or “binding” anxiety can be difficult, and the perception that there is a threat when none exists can lead to overreaction, nervousness, sleep and appetite disturbance, and a whole list of other negative symptoms.
3. The Stress Diathesis Model
A well-authenticated psychological theory shows that symptoms of mental illness (and other illnesses as well) become much worse under conditions of stress. This can include mood symptoms like depression, psychotic symptoms like hallucinations, and symptoms that emerge specifically as a result of anxiety like obsessions and compulsions. It’s important for mental health professionals to regularly evaluate the levels of anxiety experienced by their clients as signals for potentially increased symptoms. This applies particularly to those individuals who have experienced adverse childhood experiences, including trauma, abuse, neglect, and loss.
4. What Can You Do?
Fortunately, anxiety tends to be very responsive to a variety of treatment. For individuals with mild to moderate anxiety issues, regular exercise and relaxation techniques like deep breathing, yoga, and progressive relaxation, are extremely effective. For people with more intense issues, psychological treatment including cognitive behavioral therapy and, in some cases, medication, can help. The key to living with anxiety is the recognition that this is a normal human experience, that no one should have to experience paralyzing anxiety on a daily basis, and that there is help. The treatment programs at Apalachee Center are designed to help people in crisis due to, and recovery from, mental and emotional illnesses find the kinds of treatment that work for them.