STRESS AND MENTAL HEALTH
Anxiety and depression are serious, debilitating and all to common psychological
health problems that cause untold suffering and pain to the people who are affected by them and also to their families. People
who suffer with these health problems are vulnerable to suffering further relapses often precipitated by a stressful event
or trigger, so it is vital to use all the strategies that are available to us to reduce the chance of relapse.
The great problem is that people are often just given a prescription, and as vital as this is, they are often not taught
the psychological and physical strategies that can improve their resistance to anxiety and depression.
physical medicine if you suffer a heart attack when recovering it is common practise to be referred to a cardiac rehabilitation
course where you are taught strategies like relaxation, diet and stress management techniques because research has indicated
that this will help to prevent you suffering a second heart attack. On the cardiac rehabilitation courses you are taught
strategies like stress management, nutrition, and exercise. A similar approach to anxiety and depression would also help
to reduce the chance of a relapse. Research has indicated that chronic levels of unmanaged stress can be a trigger or exacerbate
the anxiety or depression. It makes no sense just to take medication without dealing with the factors that triggered the
psychological health problem in the first place and the failure to deal with these factors is one of the reasons why some
people suffer a second relapse of their anxiety and depression.
In the following pages you can learn
the techniques for reducing stress in your life which not only help to reduce your risk of relapse but also as a consequence
you can lower your risk of other physical health problems, as well as improving your quality of wellbeing. Even if stress
didn't cause your depression, living with a chronic illness can be a stressful experience in itself and so learning the strategies
will improve your stress resistance.
Research has indicated that the stress of living with a person who
suffers anxiety and depression can increase the partners chances of also suffering anxiety and depression. So it would be
helpful if all the family also followed this programme.
In order to manage our stress we have to have some
knowledge of stress. In the next few pages we will provide you with the basics of stress management training that you should
find useful in helping to reduce anxiety and depression.
WHAT IS STRESS
is a somewhat difficult concept to define largely because it's a uniquely individualistic and subjective experience. Even
stress management professionals cannot agree on an acceptable single definition for what stress is. The term stress has become
a misused and misunderstood term that means different things to different people and this is partly the cause of some of the
confusion that surrounds stress.
STRESS VS PRESSURE
It's a common belief that we need a
certain amount of stress to be able to function. This isn't so, what we need is a certain amount of pressure, and pressure
is not stress. Stress is the result of too much pressure.
Psychologist Cary Cooper from the University of Manchester
Institute of Science and Technology, very aptly summed up the difference between stress and pressure when he wrote:
"Research has shown that there is a
physiological difference between
pressure and stress. A person experiencing
stress has higher levels of the various
stress hormones in their blood stream than
a person who merely feels
(Cooper C.L., Palmer S. (2000) "Conquer your Stress"
publishers: The Institute of Personel
Anxiety and depression are health problems that are far more severe than stress, but stress can be a factor in the
development of these illnesses, or exacerbating their symptoms.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF STRESS
Stress, especially chronic stress, can cause a wide variety of symptoms in indviduals including the following:
1. PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS
Headaches, sweaty palms, sleeping problems, dizziness, back pain, neck and shoulder
pain, palpitations, grinding teeth, increased infections like colds, flu, impotence, low libido, increased sensitivity to
pain, itchy skin, more accident prone, fatigue, constipation/diarrhoea, pounding heart, pre-menstural syndrome, nausea, breath
holding, hyperventilation, tight muscles.
2. BEHAVIORAL SYMPTOMS
Increased cigarette smoking, increased
alcohol intake, decrease/increase in appetite, critical of others, increased spending, substance abuse, risky sex behaviour,
withdrawing from relationships, impulsive behaviour, nail biting, poor hygiene, aggression, carelessness, hostility, impatience,
difficulty relaxing, irritability, unkempt appearance, losing temper more easily.
3. EMOTIONAL SYMPTOMS
Crying, edginess, ready to explode, anger, irritability, snappy, unhappy, moody, worries about health, mood swings, feeling
more cynical, loss of confidence, tearful, SAD, increased pessimism, increased negative thinking, increased feelings of guilt,
suicideal thoughts, often anxious for no reason, abrasive, hostile, blaming others.
4. COGNITIVE (MENTAL) SYMPTOMS
Troubld concentrating, trouble thinking, memory problems, inability to make decisions, constant worry, loss of
sense of humour.
5. WORK PERFORMANCE
Absenteeism, presenteism, poor time keeping, overworking,
failure to delegate, difficulty with exams, fall in usual standards, sloppy work, more irritable with colleagues.
Some of the above symptoms can be caused by health problems like thyroid dysfunction, anxiety, depression,
infection, etc., so it is vital that you see your GP and not to diagnose yourself as suffering stress. It's perfectly healthy
to be affected by symptoms such as the above on an occasional basis, but if these symptoms persist and interfere with your
life it would be wise to see your GP to rule out more serious health problems.
STRESS RESPONSE (FIGHT
OR FLIGHT RESPONSE)
Every human being has an inherent built-in system of the body whereby part of the brain activates
the autonomic nervous system to trigger a number of biochemical, hormonal and physiological reactions when we perceive that
our sagety is threatened. These changes enable us to have greater strength to fight a threat or greater speed to run away
from a threat.
This system, called the stress response or fight-flight response, is as old as the human race and
was designed for us to deal with a physical threat by running away or fighting a physical threat such as being attacked by
a wild animal like a sabre tooth tiger. Its a very valuable part of our defence system which has protected us and enabled
us to survive to reach the state of evolution we have today. Without it the human race would not have survived. This system
was designed to be triggered by a perceived physical threat which we could fight or run away from. By design, its use was
meant to be short term and infrequently triggered. However, today we live in a vastly more complex society than we were designed
to, the physical threats are by and large gone. However, they have been replaced by the infinitely more difficult to deal
with psychologically based stressors. You can't fight or run away from chronic financial problems. The brain can't differentiate
between a physical or psychological threat to our wellbeing and triggers the same biochemical, hormonal and physiological
stres response, however this is an inappropriate response for dealing with chronic psycholoical stressors that mainly effect
us in the 21st Century.
When we perceive a physical or psychological threat this triggers an alarm system in the
brain called the hypothalamus which secretes a hormone called Corticotropin Releasing Factor (CRF). This triggers the pituitary
gland to release a hormone called ACTH and this travels to the adrenal gland to cause the release of a stress hormone called
cortisol. At the same time that the hypothalamus triggers the stress hormonal response, it also triggers electrically, nerve
impulses travelling at 150 metres a second, the release of stress hormones from the adrenal gland called adrenalin and nor
These stress hormones cause widespread physiological changes that prepare the body to fight or flight,
1. Our heart rate increases
2. Our muscles tense
3. Our blood pressure rises
breathing speedsup and swithces to chest
5. Blood is moved to muscles (an increase of 300%)
6. Blood is moved
to important areas like brain and away from less important areas like digestion.
7. Our mouth dries up
8. We get
sweaty clammy hands
9. Perspiration increases
10. Pupils dilate
11. Our senses of hearing become more acute
12. Digestion slows
13. Our blood clots more easily
14. Blood sugar levels rise
15. Blood cholesterol
16. We can think more quickly and clearly
17. Our spleen discharges extra red blood cells into the bloodstream.
These changes are excellent in the short term, but in the long term can undermineour psychological and physiological
health. Once the stressor has gone our bodies are supposed to turn off the stres hormones and start to calm down, blood pressure
falls, heart rate falls, muscles relax etc, etc, and our hormone levels return to normal. However in modern life, the stressors
can go on for weeks,months even years. (Alice Domar has estimated that we trigger the stress response up to 50 times a day)
STRESS WEB SITES
Mind Body Medicine Institute
USEFUL BOOKS ON STRESS
1. Davis M., 2000, The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, New Harbinger
USEFUL ARTICLES ON STRESS
A Comprehensive Report on Stress
How to Self Massage Part I
How to Self Massage Part II
ON LINE STRESS MANAGEMENT COURSE