Stress and our mental health: Problems and solutions

Drug and alcohol use and abuse in our family, opioid overdoses and alcohol poisoning of our people still rising at a rapid rate, war still raging in the Middle East, violence on our border and in our nation, the ineptitude of our elected representatives and senators in getting their jobs done, our personal problems…

And much closer to home, the stressors endured as our students (and their families) continue their studies at schools and universities. the stressors of our lives continue to be present as we enter into the year 2018. How do all of these stressors affect us and how are we to deal with all of that?

All of us have experienced stress in our daily lives, both as positive stress and negative stress; what is defined as distress. Positive stress is essential for human survival, warning us to get out of the way of that on-coming car, that tightening of the gut when danger is imminent, etc.; the “flight or fight” response we encounter upon confrontation with stressful situations.

There also exists real stress and perceived stress; which is stress brought on by past experiences and faulty assumptions (having a recurring event and believing it will invoke the same feelings and behaviors). “De-stressing” is the means we have in eliminating or decreasing the stress in our lives.

The “flight or fight” response we have toward imminent stressful situations involves 3 stages: The alarm reaction stage, the resistance stage, and the exhaustion stage. The alarm stage consists of the perception or awareness of a stressful situation and ones feelings attached to the alarm. We can use the example of walking out into the street in on-coming traffic.

The first thing we think is that we are in imminent danger. Our associated feelings are of dread, anxiety, perhaps fear…that “uh oh” moment. Our body tenses up and gets ready to react to the situation. The resistance stage then occurs, as we dart out of the way of the car. The aftermath is the exhaustion stage, the body and mind returning to normal with a “whew, that was close!”

At times in our lives many traumatic stressors do not reach exhaustion, and may continue to cause us problems throughout our lives if there is not intervening treatment. I am speaking primarily of Post-Traumatic Stress. Post-Traumatic Stress may result from a myriad of causes, such as childhood neglect and abuse; having been raped or violated in other means, witnessing a traumatic event such as an automobile crash involving the deaths of individuals, or the shooting deaths of others. Military individuals who have been engaged in combat, or have seen the results of combat, may also experience post-traumatic stress.

Some individuals handle stress much better than others. I have known many Air Force pilots and who have been in combat, aircraft accidents and instances; seem to be immune to stress.

Their “coolness” to normally stressful situations has earned them the title of the “Rare Breed.” They are rarely at “dis-ease” even when confronted with the most serious of stress inducing situations. They are indeed an exception to the general population.

Governor of Texas Greg Abbott, in his book “Broken But Unbowed,” having paralysis as a result of an Oak tree falling on him, wrote “Rather than being resigned to my fate, I decided the best prescription was to act boldly and to reach even higher; knowing that failure lies in not trying rather than in not succeeding. My back was broken, but my will was not…” As General Chuck Yeager, our national hero and one who has suffered many extreme stressful events in his life, has often stated; “Don’t look back, Press on, Press on!”

Individuals who are constantly bombarded with life stressors and do not have the means of coping with the stressors may develop anxiety disorders or other mental, emotional disorders; self-medicating with the use and abuse of chemical substances such as alcohol for relief if not seeking help for their disorder.

Alcohol, as a depressant drug, will offer temporary relief from the stressors, but once the alcohol is out of the body the life stressors are still present. The majority of people in our country drink alcohol beverage for the very purpose that it is intended; to relax and alleviate mental and physical stress. How often have we heard remarks such as, “After a hard day’s work I have a drink to relax,” “Boy, do I need a drink!” etc. The alcohol does what it is intended to do as a relaxing, depressant drug, and for most people this poses no problem, but it is not the panacea tor stress management.

Most individuals turn to viable alternatives to de-stress from life’s daily stressors; such as physical exercise, painting, writing, socializing with friends, balancing work with recreation, relaxation exercises, doing something for others, avoiding some people who cause them stress, having healthy fun, etc; all as means of alleviating stress.

Most individuals have an attitude conducive to preventing and alleviating stress in their lives, such as taking one thing at a time; planning for change, learning to accept what one cannot change, knowing their limitations, identifying the cause of their stress, knowing how to handle criticism, and being assertive and not aggressive toward others.

Stress has effects on our body and our mind, which in turn affects our behavior. On our body stress causes headaches, muscle aches, fatigue, stomach upset, sleep problems, and many other problems. On our mind stress causes anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation, irritability or anger, and sadness or depression. The resulting behaviors we exhibit as a result is overeating or under eating, angry outbursts, drug or alcohol abuse, and social withdrawal.

Our thoughts and feelings are often involved in our creating stress. We may often exaggerate a stress inducing situation, what we in the counseling profession call “awfulizing,” or “catastrophizing,” or as we hear most often, “making mountains out of mole hills.” We may actually make ourselves feel more stressful and exhibit the associated behavior.

To deal with stressful events successfully we must change our thoughts about the event and its aftermath. As the renowned American Psychologist William James once stated, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”

Dr. Thomas H. Holmes, writing on how different events cause stress, listed 43 events that cause stress in one’s life, and rated them accordingly. On a scale of impact of the top 10 events which are most stress inducing are, the highest being first; death of a spouse, divorce, marital separation, jail term, death of a close family member, personal injury or illness of one’s self or a family member, marriage, fired at work, marital reconciliation, and retirement. These events are a changing point in one’s life, and that is what brings about stress…change. How a person deals with the change is the important issue.

People find means of de-stressing in many healthy different ways. What do you do when you are stressed out? What is your means of de-stressing? What do you do to maintain a healthy mind and body?

Do not allow the negative stress monster to rear its ugly head in your life…do something! Be sure to stay engaged in reading this column next week, as I collaborate with a great colleague on an article concerning the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) on our Lower Rio Grande populous. Until then, Stay healthy my friends.