Managing your stress is vital to managing your mental health

Managing added stress is key when dealing with mental health

Life can be stressful, but managing that stress can limit risk of recurring mental health conditions
August 3, 2017

Stress can have a serious effect on your body. It can interrupt your sleep schedule and eating habits, which in turn can cause more stress, but if you’re one of the millions of people who is dealing with depression, anxiety, substance abuse or other mental health-related issues, managing your stress is even more important: It’s vital for keeping you healthy.

Stress and serious psychological distress are on the rise

According to the American Psychological Association, more Americans self-reported higher levels of stress in 2015 than in 2014, with millennials and Generation Xers reporting higher levels of stress than baby boomers and older generations.

Also, recent research published in Psychiatric Services said that more than 8.3 million American adults—more than in past years—suffer from serious psychological distress (SPD), which is defined as a combination of “feelings of sadness, worthlessness and restlessness profound enough to affect your physical health.” In many people, these feelings manifest as major depressive disorder, substance abuse or both.

Although these numbers don’t indicate any cause-and-effect, the rising numbers of both stress and SPD are likely positively correlated. “With more stressful events, you’ll see increased vulnerability to depression and substance abuse,” said Paul Hicks, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science and vice dean of the Texas A&M College of Medicine Temple Campus. “Managing stress should help limit the risk of these conditions.”

Younger adults are more at risk

While millennials are more at risks for high amounts of stress, they are also particularly at risk for another troubling condition.

A major problem on college campuses is the number of students with eating disorders. According to a University of Michigan study, nearly 28 percent of female undergraduates screened positive for an eating disorder, and 40 percent of all students surveyed said they had increased their restrictive eating since coming to college.

For many who suffer from an anxiety disorder or other psychological distress, a co-occurring eating disorder may worsen symptoms or make recovery more challenging, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

According to the 2015 National College Health Assessment, 30 percent of students reported that stress had negatively affected their academic performance within the past year (13.8 percent reported depression and 21.9 percent reported anxiety), and over 85 percent had felt overwhelmed by everything they had to do at some point within the past year.

With the increased prevalence of stress and its relation to anxiety disorders, eating disorders and substance abuse, it’s important to know how to deal with stress, as stress can often be one of the main factors that can cause relapses of depression, addiction and eating disorders.

Dealing with added stress

Stress is a normal part of life, and it is often the byproduct of a life event or even daily life. Whether it’s from trouble at work or school, getting over a breakup or the death of a loved one, stress from death and taxes is as certain as death and taxes. The way someone deals with a life event is just as important as the event.

“You can’t prevent all life stressors,” Hicks said. “What makes a life event stressful is not just the event, but how the individual responds to the event or perceives the event.”

For example, if someone loses a loved one, it may be hard to get enough sleep or keep a healthy appetite, but managing those little aspects in your life help keep your problems from gaining momentum and snowballing—and eventually becoming too much to handle.

Managing stress can be difficult, but getting enough sleep and exercise are the foundation for handling everything and remaining healthy, mentally and physically. “Regular exercise, multiple times per week, has been shown to reduce stress, diminish the risk of depression and improve the mood in general,” Hicks said.

Stress has been shown to have serious effects on the brain, which may make dealing with mental illness more difficult. “Stress increases cortisol levels and causes changes in the brain so that there are fewer synapses in key areas of the brain,” Hicks said. “Some of these changes can make you more prone to depression or anxiety and increased fatigue.”

Talking to your provider

When dealing with stress, especially if you have a previously diagnosed anxiety disorder or problems with substance abuse, it’s paramount that you’re transparent with your provider.

“There should be a back-and-forth discussion with your health care provider about stress in your life,” Hicks said. “Your provider should be asking about how you’re dealing with stress or if you’ve noticed any increases of stress, and the patient should be open and honest about how they’re dealing with stressful events.”

Hicks also recommends that people with high levels of stress research the Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale, a questionnaire that characterizes life events in a hierarchical way and gauges vulnerability to stress. It assigns points for life events and gives a probability that you’ll see the stress have an impact on your health.

“This is a useful tool that could be used with your health care provider,” Hicks said. “It can help your provider assess the likelihood of near-term psychological distress.”

— Dominic Hernandez

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