Stress or Mental Illness?

Stress or Mental Illness?
Stress is part of my life and yours. We’ve got to find some way to face stress whether we want to or not. Stress comes in many different levels. Mental illness is one of the levels on the more serious end of the spectrum, but it's nothing to be ashamed of.

All of us deal with our stress in our own way. For me, sleeping more or worrying too much is how stress can sometimes affect me. I have been dealing with a diagnosis of clinical depression since my teens in addition to living with physical disabilities. I admit this in hopes it will help others to reframe how they think about mental illness and break the stigma. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of in yourself or a loved one. We aren’t ‘crazy’ and not all mental illness diagnoses mean that your loved one is prone to violent or deviant behavior. Mental illness is something that simply happens, either due to a trauma or chemical imbalance. Mental illness, particularly depression like mine, can be managed and properly dealt with when the right supports are in place. Family support and knowing your body is essential.

If you’re suffering stress that affects your daily life dramatically for more than a week or two, particularly after the onset of a disability due to injury or illness, then there’s a distinct possibility you might need to seek professional help. Counseling is key.

It may also be due to the prolonged illness or sudden death of a family member or financial problems that bring you to this point, but regardless of the cause or how long it lasts, counseling is a sign of strength to seek. You may find that just a few sessions help you manage your temporary condition and stress much better, or you may find that prolonged issues are given better perspective from a professional for you to deal with. Just know you are not alone, you aren’t an alien and you aren’t a bad person for needing help.

More severe stress and traumatic events, such as abuse, can lead many to have suicidal thoughts, abnormal thought patterns, health problems, impair our judgment, and even cause delusions and paranoia as well as other mental health related symptoms.

Stress affects both the body and mind in all of us and can lead to a series of problems. It can compress very high emotions and thoughts. This will create the confusing feeling that you are losing control of your life when all you need is better life management skills and support to deal with what feels unbalanced.

When high emotions come on with anger or sadness for more than a couple of weeks coupled with feelings of powerlessness, it often leads to negative thought patterns and actions. It’s up to you and your loved ones to decide when it’s gone on long enough and you need to take control by doing something to resolve these issues. “He’ll pull through,” doesn’t sound so minor six months later when you’re lying in bed crying a lot or seething with anger for irrational reasons.

Failure to make changes in your decision-making process and prolonged negative emotions may mean you need professional help to manage things better. It does not necessarily mean you will need hospitalization. When I was a teen, I had feelings of inadequacy like any young girl, except I also stopped eating or binged for comfort. I’ve always had issues with my weight and still battle it today. I often slept for prolonged periods to avoid stressful situations, dealt with stress irrationally, or didn’t want to go out when I was normally a very bubbly, open person. It wasn’t until my family and I talked openly about my feelings that we sought help. We have a relative who lives with schizophrenia and was hospitalized for a prolonged period of time.

At the time, I thought I was going crazy and would be locked away like her, never to come out the same again. What I found out was that I had clinical depression, that it was treatable with medication, meditation, yoga, better diet, better rest and community-based counseling --- outside the walls of a hospital. I could resume school and my activities as before, with a much better outlook. Since then I am on the mildest level of medication to treat my depression and when I feel what I personally call “a blue funk” coming on for longer than a couple of days, I get active. I may take on more exercise and going out more. I pursue activities I love, like reading and doing crossword puzzles, or going to the movies, to allow my mind time to focus on other things. The “blue funks” are much less dramatic as a result and I can manage my solo businesswoman schedule, which can be isolating at times, much better.

I manage stressful situations, like the loss of my left leg in January, moving into a new home coming up soon and my uncle’s death recently, much better than I would if I just let it pass. I owe it to myself, my husband and other loved ones to manage it better. I owe it to the clients and audiences I speak to be a ‘roll’ model and teach them the best way to deal with temporary and prolonged stress so they don’t have to suffer in silence like I did as a young woman in high school. I also owe it to myself to just be human and honest with how I’m feeling. I get much further along in life and with others that way and I’m respected more for that.

Do I still experience typical stress? Sure I do! But the difference is that I know how to take on work and personal stress before it gets bigger than me. I know how to back up before it's too hard to handle, spiraling typically simple tasks out of my grasp. I stop, slow my pace, take a breather and recognize that I’m human, I’m strong and I can do this, manage that or handle these situations. I just have to humble myself enough to reach out for the help when the stress seems to be trying to get the better of me.

The difference between common stress and abnormal stress is that the symptoms of stress from a common view are temporary, while the symptoms of mental illness and diagnoses like depression are prolonged and ongoing, making some simple tasks too much to take. Very ‘normal’ people might require medications to treat stress temporarily or other therapies like meditation and yoga, but most of the time, when a mental illness is involved you may also seek regular counseling. It helps to have an unburdened, unbiased person with whom to talk things through.

As you can see, there’s a fine line between common stress and stress within a mental illness. The levels of stress for the common person are often tolerable, while people with mental illness have to fight much, much harder to avoid stress or cope with the stress of hiding their true selves because they are embarrassed or ashamed. Help us to no longer be ashamed. Be supportive, lend an ear and look out for signs of a prolonged bout of sadness, irrational thinking, even someone who is exceedingly manic, or quiet and isolated who would typically be very social and extroverted.

Reach out, be supportive and ask questions. And if someone even mentions suicide or harming themselves once, don’t be afraid to tell a professional. I’d rather you mentioned it and it was a false alarm, rather than discovering you’re too late to help.

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Content copyright © 2023 by Monica J. Foster. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Monica J. Foster. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Christina Dietrich for details.