Increased stress with job loss, lack of finances, kids home from school, and social isolation can create an even more volatile home environment for victims and survivors of domestic violence.
Adverse childhood experiences, in particular, are linked to chronic health conditions.
A rocky childhood. A violent assault. A car accident. If these are in your past, they could be affecting your present health.
These are all examples of traumatic events — which, in psychological terms, are incidents that make you believe you are in danger of being seriously injured or losing your life, says Andrea Roberts, a research scientist with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Research shows that these events can trigger emotional and even physical reactions that can make you more prone to a number of different health conditions, including heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and cancer.
Traumatic events encompass anything from a sexual assault or childhood abuse to a cancer diagnosis. Child abuse is particularly likely to affect your adult life because it occurs at a time when your brain is vulnerable — and it often occurs at the hands of people who are supposed to be your protectors, says Roberts. “By abuse, we often mean things that are a lot milder than things people typically think of as abuse. It might include being hit with a hard object, like a whip, a belt, or a paddle,” says Roberts. “The behavior doesn’t necessarily need to be illegal to induce a traumatic response.”
A child’s perception of events is as important as what actually occurred. “While a child’s life may not have actually been in danger, the child may have seen it as life-threatening,” says Dr. Kerry Ressler, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School.
People who experience traumatic events sometimes develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychiatric condition that affects 5% to 10% of the general population, says Dr. Ressler. It’s more common in women, affecting twice as many women as men. And it also occurs more frequently in people who have certain risk factors, including those living in poverty, soldiers in active combat, and first responders, he says. PTSD can develop after a person experiences violence or the threat of violence, including sexual violence. It may affect people who have a close relative who experienced those things as well, says Dr. Ressler. These traumatic events are generally incidents that are considered outside the ordinary and are exceptional in their intensity.
Exposure and risk
Your risk for mental and physical health problems from a past trauma goes up with the number of these events you’ve experienced. For example, your risk for problems is much higher if you’ve had three or more negative experiences, called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), says Roberts.
- physical abuse
- sexual abuse
- emotional abuse
- physical neglect
- emotional neglect
- witnessing domestic violence
- substance misuse within the household
- mental illness within the household
- parental separation or divorce
- incarceration of a household member.
Another kind of trauma
While severely traumatic events are believed to have the greatest effect on long-term health, other stressful events that don’t necessarily meet the psychological definition of trauma can still cause problems. This might include a sudden death in the family, a stressful divorce, or caring for someone with a chronic or debilitating illness, says Roberts. These milder events might lead to a mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression. “Trauma pushes your ability to cope, so if you have a predisposition toward anxiety, for example, it may push you over the edge,” says Roberts.
In addition, incidents like these can also produce PTSD-like symptoms in certain people. “When people go through traumatic or complicated grief, they can experience pretty similar symptoms to those they might experience with trauma, such as intrusive thoughts,” says Dr. Ressler.
Medical conditions resulting from trauma
Most of the research related to trauma and chronic disease risk has focused on childhood trauma, says Dr. Ressler. Early childhood trauma is a risk factor for almost everything, from adult depression to PTSD and most psychiatric disorders, as well as a host of medical problems, including cardiovascular problems such as heart attack and stroke, cancer, and obesity.
These effects likely reflect two factors:
Behavioral changes resulting from trauma. People who are suffering from traumatic memories may try to escape them by participating in risky behaviors such as drinking, smoking, drug use, or even overeating for comfort. “Those can all be used as a coping mechanism, a way of dealing with emotional dysregulation that occurs when someone has been traumatized,” says Roberts. These habits, in turn, lead to health problems.
Physical effects related to trauma. The problem goes beyond unhealthy habits. Experts believe that there is actually a direct biological effect that occurs when your body undergoes extreme stress. When you experience something anxiety-provoking, your stress response activates. Your body produces more adrenaline, your heart races, and your body primes itself to react, says Roberts. Someone who has experienced trauma may have stronger surges of adrenaline and experience them more often than someone who has not had the same history. This causes wear and tear on the body — just as it would in a car where the engine was constantly revving and racing, she says. Stress responses have also been demonstrated in people who have experienced discrimination throughout their lives. “It ages your system faster,” says Roberts.
Chronic stress can increase inflammation in the body, and inflammation has been associated with a broad range of illness, including cardiovascular disease and autoimmune diseases, says Roberts. Early trauma disrupts the inflammatory system. This can lead to long-term aberrations in this system and chronic health problems triggered by constant inflammation. Typically, the more trauma you’ve experienced, the worse your health is.
Barriers to getting help
People who have experienced trauma may also struggle with getting help. “One of the most common outcomes of trauma is avoidance,” says Dr. Ressler. “It makes sense. If you experience something traumatic, you want to avoid thinking about it and going to places that remind you of it.” Unfortunately, health settings — with their doctors, therapists, and counselors — are triggers for many people because when someone experiences a traumatic event, he or she often ends up in the health care system.
In addition, if you’ve experienced trauma, you may believe that health care providers will want you to talk about it and dredge up feelings from the past. For these reasons, people who have experienced trauma may avoid medical care.
Some people may be in denial about the role past trauma is playing in their life. “I would say that a lot of people are unaware of how trauma is affecting them,” says Roberts. One of the hallmarks of trauma is the fact that people often use defense mechanisms to protect themselves from stress. Denial is one of those, as is trying to normalize past problems. “People may say things like, ‘oh, everybody I know got hit as a child,'” says Roberts.
Seek out resources
To get more information about trauma and PTSD or to find treatment resources, here are three very good, well-vetted websites from leading professional organizations:
If you suspect that past trauma is affecting your life, there is help. This is a treatable problem. “You don’t have to be stuck,” says Dr. Ressler. “There is a good chance that you can move past this.”
Taking steps to address the problem may also help others in your life. Very often people who have experienced trauma pass problems on to others in their family through a process called observational learning, he says. So, helping yourself may help those around you. Consider these steps.
Work with a therapist. A trained therapist can help you reframe what happened to you and help you move past it. “One of the most successful treatments is exposure therapy, where the idea is to expose yourself in small doses to the thing that was most traumatizing, with someone there to support you,” says Roberts. Treatment may also include medication to address any mental health disorders you are experiencing.
Take care of yourself. There are numerous lifestyle measures that can help you reduce stress and anxiety. These include yoga, tai chi, and meditation. Regular exercise can also help you manage stress and other symptoms.
Reach out to others. Research has shown that maintaining strong social ties with friends and family members is crucial to good mental health.
“Unfortunately, all of these things are hard to do when in depressive states,” says Roberts.
That’s why many people may need to start with therapy, and then add other strategies later on.
Police officers have high rates of heart disease and suicide and shorter life expectancy. Some might also suffer from what researchers call ‘compassion fatigue.’
Plymouth police Sgt. Jeff Dorfsman remembers he was eating dinner when a homicide call came through dispatch in the typically quiet western Twin Cities suburb. He and other officers on duty rushed to the scene.
Some officers provided cover while Dorfmsan administered first aid to the gunshot victim. He died anyway. Dorfsman said officers always have the potential stress of these sort of calls in the back of their minds. These are the calls that can jar him.
“It could be a sick child or a terminally ill patient or car crashes, it could be violence, and sometimes it’s just things you can’t unsee,” Dorfsman said. “Over time, that can be a difficult thing for some officers to process.”
Police work can be stressful and unpredictable. An officer never knows when something routine like a traffic stop can escalate into something traumatic. It’s a side of the job that not many civilians see or think about.
There’s growing concern in law enforcement that responding to traumatic calls over and over without mental health support can take a toll on officers’ well-being, and that built-up trauma can make it more challenging for officers and community members to rebuild trust between them.
Coping with stress and trauma
Plymouth police officer Steve Thomas said cops traditionally have bottled up their feelings. After responding to calls about suicides, murders or child abuse, they’d be expected to suck it up and move on. But the Plymouth Police Department is at the forefront of providing support for officer wellness, and to giving officers tools to deal with that stress.
Thomas, who is one of the department’s designated wellness officers, said it’s typical now in Plymouth for officers to work through these calls after they happen.
“If there’s a traumatic incident, we always have debriefings of just the people involved in that incident. Nobody else can come in,” Thomas said. “Just so they can decompress and talk.”
Plymouth Police Chief Mike Goldstein remembers the first experience as a cop that really stuck with him. It was three decades ago, late in the afternoon. He was a rookie cop, patrolling alone for one of the first times, when he got a medical call.
Goldstein was the first to arrive at the home, which he says he can still pick out on the street.
“I was led to the crib and I started to try to resuscitate the infant,” Golstein said. “Then I felt a tap on my shoulder from a senior officer who, you know, was shaking his head. It was obvious that the child had passed.”
It was because of these sort of incidents, and the strain they put on career officers, that spurred Goldstein to launch the department’s officer wellness programs in 2012. The department now has four police trained as wellness officers and a part-time officer who’s a physician who mentors other officers. They’ve even got an in-house chaplain.
”We’ve done a lot to look at physical health, to look at behavioral health and to look at spiritual health,” Goldstein said. “We have programs from the time you walk into this department as a brand-new officer to the time you choose to retire.”
The department also now requires officers to meet with a behavioral health counselor at least once a year. Goldstein made that change after some officers had to take leaves of absence because of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I really don’t care when you go in to talk to the provider what you discuss. You could stare at them for an hour, you could talk about the Minnesota Twins,” Goldstein said. “I just want them to establish a connection so that if something does trigger an emotional response and they need to talk to someone, they have a comfort level going in and they’re not starting from scratch.”
Before becoming a police officer, Mitch Martinson served in the military, where these sort of wellness services have been long established to help soldiers cope with trauma. He said the programs have helped his fellow officers understand that talking about trauma isn’t a sign of weakness.
“We would urge each other to seek help if needed,” Martinson said.
Wellness isn’t just about mental health. In recent years, the department has also built out a free gym for officers to use in the basement of the police station.
Plymouth police Detective Amy Goodwin was in the gym dead-lifting 205 pounds on a recent afternoon. She said the on-site gym gives officers an opportunity to blow off steam and talk about things other than their police work.
“It’s just a great way for officers to come down here, relieve stress and to be able to take the uniform off for a while,” Goodwin said. “We all do workouts together, so it also builds that team-building for us down here.”
This is something Goldstein emphasizes, too: Officers need to interact with people outside the profession and outside the sometimes stressful 911 calls.
“Try not to live, breathe, sleep and eat law enforcement. It’s unhealthy,” he said. “Remember: Most people are good.”
But not everyone was on board with the wellness programs right away. There was skepticism from older officers and the police union, Goldstein said. But over time, the wellness programs have become part of the culture of the department.
”They know it’s not going away. They know that it’s a benefit to them. If they don’t see it, their families do,” Goldstein said. “And I just want to promote it as effectively as we can so that it becomes contagious.”
Some observers, including Goldstein, see an explosion of interest in police officer wellness programs in Minnesota and across the country. Both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Department of Justice COPS program have launched programs promoting officer wellness in recent years.
At a time when fewer young people are being drawn to work in law enforcement, Goldstein, who’s 52, sees the wellness programs as a perk that may help recruit a younger generation of officers who have different expectations and fewer stigmas around issues of mental health.
“The curmudgeons that are out there, the crusty old guys,” Goldstein said, “I think that if they had an honest conversation, they would say, ‘I really wish we were doing this stuff 30 years ago because I would have benefited from it.’”
Avoiding compassion fatigue
Researchers have found that police officers’ health is worse than many other professions. They have high rates of heart disease and suicide and a shorter life expectancy.
That’s partly due to the routine stresses of the job, said Daniel Blumberg, a professor of psychology at Alliant International University
“Some officers never even draw their weapon,” Blumberg said. “But all officers are going to be going to child abuse, domestic violence, fatal traffic accidents and just seeing some of the challenges of society.”
It’s not uncommon for large departments to have counseling available for officers. Blumberg said it’s about more than just supporting traumatized officers — but about city leaders appointing chiefs who put wellness at the core of their missions.
”It’s about everything from who you’re hiring, to how you train, to how you supervise implementing preventive measures,” Blumberg said.
The personal impact of stress on officers is well established. But there may also be a broader public interest in ensuring that officers mental health is taken care of. Blumberg said another thing clinicians see in police officers is what they refer to as “compassion fatigue,” which can also affect other first responders.
“It’s essentially the emotional toll taken by routinely trying to assist victims of trauma, and additionally for police officers, the futility that they often feel when it comes to preventing a crime or stopping criminals from hurting people,” Blumberg said.
“Compassion fatigue” can happen to police officers partly because of the demands of the job. Imagine an officer going from a call where a child was brutalized to a call where someone’s bike was stolen, he said.
”When you’re suffering significantly from compassion fatigue, the last thing that you want to do is connect with someone who’s in a lot of emotional pain,” Blumberg said. “So, that person comes to the scene, and is not being as helpful or supportive as that victim may need in the moment.”
Police and community relations are in the headlines all the time. Protests broke out across the country in recent years after police officers shot and killed civilians on the job.
That’s led to a climate where officers can feel like their actions are being closely scrutinized, said Jillian Peterson, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University. She said providing mental and physical support for officers could be one way to start to rebuild trust between police and the communities they serve.
“We talk a lot about trauma that is sometimes caused by police interaction, which is a really important conversation. But I think we don’t talk as much about the trauma that police are being exposed to and how that’s impacting every interaction that they have,” Peterson said. “It’s to the public’s benefit, I think, to have these conversations.”
Mike Goldstein, the Plymouth police chief, said his goal is to make sure his officers stay healthy, so they can do a good job for their citizens.
“If I give them everything they need, they’re the ones that are then going to serve the community, they’re going to carry out our mission, and then everybody wins,” Goldstein said. “But if they’re broken, if they’re sick, if they’re not focused, if they’re stressed, then nobody wins.”
When we’ve survived an extremely upsetting event, it can be painful to revisit the memory. Many of us would prefer not to talk about it, whether it was a car accident, fire, assault, medical emergency, or something else.
However, our trauma memories can continue to haunt us, even — or especially — if we try to avoid them. The more we push away the memory, the more the thoughts tend to intrude on our minds, as many research studies have shown.
If and how we decide to share our trauma memories is a very personal choice, and we have to choose carefully those we entrust with this part of ourselves. When we do choose to tell our story to someone we trust, the following benefits may await. (Please note that additional considerations are often necessary for those with severe and prolonged experiences of trauma or abuse, as noted below.)
1. Feelings of shame subside.
Keeping trauma a secret can reinforce the feeling that there’s something shameful about what happened — or even about oneself on a more fundamental level. We might believe that others will think less of us if we tell them about our traumatic experience.
When we tell our story and find support instead of shame or criticism, we discover we have nothing to hide. You might even notice a shift in your posture over time — that thinking about or describing your trauma no longer makes you feel like cowering physically and emotionally. Instead, you can hold your head high, both literally and figuratively.
2. Unhelpful beliefs about the event are corrected.
Many people experience shifts in their beliefs about themselves, other people, and the world following a traumatic event. For example, a person might think they’re weak because of what happened, or that other people can never be trusted. When we keep the story inside, we tend to focus on the parts that are most frightening or that make us feel self-critical.
I’ve often been struck during my work with trauma survivors by the power of simply telling one’s story to shift these unhelpful beliefs. These shifts typically don’t require heavy lifting by the therapist to help the trauma survivor recognize the distorted beliefs. Instead, there’s something about opening the book of one’s trauma memory and reading it aloud, “from cover to cover,” that exposes false beliefs.
For example, a person who was assaulted might believe they were targeted, because they look like easy prey; through recounting what actually happened, they may come to see that it was due to situational factors (“wrong place, wrong time”), rather than something personal and enduring about themselves.
Telling the trauma story to a supportive therapist is one of the key components of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is one of the most effective treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I recently explored the latest findings on PTSD treatment research with psychologist Dr. Mark Powers, Director of Trauma Research at Baylor Scott and White Health. As we discussed, effective CBT typically doesn’t require an intensive examination of the survivor’s beliefs and evidence for those beliefs, as is often done in CBT for other conditions. Instead, insights about the truth of what happened emerge just through talking about what happened and what it means.
3. The memory becomes less triggering.
Revisiting a trauma memory can be very upsetting, triggering strong emotional and physical reactions and even flashbacks to the event. Those reactions can stay in place for years if we have unprocessed trauma memories, especially when we’re trying to avoid thinking about the trauma.
Through retelling the story of what happened, we find that our distress about it goes down. The first time, it’s likely to be very upsetting, even overwhelming, and we might think we’ll never be able to tolerate the memory. With repeated retelling to people who love and care about us, though, we find the opposite — that the memory no longer grips us. As Dr. Powers noted, we find that the memory no longer controls us. It will never be a pleasant memory, of course, but it won’t have the same raw intensity that it once had.
4. You find a sense of mastery.
As we talk about our trauma, we find that we’re not broken. In fact, as Dr. Powers pointed out, we can come to see that our reactions to trauma actually make sense. For example, it’s understandable that our nervous systems are on high alert, since they’re working to protect us from similar danger in the future.
Many trauma survivors I’ve worked with described the strength they found as they faced their trauma and told their story. They said they felt like they could face anything, as they saw their fear lessen and found greater freedom in their lives. It takes courage to tell your story, and witnessing your own courage shows you that you’re not only strong, but also whole.
5. The trauma memory becomes more organized.
Trauma memories tends to be somewhat disorganized compared to other types of memories. They’re often stored in fragments, disconnected from a clear narrative and a broader context. Existing research suggests that these differences are detectable in the brain, with unprocessed trauma memories showing less involvement of areas like the hippocampus that provide context to our experience.
Recounting the trauma begins to organize the memory into a story of what happened. We can see that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that it happened at a specific place and a specific time. We can better understand the events that led up to it, and our own reactions at the time and in the aftermath. By putting a narrative frame around it, the memory can become more manageable and less threatening.
6. You begin to make sense of the trauma.
The biggest benefit from sharing our trauma stories may come from starting to make sense of a senseless event. “As humans we gravitate toward processing and trying to make sense of our experience,” Dr. Powers said, and that need is especially pronounced following a trauma. “That’s why treatment is often geared toward finding a sense of meaning.”
While PTSD treatment shares elements with the treatment of anxiety, such as phobias, Dr. Powers pointed out that it focuses more on meaning than does treatment for anxiety. “We don’t see the same type of drive to make sense of one’s fear in panic disorder or spider phobia,” he said. “The person doesn’t tend to say, ‘I really need to understand my fear of spiders.’ But that does seem to happen in PTSD, that our brains need to process what happened.”
Accordingly, effective therapy for PTSD includes not only revisiting the trauma memory, but also exploring its possible meanings. The meaning doesn’t come “off the shelf,” of course, but can only be arrived at by each individual. According to Dr. Powers, “At best we can help guide them through that discovery process.”
It probably goes without saying that not everyone is the ideal person to share your trauma with. Some people may have a hard time hearing it based on their own trauma history. Others might respond with blame or criticism, or other non-validating responses. Choose carefully so that the person is likely to meet your story with understanding and compassion.
Timing is also important. It may take time before you’re at the point where you’re able to put the trauma into words. Be patient with yourself, recognizing that “not now” doesn’t have to mean “never.” Again, you get to decide when, where, and how you tell your story, which is a crucial part of owning the events of your life.
A Note About Complex PTSD
As noted above, the points raised here are based for the most part on work with discrete types of trauma — for example, a one-time car accident or violent assault. Other considerations may be necessary for those experiencing more complex forms of PTSD, such as those with a history of severe childhood maltreatment. The National Center for PTSD provides additional information on complex PTSD.
Everyone agrees: Stress is terrible. It’s the thing that keeps you awake at night and unable to enjoy your day. Sometimes stress helps us prioritize the things that need doing now, but more often than not, it’s a terrible feeling that sucks the life out of you. At its worst, stress can increase your chances of heart attack, harm your immune system, decrease sexual function, and wreck your digestive system. Stress can come from your work, your personal life, or your environment, and it can manifest in a multitude of (not great) ways.
Battling stress is a part of caring for yourself and your body. How do you get out from under the crushing weight of stress and get your life back on track?
The Art of Self-Care
The best way to combat stress is to practice the art of self-care. Self-care can be hard for a lot of people, especially those with busy lives who are used to putting work and the needs of others ahead of their own needs. Moms are especially prone to struggling with putting themselves first. Self-care is as much a part of thriving as eating and sleeping. It’s caring for yourself mentally, replenishing that spring of mental wellness and energy so that you’re able to do the things you need to do. When you’re busy, schedule time for self-care the way you would a doctor’s appointment.
So what counts as self-care? Anything that leaves you happy, satisfied, and rejuvenated: massages, time spent with a friend or romantic partner, watching a movie you enjoy, or anything that makes you laugh. Examine the things that make you genuinely happy and fulfilled, and when you find yourself lagging, indulge.
Practice Changing the Way You Think
Getting out of a funk is hard to do. When you’re super stressed, it’s easy to fall into a black hole of negative thinking. Practice changing the way you think. If you’re plagued by negative thoughts, flip them around into something positive. It’s hard to do, especially when you feel buried by worry. The more you practice, the more you’ll lean towards positive thinking naturally. You’ll be happier in the long run.
Kick Social Media
There’s a ton of evidence that social media is bad for us. Deleting Facebook from your phone, or drastically reducing your time on Facebook, can lower your cortisol levels (that’s the hormone associated with stress). Increased cortisol can lower your immune system, encourage obesity, and impair memory. Excessive social media use has been linked with anxiety and depression. That’s a lot to put up with just to see what your cousin had for lunch.
Take a 24-hour break from all the noise and pressure from social media. If your hands are still twitching to use your phone, replace Insta with an app designed to help you reduce stress and anxiety. Some apps walk you through mindfulness or meditation. Others help you breathe, or they play soothing sounds.
Take Care of Your Body
There’s definitely a connection between mind and body — just ask anyone who has experienced being hangry. When you’re stressed, taking care of your body can absolutely help get you back to balanced. If you’re working under a deadline, you might be tempted to forgo eating healthy for something quick, like vending machine food. Sugar bursts and crashes can exacerbate stress. Take some time to eat food that will give you energy without burning out quickly, like protein.
Physical activity can help you work through feelings of stress. It’s as simple as taking a quick walk to clear your head. A walk can help you calm down, catch your breath, and head back into a stressful job or project with a much clearer head.
Sleep is a powerful tool to relax and unwind. Follow practices that lead to a good night’s rest:
- Don’t eat before bed
- Give yourself time to settle
- Prime your bed for comfortable sleep
- Keep distractions or stimulating objects (like your cell phone) far away from your bed.
Like a lot of the other suggestions in this article, they’re small changes. Those small changes can lead to a big difference in your life — one that will leave you more relaxed, fulfilled, and able to take on your goals with increased gusto.
Do You Dread Having to Wake Up in the Mornings and Face the Day? 3 Ways to Beat Morning Depression
Do you experience feelings of fatigue, extreme sadness or hopelessness first thing every morning? Perhaps these feelings fade as the day goes on, but they’re back again next morning.
You could be experiencing a symptom of depression known as diurnal variation of mood, commonly referred to as morning depression. People experiencing diurnal mood variation feel worse in the morning but gradually improve as the day goes on. Hence the name morning depression.
A specific cause of morning depression has not been clearly identified but there are thought to be a number of contributing factors. Some research suggests that morning depression may be a consequence of disturbed sleep-cycles or circadian rhythms, an internal body clock that signals, among other things, the sleep-wake cycle. Two hormones, melatonin and cortisol are important for this cycle. Melatonin helps you sleep while cortisol is released upon waking up. If melatonin is released during the day, you tend to feel tired and drained when you wake up. On the other hand, if cortisol is released during the night, you may suffer from disturbed sleep patterns.
Other factors thought to contribute to morning depression include recent changes in life circumstances such as the break-up of a relationship or the death of a loved one, a family history of depression, medical conditions such as chronic pain, anxiety, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and substance addiction.
How to deal with your morning depression
If you are depressed, or think you might be depressed, it is important to consult a mental health professional for expert guidance. However the following coping strategies may help you to begin your day in a more relaxed and calm manner.
#1 Sleep Well
Since poor sleep cycles are thought to be a contributing factor in morning depression, trying to improve your sleep cycle is a good place to start. Try developing a regular routine that you follow before going to sleep. Your routine should suit your lifestyle, preferences and habit but you should focus on being relaxed rather than stimulated. For example
- Try to go to bed at the same time most nights. Wake up at the same time most mornings.
- Caffeine and alcohol are known to disturb sleep. It’s good to avoid these as bedtime approaches. Caffeine may be found in a number of foods including sweets and soft drinks.
- Electronic devices can stimulate rather than relax. If you are using devices, turn on ‘night mode’ at least one hour before sleeping.
- Rather than use your devices, try a relaxing activity before bed. For example, you could have a warm bath, read a book, play a musical instrument or practice mindfulness meditation.
- Create comfortable sleeping conditions: think about your preferred pillows and mattress, sleep wear, room temperature, lighting
- Some of us have difficulty letting go of our thoughts as we sleep. As a result, they linger on in our psyche. Try to empty your mind of any worries and concerns before going to sleep by writing them down
- Include preparations for the next morning in your bedtime routine (see below)
#2 Nourish Your Body: Eat Nutritious Meals
A balanced diet that includes an abundance of fresh food can greatly assist us to get the energy we need to operate at our best. Lack of good quality food in the right quantities can result in reduced blood sugar levels and worsened depressive symptoms. In the mornings, particularly if we are struggling with depression, we often opt for the easiest breakfast we can get our hands on (if we bother to eat at all). Often this will include processed foods or ingredients which may not have the same nutritional value as fresh, whole foods. It is important to eat a nutritious wholefood breakfast to bring our blood sugar levels back up to a level where we can function more efficiently. This helps to reduce tiredness associated with morning depression.
While a nutritious breakfast helps you start the day, there are a number of foods that are thought to help manage depression that could be included into your meals throughout the day. For example:
- Dark leafy greens such as spinach, watercress and kale are rich in folate, a water-soluble B vitamin. Low folate levels have been linked to depressive symptoms.
- Dark Chocolate -yes, dark chocolate (in moderation). Cocoa beans contain antioxidants that can lower the risk of depression.
- Other foods high in antioxidants include fruits and vegetables, nuts and whole-grains.
Overall, research suggests that the more natural and less refined the food is, the more likely it is to help decrease symptoms of depression, while more refined, sugary and caffeine rich foods may have a negative impact on moods.
#3 Wake Up Earlier, Make Time for an Interesting Activity
Experiencing morning depression can make for a slow start to the day. However this can mean getting up just in time to rush off to school/uni, work, the gym, etc. This may intensify feelings of stress and anxiety, and even start to impact other areas such as your closest relationships or job performance. It’s a good idea to allow yourself a little more time to get ready in the mornings. Even ten minutes can make a huge difference. It can also be helpful to develop a morning routine. Again, your routine should suit your lifestyle, preferences and habit, but begin with the easier, smaller tasks that take less energy. For example
- Try a few stretches when you first get out of bed or as part of your showering and dressing routine.
- Waking up to chaos and confusion can intensify morning depression. You can reduce this by incorporating some morning preparations into your pre-bed routine. This can relieve you of some of the decisions you face in the morning as well as saving some time. As suggested above, decide what you’re going to wear, make breakfast preparations, keep your car keys and wallet/handbag in the same place.
- Include an interesting activity in your morning routine. This can help to get you going. For example, you could try listening to music, playing with your pet or reading for a short while. Choose an activity that rejuvenates your mind and helps you feel centred.
Some of us have difficulty letting go of our thoughts as we sleep. As a result, they linger on in our psyche and force us to wake up to an avalanche of tumultuous emotions. Similarly, if you’re not happy with your reality, you may be averse in waking up to it every morning. For example, you may be dissatisfied with your marriage, income or job. You develop an inherent wish to avoid stepping into a stressful reality; essentially, we are in a state of denial and want to avoid facing our problems that seem to come rushing at us every morning.
It can be extremely draining to have to go through these emotions every morning. However morning depression can be managed. Proactively implementing effective coping strategies can help overcome the condition and wake up to exhilaration and vitality.
You’ve done it! High school is over and it’s time for college. Everyone is just so proud… and you’re alternating between wildly optimistic and sure of certain failure. As a person with a diagnosed mood disorder, you just barely survived high school—and that’s no exaggeration.
Maybe you’ve accumulated a list of experiences that don’t exactly enhance your resume—frequent absences, medication trials, psychiatrist visits (outpatient or in), special schools, therapists, suicide attempts and drinking sprees. But you’ve gotten good enough grades, and you’re off to college away from home. Maybe you’re hoping the geographic and lifestyle change will help you (You can confess! It’s what your Aunt Mildred thinks, too).
You are one of a new and mighty generation, with access to early diagnosis and treatment for your mood disorder. In generations past, a “nervous breakdown” in youth meant years of seclusion, sedatives and broken dreams. Today, though, higher education has never been more accessible for those living with mental illness.
With support from NAMI and resources like “The Mighty” and social media, you certainly won’t be living with mental illness all alone, and you’re about to join an exciting, new college community where stigma is reduced. But only about 56% of students earn degrees within six years—it isn’t easy.
Your success depends partly on how quickly you can get into the driver’s seat of managing your illness. So, here are a few practical tips for the road ahead:
Prepare For Your Trip
Make a mental health plan with your parents and hometown mental health professionals. Assume the year won’t be perfect and set up your supports before you go. NAMI actually has an awesome guide that can help you plan and start all necessary conversations—including what you decide to disclose to college officials about your mental health condition. Planning will help you succeed.
Avoid The Potholes
Sleep! You know you have to. Lack of sleep is both a trigger and a symptom. Even if you’re behind on studying—it’s better to get a C on a quiz than deal with a trip to the ER. Limit your late nights to 1-2 per week, max. If your sleep gets disrupted in a dorm, make a change. Speaking of lost sleep: please party wisely. Your medications probably don’t mix well with alcohol and ignoring this warning will be at your peril.
Put On The Gas
Practice self-care. This is likely to be easier than in high school, because many of your new friends will be going for walks or runs, working out in the campus athletic center, taking classes in dance or fencing, practicing meditation and joining clubs full of likeminded students. College is a great time to develop healthy habits, and exercise and self-care are so important for mental health.
Choose Your Passengers
At home, most people probably knew a lot about you. Be honest and open at college, but be wary. Once you’ve shared your story, you cannot un-share it. The world is not always a fair place. If you tell others you have a mental health condition, you may be known by your personality and your diagnosis. Some will see you through a veil of their own ignorance. If this happens, you can take on the task of educating others. You may choose to become a mental health advocate, but wait until you are ready.
As you head off to college, be happy! And be prepared. You have a disorder that you wouldn’t wish on anyone, but it is part of who you are. You’re already accomplished: You made it to college and that’s a great achievement. Your preparations will help you be even more successful and every class will bring you closer to having an educated mind.
Many of the people you will be reading about in school—Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, J.K. Rowling, William Styron, Annie Lamott, Kay Redfield Jameson—were once in your shoes. These role models were once young adults facing the adversity of living with a mood disorder, but not letting it define them. When their works are discussed in class, you will have powerful insights about their lives. Mood disorders don’t go away, but with medication, support, lifestyle care and a little luck, they can be managed. You can succeed on your journey.
Sharon Carnahan, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL and Executive Director of Hume House Child Development & Student Research Center. She has taught first-year college students since 1990 and is an advocate for students with special health care needs. www.rollins.edu/cdc.
Like many who have social media accounts, I regularly check my timelines and feeds for intriguing articles, updates and happenings. Two years ago, I was mindlessly scrolling through one of my accounts before going to bed and one post immediately stood out among the rest: It was a suicide note.
Frantically, I read my friend Mark’s post. It detailed his internal suffering over the years, which he no longer wanted to endure. The comment section grew at an alarming rate. People asked questions, both directly to Mark and to each other. Some people were pleading with him to reconsider. Others offered comments of hope.
Over the next few days, I saw something I did not expect. Hundreds of comments on Mark’s post evolved into a community of people coming together to help find Mark, who had gone missing. People used his previous posts on other social media platforms to piece together his possible location. Some contacted the authorities—and thankfully, those authorities located him before he took his life.
Social Media On The Rise
We live in a world driven by technology. We see the media regularly report on new apps for our smartphones and the latest trending celebrity tweets. Whether we’re commuting to work, studying in a coffee shop or spending time with our family and friends, being connected digitally is part of our lives. An entire generation of young people is growing up with devices in their hands, regularly engaging in social media.
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2005 only 5% of American adults used at least one social media platform. That number has since grown significantly: Today, 70% of the public uses social media, with many people using more than one platform.
Some researchers are beginning to identify connections between online social networking and mental health concerns. Among these concerns are varying levels of self-esteem and addiction to social media, as well as the internet. However, it is uncertain whether signs and symptoms of mental health conditions are the causes or effects of using social media. Since each platform is different and new platforms continue to be introduced, future research is needed to assess the true effect of social media on mental health.
Identifying Mental Health Concerns Online
When used responsibly, social media can be used in positive ways. It can be used to promote mental health to a large audience. I’ve seen individuals share their personal stories of recovery, like those on NAMI.org at You Are Not Alone and OK2Talk. I’ve seen mental health writers connect with one another on Twitter. And as with my friend Mark, during times of crisis, social media can even save lives.
On platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, users now have options for getting a friend help. If a user thinks a friend is in danger of self-harm or suicide, they can report their concerns by going to the social media websites’ Help Centers. These online Help Centers have dedicated content about suicide and self-harm prevention, which include online resources and phone numbers for suicide hotlines around the world.
The most helpful feature I’ve seen instituted recently is on Instagram. Users can anonymously flag posts by other users that have content about self-harm and suicide. That user then receives a message encouraging them to speak with a friend, contact a helpline or seek professional help. The same message appears for people who are regularly searching self-harm- or suicide-related content on Instagram.
Recent research by the Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Office notes that personal social media accounts “can provide an important window into a person’s state of mind.” At the Secretary of the Army Symposium on Suicide Prevention in mid-January 2017, military leaders, mental health professionals and companies like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn came together to see how social media can be used to connect those in need to care and resources.
How Can I Help?
With social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat dominating our screen time, it’s wise to assume that social media will continue to be a primary method of communication. Therefore, it’s up to us to look out for mental health warning signs while on social media so we are better prepared to assist a friend in need.
If you see any of the following behavior online, it may be time to step in and contact your friend directly to see how you can help:
- Cyberbullying, which includes:
a. harassing messages or comments
b. fake accounts made to impersonate someone else
c. someone posting unwanted pictures or images of another person
- Negative statements about themselves, even if it sounds like they are joking, such as
a. “I’m a waste of space.”
b. “No one cares about me.”
c. “I seriously hate myself.”
- Negative leading statements with little to no context that prompt others to respond, such as:
a. “You wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through.”
b. “Today was the worst day ever.”
c. “It’s like everyone is against me.”
If someone you know is in immediate danger—for example, they talk about a specific plan for harming themselves—contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. This lifeline can support the individual and their family members, and has the ability to connect with local law enforcement, if necessary. If a person has attempted self-harm or is injured, call 911 immediately.
If the threat of physical danger is not immediate, here are some things you can do to help:
- Report the content on the social media website’s Help Center;
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255; or
- Reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting the word “NAMI” to 741741 (standard data rates may apply).
As you scroll through your social media feeds, be mindful of what others post. Being educated about available resources is important for those of us who promote mental health, but knowing when to reach out to a friend who may be experiencing a mental health crisis is even more important: You just might save a life.
Ryann Tanap is manager of social media and digital assets at NAMI.
To create the roadways of a city, it takes years of planning, developing and building. It’s a never-ending process as new ideas are constantly suggested on how to make everything more efficient and in tune with changing needs.
Peace of mind is developed the same way.
In the 1900’s, scientists believed that our brain was fully developed by age six. We could learn more, sure, but “who we were” was set. Additionally, it was believed that after our teenage years and early years of adulthood, our brain and bodies declined through aging, injury, disease and illness.
“And then,” stated Dr. Lara Boyd, a brain researcher from the University of British Columbia, “studies began to show remarkable amounts of reorganization in the adult brain. And the research has shown us that all of our behaviors change our brain. That these changes are not limited by age…in fact they’re taking place all the time.” Meaning we can reorganize, change and restructure the physical makeup of our brain no matter what age we are.
So, imagine your brain is a city composed of many roadways that have all been under construction since before you were even born. And just like cities, we can create new roadways that enable us to be happier.
I’m sure you’ve heard about the many ways to be happier and healthier, but true change relies on deciding on a new habit or practice and dedicating yourself to it. That’s when your roadways will begin to evolve for good. Here are some important things to keep in mind when you’re working on yourself.
Whatever we decide to think or do, it has to be different than our norm. For example, if we decide to move towards having more peace of mind by going on walks three times a week, and we’re already walking three times a week, we are not going to change. But if we decide to also practice mindfulness while walking, this is different.
Whether it’s exercise, nutrition, meditation, yoga, tai chi, therapy, medication, religion, spirituality or any other strategies we might use to become happier, we need to believe in what we’re doing and believe we can succeed. Rather than going through the motions, we need to embrace the belief that we are changing our thoughts or behaviors to become happier.
“The harder we try, the more we are motivated, the more alert we are, and the better (worse) the outcome, the bigger the brain change,” wrote Dr. Michael Merzenich in Soft Wired. To make a change, it takes commitment and effort. There are times when we just don’t want to get out of bed to do yoga or go for a brisk walk. That’s true for anyone. Occasionally missing an opportunity to practice what we’ve decided to do is okay. But if we allow ourselves to continually take breaks, then we are pausing our progress.
Our intention should be all-in. I once had a client who listened to guided meditation while he was driving and then later in the day when he was focusing on a project at work. He said he didn’t have time for anything more intensive, and he couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t feeling any better. It takes focus to make change for the better. It helps to set aside specific time so you can focus solely on one thing at that time.
Practice And Repeat
Most of us quit doing what we’re doing once we experience “success.” That’s pretty common. But when we practice beyond “success,” we convert short-term changes into long-term memory and that’s what sticks. It has been found that repetition is effective in helping children learn how to read (imagine if they just stopped after completing their first book?). The same is true when establishing an ever-growing peace of mind.
It’s best to look at creating happiness and peace of mind as an evolving process rather than an end goal. It’s important to keep in mind that we’ll always be moving towards happiness. The roadways to peace are never finished—we’re always under construction.
And we can either let our old pathways determine who we are or keep working on becoming who we want to be. Each step we take enables us to become happier with ourselves, our relationships and with the world. And we can achieve a greater sense of peace and calm as we continue to grow.
Larry Shushansky has seen thousands of individuals, couples and families over 35 years as a counselor. Through this and the process he used to get clean from his alcohol and drug addiction, Larry has developed the concept of Independent Enough. Follow him on Facebook here. You can also access his blog through his website at Independentenough.com
Living with mental illness is not easy. It’s a consistent problem without a clear solution. While treatments like medication and psychotherapy are incredibly helpful, sometimes people experiencing mental health conditions need to do more day-in and day-out to feel good or even just okay.
Some common self-help suggestions people receive are to exercise, meditate and be more present, which are helpful and work for many people. However, other proven methods aren’t mentioned as often. Many of them are quick and simple techniques that can easily be added to daily routines.
Finding the right coping mechanism takes time and patience, but it can enormously impact how you feel. If you haven’t had success with techniques you’ve tried, or you’re looking to add a few more to your toolkit, here are seven coping mechanisms recommended by mental health professionals worth trying out.
Radical acceptance is “completely and totally accepting something from the depths of your soul, with your heart and your mind,” according to Marsha Linehan (creator of dialectal behavior therapy). Included in this definition is the idea that no matter what, you cannot change a situation. For example, imagine a tornado is coming your way. Obviously, you can’t do anything to stop the tornado; that’s not possible. But if you accept the fact that it’s coming, then you can act, prepare and keep yourself safe. If you sit around trying to will the tornado to stop or pretend that there is no tornado, you’re going to be in real trouble when it comes.
The same applies to mental illness. You cannot change the fact that you have a mental illness, so any time you spend trying to “get rid of it” or pretend it doesn’t exist is only draining you of valuable energy. Accept yourself. Accept your condition. Then take the necessary steps to take care of yourself.
Breathing is an annoying cliché at this point, but that’s because the best way to calm anxiety really is to breathe deeply. When battling my own anxiety, I turned to the concept of “5 3 7” breathing:
- Breathe in for 5 seconds
- Hold the breath for 3 seconds
- Breathe out for 7 seconds
This gentle repetition sends a message to the brain that everything is okay (or it will be soon). Before long, your heart will slow its pace and you will begin to relax—sometimes without even realizing it.
Opposite-to-emotion thinking is how it sounds: You act in the opposite way your emotions tell you to act. Say you’re feeling upset and you have the urge to isolate. Opposite-to-emotion tells you to go out and be around people—the opposite action of isolation. When you feel anxious, combat that with something calming like meditation. When you feel manic, turn to something that stabilizes you. This technique is probably one of the hardest to put into play, but if you can manage it, the results are incredible.
The 5 Senses
Another effective way to use your physical space to ground you through a crisis is by employing a technique called “The 5 Senses.” Instead of focusing on a specific object, with “The 5 Senses” you run through what each of your senses is experiencing in that moment. As an example, imagine a PTSD flashback comes on in the middle of class. Stop! Look around you. See the movement of a clock’s hands. Feel the chair beneath you. Listen to your teacher’s voice. Smell the faint aroma of the chalkboard. Chew a piece of gum.
Running through your senses will take only a few seconds and will help keep you present and focused on what is real, on what is happening right now.
Mental reframing involves taking an emotion or stressor and thinking of it in a different way. Take, for example, getting stuck in traffic. Sure, you could think to yourself, “Wow, my life is horrible. I’m going to be late because of this traffic. Why does this always happen to me?”
Or you can reframe that thought, which might look something like, “This traffic is bad, but I’ll still get to where I’m going. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I’ll just listen to music or an audiobook to pass the time.” Perfecting this technique can literally change your perspective in tough situations. But as you might imagine, this skill takes time and practice.
If you live in denial of your emotions, it will take far longer to take care of them, because once we recognize what we’re feeling, we can tackle it or whatever is causing it. So, if you’re feeling anxious, let yourself be anxious for a couple of minutes—then meditate. If you’re feeling angry, let yourself be angry—then listen to some calming music. Be in touch with your emotions. Accept that you are feeling a certain way, let yourself feel that way and then take action to diminish unhealthy feelings.
You can’t control that you have mental illness, but you can control how you respond to your symptoms. This is not simple or easy (like everything else with mental illness), but learning, practicing and perfecting coping techniques can help you feel better emotionally, spiritually and physically. I’ve tried all the above techniques, and they have transformed the way I cope with my mental health struggles.
It takes strength and persistence to recover from mental illness—to keep fighting symptoms in the hopes of feeling better. Even if you feel weak or powerless against the battles you face every day, you are incredibly strong for living through them. Practical and simple methods can help you in your fight. Take these techniques into consideration, and there will be a clear change in the way you feel and live your life.
Emmie Pombo is a student striving to crush mental illness and addiction stigma. She also advocates for the people who haven’t yet spoken honestly about their struggles. Rooted in Florida, Emmie hopes to eventually diminish any lies surrounding the treatable mental disorders that are becoming more and more prevalent throughout the world.