Systems advocacy is focused on change of systems. This includes areas such as collecting and using data to influence research, funding, and advocacy that helps serve to be a collective voice, especially for those who are most vulnerable.
Safety and stabilization are a core component of trauma-related work. For individuals who have experienced trauma, memories may present as intrusive– showing up, repeatedly and without notice as a reminder to traumatic event (s).
After getting used to staying at home, keeping social distance, and mask-wearing, relating to others after quarantine is another big adjustment. One question that often comes up is how-can-I-feel-less-nervous-socializing-after-quarantine?
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as a “an emotional response” to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. You may have directly experienced a terrible event, learned about a terrible event happening to a close friend/ family member, or had a frightening experience in which there was actual or threatened death, injury, or violence.
For many of us, we tend to get stuck on negative thinking. For some reason, our brains defer to the negative. According to the National Science Foundation, 80% of our thoughts are negative and 95% of our thoughts are repetitive. WOW. That is a lot of negative, repetitive thoughts!
Violence within intimate relationships is on the rise. Increased stress + staying at home + social isolation has help create a “perfect storm” for violence within the home. Being familiar with the types of abuse that can occur within relationships is an important step to recognize “red flags” to help yourself and/ or others who are experiencing or have experienced abuse during quarantine.
The holidays tend to be a difficult time for those who have lost a loved one. This is especially true for family and friends who have died by suicide. Within the last year, I have been able to come alongside friends and family who have lost loved ones by suicide. As we celebrate the holiday season, suicide survivors are reminded of the “empty chair” at the table. The Saturday before Thanksgiving has been designated as International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. It is a day where family and friends of those who have died by suicide can come together for support and healing.
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.
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.
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.