We go to the doctor when we have severe pains, fevers or other physical symptoms. We take vitamins, have routine checkups, exercise and adapt our diets to prevent physical illnesses. As we commemorate Mental Health Awareness Month at The Family Institute, we’re talking to our expert clinicians about the connections between physical and mental health, as well as what can be done to prevent more serious mental illnesses.
Today’s insights come from Jenny Welbel, LPC, a staff clinician with the Institute’s Cognitive Behavior Therapy Program.
A Natural State of Anxiety
Anxiety is a natural state that everybody experiences and that is designed to protect and prepare individuals. Therefore, a healthy amount of anxiety can enhance performance in school or at work (driving us to study harder or prepare longer for a presentation) and it serves to protect us from danger.
However, transient anxiety becomes problematic and may be symptomatic of an anxiety disorder when it is persistent, highly distressing, and impairs everyday functioning – making it difficult or even impossible to carry out the things we need to do at work, school or with our loved ones. For example, it is expected that a high school senior may be anxious about where he or she is going to college. But, if this same college senior, is spending hours worrying about where they are going to school, loses sleep because he or she is filling out dozens and dozens of college applications, and gets so nervous before college interviews that he or she gets sick, the individual’s anxiety is no longer considered productive or helpful. Similarly, many individuals may get nervous before meeting new people. But, if an individual is so nervous about meeting new people that he or she avoids social functions all together, or experiences frequent panic attacks before any social gathering, he or she may be struggling with an anxiety disorder.
In addition, it’s important to keep in mind that given that although a certain amount of anxiety is normal, and often productive, there are some things that could take normal anxiety and make it abnormal. Specifically:
- Sleep: Maintain as regular of a sleep-wake time as possible. If your schedule gets disrupted because you had to pull an all-nighter, start the next day by getting up at your regular time.
- Alcohol: Some people try to cope with stress and anxiety by using alcohol. However, alcohol can make it less likely that you will use healthy coping strategies in the moment, may increase the number of stressors in one’s life, and can make anxiety even worse the next day.
- Avoidance: We all tend to stay away from things that we don’t like, but if we do so because the thing in question causes us fear or anxiety, we may actually be perpetuating the fear. For example, if an individual avoids giving presentations because he is afraid that he will embarrass himself, he is preventing himself from learning that, most likely, his fear does not come true. And, if it was to come true, he could handle it better than anticipated.
Know Your Own Cues
Mental health is a state of emotional and psychological well-being and balance.
Maintaining that mental well-being and balance is different for everyone — some people use yoga, exercise, religion or other activities to try and keep themselves balanced and feeling well.
In addition to those personal activities, another important way individuals can work to maintain their own mental health is by knowing their own cues that something is off. We often know when we’re off balance and things just don’t feel right. Cultivating that self-awareness so that we can identify moments of struggle is a way we can help prevent larger issues. It’s important to ask yourself: When you feel anxious, how long does it normally last? How are you able to cope with it and/or manage those feelings? If you know those details about yourself, you’ll be able to more easily identify moments when anxiety is lasting a bit too long or interfering too much with your everyday life — and then get the help you might need.
Reducing Stigma Leads to Prevention.
While knowing our own cues that our mental well-being is off-balance is an important way to help prevent larger mental health issues, it can only go so far. Many people do recognize that something is off-balance — but then don’t seek out help because of the stigma surrounding mental health treatment. By reducing that stigma, we could help those individuals feel safer and more secure in getting the help they need, possibly preventing more severe issues that result from a lack of treatment.
By creating environments — families, workplaces and schools — that are more open to discussions of mental illness and less judgmental of what they actually mean, we will create safe spaces for people to talk about their struggles and ask for the help they need. For example, while many workplaces and schools offer accommodations for people struggling with anxiety disorders, some individuals may feel embarrassed or ashamed to actually seek out those accommodations. By reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness and creating a more accepting environment, workplaces and schools can encourage those individuals to get the help they need.
As a society we need more policies in place to help reduce this stigma, and more awareness. If parent, teachers, caregivers and other individuals know what to look for and how to handle it, we can get to the issues earlier and prevent further problems and complications.