Role of stress in mental illness. Learning how to cope

Everyone undergoes stress — at the workplace, at home, while travelling, before a presentation, in fact, almost anything we experience can induce stress. But those of us who suffer from mental illness tend to be more deeply impacted than others. The reason being that we tend to hold on to stress, we do not have the ability to let go.

Long-term stress increases the risk of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, substance use, lack of sleep and muscle tension.

Fight or flight

Stress is nature’s response to danger and is genetically wired into the human body. While short-term stress can actually make us more efficient and alert, say when we are preparing for a match, job interview or exam. Usually, after a stressful event, the body returns to its normal state. On the other hand, the effects of long-term stress can be very harmful.

Long-term stress
As a patient of bipolar disorder, I have dealt with both short and long term stress. Flights generate short term stress in me. So does illness in the family. Many times, I am anxious without reason. It’s like stress has become my body’s default setting. My body cannot distinguish between real and imagined stress, and reacts in the same way to both. My muscles tense up, especially in the neck. I feel a strange fluttering sensation in the pit of my stomach and tingling in my tongue. I perspire heavily. The inability to process stress naturally, has led to a whole lot of it residing in my body.

It’s like a car alarm that is faulty and is triggered not just when someone tries to open the car but any time at all, without reason. This long-term stress can contribute to both physical and mental illness. It can affect the heart, immune and metabolic functions and hormones. It increases the risk of developing depression and anxiety. Recent studies have shown that long-term stress can change the structure of the brain, especially in areas supporting learning and memory. It can affect both nerve cells (grey matter) and the connections between them (white matter). It can cause the immune system to work overtime and in turn, this could negatively affect the brain.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can develop after experiencing an extremely traumatic or stressful event. Long after the incident is over, the person may experience vivid flashbacks or nightmares, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

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Coping strategies

Finding effective ways to deal with stress is crucial to living well.
– Recognize your triggers and see how you can neutralise them. For example, I get stressed when I have to take a flight. So, before I board one, I make sure my phone has plenty of offline card games, word games and crosswords. I buy a romantic novel at the airport. These measures help to pert my mind and reduce stress. But what has really helped is a few sessions of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. It works wonders.

If your trigger is tight deadlines, wake up two hours earlier and complete the task that is bothering you the most, well before your work day starts. Waiting till the last minute will definitely make things worse.

Or, if storms are what triggers you, shut out the sounds of the wind and thunder by closing all doors and windows. Draw the curtains and watch a light TV erial or movie. Once you cannot hear or see the storm, it may not bother you. When stormy weather bothers me, I get into bed with a mug of hot chocolate and a book. You could identify your own safe space.

Practice relaxation. Pranayam, meditation, chanting and methodical muscle relaxation can help you become calm. You can take several short breaks between work and practise these. Once your mind calms down, it remains in that state for some time. Someone I know meditates for an hour every morning and that keeps him calm through the day.

Exercise daily. Exercise produces happy hormones and relieves stress. Opt for something fun, like Bollywood dancing, Salsa and biking.

Take time to relax. Make time for things that take your mind away from your stressors. If reading is something you enjoy, make time for it. Play with a pet, listen to music, watch a comedy or get an aromatic massage. This way, you avoid chronic stress.

Eat well.
Eating unprocessed foods, like whole grains, vegetables, and fresh fruit is the foundation for a healthy body and mind. Eating well can also help stabilize your mood.

Get enough sleep. Try to have a regular sleep schedule – sleep and wake up at the same time daily.

Avoid alcohol and drugs.
They don’t actually reduce stress: in fact, they often worsen it. Talk to someone. Whether to friends, family or a counsellor, airing out your feelings can help. Consider joining a support group.

If the steps you’ve taken aren’t working, it may be time to consult your mental health professional. He or she can help you pinpoint specific events that trigger you, and create an action plan to change them.


(Shubha Menon is a mental health advocate and author. She is a peer support specialist, certified by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), USA)