How Stress Affects Mental Health

Stress is an almost constant reality of most people’s lives these days. Whether it’s stress about the big things like the government, race relations, or the ultimate cosmic destiny of the human species – or the more mundane like too many deadlines and not enough time, the constant stress of wondering if you’re doing life “right,” to the ever-present “why is there always traffic?!” The stressors we feel in life, big and small, all contribute to our feeling of well-being or unease. Sometimes our stress isn’t about external things as much as it is about our internal motivations and perceptions. I used to be really bad about comparing myself to others, and not in some haughty way like I was awesome, but in a significantly unhealthy way where I was never good enough. My mom would often comfort me with this great piece of wisdom, “there will always be people better than you and there will always be people worse than you – at whatever you do. If you compare yourself to others you can always find something to be upset about.” I needed to hear that often, so often it almost became a mantra until one day I really understood. The stress of not being good enough or worrying if I was measuring up was only hurting me. That didn’t make the stress go away, but it gave me a new way to think about it.


This seems obvious, right? The tension in your neck, the unpleasant increase in heart rate, the looming sense of dread; stress isn’t fun. But it doesn’t have to be quite so bad. The physical responses we have to stress are often times our body’s way of trying to cope with the problem at hand or to alert us to something going wrong. When your heart starts to race when you anticipate that unpleasant conversation your body is getting ready to respond however you need (fight, flight, freeze, friend, etc.) Your body is trying to give you the raw fuel you might need to do something big and scary. But for all its desire to prepare you, this kind of heightened state can lead to long term health problems physically (heart attack or ulcers or other things like that) and mentally.


Stress doesn’t always have to be a gut-punching or soul-sucking experience. Sometimes stress can be good for us. You’ve probably heard that expression about coal and stress making a diamond, right? Well, that’s a bit of a silly extreme but the sentiment has some validity. It is the testing of ourselves under pressure that can help sharpen our abilities and skills. Like above, our bodies often respond to our environment with preprogrammed instinctual-like responses in order to serve a purpose. When we meet new people or places we try to suss out if they are safe. When we have to speak in front of a crowd we are concerned about being kicked out of the group and not having a place anymore. When we can figure out some of the “whys” behind our stress, they can shift from being unhealthy and unpleasant, to being unpleasant but purposeful – still not comfortable to experience, but at least doing something for us.


So, sometimes stress is bad, other times it’s good – but even knowing why it happens and having plans to deal with it, stress can still occasionally turn into something more. The shift from too much stress to depression isn’t always an easy thing to notice. It can go from just feeling overwhelmed and overworked most of the time to feeling like you are always behind and drowning in responsibilities and the expectations of others. This is a dangerous shift not only because it is subtle, but because it convinces you that you can manage everything if only you put in a little bit more work, or tried a little harder, or were just a bit more something. This is a deceptive trap which can cause you to begin a spiral into self-doubt and feelings of anxiety.

The best way to stop stress in it’s tracks is to learn its habits and interrupt the pattern. That way you keep yourself from going from unpleasant but manageable stress to overwhelming and crushing feelings leading towards depression.

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