By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
Is your stress level too high?
Stress is a part of your life. Some stress is the result of too much good stuff in your life. Other stress is from the tragedies and traumas of life. Not everyone experiences stress in the same way. There are those who are physically stronger and those who are emotionally more stress resistant. Not everyone who experiences stress is damaged by it, but if you have been under stress too much or too long then there is a good chance that stress is affecting your mental and physical health.
When mental health professionals talk about stress they are not necessarily using the word in the strict dictionary definition sense. In the dictionary definition, the emphasis is on all kinds of stress, small, medium or large. In mental health, we are more thinking of the stress and its cousin trauma, which have been connected to mental, emotional or behavioral disorders.
Google defines stress in part as:
- Pressure or tension exerted on a material object. “The distribution of stress is uniform across the bar” synonyms: pressure, tension, strain
- A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. “He’s obviously under a lot of stress” synonyms: strain, pressure, (nervous) tension, worry, anxiety, trouble, difficulty; informal hassle, “he’s under a lot of stress”
The kind of stress that may damage your physical and mental health is more linked to trauma. The concept here is that most of us experience some degree of stress every day. Some people experience more stress than others. Two people may have the same experience but one finds it more harmful than on other.
Some stress, some of the time, can be helpful, it encourages people to do things to change their situation. But if you have been under too much stress or under stress to long it can damage your mental health.
Excessive stress and trauma have been linked to anxiety disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders and dissociative disorders. Stress and trauma may make these disorders worse, may have contributed to the creation of these disorders or it may just be that if you have another mental illness you are more vulnerable to stress and trauma. Stress and trauma are also the primary connection to a group of mental illnesses we now refer to as “Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders.”
Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders.
Most everyone can name one trauma and stress-related disorder, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the poster child for the harm that stress can do to your mental health. There are a number of other related disorders that are caused by trauma and stress.
Internalizing and externalizing – common reactions to trauma and stress.
Small levels of stress, amounts the individual can manage, pass by and are quickly discharged. Once stress exceeds the ability of a person to cope there are two common reactions to this excessive stress. You could get it out, we call this externalizing, or keep it in, called internalizing. Internalizing has been mostly associated with mental illnesses like anxiety and OCD. Externalizing your stress results in getting diagnosed and labeled with one of these “bad kid” or “anti-social person” labels.
Attachment disorders are trauma and stressor-related disorders
We used to think of these and many other disorders as things that only happened to children when there was something wrong with them or their development went array. As a result, some mental health disorders were only diagnosed in children and then if you had symptoms as adults we changed the name for what you had.
We now tend to think that these problems may begin in childhood or they may begin later and even if they do not get detected until your adult years you may have these issues.
If you had the experience of not feeling close to your caregiver, say they were abusive or neglectful and as a result, you avoided them. This kind of internalizing behavior to manage the anxiety, stress or trauma from deficient or inconsistent caregiving gets called Reactive Attachment Disorder.
Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder is the name professionals give when a child externalizes their needs and seeks out any adult whether they know them or not. They may be overly intimate in their physical contact or far too willing to walk off with this unknown adult. One other characteristic of this condition is that the child does not look back at their regular caregiver for permission or encouragement. We think that a lack of being able to depend on the caregiver leaves the child frantically seeking another adult to provide for their needs.
We see adult patients with all sort of relationship issues and sometimes can’t help wondering if the roots of their adult relationship issues may not be found in their poor attachment to a caregiver as a child. The conclusion; Childhood stress creates adult illnesses.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
This disorder has gotten a lot of press recently. We know not everyone who experiences a given stressor ends up with PTSD. We also think that here is the difference between the results of one huge trauma and the result that come from repeated stress and trauma. See the other PTSD posts.
Acute Stress Disorder
Acute Stress Disorder is a lot like PTSD but to get the PTSD diagnosis the reaction to the stress has to last longer. Some people have an immense reaction to stress right away but it fades as time goes on. If your reaction to a trauma or stressor lasts 3 day to 30 days then you might get a diagnosis of Acute Stress Disorder and qualify for some treatment and time off from work or school.
If a stressor has caused you mental health issues and you did not get another diagnosis like PTSD or depression then we might think you have an adjustment disorder. Typical instances might be getting a divorce or losing a job and then not being able to function. I think of these as hitting bumps on the road of life and ending up in the ditch. Getting help for these kinds of issues can get your life back on track.
I think that help for an adjustment disorder can prevent it turning into a more serious condition.
Are you having problems with a stress or trauma-related problem? Then there is help available. That help could take the form of professional counseling, medication, self-help groups or even for some people reading a good self-help book. I would like to think that for some people this blog is also helpful in their recognizing they have a problem that might benefit from getting help.
Stress and trauma does not just harm your mental health, it affects your physical health also. More on that in an upcoming post. This has been my abbreviated explanation of some very serious issues. For the full official text check out the DSM-5. It is a little pricey but something everyone who works in mental health should have or have access to. For more information about help in your area check out the NAMI website or contact your local mental health department.
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Staying connected with David Joel Miller
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Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.
Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.
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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.