Mental health awareness week (14th – 20th May) gives us the perfect opportunity to bring our souls and voices together in unity, raising awareness, breaking stigmas and increasing dialogue. Just like physical health, we all have mental health, and just like when our bodies become sick or unwell so can our brains. For some reason though, we are too quick to judge those and often ourselves when mental illness strikes. And it’s because of this hardship and lack of compassion that we must sing together to quite literally raise the roof off mental illness.
Despite our silence, The statistics speak for themselves- One in 4 of us will be diagnosed with a mental illness, whilst two thirds experience a mental health issue during our lifetime. It’s common, it’s everywhere and it is nothing to be ashamed of.
This week, the focus is on stress– a concept both broad and vast by definition and in application. By its very nature it is relative to our daily lives and one persons stress can be to another, a thriving opportunity.
So the question that we must ask ourselves- Are we coping?
To understand a little more, let’s take a look at how one would define stress. We understand it to be the physical response to some emotional or mental pressure, but to define with articulation and 100% accuracy is near on impossible, and we should remember that a small amount of stress can help us to rise to a particular challenge. But without doubt the universal agreement is that no matter what, prolonged periods of stress can be incredibly damaging for both the mind and body.
Ok so the science bit. Basically when we face that highly pressured environment our body kicks us into fight or flight mode. We either want to escape the danger, run away and protect ourself or we want to stay, put up a battle and face the pressure head on. Regardless of the response, it triggers the release of hormones and chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline. It is these pesky things that over time can lead us to feeling physically unwell and the increased exposure to stressful stimuli can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
Stress is the inability to cope in the face of something, anything that we perceive to be too big for us to deal with- it’s overwhelming. Stress is both reactive in that we feel it in the face of adversity and proactive in that we feel anxious about potentially being placed under a potential pressure that is potentially going to happen in a potential situation…potentially.
We experience a drain and fogginess to the brain that makes everyday functioning tiresome and seem impossible. So when does stress become more problematic? Well this is when it becomes a way of life. A small part of the brain begins to shut down and shrink in size- this area of the brain (the amygdala) is primarily responsible for a number of functions including judgement and concentration.
Stress has played a massive part in my experience of suffering from an eating disorder. Whilst I don’t recall feeling stressed at the initial onset of my illness, I do remember feeling an enormous amount of pressure once my illness was being recognised by others and later on as my illness evolved into my recovery.
As people started to realise how unwell I was becoming, I experienced a want to escape from their prying eyes and judgement- I was in constant flight mode. I wanted to hide into my anorexic bubble and be close with the ally that I had found in it. In the face of them however, those around me who were ultimately trying to save my life, where actually a perceived danger and this triggered that fight reaction. They threatened my anorexic existence and this made me want to first of all fight to defend it and then run away to avoid their suspicions.
Once I realised however that recovery was the only option for me and once I became more willing to engage, I found myself experiencing that familiar and unwelcome level of stress. Suddenly I felt the pressure of having to be recovered, of being constantly well. I felt as if eyes were on me, and that everyone had these expectations of me to be recovered. I anguished over the fact that no one really understood what having an eating disorder was like, of how food had become my ultimate threat. My stress response was being kicked in with every mouthful and no one understood that. In my naivety I thought recovery would be a linear simple path- how wrong I was and how humbling a lesson it was to learn.
Environmental and situational factors we know can be a source of stress, the workplace for example, family homes and for me unfamiliar restaurants but without doubt, I found my inpatient unit to be one of the most stressful and exhausting places to be. Every morning being woken to be weighed, the figure adding even more stress. I flittered between wanting to fight the treatment to fleeing from the pressures on me to continue gaining. Mealtimes, are memories that haunt me- the most stressful of experiences. I was repeatedly exhausted with the thought of the meal in front of me, stressed by the response of those around me and stressed under the weight of expectation. In one meal I would want to take flight and fight of both my own thoughts and those of my anorexia. It was exhausting, relentless and utterly overwhelming.
In society today, unfortunately it seems that stress is unavoidable. We are bombarded with news, insight and knowledge constantly. We receive emails, texts and notifications persistently. Life has evolved in such a incredible way that simply the notion of life can be anxiety provoking.
But we must be able to find a way to increase our resilience and to acknowledge potential triggers without exposing ourselves to those prolonged feelings of anxiety and the accompanying stress. The pressure that we put ourselves under is incredible, and our lack of compassion is unfathomable. But yet we deny ourselves the care and attention to rest and recuperate, to rejuvenate after the unimaginable has happened. Life is stressful, but we must arm ourselves against the exhaustion that comes with the inability to cope. It is time to build our own army, to recognise our strength and breathe a sigh of relief in the face of adversity.