When looking at mental health symptoms, it can be confusing to sort out why you may be feeling anxious, depressed, have poor sleep or feel overwhelmed and confused. Here is just a partial list of reasons for having emotional challenges.
-History of trauma.
-Stress in work/relationships.
-Medication side effects.
Lets take a look at how each one of these areas can negatively impact mental health.
Trauma: There is increasing research being done on the relationship between trauma and poor mental health. In the 1990’s a landmark study performed by Kaiser correlated trauma in childhood with present day experiences of poorer health and increased chance of mental illness. The term used for trauma was “Adverse Childhood Experiences” or ACE’s. ACE’s include trauma such as neglect, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, being the child of a convict and divorce in the family. The more ACEs one has experienced the higher the correlation with challenging emotional and physical health conditions later in life. Because trauma is so common in the lives of people with mental illness, it is key that practitioners are “trauma informed” and are well aware of some of the ways trauma can impact one’s life.
Stress: We are living in a very stressful world and many of us are challenged by long work hours, having to work swing or graveyard shift and long commutes. Some of us are challenged by poor relationships with our friend and family members and poor living conditions. On a deeper level, many people feel stressed because of poverty and inequity in the system that leaves many with substandard housing and working for too little money in challenging jobs. Class issues of poverty are strongly correlated with poorer mental health.
Oppression: We live in a society where many people are oppressed by ongoing systemic sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Oppression can come in the form of open and hostile prejudice, or more subtler forms of hidden inequity, degradation in a work envrironment, lower pay scale, inherited poverty and lack of access to resources. These issues take a strong toll on mental health.
Poor Diet: One of the key reasons we feel distressed, confused, sad and anxious in our society is due to our diet. Though this rarely addressed by the psychiatric profession, our consumption of processed foods has a direct correlation with our mental health. Eating a diet laden with chips, crackers, candy bars, fast food, “energy drinks” and junk food has a deeply destabilizing effect on our mood. Many people are exploring the relationship between modern diet and mood with a desire to fundamentally shift eating habits. For those with the wealth to do so, it can be easier to change to a more whole foods organic diet. But this is a significant class and race issue as well. Those who are poorer tend to live in “food deserts” where what is available is generally processed junk food. Addressing diet is not as simple as just saying we need to eat better. It means addressing systemic injustice in the food system and working towards shifting back to more traditional and indigenous ways of eating that support a healthy mind and body.
Medication side effects: Increasingly with the use of potent neuroleptics and a move towards polypharmacy, there is the potential for quite a few side effects with meds that can cause mental health concerns. Some of these side effects include emotional blunting, confusion, insomnia, increased depression, confusion and suicidal ideation. Some of those who withdraw off of medications such as xanax, klonopin, paxil and effexor have noted severe discontinuation problems as well. These issues have become so prevalent that there are numerous websites and support groups built around supporting individuals experiencing these issues.
Alcohol/drug effects: Pretty self-evident here but alcohol and drug use can cause severe mental health problems. When drug and alcohol addiction issues coincide with mental health issues such as depression or schizoaffective disorder, it is known as dual diagnosis.
Lifestyle: This is a key factor in mental health issues and has to do with how we live our daily life. The most important factor here is amount and quality of sleep. When someone is burning the candle at both ends by staying up too late and getting poor quality sleep there is almost always a repercussion of poorer mental health. Lifestyle also includes how much time we are spending engaged in self-care activities such as exercise, meditation, reading, making healthy meals, etc. This issue also intersects with class and race as those with more means can carve time out for these pursuits while those who have to work poor paying jobs with long commutes don’t have the ability to incorporate as much self-care into their daily patterns.
Genetics/Constitution/Neurodiversity: Yes genetics is an important consideration in determining mental health issues but is often weighted far too strongly. We tend to think of mental illness as associated with an inherited chemical imbalance without examining the myriad other factors that likely have a far greater role in someone’s depression or anxiety (see above.) However, there is no doubt that some of us have a much greater susceptibility to altered states, mood swings, hearing voices, melancholy and anxiety. Even before the modern desire to try and find a genetic root cause of mental illness, traditional societies have noted these susceptibilities in terms of one’s inherited constitution. From the Western system of four temperaments and the Indian system of three “doshas”, most traditional medical systems understood that some of us are born with different characteristics- some more calm and relaxed, some more direct and ambitious, some more excitable and nervous.
These systems of healing generally focused on ways of ameliorating and balancing these natural inclinations so that they didn’t get out of control. Instead of seeing them as disease states, they see them as inclinations with both good and challenging qualities. This mirrors the modern movement towards viewing ourselves through the lens of neurodiversity. Many people have widely differing ways of seeing, perceiving and experiencing life. Instead of considering these differences as based in illness (abnormal) and health (normative), a neurodiversity approach views these various unique ways of experiencing life as all healthy. Some may need greater care and support from time to time but that is not due to them having an illness. The neurodiversity model has been applied not only to autism, but to many mental health status too such as bipolar and schiozophrenia.
So when looking at why you may be feeling anxious, overwhelmed, depressed, sad or have extreme thoughts, it can be hard to figure out what is happening. Instead of a simple answer, there are often multi-factorial reasons for your distress. This is a starting point for looking at some of these various reasons.