As Anxiety and Stress Increase, Mental Health Issues Are on the Rise

Stress levels are up. According to an American Psychologist Association / Harris Poll, in 2023, more Americans experienced higher levels of stress, with the percentage of mental health issues increasing among all age groups. What’s causing the problem?

Some consider triggers to be post-pandemic disorders and trauma caused by global disruption, natural disasters, and shaky finances. But if you mix in the uncertainty reflected in today’s politics, along with the loosening of family ties, you wind up with a roiling mix of trouble that can severely upend one’s stability.

“The cumulative effect of all the stress is that we’re not able to function as well as we could, or we may just get sick,” notes Justine Vaccaro, Social Work Director at Nathaniel Witherell.  “Stress affects our bodies which develop physiological responses, meaning that we can develop mental health issues, digestive issues, weight gain, pain, inflammation, and cardiac disease and other disorders.”

For the elderly or those in a fragile state of health, the impact of stress can be even greater.

According to the National Council on the Aging, chronic stress can lead to serious health issues including hardening of the arteries, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, dementia, and even cancer. Stress also can reduce the effectiveness of certain vaccines in older adults, including for the flu and pneumonia. And stress actually accelerates the aging process itself, according to NCOA.

What about stress caused by a long-ago trauma?

Researchers note that the effects of a psychological trauma don’t disappear when the bad experience does. In other words, you don’t necessarily bounce back quickly from trauma.

“Sometimes, it takes years and years to overcome the effects of a bad situation,” John Mastronardi, Executive Director of Nathaniel Witherell, points out. “Even a difficult childhood experience can stay with you. When you combine that with the daily stressors and feelings of anger, irritability, or impatience, depression will begin to take over. The key is to seek help from a professional.”

Ten Steps to Help You Cope with Stress

As a start, it’s a good idea to begin to create a plan to use coping mechanisms that can alleviate stress and its effects. A few suggestions:

  1. Open the blinds and turn on the light. Studies indicate that bright light can lift one’s spirits. If your home’s interior is on the dark side, there are “therapy lamps” you can purchase. Note, however, that experts do not advise using bright lights at night when the body needs to wind down.
  2. Get enough sleep.  There is a direct correlation between your mental and physical health and the amount of sleep you get. Adults should have at least 7 hours nightly – more as you age.
  3. When you wake up, think about things you’d like to accomplish that day. And, as the old expression goes, “Think positive thoughts.” This means, think of situations you are grateful for and the people you are grateful to.
  4. If you are a worrier, distract yourself with activity. Plan to call a friend and take a walk together; bake, garden, sing, play a word game, do a puzzle, take a class, do some volunteer work, listen to music. In other words, take your mind off what ails you and turn your attention elsewhere; think about what pleases you.
  5. Keep a journal and make a point of noticing something new every day. It could be something you see outside of your window, or something on a walk, or an observation you make about a friend. In other words, sharpen your eye and embrace the world.
  6. If you spend a lot of time imagining what could go wrong, steel yourself to stay in the present.
  7. Try meditation. Being still, comfortable, and as relaxed as you can be, help relieve stress. Practice some deep breathing, then release your breath slowly.
  8. Tidy up! Yes, cleaning up a mess like washing dishes, doing laundry, changing sheets, taking out the garbage, tidying up a room, sorting through closets — all of these activities can help you feel like you’ve accomplished something (and you have!). Besides, living with a mess can make life seem overwhelming. Start in one corner and take it from there.
  9. We humans are social beings, so if you live alone or spend a lot of time alone, change that pattern and put people in your life. Join a community organization, church group, sports club, or arts center, or do your part to help those who are needy.
  10. Ignore the tech. Although we all love our devices, try to schedule breaks throughout the day when you put your mobile phone down or close the lid on your laptop. Swap those devices for interacting with people in person. You’ll note that before long, your powers of concentration will improve, as will your ability to put some variety in your life.

Just as you care for the physical health of your body, you need to regard your mental health as equally important. Working with a professional will help you work through mental health issues. “Remember, life is not a sprint; it’s a marathon,” notes Louise Comeau, Director of Nursing at Nathaniel Witherell.  “Everything worthwhile takes time. And that includes overcoming the effects of stress on the body and mind.”

If you think your loved one is suffering some stress but is not experiencing a crisis or emergency but just needs someone to talk with, you may call the Safe Harbor Warm Line at 1-800-258-1528. The Warm Line is staffed by trained Peer Support Counselors. Warm Line Hours: Seven days per week, 365 days per year, between 5 PM and 10 PM. For adults in distress who are 18 years of age or older, call 1-800-HOPE-135 (1-800.467.3135) or 2-1-1, available 24/7, 365 days a year.  Please call 9-1-1 if you are experiencing an emergency situation.



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