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Elizabeth Scott, M.S.

Mental Illness Awareness Week: What You Should Know

By October 7, 2013

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This week marks Mental Illness Awareness Month, and brings us an opportunity to take stock in our stress levels and lifestyle, and make changes if necessary. (And if you feel it might be a good idea, discuss your situation with your doctor.) While not all mental illness is simply rooted in stress, stress can be a factor to be aware of.

Stress impacts us in may ways, and mental health is no exception. Although stress can foster resilience in some ways, poorly managed stress, chronic stress, and severe stress can contribute to anxiety, depression, and other conditions. Stronger mental health can help to foster better coping and more positive outcomes when we face stress in our lives, so healthy stress management is connected with mental health in several ways. Focusing on effective ways to manage the stress we face in life can help us to stay healthier physically and emotionally, and enjoy life more in the process.

When people think of controlling stress, often what they envision is making lifestyle changes that eliminate or minimize the stressors in their lives--cutting out those toxic relationships, quitting that stressful job, and somehow avoiding major crises. To be sure, these things can help (especially avoiding major crises, although this is often not as possible as any of us would hope). However, this is just a small part of stress management, and arguably not even the most important part. In fact, we can sometimes even cause ourselves more stress by attempting to control circumstances in our lives that are uncontrollable--the actions of others, for example.

So how else can we manage stress? Here are some things over which you have quite a bit of control. Place your focus here, and your stress levels can diminish.

  • Your Thoughts
    When cognitive psychologists started realizing that our thoughts played a significant role in our experience of stress, they were really onto something. Because the meaning we attach to an event will alter our perception of how threatening or stressful it is, and our thoughts also affect what resources we mobilize, how (and if) we approach solutions, and even whether our stress response is triggered, changing how we think about things can change our whole experience of stress. Read more about this, and how to manage stress with your thoughts.
  • Your Lifestyle
    Your diet, your sleep patterns, and even how much exercise you get can all impact not only your health, but how you react to stress. A poor diet can lead to greater emotional reactivity, lost sleep can lead to moodiness as well as slower cognitive functioning and memory impairment. Exercise, meanwhile, can lift your mood, energize you, and and help you to be less reactive to stress in the present, as well as in the future. (In fact, even three minutes of exercise can help relieve stress!) How well you take care of your body impacts how well you are able to handle stress--and how hard it hits you! Read more about how to manage stress with self care.
  • Your Focus
    Optimists and pessimists experience the world differently because of what they notice and how they think about it. As a result, optimists tend to be healthier, more successful, happier, and even live longer! They also feel less stressed by what happens in their lives. Optimism is about more than just "looking on the bright side"--it involves noticing positive things more, for sure, but it also incorporates a way of evaluating and explaining situations in a way that gives you an advantage in life and reaffirms your strengths. Read more about how to manage stress by thinking like an optimist.
  • Your Relationships
    Social support can be a big part of stress management--leaning on others for resources and emotional support, and offering the same to them in return, can really lessen the impact of stress, and the level of "threat" we feel when we face life's challenges. That's why our reactions to others can make a difference with our stress levels--if we can work through problems harmoniously, we face a a different picture than if we have constant conflict with others in addition to the other stressors we face in life. Working on inner resilience is key, but being able to foster strong relationships and keep them healthy adds another layer of protection against stress. Read more about how to keep relationships strong and healthy.
  • What You Tolerate
    Sometimes the little stressors in life can really add up. While some of life's major stressors are unpredictable, and others are uncontrollable, we all have daily stressors that are under our control. We all have little things that can drain our energy and make us feel more stressed overall--life coaches call these things "tolerations," and eliminating them can free up your energy and emotional reserves so you can better manage the stressors in life that you can't control. The first step is to learn what your tolerations are, and then start eliminating them from your life. Read more about how to manage overall stress by eliminating everyday stress.
While we can't always control what happens in life, we can choose our responses. And thankfully, that choice can often make the difference between better mental health outcomes and mental health issues that can be caused or exacerbated by excessive levels of stress.

What are your best tips for taking care of your mental health and relieving stress in your life? I invite you to share in the comments. Also, I invite you to join more conversations on our Facebook Page About Stress Management, and sign up for our Free Weekly Stress Management Newsletter.

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