What Do ‘Mental Health’ Problems Actually Look Like?
At the heart of anxiety is some sense of fear that
something bad is going to happen. As I’ve described
elsewhere, anxiety is always about the future - what
will happen (or won’t, if we want it to). The experience
of anxiety ranges in intensity from mild concern,
to being nervous, to intense fear and possibly
panic, to the level that one becomes paralyzed or
incapacitated in living functionally in daily life (for
example, being so terrified you cannot leave your
house, or interact with others). A challenge with
anxiety is that it is often rooted, to some degree, in
fragments of reality (yes, you could get Covid and
die) but often takes the fear and resulting actions to
an extreme (not ever going outside, wearing a mask
while on a Zoom call).
For some individuals, when experiencing either
long-term stress and/or a combination of intense
stressors in their lives, their coping mechanisms
become worn down and less healthy behaviors start
to occur – being easily irritated by normal “little
things,” having a quick temper and angry outbursts,
being more verbally abrasive than usual, hitting
things or throwing objects, and, unfortunately,
sometimes being physically aggressive toward
others. (The flip side of this – being worn down
which is affecting many of us during Covid – is
related to difficulty in replenishing our emotional
energy through normal rejuvenating activities –
sporting events, eating out with friends, going on a
weekend trip, social activities.)
Overuse of Alcohol and Drugs
Some individuals attempt to bolster their coping
abilities by using alcohol and drugs – for differing
reasons: deadening the emotional pain one is
experiencing and creating a sense of distance from
others and the demands of your life are two common
ones. Like any coping mechanism, alcohol use (and
pain killers) may often start out as an innocuous way
to manage the stress of everyday life, but can subtly
grow into a more intense dependency that creates
secondary problems (not being able to get up and
think clearly the next morning, using the drug just
to get through the day). Obviously, more significant
use and dependency create numerous difficulties in
many areas of one’s life (physical, social, vocational,
Other Forms of Flight into Fantasy and Withdrawal
Drug use and overuse of alcohol are not the only
unhealthy ways individuals use to cope with the
experience of excessive demands in their lives.
Traditional, individual video games, online interactive
gaming, binging on movies and television series,
continual watching of sports and their derivatives
(talk shows, fantasy leagues) are common examples.
In fact, almost any healthy way of rejuvenation and
reaction can become unhealthy when the frequency
and duration of the activity become so great that it
interferes with normal, daily-life functioning – not
interacting with family members, staying up late and
losing sleep, not doing the laundry, grocery shopping
or cleaning the kitchen.
What Can Be Done?
I would predict that all of us experience some level of
challenge in at least one of the areas described. Why?
Because we are all human, aren’t perfectly healthy,
and are in the midst of a long-term experience of
greater-than-normal demands and the inability to
access many of the ways to replenish our emotional
reserves that we have used in the past. The result?
Reduced capacity to deal with the stressors in our
lives in a healthy way.
While we aren’t going to be able to address all of the
possible actions that we can take, both individually
and as parts of a community, let’s outline some
global steps to start:
1. Do a self-assessment. As always, it is best to
start with yourself – even though it is easier to
identify problem behaviors in others. A. Which
of the behavioral and emotional responses
do you tend to use or express when you are
struggling to cope with the stress in your life?
Which are occurring more than you would like?
When are they most likely to occur?
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