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Why Is Cumulative Stress a Trigger to Mental Health Problems?

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The world is becoming increasingly aware of mental health and how cumulative stress can interfere with our mental well-being. Despite this increased awareness and sensitivity to mental health needs, populations around the world are still experiencing rises in problems related to mental health.

Many forces operating outside of the average individual’s control can play a role in causing or worsening mental health problems. One major contributing factor can wreak havoc on individuals’ mental well-being, causing a number of mental health-related issues: stress.

We all need to understand how stress negatively affects our mental health and what positive steps we can take to prevent, detect, and lessen these kinds of problems.

The Truth About Stress: What It Is and How It Works

It’s not uncommon for someone who wouldn’t identify as being “stressed” to still exhibit signs of stress-related mental health issues. That’s because the word “stress” isn’t always understood correctly.

Medically, stress refers to how your “brain and body respond to challenge or demand.” This is an important distinction from more conventional definitions that depict stress as an emotion or behavior.

Stress is a normal part of every person’s experience. Your brain and body experience stress any time you suffer a bad night of sleep, work out at the gym, or endure emotional or physical hardship, whether small or large. Our bodies are resilient enough to effectively deal with significant amounts of stress of which we aren’t even aware.

Stress becomes a problem when it accumulates faster than the brain and body can manage it. This is known as cumulative stress. When stress is experienced in large doses, as in acute trauma or injury, it takes intentional care, rest, and healing for the individual to return to an unstressed state.

Similarly, when too much stress occurs regularly or repeatedly at a volume that cannot be processed quickly enough, this overload can create health risks that eventually manifest in both physical and mental illness.

Stress’s Effects on Our Mental Well-being

Cumulative stress can come from several different angles. For many people, cumulative stress originates in the workplace. Long hours, difficult interpersonal dynamics, high expectations, and tough physical or mental demands can all contribute to a buildup of stress.

Individuals dealing with one or more of these difficult circumstances are likely to experience stress accumulation over time. Certain occupations, such as healthcare and nursing, civil services, social work, education, and executive management, require high levels of patience, resilience, and performance.

And it isn’t just work life that can create significant stress — parenting, caring for ailing family members, or navigating emotional trauma or physical hardship can also lead to difficult circumstances.

The ongoing expectations and strain that come with any of these situations can translate into huge amounts of stress on the body and mind. Without adequate attention, that stress can create enough strain to develop into mental health problems and even illness if not tended to properly.

The Warning Signs of Stress-Related Mental Health Problems

When cumulative stress becomes a long-term problem and builds up to the point of causing mental health issues, it will usually manifest as one or more of the following symptoms. Cognitive symptoms could include difficulty concentrating or processing, difficulty maintaining memory, lower self-confidence, difficulty making decisions, and more.

In addition, emotional changes and symptoms might include sustained moodiness, irritability, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, increased anxiety or depression, feelings of guilt, or inability to relax.

Populations that Are Vulnerable to Cumulative Stress

Some populations can experience more cumulative stress on average than others.

Because of their higher likelihood of experiencing single parenthood and balancing parenting and careers, women often experience more accumulated stress that can lead to lasting mental health problems and other illnesses.

And because the field of psychology was initially dominated by men and was not always open to other voices, we have ground to make up in understanding and effectively supporting women (as well as other under-represented groups) in their experiences of stress.

In addition, some groups, such as BIPOC (Blacks, Indigenous, and People of Color), LGBTQ+, immigrants, people living in poverty, and people with disabilities, can be particularly susceptible to accumulated stress due to the increased likelihood of experiences like food or shelter insecurity, discrimination, institutionalized racism, accessibility issues, or other challenging circumstances.

Tips for Avoiding Stress-Induced Mental Health Risks

Recognizing and countering cumulative stress before it reaches toxic levels is essential. If you balance multiple roles in life or are a member of a vulnerable population, you are particularly susceptible to long-term stress. Here are a few tips to help you detect and mitigate cumulative stress:

Keep an Eye on Your Vitals

If your sleep is suffering or if you haven’t been able to get enough sleep, that can be either a symptom of stress or can contribute to stress accumulation. When you aren’t taking in enough calories or enough healthy foods, you can be particularly prone to experiencing harmful stress.

If You’re Able, Work With a Mental Health Counselor

If your insurance or workplace affords you access to counseling sessions, particularly if you know you may be at high risk for stress-induced mental health problems, take advantage. Don’t leave the opportunity to engage with a trained professional on the table. Counselors can help you identify risks or low-grade mental health issues before they become severe.

Make Sure Self-care Is a Part of Your Regular Routine

Spending time doing something you enjoy, engaging in physical activity and play, and spending time with people you are close with are incredibly effective de-stressing activities that can help keep cumulative stress in check.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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About the Author: Sarah Daren has been a startup consultant in multiple industries, including health and wellness, wearable technology, nursing, and education. She implements her health knowledge into every aspect of her life, including her position as a yoga instructor and raising her two children.

Photo by Claudia Barbosa: https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-photo-of-woman-with-her-eyes-closed-holding-her-forehead-2023128/

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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