You’ve likely got more going on than you realize
(Excerpt from my book The Minds of Mass Killers: Understanding and Interrupting the Pathway to Violence. The holidays bring incredible stress for many people due to unhappy/unhealthy family dynamics, financial limitations, and unrealistic expectations.)
We can be too quick to diagnose someone experiencing any psychological distress as mentally ill when, in fact, symptoms of anxiety and depression can be very logical and coherent responses to environmental stress.
When we are stressed, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, resulting in a flood of neurochemicals that generate our fight/flight response by activating the amygdala. While this is appropriate if we’re running from a tiger, it’s harmful if we persist in this high-adrenaline state over days, weeks, or months. This nervous system hyperarousal can cause multiple mental health symptoms in the short term, including insomnia, depression, and anxiety disorders. Chronic flooding of stress hormones in the brain can also cause thinning in the frontal cortex, the cognitive part of the brain, which reduces an individual’s ability to control impulses over the long term. Living in an environment of prolonged stress changes our biology in multiple ways; all facets of our health can suffer.
Socioeconomic status is relevant since it affects many factors directly related to health. Poverty directly impacts the quality of nutrition and exposure to toxins like lead paint, both of which have a dramatic negative impact on our neurodevelopment.
In war-torn and conflict-affected countries, the incidence of depression and anxiety symptoms increases dramatically. Many believe these emotional symptoms that occur in life-threatening situations are natural responses to trauma and danger that help us focus energy to engage in protective action in the short term. In that way, some emotional responses serve as part of our natural threat detection system. But if the distress is severe and ongoing, those emotional responses become overwhelming.
Compare these two common scenarios:
- A single mother works a minimum wage job with irregular hours; her parents are deceased, and she has no financial or emotional support from any other family members. She has…