For individuals that are taking the first step to seek help from mental health professionals, it is natural that they may be concerned with the possibility of a misdiagnosis, or perhaps an overdiagnosis. With the pre-existing stigmatisation of mental health disorders, clients would have needed to pluck up their courage to seek treatment in the first place. A misdiagnosis could not only hinder them from receiving the appropriate treatment for their affliction, but also allows for their distress to grow unchecked as their hope for recovery diminishes. In other words, accuracy in evidence-based mental health diagnosis is crucial, and this article aims to help you better understand how the diagnostic process works.
As the term “Evidence-Based Diagnosis” implies, psychiatrists or clinical psychologists take extra care to ensure that any diagnosis made is accurate, objective, and not subject to any form of personal bias. In some sense, this also means allowing for a safe, non-judgemental and compassionate environment. Primarily, clinicians would have to understand the client’s suffering and situation, before thinking about how that might relate to a possible mental disorder. Perhaps you may be unaware of this – clinicians do not simply jump straight into tying the client down with a specific diagnosis of a mental disorder. Before all else, clinicians have to consider if the client’s symptoms meet the definitions of a mental disorder in the first place. As per the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the definition of a mental disorder considers these five factors:
A behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual
Reflects an underlying psychobiological dysfunction
The consequences of which are clinically significant distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning)
Must not be merely an expected response to common stressors and losses (i.e.. the loss of a loved one) or a culturally sanctioned response to a particular event (i.e. trance states in religious rituals)
Primarily a result of social deviance or conflicts with society
With reference to the definition of a mental disorder, it is particularly important to note that the consequences of a mental disorder is clinically significant, and causes a weighty amount of disruption to one’s lifestyle and day-to-day activities. For example, it is completely natural for one to feel upset over certain situations, and this does not necessarily mean that you have a case of depression. However, you might need to get it checked out if you find yourself unable to cope with prolonged feelings of sadness which start to interfere with your daily activities, or are causing you to have suicidal thoughts.
Of course, clinicians then assess the syndrome one displays. By “syndrome”, we mean a collection of signs or observable aspects of the client’s suffering (i.e outward expression or behaviour). The main point of this is to identify if the syndrome is clustered in an identifiable pattern that is noted to be severe or pervasive. During the assessment phase, clinicians also try to understand the internal experiences of the client. Besides their outward display of distress, their thoughts and feelings are also important information which counts towards the diagnosis of certain disorders. Upon identifying that the client is indeed suffering from a mental condition, clinicians then try “assigning” the client to a particular category. You can think of it as, “can the syndrome be broadly identified?” There are certain broad categories of disorders, such as anxiety disorders, or psychotic disorders. Needless to say, clinicians have to consider which category the client best fits in.
The last step of the diagnosis process concerns the further narrowing and identification of the specific disorder – branching out from the broader, generalised category and into the specific details. For example, a client could be diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a form of an anxiety disorder. Ideally, a specific disorder is identified during the diagnosis process for various reasons – for the sake of the clients themselves, but also for clearer communication with other mental health professionals (in the case of continuity of care), and even for legal or court matters. Under rare circumstances, some clinicians are able to identify the broad category of the mental disorder, yet are unable to specify the exact condition that the client is suffering from. In cases like these, their disorders will be labelled as “unspecified”, as per the 10th version of the International Classification of Diseases.
As mentioned, evidence-based mental disorder diagnosis is all about diagnosing clients accurately and objectively. To enhance objectivity, some clinicians go the extra mile, stopping to consider if the diagnosis given was biased, or influenced by his or her own culture and history. “Is the syndrome maladaptive?”, “Did I take cultural variables into account?” An objective diagnosis will certainly go a long way in ensuring that the client receives the most appropriate treatment, which will in turn enhance his or her recovery journey.
Overall, it is safe to say that it takes two hands to clap in every treatment process. Clients and clinicians should try as much as possible to work together, be it in the assessment or treatment phase. For an effective treatment, clinicians will do their best to assess the severity and pervasiveness of any syndrome using understandable language such that clients are well aware of their condition. However, clients also need to understand that transparency on their side is pivotal and that it will drastically impact the treatment process, for better or for worse, depending on their cooperativity and how much they choose to reveal.
Dr Robert Shwartz, Ph.D., PCC-S, Evidence-Based Mental Disorder Diagnosis: How to Increase Accountability, Efficiency and Objectivity, video recording, Mental Health Academy
Think of the following scenario: you have friends over at your place and you serve them drinks. Before they can place their cups on your beautiful coffee table, you exclaim and dart out coasters underneath the ice-cold glasses before the first drop of dew can drip on that expensive rosewood. Your lightning-fast reflexes have intercepted what would have been a disaster. Your friends are startled at first, then they laugh and tease you. They say you have OCD – obsessive-compulsive disorder.
This, or a similar instance, may have happened at some point in our lives before. We tidy up a mess in the presence of others, or when our belongings are organised ever so neatly, and we end up joking about OCD.
But in truth, OCD is far from such behaviours that could be written off so light-heartedly.
A person with OCD will have compulsions – they feel the need to perform certain repeated behaviours to reduce emotional distress or to prevent undesirable consequences. These compulsions are so intense that they cannot carry out other daily routines without acting on them. Some common ones include:
Excessive washing or cleaning – They fear contamination and clean or wash themselves or their surroundings many times within a day.
Checking – They repeatedly check things associated with danger, such as ensuring the stove is turned off or the door is locked. They are obsessed with preventing a house fire or someone breaking in.
Hoarding or saving things – They fear that something bad will happen if they throw anything away, so they compulsively keep or hoard things, usually old newspapers or scraps of papers which they do not actually need or use.
Repeating actions – They repetitively engage in the same action many times, such as turning on and off a light switch or shaking their head a numerous number of times, up 20 to 30 times.
Counting and arranging – They are obsessed with order and symmetry, and have superstitions about certain numbers, colours, or arrangements, and seek to put things in a particular pattern, insisting to themselves that the layout must be symmetrical.
When Does OCD Become Chronic and What Should You Do If That Happens?
OCD is a chronic disorder, so it is an illness that one will have to deal with for the rest of his or her life. It is difficult to tell when the disorder becomes chronic, as it presents the individual with long-lasting waxing and waning symptoms. Although most with OCD are usually diagnosed by about age 19, it typically has an earlier age of onset in boys than in girls, but onset after age 35 does occur.
A cognitive model of OCD suggests that obsessions happen when we perceive aspects of our normal thoughts as threatening to ourselves or to others, and we feel responsible to prevent this threat from happening. These misperceptions often develop as a result of early childhood experiences. For example, a child may experience living in a dirty and dusty environment, while being subjected to some form of trauma at the same time. He associates a lack of hygiene with suffering from the trauma. At a later stage in life, he may start to feel threatened upon seeing the unhygienic behaviours of someone he lives with, be it his parents, romantic partner, or flatmates. This leads to the reinforcement of the association and to the development of his beliefs that suffering is inevitable when unhygienic conditions are present, giving him compulsions to improve these unsanitary conditions through washing and cleaning.
If one is affected by OCD to the extent that he or she is unable to hold down a job and to manage household responsibilities, then there is a need for clinical treatment as the symptoms have become severe. Like in the above-mentioned example, recurrent and persistent thoughts of dirt will give the individual compulsions to neutralise these thoughts, resulting in repetitive washing, and checking behaviours. This causes distress and significantly affects one’s functioning.
When OCD has become a chronic illness, through a formulation of intervention strategies, the psychologist should extrapolate the client’s pattern of behaviour and expect a positive prognosis for functional improvement.
How Can OCD Be Treated?
A person diagnosed with OCD may seek treatment through a treatment plan that consists of cognitive strategies. These cognitive strategies involve consciously implementing sets of mental processes in order to control thought processes and content. Through these cognitive strategies, we can examine and restrict the thoughts and interpretations responsible for maintaining OCD symptoms. This is conducted in the initial stages of therapy.
Thereafter, Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) methods are carried out once a client is able to understand and utilise these cognitive strategies. ERP requires the client to list out their obsessive thoughts, identify the triggers that bring about their compulsions and obsessions and rate their levels of distress on each of these. Starting with a situation that causes mild or moderate distress, the client is exposed to their obsessive thoughts and simultaneously tries to resist, engaging in any identified behaviours that they have been using to neutralise these thoughts. The amount of anxiety is tracked each time the process is repeated. When anxiety levels for this particular situation eventually subside, over several repeated processes, and when they no longer feel significant distress over this situation, the same method is repeated for the next obsessive thought with the next level of distress.
A client who is able to demonstrate strength in coping with the symptoms has a better likelihood for sufficient recovery.
OCD is Becoming More Prevalent in Singapore: How has it Been Accepted in Society?
In recent years, OCD has topped the list of mental disorders in Singapore, with the greatest number of people experiencing it in 2018, compared with other mental illnesses.
The disorder has been found to be more prevalent among young adults than those aged 50 and above. In terms of socio-economic status, OCD is more likely to occur amongst those with a monthly household income of less than S$2,000 than those who earn above that amount.
It has also been found that the prevalence of people experiencing OCD at least once in their lifetime is higher in Singapore than in South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
In addition to becoming more prevalent, people who experience OCD are also becoming increasingly reluctant to seek psychiatric help or counselling, making matters worse. There is some acceptance of the condition as normal and trivial by society, because people who do not understand the disorder well enough misconceive OCD as a quality of being clean and tidy, as being clean and tidy is usually seen as a good thing. This misconstrual by society is dangerous for the undiagnosed, and their condition will further deteriorate if they continue to put off addressing their disorder.
The disorder will get worse if treatment is ignored, and there is a need to realise it in its early stages through observing how one’s life is being disrupted. Awareness about its onset of symptoms is important.
It is an undeniable reality that life, in general, is busy. With long work hours and bills to pay, there are so many things going on that we must and are expected to do. With the increase in pressures and demands in daily life, it is very common for people to feel exhausted and burnt out.
Burnout is a state of exhaustion caused by chronic stress. According to the World Health Organisation, it is classified as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It is characterised by 3 dimensions: Feeling exhausted or devoid of energy, being mentally detached from your job and being less efficient in work. Employee burnout in Singapore is among the highest worldwide, where work is a vital cause of high-stress levels, and where almost one in eight employees cannot cope with their stress. There are many potential causes of chronic stress in the workplace, such as having too many responsibilities, having a negative view of yourself and the world, or a perceived lack of control over your life and work. All of these factors could cause one to burn out easily.
Let us recognise the signs that indicate a burnout. Physical signs include exhaustion, change in sleep habits or diets, frequent illness and headaches; Emotional signs include lack of motivation or enjoyment towards life events and feeling negative emotions such as anger, anxiety or depression; Behavioural signs include adverse coping mechanisms such as overconsumption of alcohol, withdrawal from responsibilities, taking out your frustration on others and reduced work performance. If you are currently experiencing these symptoms, then it is very possible that you may be burning out from work.
Now, you may ask, if busyness in work is inevitable, then how do we overcome this seemingly unmanageable stress? Below are 4 tips that could help you manage stress and prevent burnout:
Turn to other people
It is extremely beneficial to have a social circle or support network, such that there are people that you can rely on for support, encouragement and a listening ear. Friends or family members can recognise maladaptive patterns in your behaviour, identify your burnout signs, and offer you constructive feedback or advice. Through doing that, you can work towards overcoming burnouts. Likewise, if your loved one is going through a burnout, engage her in a conversation and let her open up about what she is going through, while staying patient and understanding. Confiding in and spending time with loved ones would serve to reduce stress and strengthen your relationship with them as well.
If it is possible, try befriending your colleagues. With a similar job scope, your colleagues can better understand your stress at work and everyone can draw support and motivation from one another. Additionally, good relationships with your colleagues enable you to work faster and better while reducing your work’s monotony. Thus, a more positive work environment keeps you energised and productive, countering the effects of burnout.
Live a healthy lifestyle
Healthy lifestyle habits such as sleeping, exercising and healthy eating can have a huge impact on your mood and energy, helping to reduce stress and prevent burnouts. Exhaustion or a lack of rest often worsens burnout through causing you to think irrationally, and can take a toll on your energy and emotional balance. Thus, getting a good night’s sleep energises you and improves your mental state, ultimately improving your productivity at work.
What you consume can greatly impact neural circuits in your body that control emotion, mood and motivation. As such, eat food that can elevate your energy and mood such as fruits, vegetables and food that is rich in whole grains; and reduce consumption of food with lots of caffeine, sugar, chemical preservatives and hormones.
Exercising also enables stress relief. While engaging in exercise, you can focus on your body rather than your thoughts, and how your body feels as you move (feeling the sensation of the wind against your cheek can be strangely calming!). However short or simple, any form of rhythmic exercise is beneficial as it can increase your energy while simultaneously relaxing your mind and body. Ultimately, a healthy lifestyle does wonders to your wellbeing.
Find ways to relax and unplug from work
We often burnout due to lack of time for ourselves. Thus, give yourself a chance to slow down, rest and heal. Set time aside for activities that are not work-related and do activities that make you happy and relaxed. This includes your personal hobbies, interests or a passion project such as photography, baking or exercising. Doing these activities can make you feel rejuvenated and accomplished, and helps you rediscover joy and meaning in your life outside of work.
Additionally, reserve some time to disconnect from technology. In today’s day and age, smartphones cause us to “carry an office in our pocket”, and make us psychologically connected to our work all the time. Hence, it is a good idea to limit your phone time after work, to prevent yourself from checking your emails or calling your office; such that you can spend quality time with yourself and your loved ones. Through these regular breaks, you are given an opportunity to restock your mental energy and engage in self-care, which can increase your happiness and quality of life.
Re-evaluate priorities and set boundaries
Lastly, reflect on the cause of your burn out and consider what makes you feel stressed and anxious. Ask yourself, Is my work making me stressed? Exactly what aspects of work are making me stressed? Do I spend enough time for myself? Through this self-reflection, you can find ways to reduce this burnout. A good solution is to set boundaries for yourself and re-evaluate priorities, such as knowing how much time to allocate to work and relaxation (possibly placing more importance on rest and less importance on work) and learning how to say “no” to tasks. Do not stretch yourself beyond what you can handle or commit to. If you struggle with this, remind yourself that saying “no” enables you to say “yes” to tasks that you find more fulfilling. Through re-prioritising your commitments and tasks, you are able to find balance in your life and focus on parts of life that bring you joy, meaning and satisfaction (even beyond your job).
If possible, you can also identify or consider which aspects of your job you enjoy and find the most fulfilling. After doing so, you could ask your supervisor if you can focus on these tasks as they are more aligned with your responsibilities and strengths. Doing this helps you find value and regain a sense of control in your work, giving you a positive outlook and attitude towards your tasks.
Healing from a burnout definitely is not easy, and takes lots of time and commitment to overcome, but it is possible. Take the effort and steps necessary to manage your time and reduce stress, and keep to it. It may be difficult to adjust and keep to these new changes, but ultimately, it will prove effective in preventing burnouts and will improve your physical, emotional and mental well-being.
Scientists believe we are essentially wired to connect with other people, to socialise and build relationships with others. Indeed, we are all a profoundly social species as our drive to connect with others is embedded in our biology and evolutionary history. But what makes a healthy and meaningful relationship? A healthy, functional relationship usually involves a few characteristics, and trust is undeniably a key one. A relationship can’t last without trust for a number of reasons. We won’t dispute the cliché, “Breaking someone’s trust is like crumpling up a perfect piece of paper. You can smooth it over but it’s never going to be the same again”.
Building trust in relationships doesn’t occur overnight, it happens over time. Trust can be defined as having confidence, faith or hope in someone or something. But in another sense, trust can also mean believing that the other party will act in our best interest. With that said, let’s take a closer look at how we can learn to build mutual trust between ourselves and others in our personal and even work life.
“Say What You Mean And Mean What You Say”
Trust is fundamentally built on integrity, transparency and truthfulness. We trust those that stay true to their words and follow through with their actions. Perhaps it is also our instincts for self-protection, honed evolutionarily over centuries, kicking in. We pick up easily on red-flags and are particularly attentive to the proverbial boy crying wolf. Afterwhich, we learn to adjust our expectations and behaviour, doubting others and trusting them less in order to avoid getting hurt or being let down. Even the smallest of lies, when told frequently over time, will erode the level of trust between individuals. Actions speak louder than words – don’t allow yourself to give empty promises. Learn to keep to your promises and refrain from making commitments you are unable to honour. Be clear of what you have on your plate. In fact, if you are unable to commit to a request or a favour, have the courage to turn others down and explain your situation. Everyone would be worse off if you had promised something but was unable to follow through with it. In addition, avoid saying things that don’t actually represent your feelings. Hiding behind a facade may give others the feeling that you are being manipulative, and that you have an ulterior motive. This will make you appear unreliable and untrustworthy.
Demonstrating consistent behaviour is key to maintaining a trust-based relationship with anyone, whether friends or colleagues. This means constant communications, being clear with your expectations, and being there for others during both good and bad times. How would you feel if a friend of yours is always there when things are going smoothly, but is the first to go off the radar whenever things get rough? Or if she bad-mouths you or reneges on her promises? It goes without saying that we will start trusting these people less over time, having known that they are not likely to support us when we need them most. Regularly showing your loved ones that you are there for them whenever they need support and care will go a long way in building and maintaining a healthier and stronger relationship.
Respect is key in any relationship, and it builds trust by illustrating to others that you value them. If it helps, think of respect as the common denominator in any relationship. People come from different backgrounds and are brought up to believe in different viewpoints. Disagreement or arguments often happen not because we have different opinions, but often because of the way we put our views forward. Often, our trust in and relationship with others are broken because we are being treated with condescension or contempt instead of the respect we all deserve. Likewise, we should always extend basic courtesy to the people around us and respect their right to an opinion.
Watch Your Body language
Did you know that over 50% of communication is non-verbal? Our body language is a form of non-verbal communication. Simple nonverbals that project openness and warmth can include a genuine smile, eye contact, an open body posture and coming down to their level. Moreover, this also ties in with the previous topic of respect. When talking to others, be present in the moment. Sometimes, we focus only on the words we use but neglect what our nonverbals are projecting. All too often, we try to multitask – and sometimes this means that we use our phones while sitting in front of someone else who’s talking. While we are used to multitasking in such a fast-paced era, simple gestures such as taking some time away from our phones and providing our full attention to others when necessary can help us to build mutual trust and respect.
Work on Your Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence can play a huge part in building trust, since it can give you greater insight into how others may be feeling about certain situations. This allows you to be better able to show authentic empathy and give them the support they need. Honing your emotional intelligence will take time, but it can be as easy as making an effort to examine how your words and actions will affect others before executing them. When people feel that you genuinely care for and recognise their feelings and needs, they will find themselves trusting you more. Of course, it is best that you follow through on ways to support them apart from active listening in order to strengthen the trust.
As mentioned, trusting relationships aren’t formed overnight. However, trust is integral to any healthy relationship. Without it, the relationship will end up being shaky and deprive you of emotional security. If you ever feel that a relationship between you and a loved one isn’t working out, and that it is barely kept afloat, it might be a good idea to seek the appropriate help and counselling.
Have you met <please insert a suitable name> recently? He/She’s the bright, young, dynamic person at our office… I always thought of him/her as the person who’s the life of the party, and he/she genuinely seems to care for his/her colleagues… Aah, yes, the same person who unfortunately missed out a promotion this year… I heard his/her boss say that he/she definitely had the potential, but it wasn’t showing up in his/her work. He/She would initiate tasks with enthusiasm but would lose interest quickly; turned up late for meetings, or even forgot about them, and frequently misplaced important files as his/her table was often cluttered.
Does this seem familiar? Do you recognise similar signs in yourself or someone else you know? These issues might be due to something known as Executive functioning deficits or disorder (EFD). Though symptoms start in early childhood, the challenges might have been seen as the individual’s behaviour problems and not as a syndrome. Even as adults, many of those with EFD aren’t aware they have it — they just know that even everyday tasks can be challenging.
What is EFD?
Executive functions are the set of higher-order mental skills that allow us to analyse, plan, organise, make suitable decisions, manage time, focus attention and execute the plan. No matter how smart or talented one is, not much will get done well without these key capabilities. The human brain comprises of two systems: the automatic and the executive. While the automatic system guides 80 to 90% of our activities every single day, the executive system guides the remaining 10 to 20% and requires purposeful, regulatory effort.1
What causes EFD?
Experts don’t know exactly what causes this and a 2008 study found that differences in these skills are “almost entirely genetic in origin due to differences in brain chemicals” 2
People who have executive functioning deficits might have problems with many of these functions:
starting, organizing, planning, or completing tasks on deadline.
listening or paying attention
remembering tasks or details
controlling emotions or impulses
But it is important to note that EFD is not associated with low IQ.
Almost everyone has some symptoms similar to EFD at some point in their lives but It isn’t EFD if the difficulties being faced are recent or occurred only occasionally or intermittently in the past. If you’re curious to know if you do have EFD, you could take the test given below.
Even if you’re not sure if EFD is indeed the cause of the problems experienced, or, if you do not want to give it a label, you could still use the tips/ strategies given below to enhance your general skills and productivity at work.
One surprising way found to improve executive function in adults is aerobic exercise. Many research journals have published that regular aerobic exercise in older adults can boost the executive functions that typically deteriorate with age, including the ability to pay focused attention, to switch among tasks, and to hold multiple items in working memory.3
If you think that the feeling of the constant deluge at the office is largely the result of so many things clamouring for attention at once, a tool like Stephen Covey’s Quadrants can be used. Each quadrant (Q) has a different property and is designed to help prioritize tasks and responsibilities. These are:
Q 1 – Urgent and important
Q 2 – Not urgent but important
Q 3 – Urgent but not important
Q 4 – Not urgent and not important
Another useful technique is the Pomodoro technique of time management developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. It uses a timer to break down work into 25-minute intervals, separated by 5-minute breaks. This method not only helps you remove distractions and enhance focus on your task, but it also factors in time to take a short breather.
Those who are tech-savvy can find these as smartphone apps. Other technology tools that can help are File-sharing software like Dropbox to keep notes handy, digital sticky notes or reminders, and password manager software to keep track of passwords. Those who are not comfortable with technology can compensate for working memory deficits by making information external — using cards, signs, symbols, sticky notes, lists, journals, clocks and timers.4
Other simple workable strategies are:
Break large tasks into smaller individual tasks and put them into a linear order or flow chart. This helps provide clarity and allows you to monitor your progress
Keep a routine
Know yourself and get your best work done according to your own biorhythms
Give it a positive twist – make the activity a ‘want to do’ instead of ‘should do’.
Games can help to improve executive function skills. Games like Checkers, Monopoly, and Clue use planning, sustained attention, response inhibition, working memory and metacognition. Games like Zelda and SimCity help with problem-solving and goal-directed persistence. Managing fantasy sports teams also use executive skills like task initiation and time management while having fun.4
Positive emotions reduce the impact of stressful events on the self and help build resilience. They make us more flexible, allowing us to be more open to options of problem-solving. Studies show that people feel and do their best when they have at least three times as many positive emotions as negative emotions.5 It is, therefore, most important that you periodically reward yourself when you have met the goals you have set. Equally important is positive self-talk which is a powerful tool for increasing your self-confidence and strengthening your resolve to make these healthy new habits a part of your personal and working life.
When to seek help?
Diagnosis of EFD can be difficult because certain symptoms are similar to those caused by other conditions, such as ADHD, LD, depression, anxiety, mood disorders or OCD. If any of the symptoms listed above continually disrupt your life, talk to a mental health professional. There is a variety of strategies recommended by experts to help strengthen the areas of weakness that EFD creates. Treatment options could be medications and therapy such as occupational or speech therapy, Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Are you feeling tired most of the time despite having a good night’s sleep? Are you constantly feeling low energy and unproductive? These are just a few of the typical symptoms pointing towards unhealthy levels of stress. Constantly feeling worn out could be an alarm that your body is sounding – a message that it is overwhelmed and unable to keep up. Undeniably, we often put ourselves in a constant heightened state of alertness, especially in such a fast-paced society. Our sources of stress may differ, from high-pressure jobs to challenging and taxing relationships. Stress affects everybody – even if you may not be physically attending to any particular concern, allowing it to occupy your mind frequently and fretting over it can contribute to chronic stress. Without proper management and control, chronic stress puts pressure on the body and will ultimately wreak havoc on your physical and mental health.
As a natural biological response to demanding circumstances or situations, our body releases hormones such as cortisol, a stress hormone. Alongside adrenaline, cortisol helps to fuel your body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ instinct whenever a crisis surfaces. A stressor may be a long term one, such as the routine stress related to the pressures of school, work, family, and other daily responsibilities, or short-term occurrence brought about by a sudden change, such as losing a job, illness, or facing dangerous situations. In an ideal situation, when an individual faces a trigger, the adrenal glands in the body secrete cortisol and a complex hormonal cascade ensues, preparing the body for the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Following that, cortisol inhibits the production of insulin in order to increase the uptake and usage of glucose so that more energy is made available to the surrounding muscles. Arteries will also be narrowed, increasing the heart rate and forcing blood to be pumped harder and faster around the body to help you confront the immediate threat. Once the individual resolves and addresses the situation, negative feedback kicks in and hormonal levels will then fall back to the norm.
With this said, when we are constantly under high levels of stress, our alarm system doesn’t turn off. This means that our body is continually in high-gear and cortisol levels will remain high, to the point where it becomes harmful. Small doses of cortisol are safe, and in fact, is important for your health as it also serves to regulate your metabolism and blood sugar level amidst other key functions. However, in the case of chronic stress, constantly high levels of cortisol take a toll on your body’s resources, leaving you exhausted. Over time, continued strain on your body from stress may contribute to serious health problems. Hence, there is a need for us to tackle the root of the problem and ensure that we manage our stress levels to reduce the risk of negative health effects.
You might have been advised to change your lifestyle for the better at least once in your life by a family member or a friend – and we cannot stress this enough. It is essential that you learn to live a healthier lifestyle, which includes stress reduction and learning to manage your hectic schedule. If you continue to live an overly-demanding way of life, it is highly likely that you may succumb to chronic stress or worse, other mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. Moreover, can you imagine how hard your adrenal glands will have to work in order to continue producing sufficient stress hormones? Needless to say, the high cortisol levels will also impact your physical health and lead to other conditions such as digestive problems, high blood pressure or sleep issues. This results in a vicious cycle – with less sleep, the more exhausted you feel.
Working on stress reduction can be as easy as doing deep abdominal breathing exercises, and incorporating meditation. Schedule regular times for these and other healthy and relaxing activities. They are simple, cost-effective, and are readily available. In this highly technological age, there are many applications available on your devices to further assist you in such activities as well. On the contrary, if you feel that you aren’t quite the kind to sit down and meditate, you can also opt to do some physical exercise to help boost your mood and improve your health. Organising activities with your friends such as playing a game of badminton or volleyball can help you to keep your mind off things, and at the same time, seek the social support you need when necessary. Of course, exercising alone is perfectly fine too, the main point is that exercising produces endorphins – chemicals in the brain that help alleviate stress by acting as natural painkillers.
Watching what you ingest is also equally important. For example, for heavy coffee drinkers, try to cut down on caffeine. Although the threshold for caffeine might differ for every individual if you notice that your excessive caffeine intake is making you jittery or on the edge, consider cutting down on it. Instead, you may want to replace it with other beverages that have a calming effect, such as chamomile, lavender or peppermint tea. Drinking a cup of warm milk before bed can help you get a better night’s sleep too. In addition, you might want to consider eating foods such as avocados, which are known to offer omega-3 fatty acids that can help reduce stress and anxiety. However, we should always remember that everything should be consumed in moderation.
Last but not least, learn to say no, and only commit to responsibilities that you can cope with! Although not all stressors in your life are within your control, some of them are. It is crucial that we manage what we have on our plates, and not bite off more than we can chew. Try to be mindful of what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do. Juggling many responsibilities at once can leave you feeling disheartened and overwhelmed, and this increases your stress levels unnecessarily.