“In my distress I called to the LORD, and He answered and set me free.”
In our previous post, we talked about Nature and Nurture and explored how our genes (nature) have an impact on our mental health. This time, we are going to go deeper to talk about the influence of our environment.
When I say “environment,” I am not necessarily talking about trees and rivers. Mental health professionals often use the term ‘environment’ to refer to any external influence in your system, such as your relationships with your family, your marriage, your children, your job stress, your physical health, where you live, your school, your church, your faith…the list is nearly endless. As a therapist, when a client comes to see me, I often begin by asking several questions about these areas in an effort to help them locate any possible sources of trouble.
Building on our knowledge of genetic factors, let’s revisit the diagram from last time:
This time, instead of focusing on the partially filled cup to the left, we are going to focus on the one labeled “Lots of Environmental Stress.”
Doesn’t that sound like a bucket of fun?
In short, that refers to anything that influences your functioning. These could fall under many different categories:
Struggles at work or school?
Difficulties in your home growing up?
Stress in your marriage?
Life transitions (going to college, getting married, having children, retirement, etc.)?
Live in an unsafe neighborhood?
Are you a parent?
Are you married?
Are you a person?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you experience environmental stress.
What impact does our present environmental stress have on us?
Very likely, most of you could answer that question immediately – it makes you feel terrible! But why? God designed our bodies with a series of systems meant to help us survive in a difficult, dangerous world. One of the most well known is our threat response system, also known as the fight or flight mechanism.
When facing a threat, like a bear in the woods, our bodies release stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol among them. These repress not-essential-for-survival processes like digestion, reproductive systems, and growth and give us that nearly superhuman burst of energy or strength we need to either fight for our lives or run for the hills. How amazing!
The most important part of the drawing above is that green box: “threat response deactivated.” When a stressful event is over, our bodies absorb the stress hormones and we wind down. After such an event, we might temporarily feel shaky, exhausted, nauseous, faint, or generally ill as our bodies absorb the hormones and return to normal functioning.
What’s wrong with this? Nothing! This is how our bodies are supposed to work. There are reports of mothers lifting cars off of trapped children in an adrenaline-fueled frenzy. Isn’t that incredible?
But how many of us run from bears these days? Our daily stressors, without proper coping skills, look more like this:
There is no clear and present threat to retreat from, meaning that, without healthy coping skills, we often don’t achieve a clear sense of “I’m safe.” Our threat response remains semi-active, and our bodies remain awash in cortisol. Over time, cortisol begins to impact our bodies in pretty scary ways: headaches, GI issues, sleep problems, infertility, weight gain, heart disease, loss of memory, and – you guessed it – anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
Stress can cause or exacerbate a chemical imbalance in our brains, activating or worsening a mental illness. Once our mental health becomes impacted, this decreases our capacity to handle stress effectively, and the situation, without intervention, usually continues to get worse. It is a vicious cycle – a feedback loop.
What about past environmental stress? I can leave that buried in the past, right?
Not exactly. As we grow, we learn how to adapt to our environment. If you grew up in a healthy environment, you are more likely to have learned healthy ways to cope with challenges. If you grew up in a difficult environment, experienced trauma, or have a family history of mental illness, you are more likely to have learned unhealthy ways of coping.
Our first teachers are our parents. If they don’t know how to handle life stress in a healthy way, they cannot teach you. So, we teach ourselves – using whatever means available. For example, if your parent is an alcoholic, you are at a higher (though not absolute) risk of developing an addiction yourself. This is because, not only are you likely more genetically vulnerable, you watched your parent use a substance as a primary coping mechanism.
I had a client who told me that she had sworn never to drink or become an alcoholic because her father was an alcoholic. She was addicted to cocaine.
A lack of coping skills can lead to a series of unhealthy choices. Unhealthy people frequently partner with people as unhealthy as themselves, leading to stressful, even toxic, relationships. We don’t take care of ourselves, leading to bad physical health. As we become increasingly overwhelmed, we stop asking what is right or wrong but what is easy: “How can I get by?”
This leads us to the role of sin in mental health. When we make sinful choices, the problems in our lives get worse, and mental health is no exception. If we are diagnosed with diabetes and we sin by harming our bodies with large amounts of sugary foods, the consequences could be dire, even fatal. Similarly, if we run from God, surround ourselves with unhealthy people, make unwise decisions, and do things that hurt others and ourselves, we are likely to end up isolated and depressed, at the very least. Though mental illness can indeed be attributed to brain chemical imbalance, our choices within our environment have the potential to help or to hurt.
Are we doomed? What are these mysterious ‘coping skills’ you keep mentioning?
No doom today! Coping skills are surprisingly simple and can be loosely grouped into three categories:
- Invest in your relationship with God
- Seek God’s will in your day-to-day decision making
- Surround yourself with a community of fellow believers
- Identify areas of sin in your life and plan ways to correct them
- Practice good hygiene – taking care of yourself can go a long way!
- Exercise – even just taking a walk!
- Eat healthy foods
- Get good sleep
Psychological or Emotional
- Take several deep breaths
- Share your struggle with a trusted friend or partner
- Identify areas of stress in your life and make plans to reduce their impact
- Seek professional help
When it comes to developing healthy coping skills, here are a few helpful things to remember:
- Be patient. Learning new patterns to replace the old, unhealthy ones takes time. Keep practicing!
- If something is not working, try something else. What works for your friend may not work for you. God made you unique!
- Look around you. Is there anyone in your life that you admire for their grace under pressure? Ask how they do it!
- Ask for help. God did not intend for us to do any of this alone.
“I call on the Lord in my distress, and He answers me.”
Sarah Bradley is originally from Eclectic and is a member at RHC. She is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist Associate and has a private practice in Auburn. She is married to John and mom to Asa.