Trauma and the Lasting Psychological Impact of the Current U.S. Border Policy

President Trump and his administration’s “zero tolerance policy” of migrants coming to the U.S. borders has separated thousands of children from their families. There are thousands of documents of abuse and neglect, reports of denying children the right to hug their siblings, and reports of children held naked, handcuffed and beaten. The current suffering has led parents to commit suicide. The trauma will last for generations.

What is Psychological Trauma?

Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the mindbody that happens as a result of either a singular distressing event – or a multitude of stressful events over time – that exceeds our ability to cope. This can include (but isn’t limited to): forced separation from one’s parents, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, isolation, accidents, natural disasters, oppression, bullying, abandonment, or neglect. In fact, you can experience psychological trauma just by witnessing or learning about an event. In the case of secondary trauma, exposure to someone who has been traumatized becomes traumatic.

The Scars of Trauma

The basics of our stress response system is our fight-or-flight reaction. The mindbody can take this to extremes during traumatic events. When flight to safety isn’t possible, flight from the present can be the next step. In such cases the mind may detach from the body, turn inward, and withdraw from its connection to the present moment. If the fight instinct is activated it can project immense energy outward, expressed in tension, explosive emotions (like anger), thoughts, and behaviors in order to gain control.

When psychological trauma occurs the mind undergoes some fundamental changes in its assumptions of reality. The mind may learn lessons like: the world is unsafe, other people are threats, or that the self does not have the tools to cope with reality. The mind may rationalize that such traumatic events occur because the Self is evil, unloveable, incomplete, or deserving of trauma. These narratives shift people’s worldview and connection with the Self and as a result they become very sensitive to any sign of potential threats including: feeling trapped, close connections to others, isolation, or any physical, mental, or emotional reminders of the trauma.

As a whole psychological trauma disturbs thinking patterns, arousal, concentration, memory, sleep, appetite, attachment, and energy. Psychological trauma also makes the autonomic nervous system more sensitive to stressors, which makes it more difficult for people to regulate and self-soothe. Trauma can disrupt every phase of life. Below is a general list of acute stress symptoms, note that some people may only present with a few symptoms while others with many.

• Recurrent memories, thoughts, dreams, or nightmares that are about, or related in content to, the traumatic event(s)

• Flashbacks, feeling disconnected from body (some people describe it as though they are watching their life as it were a movie)

• The feeling that the world is fake/an illusion, or lack of awareness of surroundings.

• Attempts to avoid distressing thoughts, memories, emotions, or reminders about the event.

• Negative alterations of thoughts and mood. Inability to experience positive emotions

• Persistent negative beliefs or expectations about oneself or the world.

• Persistent negative emotional states: fear, horror, anger, guilt, sadness, shame, irritability.

• Loss of interest or reduced participation in normal activities

• Feeling detached or estranged from others.

• Amnesia about the events

• Explosive anger, irritability, or sadness/crying outbursts with little or no provocation.

• Reckless or self-destructive behaviors. Substance use to self-medicate.

• Feeling keyed up, tense, the need to know everything going on, constant worry

• Exaggerated startle responses

• Problems with concentration, or memory

• Impairment in social, work, school, family or other realms of functioning.

Everyone Experiences Traumatic Events, Why Doesn’t Everyone Have the Symptoms?

Not everyone who experiences traumatic events will develop psychological trauma. Genetics, environment, experience, coping mechanisms, vulnerability factors, and resources all play a role as far as how susceptible to trauma a person is.

Risk Factors Include

• Social Isolation of Families

• Not getting developmental needs met

• Poverty, economic disadvantage

• Family disorganization, dissolution, or violence

• Emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive caretakers

• Parental stress, Family History of Abuse

• Community Violence

• Parents/Grandparents were Traumatized

• Previous Exposure to Traumatic Events

Protective Factors Include

• A supportive and nurturing home environment

• Dependable and stable family relationships

• Receiving healthy affection

• Higher Socioeconomic Status

• Economic Stability

• Adequate housing

• Caring adults inside and outside family who provide nurture and act as role models

• Access to health care and community support

As for the thousands of migrants currently being held in detention, they come from areas where they are at an economic disadvantage, victims of violence, and are having a lack of family continuity. This means that the migrants who come to the U.S. borders are at elevated risk of experiencing trauma, and that the current policies remove protective factors and increase the risk of psychological trauma.

Impact of Trauma on Attachment and Relationships

People who have unhealed psychological trauma tend to have problems with interpersonal relationships. One challenge is that trauma interferes with people from communicating emotions in a socially acceptable manner. Trauma itself can prevent people from experiencing humor or joy. Emotions like sadness, anger, guilt, or anxiety are often interpreted by the mindbody to be a threat (as they are associated bad experiences) and thus can set off even more explosive reactions or a dissociative (withdrawing) responses. This makes it very difficult for people with psychological trauma to interact with others.

People who have unhealed psychological trauma tend to have problems with attachment. Some people who have experienced trauma try to keep people at a distance, for fear of being too vulnerable. Romantic relationships and friendships involve a certain level of intimacy. If someone developed the narrative that other people are dangerous, becoming close to someone is a threatening proposition. Alternatively, if someone incorporated the idea that they are unloveable, becoming closer to people means that those people might find out how unloveable they are, which represents the threat of abandonment. Withdrawal, flight, irritability, betrayal, and anger are often great tools for keeping people at a distance,

Other trauma reactions are to pull people in close. People who experience neglect, isolation, or abandonment as a trauma might cling closely to those who they connect with, for fear of abandonment again. Anxiety, worry, excessive kindness and even self-harm are frequently tools used to try deepen connections. Unfortunately, such reactions usually push people away. Other people experience a confusing mix of both reactions where they both crave and fear closeness to others. This process is sometimes referred as disorganized attachment.

People who experience psychological trauma are more likely to enter into abusive relationships. They tend to have more problems with romantic relationships, friendships, and authority figures compared to other people. Given the trauma of loss of family, the abuse by jailers, and the horrors faced at home, the children being held in detention facilities here in the U.S. are more likely to develop all of these social problems.

The Impact of Trauma on Learning

Psychological trauma causes problems with thinking clearly, reasoning, and problem solving. The traumatized mind’s default is crisis mode. It has learned that the world is unsafe and needs to be aware of potential threats. It does this by identifying and criticizing problems of the past, analyzing potential threats in the present, or anticipating catastrophes of the future. As a result people who have experienced trauma have problems staying calm, regulating behavior, and learning new information.

All of this brain activity makes it incredibly difficult to concentrate, let alone navigate the rigors of education. Children who have a history of trauma demonstrate developmental delays, learning difficulties, and behavioral problems in school. Without an intervention they are less likely to achieve in the academic realm, and more likely to have problems achieving stable, high paying employment.

The children being held in detention already had a socioeconomic disadvantage when they arrived at the U.S. border. The current policy and environments these children and their parents are being held in makes it worse. Remember, some of the risk factors for developing psychological trauma include economic disadvantage and having parents who experienced trauma. The current policy of treating immigrants like prisoners is more likely to create psychological trauma not just for those being held, but also their future children. This type of policy manufactures inter-generational trauma.

Impact of Trauma on Mental Health

In short, psychological trauma is bad for mental health. The negative worldview, self-view, and hyper-arousal trauma creates leads to all sorts of mental health issues. People who have a history of psychological trauma are more prone to volatile, oppositional, and extreme behaviors. Emotionally they tend to be prone to defensiveness, aggression, spaciness, and difficulty regulating emotions. They are also more likely to demonstrate dangerous behaviors like self-harm, unsafe sex, recklessness, substance use, and suicide. There is plenty of data which demonstrates that childhood trauma alters brains development.

Children who experience trauma are more likely to develop the following types mental health disorders later in life: Schizophrenia (and other psychotic disorders), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depressive Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, Eating Disorders, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Personality Disorders. As a clinician who has worked on healing with hundreds of people who navigate hallucinations, delusions, or personality disorders I have yet to meet a person experiencing such a disorder that was not exposed to childhood trauma.

Poor mental health does not just cause psychological suffering and problems with functioning, it is associated with increased risk of physical health issues as well. People with mental health issues are at increased risk for heart-disease, diabetes, and inflammatory conditions. People diagnosed with serious mental illness (schizophrenia spectrum, bipolar disorder, or severe depression) have a decreased life expectancy by 20 years.

Impact of Current Policies as a Whole

In this article we explored the nature of psychological trauma, its effects on the mindbody, and the long-term outcomes. The Trump administration’s current policies are traumatic acts that will cause lasting harm. Indefinite detention, keeping people in cages, and family separation, of migrants who are already fleeing violence will cause the development mental and physiological health problems. These policies are likely to cause economic and academic, and long-lasting inter-generational trauma. It is impossible to tell the totality of suffering this is creating now. Reuniting families, ending indefinite detention, and creating humane solutions that involve healing, nurturing, and hope is essential for our collective health in the present and the future.

Negativity Bias, Running Late, Anxiety, and Mindfulness

I woke up to my alarm for the 2nd time that morning feeling groggy. It was two hours earlier than I normally would wake on a Friday, and yet I was running late; whoever invented the snooze alarm is an evil genius. I hate running late, though it’s a situation I often find myself in. My mind began to focus on some solutions to my time problem: just have some cereal for breakfast, skip a shower, move faster, and eat faster…things like that. I sped into to the kitchen to make breakfast and discovered there was no coffee in the house. Who’s supposed to function in the wee hours of the morning without coffee? A friend needed a ride to an important appointment and I needed to make sure they got there on time. And with each misstep that morning I could feel the tension increasing in my traps, and the need to move faster. Unfortunately while operating at this pace I was making more mistakes, wasting valuable time. And then, I couldn’t find the keys. The tension was overwhelming. My mind started racing through worst-case scenarios. What if they missed their appointment because I hit the snooze, or couldn’t find my keys? That would be my fault, and would make me a terrible friend. And what would happen to them? The tension in my traps felt more intense and spread throughout my body, my jaw got tight. I felt like I couldn’t contain it. “Damnit” I shouted in frustration…Anxiety is a powerful force.

Fast forward to an hour later. I drove to my friend’s place and got to them on time. Traffic was light that morning and I dropped them off at their appointment with 20 minutes to spare. All of those catastrophe scenarios my mind generated suddenly seemed so silly in retrospect. I could breathe, my trapezius muscles could soften, I could finally relax and was on my way to getting myself a well-earned cup of coffee. In reflection it is pretty easy to see that my response to anxiety that morning was not very helpful except for causing me some distress.

Breaking down this situation: here’s how much anxiety I would like to have felt given the totality of the situation.

JS hits MW slow mo

And here’s how much anxiety I experienced.

MW hits JS

Ah the absurdity of being human.

JS MW Laugh

That morning I was not very mindful. I disconnected from the present moment and allowed my mind to pull me into worries of the future, and ponder catastrophes yet to happen. It also pulled me towards the past with my critical mind, “if you only didn’t press that snooze button you wouldn’t be running late. Why didn’t you check to see if there was coffee yesterday?” My mind went to blaming. “If you weren’t making so many stupid decisions in the past, you wouldn’t be in this position now. If my friend didn’t need a ride, I wouldn’t be in this mess.” I also allowed my feelings to control me, reacting to the powerful hormones of anxiety by hurrying up, getting into flight mode.

We humans have a negativity bias. We naturally connect with experiences and thoughts that tell us that we are in danger more than ones that tell us we’re OK. Danger can mean many things: for our ancestors that could’ve meant a large predator in the wilderness. In the modern era danger can be a car rolling through a stop sign, a fight with our partner, a work deadline, or running late for a meeting. Evolutionary psychologists call our propensity to be on guard for danger the false alarm effect. A great way to think about this process is like having an internal fire (danger) alarm. If a fire-alarm is extra sensitive and it goes off when it’s not supposed to it can be a nuisance at worst, but it doesn’t place your survival at risk. If a fire alarm isn’t sensitive enough and it fails to alert you to a fire, your survival is at stake. Thus it makes sense that we evolved to have a more sensitive alarm for danger instead of a dull one. When our alarms go off, regardless if the danger is due to a large jungle cat, fire, or running late, our fight-or-flight response activates increasing physical tension and narrowing the focus of our minds.

Complicating matters is the fact that the mind is a compelling story-teller. It tells us stories all throughout the day. Sometimes it daydreams ridiculous stories of possessing magical powers, or rehearses the big meeting coming up. Other times, it likes to catastrophize, magnify, minimize, judge and blame. It can weave tales of black and white about a rainbow. It told me I was a bad friend because I hit a snooze alarm, it told me that for sure my mistakes would cause my friend to miss court. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we say that when our mind tells us a story changes our perception of reality we have fused with that thought. When you disconnect from that thought, it is called defusion.

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That morning I fused with the story that “I am running late, I need to move faster.” And I reacted to that fusion with anxiety. Common physical symptoms of anxiety include increased heart rate, tension, gastrointestinal issues, tingling, numbness, sweating, clenching, panic and/or goosebumps. Typical psychological symptoms of anxiety include: racing thoughts, worry, catastrophic thinking, self-criticism, poor self-confidence, apprehension, problems with decision making, and/or fear. Some of the common behavioral reactions to anxiety include: avoidance through distraction, substances, staying away from reminders of the anxiety, suppressing thoughts, or substance use. Other reactions to anxiety include rushing, pacing, nervous laughter, combativeness, or working extra hard to compensate for the feelings of anxiety.

In essence, our minds are prone to seeing the world in a more negative light, restricting our focus from seeing other perspectives, create stories that may enhance those negative perceptions, and then in response to believe the stories your mind tells you your body releases a series of hormones which make it more difficult to defuse from the story. Suddenly you get a vicious-self feeding cycle. That morning I rushed through my morning routine due to anxiety, and as a result I made more errors, which led to an increase of the anxiety. I was so focused on the negative that I couldn’t see the blanket truth happening in the world around me.


So how do we manage our minds when they combine negativity bias and compelling stories? Well for starters we can stop minding our minds. With mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or other mindbody practices we can learn to take the observer role, learn how to ground, notice that thoughts and feelings can be inaccurate and they happen automatically. When we develop such skills we develop the power to choose which thoughts and feelings we want to engage with, and how we want to react to them. Mindfulness is an active practice that can be used throughout your lifespan. Mindfulness isn’t a cure-all that means we can achieve a state of being that removes us from human paradoxes and drama, but it helps a lot.

Other ways of managing mindbody reactions include taking active self-care to reduce our psychological vulnerability to unhelpful frames of mind. When our mindbodies are in peak health they adapt to stressors with more flexibility, creativity and ease. Peak health is often achieved by having good nutrition, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, feeling safe and secure, relaxation, managing stress, and satisfying our social, psychological, and physiological needs. When I gave my friend a ride that morning, I was sleep deprived and I also did not participate in exercise that week. Those factors made me more vulnerable to having an intense anxiety reaction compared to when I experience similar stressors of running late when I’m well rested and exercise regularly throughout the week.

Today we explored some of the nature of anxiety. The human mindbody is sensitive towards danger signals, and responds by activating our fight-or-flight system. Additionally the mind is a compelling story teller and it can tell us tales of disaster, judgment, or catastrophe. And when we aren’t in peak health conditions we’re more vulnerable to unhelpful frames of mind. Anxiety is experienced through physiological, psychological, and behavioral responses. Mindfulness activities, stress management, and self-care can help us manage our responses to our internal systems and give use more power to choose how we want to react to what is happening in the here and now. Thank you for taking the time to read this article dear reader. Until next time, farewell.

8 Steps to a 5 Minute Mindful Breathing Exercise

Meditation

Trigger Warning: If you’ve had a history of trauma, and are prone to flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or are actively experiencing PTSD, this process may set off some of those experiences, which can reactivate feelings of the trauma. There are other mindfulness exercises that involve more grounding that may be a better fit for you, and you may want to skip this exercise.


Please read through all of the instructions before you begin.

  1. Get in a comfortable position. This exercise can be done, sitting, laying, or standing if you wish.
  2. Set a timer for 5 minutes.
  3. Invite your eyes to rest.
  4. Breathe in through the nose (if you can’t breathe through your nose the mouth makes an excellent substitute), out through the mouth, practicing diaphragmatic breathing. In order to practice diaphragmatic breathing,
    1. Inhale deep into the belly, then the chest; invite your belly to expand and the ribcage to open as you inhale.
    2. Exhale out through the mouth, at a pace that is comfortable for you, bringing the belly in towards your spine.
    3. If you find it is difficult to breathe deep into the lungs you may consider resting your hands on top of your head, as this will open up the ribcage and make it easier to breathe deep.
  5. Focus on the breath like a curious observer. Notice the coolness of the inhale, the warmth of the exhale. Notice how the chest rises and falls, and how the air flows through your windpipe.
  6. As you go through this process, you may notice that your mindbody wanting to attend to different sensations, thoughts, or feelings. Perhaps you feel the urge to scratch an itch, or begin planning your to-do list is for tomorrow, or feel bored of this moment attending to the breath. Push nothing away and attach to nothing.
  7. Any time you notice a thought or a feeling, label it and let it pass through your mind as though it were a log flowing down the river of your mind, and return your attention to the breath. You can tell yourself things like, “my mind is planning,” or “mind is judging,” or “body is feeling some anxiety.”
  8. When the timer goes off, take a few moments to wiggle the fingers and toes, blink open the eyes, and then return to the room.

Go ahead now and take the time to complete the exercise, then return to reading.


Was it challenging for you to just breathe and sit still? Did you notice that even though all you’re supposed to be doing is breathing that your mindbody was having thoughts and feelings? I know my mind wandered to planning, criticism and pondering. Did you notice any patterns?  This exercise can be helpful to reduce anxiety, and understand the background content of our minds. It can also be a helpful reminder that we are more than our thoughts and feelings, and we do have some control over how we interact with them. Learning to regulate our interactions with our mindbody can go a long-way to improving our overall mindbody fitness.

How Stress Works

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What is stress?

Stress is the mindbody’s way of reacting to a challenge. Things that can cause stress are known as stressors. Stressors can be external and arise from the environment surrounding a person, such as the chronic rain of Portland. Stressors can also be internal and stem from thoughts, feelings or bodily functions. As a response to stressors the human body releases a series of hormones; the primary stress hormone is named cortisol.

The Autonomic Nervous System

The Autonomic Nervous System is a control system in the body that regulates heart rate, respiration, digestion, eyesight, urination and sexual arousal. The autonomic nervous system is composed of two parts, the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System. When a person perceives a stressor, the mindbody responds by activating the Sympathetic Nervous System, an inflammatory reaction also known as the Fight-or-Flight response. The function of the Fight-or Flight is to aid a person in danger. Other common stress reactions include freezing, or fainting.

These reactions were useful tools for the survival of our ancestors when they lived in the wilderness. Amping up the body to fight, flee, or freeze is an excellent response to a hungry jungle cat. Unfortunately, while our civilization, culture, and stressors have evolved our mindbodies haven’t changed much over the millennia. The Sympathetic Nervous System’s response to stress isn’t necessarily the most helpful way to deal with the fact that taxes are due in 4 days and I need to gather my paperwork to get started.

When the stressor is no longer present or has been deemed to be dealt with by the mindbody, the Parasympathetic Nervous System activates. (If you’re trying to memorize these terms, remember when trying to slow down the mindbody activates its parachute, thus it’s called the Parasympathetic Nervous System.) When this system activates the mindbody relaxes and returns to homeostasis, its normal state of existence. This means when the mindbody is no longer experiencing stress the heart rate and respiration slow down, digestion starts back up, muscles relax, the mind becomes more flexible. This process is also known as the relaxation response.

Autonomic Nervous System

How do stress and cortisol affect the mindbody?

Cortisol stimulates glucogenesis in the mindbody. This means that cortisol helps the mindbody turn glycogen (the primary energy reserves in the body) into glucose (the primary fuel of the body). This mindbody creates this energy to deal with the stressor at hand. In response the mindbody increases blood flow, blood pressure, muscle tension, and sweating. The pupils dilate to take in extra light, the stomach stops digesting food, and the bladder relaxes preventing the need to urinate. Stress causes an increase in emotional reactivity, and restricts the focus of the mind to the stresses at hand; often this gets experienced as anxiety, anger, fear, or worry. Intense stressors activate different part of the brain’s decision making processes and focuses on more reflex like reactions. Stress activates the creation of short-term emotional memories which are also known as flashbulb memories. Cortisol also can weaken the activity of the immune system, and slows down the process of wound healing.

These are great responses to imminent danger. These actions help make the mindbody stronger for a fight, and faster to flee. When we freeze, the restriction of focus can help us in making decisions without triggering that big jungle cat; when we faint the hope is that jungle cat leaves us alone because it thinks we’re already dead. Unfortunately, most modern problems don’t necessitate this kind of response.

Chronic stress, stress that never resolves can lead to physiological, mental, and spiritual problems. It can cause headaches (including migraines), muscle tension and pain, chest pain, fatigue, upset stomachs, urinary problems, anxiety, restlessness, irritability, anger, depression, loss of interest in activities of pleasure, and a lack of motivation. Chronic stress may also cause gingivitis, chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, insomnia, aggression, rashes, hair loss, poor concentration, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and suicidal thoughts. Long-term exposure to cortisol can damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for regulating memory and spatial navigation. Common behavioral maladaptations to chronic stress include overeating, undereating, social withdrawal, overworking, sleep problems, and drug abuse.

Exposure to extreme stressors, for short periods of time can be harmful. Specific phobias (irrational persistent fears), Panic Disorder (persistent panic attacks), Acute Stress Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may occur as a result of exposure to intense levels of stress.

Is all stress bad?

Not at all. We need stress in order to motivate us to develop, grow and survive. Without stress you would never feel the need to acquire food, learn, or to adapt and cope with the everyday challenges our ever changing lives present. Stress that leads to a positive outcome is known as eustress, whereas stress that leads to negative outcomes is known as distress. A common example of eustress is the acquired knowledge a student gains by taking time to study and master material before a big exam. Properly dealing with stress leads to the experience of positive emotions and activates the parasympathetic nervous system allowing our bodies to relax. Thus it is important that we develop coping mechanisms to deal with stressors on a day-to-day basis.

What are specific coping mechanisms to deal with stress?

You use coping mechanisms to deal with stress every single day. Sometimes you use your problem solving skills to tackle a situation head-on. You might laugh, take a walk, read a book, create some art, or solve a puzzle. Exercise is a great way to alleviate the problems associated with stress. Sometimes people relieve stress by communicating with friends and family; research shows that social support helps ward off the negative effects of stress. Other ways to deal with stress include slowing down, relaxed breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga. Participating in meaningful activities is another great way to destress.  Different people are able to discover their own ways of relaxing and destressing.

How do I perceive stress?

There are many models that help explain how people interpret and deal with stress. One of the more popular models is known as Lazarus and Folkman’s Transactional Model of stress and coping. The first time a person is presented with a stimulus they undergo what is known as the primary appraisal. That means the individual takes in the stimulus and then decides if that individual stimulus is considered a stressor or if it is benign.

If it is a stressor the person then makes a secondary appraisal and decides how to deal with the stimulus. In this stage the person uses their coping mechanisms, both problem solving and emotional to deal with the stressor. If the person resolves the problem the stressor she experiences a positive emotion and we call the stressor eustress. If the person is not able to resolve the problem or comes to an unfavorable solution she may experience distress or reevaluates the stressor and we call the stressor distress.

Stress Model

The most important thing to remember from this model is that depending on the type of stress and our available coping mechanisms we will either interpret a stressor as eustress creating positive results, or we will interpret the stressor as distress and experience negative results.

 

Other factors that may play a role in stress.

Factors that have been shown to reduce cortisol levels in the human body include:

  • Magnesium
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Music therapy
  • Massage Therapy
  • Laughing
  • Black Tea
  • Dancing
  • Exercise and Yoga
  • Meditation

Factors that have been shown to increase cortisol levels in the human body include:

  • Caffeine
  • Sleep Deprivation
  • Intense physical exercise (often to create the energy required)
  • Burnout
  • Trauma
  • Anorexia
  • Calorie Restriction
  • Continuous Consumption of Alcohol

5 Signs you’re Experiencing Burnout

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Classic Burnout Symptoms

  1. You feel exhausted. Some people describe this as feeling worn out, depleted, or a loss of energy. Either way, your energy levels are not where they should be.
  2. Your attitude has shifted. If your attitude has become increasingly negative, cynical, or withdrawn this can be a huge sign of burnout. Sometimes this attitude shifts in client care, other times towards an organization, bosses, or with coworkers.
  3. You’re irritable. You seem to have a shorter fuse than you used to.
  4. You don’t feel productive. Either you feel your work is less valuable, you notice a decline in your productivity, or it just feels hard to cope with the day-to-day tasks on the job. The mundane becomes burdensome.
  5. Your coworkers are burnt out. Burnout, like other mental health phenomena, tends to be a cultural issue. When your coworkers are burnt out, your risk for burnout increases.

Causes of Burnout

Burnout has a variety of causes. The most common contributors to burnout include, too much workload with too few resources. Lack of control over your job tasks, or lack of ability to grow with your job. A lack of community or fairness in the workplace also contribute to burnout. Additionally if there is a values gap between you and the organization you work for there tends to be an increase in burnout.

Effects of Burnout

Burnout doesn’t just contribute to a poor work life, but poor health overall. People who experience burnout tend to demonstrate classic stress symptoms including chronic fatigue, headaches, GI issues, insomnia, and reduced immune functioning leading to an increase in illness. People who are experiencing burnout are also at greater risk for being hospitalized for cardiovascular disease. They also are more likely to develop mental health issues. Additionally people experiencing burnout are more likely to struggle in their relationships, and other areas of life.

Prevention and Treatment

You do have some control over your mindbody’s potential reactions to burnout. You can start by making sure you’re getting adequate self-care, this means making sure you’re getting adequate amounts of sleep, exercise, and eating healthy. Other means to manage burnout include practicing relaxation strategies, taking more breaks on the job, and exploring time-management alternatives. Additional strategies include getting social support from family, coworkers and friends, practicing mindfulness, and utilizing your own emotional coping skills. If you have the opportunity, take a vacation. We all need some time to change things up and recharge our batteries.

A lot of treatment for burnout can come at an organizational level as well. Changing work patterns, increasing community, trust, communication, support, creating more individual autonomy, and reducing the workload to resource ratio are all organizational ways to change burnout.

Mental Health Disorders are not Diseases

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Today we are going to explore the nature of mental health disorders. Mental health disorders are real, prevalent, and can impact anyone. 1 in 5 Americans will experience a diagnosable behavioral health condition this year. They cause emotional, physical, psychic, and relational suffering, and can severely impact life functioning. For the most part mental health disorders are not a disease. Rather, they are normal stress reactions, and expressions of variety within our species. The most common threads linking mental health disorders are stress, trauma, genetics, and access (or lack-there-of) to coping skills and resources.

A lot of times the normal emotions that get labeled as “negative” are often healthy responses to our environment. The sadness and fatigue we experience while we mourn the loss of a loved one, tell us to slow down, rest, and take time to understand our loss and make sense of our new environment. The energy of anxiety can propel us into problem-solving action like studying for that big test. The hypervigilance and wariness that trauma survivors experience help us keep on the lookout for danger, a key to survival while living in an unsafe and threatening environment. Many times it is when these healthy adaptations are present when they are no longer needed, or when they become maladaptive and impact the quality of our lives or impact our functioning, that we label them a mental health disorder.

It makes sense that most of us misconstrue and misunderstand mental health experiences. The majority of funding to provide treatment for mental wellness is paid for by health insurance here in the US. Insurance companies operate by the disease model of mental health. That is to say the way they classify mental health is that you either have a disease that is making you unhealthy, or you are healthy and no longer in need of treatment. Clinicians are expected to take notes that use language which indicates they are assessing and treating a disease. Such a model limits our view of mental health, having us merely focus on symptoms. Such a model does not provide credence to wellness factors like resilience, creativity, socializing, perspective taking, courage and other adaptive mental functions which contribute to health.

Another contributor to the misconception of mental health are the marketing and sales of psychopharmaceuticals. Major pharmaceutical companies medicalize normal human conditions such as sadness and worry. There is a multi-billion dollar market out there trying to convince people across the globe that experiencing human misery is a sickness that can be cured with medicine, and not only that, but long-term medicine. This isn’t to say that you should not pursue medicine. Internal and external stressors can cause our brain chemistry to get out of whack and cause needless suffering. Psychopharmaceuticals have helped millions cope, and if it helps you I am glad you’re taking them. What this is to suggest, is that misery is part of the human condition and the perspective of viewing mental health as a disease is problematic.

The problem is, is that the disease model doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Mental health disorders are culturally dependent, while diseases are not. Cancer, the flu, HIV and other diseases look the same, no matter where you are in the world. Anthropologists have done many studies and have found that mental health disorder symptoms change depending on the geo-cultural location. Depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, look different in the US than they do in Japan, Tanzania or India for example. Other studies have demonstrated that depending on the culture, traditional medicine folk are about equally effective in treating mental health disorders as mental health professionals.

Culture plays a significant role in our views of mental health as well. The DSM used to classify being gay as a disorder; today being gay, lesbian, pansexual, or bisexual are widely accepted (as they should be) as part of our normal sexual diversity. Emotional and cognitive responses like sexuality, height, and weight, also exist on a spectrum. Some of us are more emotionally sensitive than others, some of us are more expressive, some of us less. 20% of the population will experience a mental health issue this year. This suggests that these are pretty common stress responses. I have yet to work with a person who is experiencing a mental health issue who was living in a healthy environment, felt secure in their needs, had no experience of trauma, was well connected with their community, existed in healthy relationships, was engaging in meaningful activities, and in good health.

And that leads to another important question. Are mental health disorders unhealthy responses to healthy circumstances, or are they healthy responses to unhealthy circumstances. Nobody has ever proven that the collection of mental health disorders in the DSM or defined by the WHO are unhealthy responses to healthy circumstances. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that disorders PTSD, anxiety, and depression are normal stress responses to unhealthy circumstances like abuse, violence, neglect, or not being able to meet ones needs.

So what does this all mean for how we view mental health? Mental health disorders create suffering, have significant impacts on functioning, and are worthy of being treated as the serious and real conditions that they are. Perhaps this means we as a collective have to re-examine our definitions of wellness and how we as a society want to achieve our individual and collective wellness. Perhaps this means we need to re-examine and redefine how we provide resources to treat suffering. Maybe this means we should be a little more gentle and understanding with others and ourselves, knowing that if we’re not feeling well, behaving well, not thinking well, or not communicating well we are doing our best and probably responding to our internal and external environmental experiences. We are only human, after all.