Unlike physical health, psychological health cannot be measured by a machine or screened for via a blood test. However, psychological health is absolutely critical to the well-being of patients and cannot be disregarded by a responsible health practitioner. Mental health is composed of emotional health (compassion for others and an understanding that the self is not the center of the universe and a balanced perspective on the world); mental health (resiliency to adversity); and spiritual health (a sense of higher purpose in life) (Hales 2008: 25). However, while mental health is something which may be said to be striven for on a universal level, the manifestations of these components of psychological health are expressed in culturally-specific ways, something which a healthcare practitioner must be mindful of when assessing psychological health in a responsible fashion (Hales 2008: 26).
Positive psychology stresses that it is essential not simply to study psychological states that are considered abnormal and damaged but also those states of being that are optimal and normal, including how characteristics such as resiliency, a sense of purpose, optimism, and a work ethic collectively contribute to a better life (Hales 2008: 27). Understanding why we are not psychologically feeling our best is important and many theorists have offered their unique perspectives on this subject. For example, the theorist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that initially physiological needs must be satisfied (hunger and a need for safety, for example) before higher psychological needs can be addressed (Hales 2008: 29). Gratitude, prayer, and a sense of higher purpose are considered necessary for optimal psychological health, even if not everyone is theologically-oriented in their spirituality (Hales 2008: 33). So is having a sense of control over the world: not in an aggressive manner, but having a sense that what one does can have a meaningful effect on others is important — there must be confidence that actions have an impact, versus a having a sense of hopelessness. A connection with others is also an important component of mental health (Hales 2008: 34).
Despite this universal striving for a state of positive psychological homeostasis, there are many complications and obstacles in the path, particularly for Americans. America has a highly individualistic culture which tends to disdain the need for social support. On campuses in particular, there are stressors which adolescents face, including a culture which makes a normal sleep schedule difficult and a stress upon finding one’s self which can make the process of identity formation extremely confusing and anxiety-provoking. Shyness can be a debilitating factor in creating social bonds, and when taken to the extreme it is classified as a disorder called social anxiety.
Psychological disorders which can affect mental health include depressive disorders (which can raise one’s risk for developing high blood pressure and heart disease); anxiety disorders (including phobias and OCD); and attention-related disorders. These conditions can be treated with a combination of medicine and psychotherapy, depending upon their specific manifestations and severity. Counselors should understand the different impact of these disorders on the specific person, depending on the person’s age and gender (Hales 2008: 40-45). Although suicide is the most terrifying ‘symptom’ of untreated mental disorder, even more mild conditions like dysthymia can become debilitating over time.
Chapter 3: Personal stress management
Stress is a part of modern life and everyone must deal with it. In fact, some degree of stress can actually be beneficial because of the ways it builds resiliency in the human character. However, in modernity, stressors have become so acute many people develop psychological complications because of the extreme levels of stress which they must endure, stress which ultimately takes a toll on their physical health (Hales 2008: 55-54). That is why an effective process of personal stress management is so essential. Stressors may be acute and time-specific, or they may be chronic in nature, the latter of which often takes a greater toll upon the person (Hales 2008: 56).
A stress response is often defined as taking place in a three-step process of alarm; resistance (as the body summons up its defenses); and finally exhaustion, as the body can no longer cope with maintaining a constant flight-or-fight response (Hales 2008: 56). Stress can trigger physical responses that can make the individual much more susceptible to a variety of illnesses and a compromised immune system. Much as what is perceived ‘stressful’ itself, these responses can be highly particular to the body experiencing the stress although a triggering of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline are almost universally involved (Hales 2008: 57). A particular type of personality ‘Type A’ — a category composed of very driven individuals — may be particularly susceptible to heart disease because of a Type A’s higher levels of perceived stress in the environment (Hales 2008: 59).
Some environments have been found to be uniquely stress-provoking — college campuses in particular! (Hales 2008: 59-60). College students are subjected to test-related pressures (of course) but also the changes of shifting to the college social environment and the financial pressures of student loans and finding a job after graduation (Hales 2008: 60). These stressors are unavoidable and unfortunately, students more subject to stress may actually perform less well in the long-term because of the toll stress takes on sleep, memory, and physical health (Hales 2008: 61). Students from historically-discriminated against groups may experience the additional stress of ‘culture shock’ and have even more trouble adjusting, as might female students who, statistically speaking, are more likely to be depressed. For adults, job-related stress, the stress of physical illness itself, and relationship stressors can similarly compromise their ability to function and these factors can be exacerbated by gender and race-related discrimination (Hales 2008: 64). PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is a disorder by a traumatic event like sexual abuse or surviving a war and can actually trigger flashbacks which cause the sufferer to re-experience the initial stress (Hales 2008: 69-70). Stress cannot be eliminated from life: however, positive coping mechanisms and changing one’s perceptions and reactions to stress with shifts in the mental dialogue of the individual can reduce stress and promote relaxation, as can more effective time management (Hales 2008: 71).
Hales, D. (2008). An invitation to health: Brief edition. 5th ed. Wadsworth.
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