by Dr. Alexander Wright ~ Psychologist
Has stigma impacted our understanding of emotion and subsequently our emotional abilities?
I have every intention of continuing to address and break through the tremendous negatives of stigma and its impacts on mental health. Stigma is so dangerous when it comes to mental health and treatment. The effects of stigma cost billions of dollars. More unfortunately, it can cost years of unnecessary suffering. Unbelievably, another important and significant cost lies under the dysfunctional umbrella of stigma; a lot of people do NOT know what anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders feel like. And not only as children; plenty of adults as well.
By the time we are 5 years old, we often know to put a Band Aid on a cut. By the time we are 7 years old, we typically know to ask for a school nurse when we have a stomach-ache. By the time we are 10 years old, we usually know that certain over the counter medications will help relieve a headache. And by the time we are 18, we are expected to fend for our physical health. By the way, these are all fantastic and important lessons and expectations.
Fortunately, these physical health focused lessons are taught to us early on in life. Unfortunately, during the early period of your life, do you ever remember anyone teaching you about the many beautiful, powerful, and sometime negative emotions we all experience as humans? As a child were you ever taught what anxiety feels like? Did anyone ever tell you that anxiety’s main job is to keep you safe or that anxiety is normal or that everyone feels anxiety sometimes? Are most parents aware that their child’s change in appetite and/or increased fatigue may be a feature/symptom of depression? Do you know that loneliness can be as deadly as diabetes and lack of exercise; significantly increasing chances of heart disease? Conversely, how many people know that solid Friendships boost happiness and reduce stress. And that hanging out with negative people can be just as destructive as negative thoughts. How many children are aware that expressing Gratitude has positive impacts on the brain and increases feelings of contentment and reduces stress. Experiencing Love in a stable and healthy relationship can improve an individual’s ability to manage stress and be effective in decreasing anxiety and depression. Why do we focus so much more on physical health and persistently ignore and/or know so much less about emotional health? Why do we seemingly care so much about our physical health but deny our emotional being when it is hurting? Why does a cut result in immediate attention while matters of the heart are often unattended to for long periods? One reason may be because as humans, we are afraid of what we cannot see.
Are we intimidated by pain that cannot be identified by a blood test? Are we terrified by a disorder that cannot be explained by some physical origin with 100% confidence? When I was experiencing panic attacks in my early 20’s, I hoped that the source of my anxiety related breathing problems were the result of a Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD) as opposed to a Panic Disorder. Can you believe that? If that was the case, I would probably be on medication and oxygen or both without the possibility for full recovery. So why would I choose such a serious physical disorder over a mental disorder? Because like a lot of us normally flawed humans, I needed certainty and could not accept what I could not see or be explained by some more objective assessment.
The demand for certainty is a path to mental health problems. However, the acceptance of uncertainty is a path to balance and contentment. So, as a start, let’s work together on this awareness and realize that the unfortunate symptoms of anxiety are highly treatable. The hopeless feelings of depression are also treatable. If you are suffering and uncertain of what is going on, stand up to your uncertainties and related fears and find out what is going on. You are worth it and there are professionals out there who can help. And when it comes to health, neither physical health or mental health is more important than the other. They cannot be as they effect each other and ultimately exist as one.
“You are so brave and quiet, I forgot you are suffering.”
~ Ernest Hemingway