The toxicity of stress on mental health

7 mins read
Photo Credit: https://martinsummerhayes.com/
By Nathalie Hollede

Psychologists are calling it an epidemic. 

We live in a time where access to information is no longer a privilege nor a luxury, but a human right. Research is revealing that too much information and expectation could be detrimental to our health.

Sources like Medical News Today have been saying for decades that stress can make the brain susceptible to mental illness. Now, researchers and organisations such as the American Academy of Paediatrics, are beginning to publicise information about the serious effects of stress in general, especially on children.

Speaking to educational psychologist Professor Yee Lee Shing about the link between stress and mental health, findings regarding stress and mental health are placed under the spotlight.

Dr Yee Lee Shing
Professor Yee Lee Shing. Credit – https://www.stir.ac.uk/people/29592

Behavioural problems are a defence response to toxic stress – The Guardian, 2017

The starting topic discussed with Professor Shing was the correlation between academic stress and ADHD in children. She confirmed that ADHD in children is one of the most common stress-associated disorders, which relates to research around the possibility of ADHD being an indicator for academic pressure being the culprit.

A six-year study conducted by McCarthy et al taking place from 2006-2012, found that there had been a surge in psychiatric treatment of ADHD in the UK in these years. The scientists observed the prevalence of ADHD in over three million patients in all age categories. They found that non-treated prevalence increased within each age group.

The apex of diagnosed incidences were in the six to twelve age group, the age of primary school children.

The majority of ADHD cases are in primary school children

The Guardian claims that symptoms of ADHD resemble the effects of childhood trauma, including an inability to focus and hyperactive behaviour.

The article suggests that these behavioural problems in children are a defence response to extreme levels of stress, and can have a detrimental effect on the child’s mental and physical wellbeing.

This information is suggestive of academic or other form of societal stress being at the root of mental illnesses. Investigating how stress affects university students, I turned to Professor Shing.

Asking Professor Shing about how stress can manifest itself in adolescents and adults, she warned against making causal connections between stress and disorders as research is still ongoing.

However, she stated that the most common stress-associated illnesses in adolescents and adults include depression and schizophrenia.

Credit – The Guardian

‘Stress in students has become predictable’

A study conducted by Misra & McKean in 2000 on the academic stress levels of US university students showed a disturbing trend: stress has become predictable, coinciding with workload, and is based on the students’ perception of the required and extensive knowledge base.

As the study suggests, there is a link between our academic system, our social and physical environment, and our mental health. In asking Professor Shing about the validity of this association, she states that “we [researchers] are beginning to examine the causal effect, particularly by including genetic and epigenetic factors.”

Mental illness affected by stress reinforced by the academic system is apparently wide-spread, but remains an unheard cry for help until further research can rule on closer causation.

Such research is currently being done by the American Academy of Paediatrics, who are beginning to speak out on the long-term mental impacts of stress.

Stress can cause detrimental harm to cardiovascular, immune, and mental health

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), have developed an Eco-bio-developmental framework for understanding the instrumental impact that a child’s ecology (physical / social environment) and biology (genetics and epigenetics) has on their development.

In their article ‘Mitigate toxic stress’, it is explained that chronic activation of stress response systems in combination with the lack of support in situational hardships, can lead to extreme levels of unhealthy stress hormones in the human body. This can cause serious physical harm to our cardiovascular, immune, and mental health.

There is a linkage between stress and worsened mental health

A faculty member at the university and a licensed educational psychologist, Professor Shing confirmed that stress could lead to, or even worsen, mental illnesses.

Evidence is suggestive of a harmful environment with too many stressors, especially of the academic kind. However, researchers have not come as far as establishing full causality between specific stressors and mental illness.

Profound and permanent damage, especially to our mental wellbeing, leaves a scar which is unconsciously carried into adulthood. The AAP implies that the trauma occurring from extreme stress, especially in early life, can never be reversed – only managed.

Misra & McKean suggest time management, social support, and leisure activities as solutions to academic stress.

Image result for mental illness
Credit – Collective Evolution

Hope for the future

As Professor Shing explained, there may be a long way to go until a causal relationship can be established. However, the accumulation of research in the field has helped us realise the magnitude of the problem relating to the demands of our society as much as biological factors.

If you think you may be affected by stress, check out my first-hand tips on how to manage stress and anxiety here, or visit the Brig website to read first-hand, heartfelt stories on our students’ mental health journeys.

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The Features section of Brig, Stirling University's student newspaper.

Editors: Elizabeth Ross & Warren Hardie

The Features section of Brig, Stirling University's student newspaper.

Editors: Elizabeth Ross & Warren Hardie

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