I was invited to speak on an international radio broadcast this week.
I was especially proud to participate in this broadcast, because the invitation came from the Muslim faith community.
I myself am a Christian. But after the tragic events of the past week — the shootings in New Zealand and vandalism of mosques in the UK — I felt honored to extend comfort and support to my fellow world citizens in this very small way.
If you are interested in listening to my short interview, here is the link (my part starts at the 1:02 time mark):
As probably happens with most interviews, I was given a list of questions to prepare for ahead the broadcast. I worked hard on my answers, spending many hours drafting thoughtful responses to some of the extreme stress facing the world today.
Still, due to time constraints, I was not able to give complete answers to all the questions during the actual interview.
So I decided to post them here.
I am not doing so because I have to satisfy some stupid sense of vanity.
I am posting them because I want to be able to extend what comfort and hope I can in this difficult time.
The crucial question seems to be this: what do we do about stress and suffering that comes to us through no fault of our own — like a mass shooting or vandalism of our place of worship?
And this: in the aftermath of such trauma, how do we handle the mix of emotions — fear, bewilderment, rage, and profound grief — that descends over our minds and souls?
Due to time constraints in the live interview (perfectly reasonable ones), I did not get the chance to answer those questions.
So I wanted to share my prepared remarks (in italics) with you below.
1) What are the effects of stress on mental health?
Over the short term, the effects are usually good. Stress triggers the fight or flight response, releasing chemicals in the brain that increase general alertness and our ability to fight the stressor, or to try to get away from it as fast as possible.
But over the long term, stress is terrible for mental health. It’s bad in three specific ways:
First, it disrupts healthy lifestyle choices. When we get stressed out, many of us sleep less than normal. We also often stop exercising. And we stop eating right, filling up instead on comfort foods filled with sugar, fat, salt, and empty calories, but very few essential nutrients.
The brain is an organ, just like the heart, the lungs, or the kidneys. If we don’t support it with healthy lifestyle choices, it’s going to perform at a sub-optimal level.
Second, stress amplifies the body’s inflammation response. Psychological stress triggers the production of inflammation-producing chemicals called cytokines. When these chemicals are released in the brain, they produce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Third, long-term stress causes the brain to be constantly bathed in stress hormones like cortisol. Cortisol is known to alter the brain’s structure and function, increasing feelings of irritability and anxiety and decreasing our ability to think clearly and make wise decisions.
Stress is one of the major causes of two major mental disorders around the world: clinical depression and clinical anxiety.
2) What kind of measures can we take to reduce stress?
We all deal with two kinds of stress: 1) the kind that we bring upon ourselves, and 2) the kind that comes to us through no fault of our own, through circumstances beyond our control.
At its most basic level, stress management involves supporting our brains through healthy lifestyle choices and getting rid of any unnecessary stress.
This means we need to organize our time efficiently and get rid of any extraneous work or unproductive habits. This helps us feel calmer and more in control.
It also means exercising regularly, getting enough sleep at night, and eating a healthy diet.
But when we are dealing with stress that we didn’t create and can’t control, we have to use more advanced levels of stress management.
This is not necessarily about reducing the stress itself (often we have no control over that), but rather reducing its impact on us mentally and emotionally.
(Note to reader: Here is the answer that I didn’t get to share on the radio!)
As a starting point, it’s helpful to realize that most stress involves some sort of loss:
- loss of an important relationship through death or conflict,
- loss of home or treasured possessions,
- loss of self-esteem,
- loss of an important role in life (like a job), or
- loss of health and safety.
When we suffer loss, it’s normal for us to go through a multi-step grieving process as a result. Each stage of that process will have its own unique — and difficult — emotion:
- We may feel so shocked and numb that we don’t know how to react at first.
- We may also feel sideswiped by the loss, confused and bewildered by the suddenness and ferocity of it. So we start to question why the loss occurred. This is difficult, because often there are no good answers for our questions.
- We may feel angry at the person or thing that caused the loss, or at God for not stopping it, or at the whole world.
- We may also experience symptoms of profound anxiety or depression: fear, sadness, hopelessness. In our despair, we may pull back from normal activities or relationships, leading us to feel isolated and lonely.
Like I said, these are all normal responses.
It’s also perfectly normal for us to jump around these different emotional states in a very non-linear way — feeling first one thing and then the other, or experiencing all of them at once.
But here’s what we hope happens at the end of the grieving process: an acceptance phase.
This is not because the loss was logical or fair.
Rather, it’s because we will be unable to move forward if we can’t somehow begin to accept the ways that our lives have changed because of the loss. Only then can we begin to re-create a new and different life. Only then can we form new goals and relationships that help us move on.
In order to get us to this phase, advanced stress management techniques involve the use of stress-reducing beliefs.
Focus on the part of the problem that you have direct control over and can change.
I recently read the story of a man here in the United States, Gary Mendell, who lost his 25-year old son to a drug overdose. This was deeply traumatic for him and his wife – they had put him through multiple rehabilitation programs, and he had been clean for over a year when he died.
Gary and his wife had no control over his death, but they did have control over what they decided to do with their lives after his death. They decided to form a nonprofit organization to help other families battling addiction.
Take it one day at a time.
Human beings are unique in their ability to worry, not only about the present, but also over past mistakes and future fears. This is a heavy burden for the mind to bear.
One way to lighten the load is to focus only on the challenges of today.
Gary Mendell is trying to make a difference in a colossal problem of opioid addiction in our country and around the world. But he can’t tackle the whole problem at once. He must take it one day at a time, one small victory at a time, to help other families avoid the same trauma that he and his wife experienced.
This is not saying that everything that happens to us has meaning. Many of the things that happen in life do not make sense. But even though there is often not a good explanation for things that happen to us, we can derive our own meaning and purpose from suffering.
Gary and his wife created meaning by developing a stronger, deeper sense of compassion for others dealing with the same struggles they had experienced.
They also created a new purpose, an action plan to help others with the same struggles.
These are all aspects of what psychologists call Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG) – the ability to grow in the wake of trauma. Those who experience PTG do not just return to their to their pre-trauma baseline, but in fact reach higher levels of life appreciation, meaning, and purpose.
PTG does not eliminate suffering, but creates meaning from it.
Another stress management technique involves spiritual faith and prayer, believing in a sovereign God who values us and cares about what happens to us.
Research suggests that those who have such a faith survive stress and trauma better than those who don’t.
What else can be done?
I would urge those dealing with severe trauma to seek counsel and medical care from a healthcare professional. This is because they could be suffering from a constellation of neurological disorders including clinical depression, clinical anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a complicated form of grief associated with losing a loved one in an unexpected (and perhaps violent) way.
A professional will understand each component of their trauma and grief, and he or she will develop a treatment plan accordingly. A psychiatrist may also prescribe medication to correct any neurochemical imbalance that has occured.
I feel better being able to express these thoughts here, even though I was not able to express them on the radio.
I deeply mourn with those who have lost loved ones this week. I truly hope that they receive the comfort and care that they need.
If you are interested in joining my email list for more free resources, please click on the link below. This link will also give you a list of resources on suffering:
I unfortunately am not familiar with books on grief written directly for those of the Islamic faith.
Those books that I do know of, I have listed below. (Please note that as an Amazon Affiliate, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you if you use this link.)
It does not matter to me whether you use my link or not.
Please, just get the help you need.
Peace and mercy to you.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.