Dr Kevin Tipper

Chronic Mental Stress: understanding cause vs effect

Chronic mental stress underpins all mental health diagnoses such as anxiety, depression, bipolar, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), schizophrenia or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Throughout my education at medical school in psychology and psychiatry, I cannot recall ever having a lecture on mental health. Rather, the focus was on mental illness, making diagnoses according to standardised criteria and prescribing pharmaceutical treatments.

Medications don’t identify the cause of chronic mental stress

Medical professionals are taught that people with mental illnesses are broken and often feel there is something lacking within them. The most common outcome when these factors are combined is that medications are prescribed to counteract their broken internal systems.

These medications are provided to clean up biochemical disorders in the body. However, the treatments miss a fundamental part of the chain here; medication is targeted at the consequence, not the cause, of the symptoms. The consequence is biochemical disorders, but the cause is chronic mental stress.

It’s rather like placing a bucket under a leak – it stops the damage from spreading through the house, but the leak itself needs to be dealt with at the source for the problem to be solved.

Stress is a consequence of modern life

After a few hundred thousand years of evolution, the human body is designed to be under stress (commonly known as the “fight or flight” response) for approximately 15-30 minutes, every 1-3 days, to deal with genuinely threatening situations. Historically, this would include experiences such as being under attack by a sabre tooth tiger when human life was in danger.

In modern times, people are now spending many of their waking hours dealing with stress and pressure. Rather than activating the stress response for 15-30 minutes every 1-3 days, it can typically be activated for up to 16 hours a day.

With the evolution of highly advanced brain scanners such as Positron Emission Tomography (PET) or functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanners, it is easy to demonstrate that just several minutes of upsetting thoughts can result in physical and biochemical changes in the brain.

Medications treat the biochemical changes, and therefore the effects of chronic mental stress, but fail to address the cause. To return to my earlier illustration, it’s like putting a larger bucket under the leak rather than fixing the problem at the source.

Chronic mental stress can be the catalyst of many medical conditions

There are many medical conditions that can originate from exposure to chronic mental stress, outside of common mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. These include heart disease, migraines, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic fatigue / fibromyalgia, type 2 diabetes and many more.

Human beings do their best to deal with every situation in their lives, given the understanding they have. We all have the gift of free will so we can use the power of thought against ourselves if we choose to.

By understanding chronic mental stress, we will be given the power to overcome mental illness and many physical health problems too. Learning to live with a light-hearted and joyful outlook, with peace of mind, is the key to Unlocking Mental Health.

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  • Mr M F, Chorley.

    I struggled with anxiety and depression for 9 months and in that time I was absent from work and took 4 different medications. I also had some CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) through the NHS but the therapist was very young, lacked life experience and was formulaic in her approach rather than focusing on my specific…