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Mental Illness Guide: Care, Support, and Education
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How stress affects people with mental illness and how to help

How people react to stress

When people live normal lives with normal amounts of stress and pressure, their bodies stay healthy.  But when stress builds up, their bodies begin to wear down and get weaker.  They have a harder time dealing with everyday problems.  Little things seem bigger and are harder to handle than they might normally be.

People, both family members and people with mental illness, react to stress in different ways.  But for people with mental illness, too much stress can cause them to get sick again.

When some people feel stress…

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The palms of their hands get sweaty.

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They get an upset stomach.

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Their blood pressure rises.

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They develop hives.

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They develop ulcers.

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They cannot sit still.

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They cannot relax.

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They feel tense.

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They snap at people.

How does stress affect people with serious mental illness?

Stress can be very bad for people with mental illness.  They may:

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Be more suspicious and not trust family and friends or people in general.

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Start to lose touch with reality and say things that cannot be true.

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Have a harder time doing things.

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Get sick again.

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Not think right and get confused.

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Feel tense.

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Snap at people.

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Get defensive.

So it is important for people with mental illness to be calm and try to reduce stress in their lives, in the things they do, and with the people they are around.

Why stress is bad for people with mental illness

When people with mental illness feel stress, their emotions become very strong and they may find it difficult to think straight.  They feel a lot of pressure, and they have a harder time doing basic things, like deciding what to wear, or talking face-to-face.  They want to withdraw.  If people cannot think straight, they may do things they should not.

Stress does not cause mental illness, but it has been proven that stress can make symptoms worse and can lead to sickness.

How to reduce stress in the home

Homes with low emotion and low stress can help a person with mental illness stay healthy.  If people with mental illness live in homes with low stress, it increases their ability to stand stress outside the home.  Thus, they can function better in the community.  Families can help a person with mental illness stay healthy by reducing the stress in the home.  

What the family can do to reduce stress in the home

Below are some suggestions …

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Be calm when you talk.

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Do not get too excited.

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Do not yell.

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When a family member with mental illness is in the group, try to speak one at a time.

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Do not speak fast.

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Use short sentences.

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Avoid arguing.  State your point of view and be willing to listen to your relative’s point of view.

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Do not argue about delusions (your relative’s false beliefs).  For example, if the person with mental illness says something that seems wrong or strange, you could say, “I know how frightening it must be for you to hear voices, even though I do not hear them.”

What the person with mental illness can do to reduce stress

Below are some suggestions …

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Try to avoid people and things that cause you stress.

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Try to control how you react to stress.  For example, take deep breaths.  Try to stay calm. Do not yell.

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Try to solve your problems, and do not ignore them.  Ask your family for help with problems.

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Spend time alone when your stress is caused by too much noise and confusion.

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Make decisions.  Not deciding is very upsetting.  Even a wrong decision can usually be corrected.

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Do not judge yourself and others.  Do not think about being “right” or “wrong” or “good” or “bad”.  It just puts pressure on you for no reason.

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Try to be flexible.  Be ready to make changes if you have to.  Be willing to change an appointment or have dinner at another time. 

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Deal with anger as soon as possible.  Do not let it grow.  Holding in your anger is like holding your breath, because the longer you hold it and do not let it out, the more it makes you feel like you are going to explode.

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Tell others how you feel.  Sometimes you can get upset because your loved ones do not know how you feel.  Just tell them.  They love you and want to know.

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Find ways to relax.  Try listening to your favorite music.  Take a long bath.

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Try to accept some of the stressful things you cannot change.  If you can just say to yourself, “I have to ride the crowded bus today.  I am glad the ride only takes 20 minutes.”

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Take a warm bath.  Put some bubbles in it.  A warm bath is soothing, and the tub is a great place to be alone to think about things.

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Write a letter to someone about things that stress you, and then tear it up.  Just thinking about what stresses you and writing it down can sometimes be enough to make the stressful feelings go away.

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Play with a pet.  Animals can really be man’s best friends.  They love attention, and they love you for making them feel good.

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Use your heart and your head when making decisions.   In your heart, you may wish that you could live by yourself, but in your head you know that you are not ready.  Do not give up on your dream of living alone.  You just have to wait until you know that you are ready.

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Do not eat unless you are hungry.  Too many of us eat just for something to do.  It is not a good idea to use food as our entertainment.