Stressed With Stress? Know Your Numbers

 By Phil Wyzik, CEO, Monadnock Family Services

Ever heard the phrase, “Know your numbers?”  It’s about a health promotion project designed to get people to know some important indicators of physical health risks like Body-Mass Index, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.  When it comes to the stress we all experience, however, there’s no lab test or simple way to objectively measure this mental health aspect of our well being.  Still, the slogan is still valuable to remember if you want to try to avoid the long term effect of stress that might put you at risk for physical and mental illnesses.

Stress is a physical, physiological, and emotional reaction to life events that most often we evaluate as negative or threatening. Whether real or imagined, this total-system response is hard wired into our being thanks to a tiny part of the brain called the amygdala.  This cluster of neurons is thought to be the center of our “fight or flight” reaction to bad things we perceive in the world around us.  To be sure, this is really helpful since, if we find ourselves in a burning building let’s say, our body signals us to either rush for the fire extinguisher or the nearest exit, depending upon how we evaluate this threat in a micro second of time.

But, for most of us, the negatives we perceive every day are things like financial worries, the loss of jobs or relationships, work or health problems, parenting, or other daily pressures like traffic jams, deadlines and schedules.  The stress they cause can show itself by memory problems, difficulty concentrating, moodiness, irritability, sadness,  constant worrying, nervous habits like pacing  or finger nail biting, drastic changes in sleeping and eating habits, intestinal problems and isolation from others.  Symptoms like these mean the amygdala is stuck in high gear, according to some theories, but there’s more than one thing we can do about it.

And learn them we should since the consequences of prolonged stress or even periodic high levels of stress can be significant.  Indeed, unmanaged stress can lead to or exacerbate medical problems like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, gastro intestinal disorders, infertility and sleep disorders. Some in the field of stress research use the term “colossal” to describe the connection between stress and physical disease.

Focus on Four

For both researchers on stress and educators on stress management, the work of addressing our reactions to life’s threats focuses on four key aspects.  These stress-busters offer helpful ideas that are worth noting; let’s frame them as questions:

1. Can anything be done to reduce a person’s stress?

Maybe we just can’t “have it all.”  Perhaps we’re trying to accomplish just too much during the day, the week, or the month and the pace and burden of everything we Viagra think we need to accomplish isn’t work the unhealthy toll it takes on our emotional health.  Perhaps relief lies in cutting back, saying ‘no’ more often and prioritizing our time and energy in different ways.

2. Can we change our thinking about the threats we perceive?

Psychologists use the term ‘reframing’ to mean the adoption of a different point of view regarding some issue or problem.  With stress, this mental trick can work wonders.  Irritated at a co worker or a spouse?  Catch yourself and try to find some strength or attribute in that person that gives you a different reaction.  The key notion here is that with awareness of our stress response, we gain more control and options for reacting in new ways.

3. Can anything be done to lessen the negative feelings that come to us in a stressful situation and increase more positive feelings?

Mental health experts now have more reasons than ever to extol the virtue of a positive mental attitude when it comes to keeping stress at bay. If we make it a habit to see the ‘glass half full,’ our vulnerability to the bad consequences of stress is lesser.  Even something a simple as a smile is a step in the right direction.

4. Can we learn new coping strategies so that the tools in our stress-busting toolbox are as useful as they can be?

If I wanted to fix my old car, I’d likely need more than a hammer and screwdriver.  So too with stress; the more options I have at my disposal, the more capable I am at addressing the various types of stress that life throws my way.  Healthy ways of coping with stress are a diverse as the real and perceived problems that threaten us.  Whether it’s exercise, meditation, hobbies, prayer, distractions, massage, deep breadth training, music, social gatherings and connections, nutrition or even professional help, no one way works the best for everyone.

Know your (Coping) Numbers

That’s where knowing what works for you is the key to your own victory over stress.  Take some time and think about the many ways you cope with stress today.  What’ the number one way to battle stress that works the best for you?  What’s your second best strategy?  How about your third?  What’s after that on your list?

The more you know these coping numbers, and the more methods on your list, the better prepared you might be to keep life happier and healthier.

Being conscious about your repertoire of healthy responses is the first step to creating a rich reservoir for coping.  To do this, you’ll have to think about those events in life that cause you symptoms of stress in the first place.  That knowledge is the starting point to building a stress-less lifestyle.

The Mental Health Side of Health Care


Added Funds for Mental Health a Helpful Start

By Phil Wyzik, CEO, Monadnock Family Services

With good reason, the mental health side of health care has captured much attention in the Granite State and the country lately.  Mostly a subject only discussed by people directly affected by behavioral health issues, their families, or providers and funders of services, recent months have seen a great deal of press about mental illness and our system designed to address it. As someone who has work in community mental health for decades, this attention is unprecedented, welcome, and long overdue.
We have this new focus on mental illness because of tragedies that can’t be ignored.  If we were smart about things, we can reduce the likelihood of these problems too.

First, New Hampshire is witnessing a shortage of safe and effective hospital based interventions for people whose illness has reached a point of severity that requires a specialized level of institutional care.  Each day, dozens of desperately ill people wait in community hospital emergency rooms until a bed is vacated by a patient at New Hampshire Hospital.   For both adults and children in this situation, the fewer and fewer voluntary psychiatric beds in hospitals won’t do, since the seriousness of their symptoms has surpassed the threshold for safety that these facilities are designed to handle.

Second, the shocking murder of 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown CT in December has etched itself onto our public consciousness unlike other such acts in recent years.  The slaughter of these innocents by a young man with obvious problems is not easily forgotten.   In the wake of this nightmare, new calls for a renewed look at mental health services have come from the President, State and local governments and the public at large.

To be sure, there are signs of hope.  For a number of years, our state has had a detailed 10 year plan to improve mental health care that was broadly designed, comprehensive in scope, and widely embraced by many constituencies when it was proposed in 2008.  Since then however, the state’s economic decline saw fewer and fewer dollars invested in the mental health system. Now the Governor’s proposed budget attempts to reinvest in the plan with $28 million.  This infusion of resources would add inpatient beds, new residential programs and other necessary services.

Another hopeful prospect is the opportunity to expand Medicaid, the largest payer of mental health care in the country, for a new cohort of people under the Affordable Care Act, that marks its third anniversary this month.   It’s estimated that the expansion would bring health insurance to approximately 100,000 NH residents  and give them what many of us get from our employers – a way to pay for the care we need and a lesser risk of economic disaster from unpaid medical bills.  With health insurance, the burden of illness in someone’s life is lessened; this seems good for society too.

Helpful as these things are, we all need to be aware that, even if they come to pass,  they address mental health problems far ‘down stream’ in the course of the illness,  long after much damage has been done to the individual, their family, and their future.  Many in the mental health field now think that it takes about two years after the first start of a symptom of mental illness until a solid formal diagnosis might be established.  It may take many more years after that before a person accesses professional help.

Common sense tells us that problems are much easier solved when they are small.  Our US health care system, however, delays services until illnesses loom large, deeply embedding themselves into every aspect of someone’s life.  Holding back on care makes for more complex and more costly solutions.

Thankfully, much is being understood about how to prevent mental illness in the first place, and what to do at the first sign of difficulties.  For example, it’s now very clear that keeping children away from adverse childhood events like neglect, trauma, bullying and poverty greatly enhance mental health in later years.  Similarly, getting them access to care sooner lessens the risk of substance abuse, academic and social problems and suicide.  Skill building and resiliency training in schools has also proven to be effective.  Assertive community treatment, something that’s part of Governor Hassan’s budget, is undeniably helpful.

While New Hampshire urgently needs more financial support for its mental health system that has been hobbled by difficult economic times in the state,  we also need to consider what public health interventions we can make ‘up stream,’ long before the need for expensive care arises. 

Given the nation’s pattern of deficit spending that has gone on for many years, lawmakers warn that we are leaving a legacy of debt for our children and grandchildren.  If we continue to address health care problems only after they are frightfully severe, we’ll also be leaving them a legacy of illness that’s bound to spark more tragedies for everyone.

Focus on Homelessness

Mostly Out of Sight…. But Never Out of His Mind

By Phil Wyzik, CEO, Monadnock Family Services

Not many people know they are there, and many in the community would rather keep it that way.  Some might be in the woods behind a major supermarket in Keene… others near the river a short walk from the Stone Arch Bridge… a cluster might be tucked away at Robin Hood Park… and a small group likes a tiny island in the Connecticut River between Hinsdale and Brattleboro.

Matt Primrose knows they are there because that’s his job.  For four year, he’s been Monadnock Family Service’s Outreach Worker trying to assist people in their transition from homelessness.  It’s good that he’s an outdoorsman, because lots of his time is spent walking through the woods visiting homeless people in their makeshift tents and encampments — out of sight from most residents of the county —this has become their only refuge.  Like a letter carrier, Matt’s out there in all sorts of weather.  His goal is to earn the person’s trust and figure out what next step they’d be willing to take to find a better place to live.

One day in a place the locals call “tent city” (population 20) not far from a nearby shopping center, Matt met Howard.  In the course of their conversation, Matt found out that the two had more than a few things in common, particularly much work experience in the building trades.  Howard, a pretty good carpenter, was now suffering from some neurological damage to his right arm and hand, a paralyzing affliction that would make it impossible for him to ever hold a hammer again.  Unable to make a living, the losses started to accumulate and Howard’s mental state declined, making his depression just about as numbing as his senseless limb.

“I’d say that 90% of the homeless people I meet have a mental health or substance abuse problem,” Matt asserts. “You have to approach them respectfully and carefully.  I try to be a real person, somebody they can trust because I sincerely want to get them some help.”

So with Howard, Matt begins slowly with a gentle and hopefully engaging conversation about what he needs, what he might accept, and what Matt knows about the people and services in the Monadnock Region that might have something to offer Howard.  For some it might be a ride to a local shelter, for others a stop at the Keene Housing authority or a private landlord. For most it’s a trip to the local office of the Department of Health and Human Services to find financial or other assistance.  His goal with Howard is to figure out how he can help him rebuild his life and career around something new.  For people like Howard, that’s often a scary proposition. “They have to see me as someone they can count on,” Matt explains.

Even the briefest conversation with Matt tells you he loves his job. Even though he talks about an average day with a big smile on his face and a contagious enthusiasm that’s inspiring, he’ll discuss both the successes and heartaches that come with trying to reach people in need.  He’ll tell an uplifting story like Robert’s… a man who spent 12 years in prison for armed robbery, which in truth was really a failed attempt at ‘suicide by cop.’  In jail, Robert had a religious conversion experience.  After his release and much time being homeless, he met Matt.  Matt helped him find first the 100 Nights Shelter, then an affordable apartment.  Now Robert volunteers there and is trying to give back to the community that, through Matt, gave so much to him.

He’ll tell you a sad story like Charlotte’s… a young woman whose personality problems and drug addiction made her unable to stay in an apartment for very long and proved to be an obstacle to using all of the homeless shelters in the area.  Matt and others tried heroically to get her to a healthier place, even driving hours to her former home in Connecticut to recover her possessions. “We tried everything we could think of to give her some help,” he admitted, “ but then she just left town. We don’t know where she is now.”

Still, Matt is a realist.  He’ll tirelessly work to find and reach out to homeless people in the Monadnock Region to help get them to a better place in their life.  He does this for approximately 130 people each year and the majority of residents in Cheshire County don’t even know about it.