Mental Health

It’s impossible to avoid stress – but there’s a big difference between daily stress and a mental health care emergency. Here’s how to tell if you’ve crossed that line. 

What does normal stress feel like?

According to the WHO, stress is a state of worry or mental tension, caused by a difficult situation.

If you’re like most other South Africans, you’re probably already acquainted with stress. That’s not always negative. A certain amount of stress can be motivating; think of how much more productive you become when a deadline is looming, for example. 

Some people even seek out stress; that life-affirming thrill you receive when you go on a rollercoaster is a case in point.

However, says Dr Irma Verster, a psychiatrist at Mediclinic Denmar Mental Health Services,  your stress symptoms may reach a point where you need to pay greater attention to mental health care. 

When does stress become a health care emergency?

The tipping point is different for everyone, Dr Verster says, and may be influenced by several factors. “Some people are naturally resilient and can handle even a great deal of stress without showing adverse effects.” She cites research conducted among the survivors of the 9/11 bomb attacks in the United States, in which 30% of respondents developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); 30% developed stress symptoms that disappeared after a while; and 30% did not experience any symptoms at all. “Stress affects everyone differently,” she explains. 

That said, it’s time to rethink your approach to mental health care if you start experiencing symptoms as a result of your stress. “Mostly people struggle to relax,” Dr Verster says. “Symptoms may then manifest as anxiety that feels beyond your control. Some people start to experience free-floating anxiety, which is generalised anxiety without a concrete trigger.” Your stress reaction may trigger mental health symptoms such as:

  • depression 
  • fatigue 
  • insomnia  
  • irritability. 

Your physical well-being may also be affected by:

  • headaches
  • muscle aches 
  • shortness of breath 
  • dizziness
  • nausea 
  • heart palpitations 
  • joint pain.

If these symptoms are affecting your ability to carry out your daily tasks, your performance at work, or your social interactions, you may well have reached a crisis point. 

My stress has become unmanageable. What do I do now?

The first step in mental health care is to consult a professional, whether that’s a psychologist, a psychiatrist or your GP, who may refer you to a mental health care provider.

“Whatever you do, don’t self-medicate,” Dr Verster warns. “We often see people who try treating their symptoms with painkillers, which actually leads to problems like rebound headaches, thereby creating a vicious circle. Addiction is another possible result.” People who self-medicate with alcohol are inadvertently causing more damage. “Because alcohol is a depressant, it may worsen your symptoms,” Dr Verster explains.

How to avoid reaching crisis point

One of the most important things you can do in terms of mental health care is developing a self-care mindset. The building blocks include:

  • eating a balanced diet 
  • getting enough sleep 
  • avoiding substances and excessive caffeine 
  • sticking to a routine 
  • exercising 
  • maintaining a sound work/life balance that includes spending time with friends.

“These building blocks help you cope better with stress,” Dr Verster says. “Limit time following disturbing posts on social media or on the news and laugh with loved ones. Investing time in hobbies, especially creative pursuits, is highly recommended.”

Practising gratitude will also help to increase your resilience, while meditation and mindfulness are another useful part of your self-care arsenal, Dr Verster adds.