By: Karl Shallowhorn
Stress is a significant risk factor for people living with any kind of mental health challenge. No matter what the condition, added stress to a person’s life can exacerbate their symptoms exponentially.
I should know. I’ve been living with bipolar disorder for over 40 years. I had my first episode when I was a college freshman at General Motors Institute (GMI). I was abusing substances, away from home for the first time, and enduring the stress of an extremely rigorous academic program. Basically, it was the perfect storm that has played out in the lives of so many young people today. In the U.S. according to a recently published report from the Healthy Minds Study which collects data from 373 campuses nationwide, “During the 2021 school year, 60% met the criteria for at least one mental health problem.” In another national survey published by the American College Health Association in 2021, almost three quarters of students reported moderate or severe psychological distress. We are experiencing a crisis unlike any we’ve ever seen before.
I struggled a great deal during my college years. After my psychotic episode at GMI, I returned to Buffalo where I attended as a non-matriculated student at the University at Buffalo and completed my Bachelor’s degree in Broadcasting at SUNY Buffalo State.
Fortunately, with the support of my parents, mentors, and mental health professionals I was able to find a way out of the madness I had experienced. I joined a 12-Step program and this was the turning point in my life. This is where I learned many of the same coping strategies that I use today, as well as the principles of living, “just for today” and “life on life’s terms.”
But despite these great tools, I have encountered countless stressors that have challenged me and forced me to dig deep into my reserves of mental and emotional wellbeing, such as assuming the responsibilities of husband and father, several changes in employment which required “learning on the job,” not one but two trips to China, and the TEDx Buffalo talk I did a year ago.
And of course, there are the daily stressors of work, Covid-19, and the national and world crises. It’s enough to make even the emotionally strongest of individuals cave in under all this pressure.
What I’ve learned for myself is that I am resilient. I have been able to literally “bounce back” from so many adverse situations in my life that when faced with new challenges, I remind myself that I’ve been through things that have prepared me for whatever it is I’m going through. Resilience is what is known as a “protective” factor.
It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to discover the coping tools that work for me. Things like mediation, exercise, getting proper sleep, taking my prescribed medication, regular visits with my therapist, utilizing the support of family (especially my wife Suzy) and friends, including those in the 12-Step program that I still attend.
I didn’t learn these things overnight. It took time. But the more I develop these tools, the more resilient I become. I call it building my “resilience muscles.” Mind you, I don’t go out actively seeking experiences that increase my stress, but it’s inevitable. Stress is a part of life. And it doesn’t have to be all bad either. “Eustress” is positive stress. The kind of stress that makes Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs as great as they are. I’m not saying that I’m like either of these phenomenal athletes. What I’m saying is that stress can be a good thing too. And it can help us to develop resilience in other ways.
When it comes down to it, I believe that we are all capable of doing more than we think we can. And when it comes to resilience, we’re stronger than we think we are. So, when you’re going through a tremendously stressful time, remember that you’ve gone through tough times before.
You’ve got this! You’re resilient!