Advice for when life makes you a little – or a lot – stressed

By Phil Plait | May 14, 2011 7:00 am

I’ve written about Astrobites before: it’s a collective blog by astronomy grad students explaining recent papers and research in the field.

Besides the science, they have a category in the blog called "Career navigation", which has advice on how to handle the practical aspects of a career in science and astronomy. All the entries are good, but I want to specifically point out this one by astronomer John Johnson, an exoplanet hunter at Caltech. I met John last year at a panel I hosted last year about the search for planets and life in space, and immediately liked him. He’s smart, funny, nice, and seemed like he had a pretty solid outlook on things.

The article he wrote for Astrobites is about how to retain your mental health while under the ridiculous amounts of stress induced by grad school. But some of what he says can be extrapolated to anything in life. For example,

For most of us, if we were to wake up five mornings in a row with excruciating pain in our right arm, we’d probably go see a doctor and get it checked out. So why is it that we don’t get our minds checked out if we, say, wake up five mornings in a row feeling stressed, burned-out, or otherwise unhappy?

THIS. Somehow, our society has assigned a stigma with mental illness that we don’t have for physical ones, and that really needs to stop. I’ve known so many people with some sort of mental issue, from relatively benign to serious disorder, and in many cases the key to survival was simply recognizing it. From there, seeking help becomes possible. And in a lot of cases, treatment can be very effective.

I’ve had the odd job or two that put me under stress, and from there started to affect my physical health. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able, after many years, to find a job — writing — that I love doing and which has put me in a position that stress is a rare (though by no means extinct) thing. I know not everyone has that option. But simply living with the stress and frustration isn’t viable either.

John’s advice is good for low-level stress, or even the kind of stress we lay on ourselves (because truly accepting it’s our choice makes it somewhat easier to deal with, in my experience). But if you can’t make a change to relieve stress, at least seek help. I’ve read a lot of personal stories on skeptic bulletin boards and elsewhere about people who changed their lives for the better because they took that first, big step. I’m not a doctor (well, not that kind of doctor), so I can’t tell you what to do or not. But I can tell you that if any of this sounds familiar, then seeking out the right kind of doctor can change your life, and you can hope it’s for the better. It turns out that way a lot.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Piece of mind

Comments (40)

  1. Kitta

    Thank you so much for this post, Phil. I am so glad to see a scientist and skeptic like yourself asserting the validity of getting help when your mind is unquiet. Trying to “stick it out” isn’t always the “strong” thing to do–in this case, getting help is what’s strong, and because of the stigma it takes a lot of courage. It can be really hard to understand that a disease in the mind is just as serious as a disease elsewhere in the body–it’s like there are two categories of illness: disreputable (mental) and reputable (not mental). These are false divisions. Finding out that a friend, loved one, or even yourself has a mental illness really forces you to restructure your understanding of what it means to be mentally ill. Some stress is just stress, but there are ways–valid ways, be they life changes, therapy, or in some cases medication–to deal with that stress; and some stress isn’t just stress, and getting help can literally be life-saving. Taking pills isn’t the right answer for every complaint, but psychiatric medication does have a stigma that is far beyond what it deserves. Medications, when properly used, allow people to address and handle their feelings–they don’t take them away or substitute “fake” feelings for real ones.

  2. dmbeaster

    Somehow, our society has assigned a stigma with mental illness that we don’t have for physical ones, and that really needs to stop.

    Actually, its the same stigma, except that for most physical ailments, we have gotten used to the idea that they are readily treatable, so who cares. However, once you talk about AIDS or some other ailment, there is the same stigma (actually worse; and 50+ years ago, there was a similar stigma about cancer, and we had to have anti-discrimination laws about cancer because there was so much ignorance about “catching” it from the afflicted).

    The science of treating mental issues is not nearly as developed as for pathogens. Yes, there are a number of conditions that are readily treatable, but if someone is being treated for a “mental illness,” the concern is that it is one of those for which there is not a ready cure.

    And the consequence of having your brain be out of whack is also a lot more severe than a physical ailment. For example, just try to get your medical license back if you have been diagnosed with a mental instability (even if temporary) that affected your ability to practice and your license suspended as a result. And those are doctors affected by the stigma about mental conditions.

  3. Excuse me?

    As a tenured professor in a major research university, all I can tell you is that if you are already feeling unbearably stressed out in graduate school, this is not the right career path for you. It is not only unrelenting, but progressively worse. I’ve been told by senior colleagues that it may taper off a hair right before retirement/emeritus, but only if you cut yourself the slack.

    If that right arm hurts five mornings in a row, you chew it off and keep moving. Friendly warning.

  4. merely gruntled

    Stigma: Ugh, tell me about it. I was humiliated to have to admit recently that I had several months of mental health counseling… at a center with a certain religion in its name, no less, which makes me look like some sort of moron scared of secular doctors. Actually, it was my mother that made me go there, my mother was the REASON I was there, and once she heard the psychiatrist’s opinion that SHE was the reason I was so stressed out whenever I was around her, my mother suddenly decided that the psychiastrist wasn’t [religion] enough and withdrew me. Now I have it on my medical history forever that I needed mental health services (and it will show up on my background investigation) when I just needed to get the h-e-double-hockey-sticks away from my control freak mother and her judgmental new husband. Soooo much happier now that I’m all moved out and a few hundred miles away!

    So to other people who know their mental health needs some fine-tuning: it usually can be fixed, and the problem may not even be inside YOU! For me, it was removing my ultra-religious mother’s control over my life. It took years, but now I am so happy!

    But I still worry that someone will see the counseling on my background check and dismiss me as “broken”….

  5. icewings

    So true, Phil. Many people do not realize that a mental illness is a physical illness – it has a physiological cause – including many medical doctors, unfortunately.

    I got the courage to tell my doctor about my wild mood swings, which had plagued me for several months, and he prescribed an SSRI. Within six weeks, I was a new person! I have jurisdiction over my emotions now, and I am truly happy for the first time in a long time.

    I liken my situation to someone who is anemic. But instead of not having enough iron in my blood, I don’t produce enough serotonin in my brain.

    Ask for help if you need it. You don’t need to suffer. Your life can be better!

  6. David

    From my own personal experience, it gets put on the back burner simply because I can’t afford it. It’s the same thing that causes the stress that prevents me from getting treatment for it.

  7. Max Coldren

    Depression is anger without enthusiasm. Depression is a rational response to living in a toxic society. A highly educated cohort emerges deeply in debt, largely unemployable in grade, and euchered out of reproduction by age and circumstance. Somebody holding a construction STOP sign has a home, a wife and kids, and a powerboat. Welfare, child care, and Medicaid are free for the deserving. Rather than foster brilliance we allocate for its suppression.

    At least 55 million people in a US population of 310 million suckle a major entitlement. Somebody must pay for it. That’s you, sucker, not in it for the free ride and not supervising it for commission. Southern California lifeguards make $130,000/year, including a $400/year perk for sunblock. You should not be depressed, you should be homicidal.

  8. Ian

    We spend alot of time working out our bodies, making ourselves physically fit, but how many of us actually workout our minds? I don’t mean by thinking HARDER all the time, I mean by actually paying attention to what we think and spending some time changing it to better thinking.

    People only get stressed because they believe that whatever is happening should not be. The truth is, that it IS happening to them and if they accept that, the stress begins to dissolve and you get to make a choice on how to get out of the situation, or solve it.

    That’s the best way I’ve found to reduce stress and i’m pretty stress free most of the time now.

  9. Wzrd1

    Ian, there are many, many causes of stress. Some CAN be handled the way you suggest, others cannot.
    Consider a hostile work environment, especially in the current economy, whether or not you like it, you’ll experience significant stress. But, one mitigating factor is that the environment is one that you go home from and have a chance to relieve that stress by some amount.
    Now, consider a service member in the field right now, the stress never leaves, they could be under attack at any time, by a variety of means and literally be in danger for their lives.
    Consider those service members now leaving their FOB (forward operating base), to go on patrol.
    Consider our Special Forces, who are out for many days on end in hostile territory.
    Consider the stress induced by watching buddies getting shredded by an IED. Shortly before, talking and joking together, now collecting parts of a friend.
    All of the thinking and accepting in the universe cannot overcome such things for many people.
    Hence, the need for professional mental health care assistance. Something STILL stigmatized by our military, in spite of directives of the national command authority and senior officers of every branch, something that is gradually altering into a modern mindset and culture.

  10. icewings

    Ian’s attitude is precisely why mental illness retains its stigma. You can’t use the power of positive thinking to cure yourself of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc. If your brain is ill, you will experience stress from within. This stress will not go away just because you put on a happy face.

    The implication that only weak-minded and weak-willed people need medication for their mental problems is unfair and untrue. You wouldn’t deny a person with a bacterial infection their antibiotics and tell them, “Just accept the fact that you are sick and you will feel better about it.” Trivializing mental illness is similarly asinine.

  11. Honestly, the prospect of professional help just doesn’t appeal to me because I know that anyone you talk to will just be someone who’s getting paid to listen. They’re really just strangers with no real sense of love, or compassion for you… They’re just doing their job, and they’ll still get paid for it, regardless of whether or not you show any improvement. If I were to suddenly disappear one day, I doubt very much that they’d shed so much as a tear for me, except perhaps to lament their loss of income. And if they don’t genuinely care, then why should I? Sorry if that sounds pessimistic, but it’s how I feel.

  12. Jamie

    Ian, accepting the situation you are in is not an effective way to reduce stress. Have you ever been severely stressed from university or work? It’s not because you are in a fantasy land. Many of us keep our feet planted on the ground for the most part>
    “People only get stressed because they believe that whatever is happening should not be.”
    This is absolutely not true. When I sign up for a task I know what is a head of me, but that doesn’t make me any less likely to suffer stress from it.

  13. Dys

    I am in no way informed or qualified in this area, so all of the below is opinion only. I recall Daniel Dennett saying in a lecture that everybody thinks they’re an expert on consciousness, because we all have one and experience it every moment. I’m willing to accept it’s not true, but the following is the best I have. :)

    I suspect it is possible to avoid stress by cultivating a perspective which doesn’t allow it, but it seems likely that stress is an innate biological response to percieved danger. If we do not perceive the causes of stress, there will be no stress. Seems reasonable. Question then becomes whether or not it’s possible or desirable to exist in a state which refuses to perceive negative stimuli.

    As far as mental health issues go, I believe on the basis of no evidence greater than my own experience that they divide into two broad categories: those which are caused by physical problems in the brain and those that emerge from the normal functioning of a perfectly healthy brain.

    Combat stress is almost certainly of the latter type, being caused when a perfectly healthy brain is subjected to seriously unhealthy conditions, which causes damage to the mind. Brain and mind are definitely separate things, which is not a form of dualism but a recognition of the fact that the mind is an emergent entity. The mind is the shadow cast by the brain.

    Physical problems are only corrected by physical interventions, whereas mental problems, while they could arguably be corrected by a sufficiently advanced physical intervention, are generally best treated by psychotherapeutic methods without any attempt to directly modify the brain state. All of which is to say that many types of mental problems can be treated by the sufferer within themselves, given the tools and understanding necessary.

    It is possible to eliminate memories medically, but I’m extremely uncomfortable with the idea of ‘curing’ things like grief or sadness.

  14. Brian Too

    Thoughtful post.

  15. Quiet Desperation

    Health care is horrible on this matter. I have have a plan at work of the type many refer to as “golden” (and I don’t even work in government!) and there is *nothing* in it on the mental health front.

    The mind is the shadow cast by the brain.

    That’s a vaguely depressing way to put it. Why not the mind is a light emitted by the brain?

  16. Well said and thankyou Bad Astronomer. Seconded by me. :-)

    Mental illness is, I suspect, a lot more common than most folks think. There is too much stigma and too little understanding and too little attention paid to this issue.

    I wonder how many other commenters here are mentally ill or neuro-atypical if you prefer. (Raising my own hand here.) I wonder how many know or don’t know mentally ill / “neurologically challenged / atypical” (?) family and friends?

    Ever heard this old saying? :

    “The whole world’s mad except for me and thee and I ain’t so sure about thee!” ;-)
    - Unknown.

    There’s more than a grain of truth in that, methinks.

    I think *sanity* is one of the rarest of all human conditions – speaking from my own crazy Point Of View natch.

  17. MadScientist

    I’ve never had a job that hadn’t been stressful, but so far I’ve managed to avoid a burnout.

  18. Svlad Cjelli

    You’d be surprised by how much people don’t want to make a fuzz about physical ailments. Mental ones are easier to hide, and hiding is often preferred.

  19. David

    I would say that if you experience a small amount of “normal” stress then you should try and deal with it yourself. If you are not able to function in everyday life then go get help. I wouldn’t go to the doctor for a leg cramp, but if it didn’t go away after a week then I’d seek professional help.

  20. truthspeaker

    Max Coldren Says:
    May 14th, 2011 at 10:48 am

    Somebody holding a construction STOP sign has a home, a wife and kids, and a powerboat.

    I doubt that very much. Unskilled construction laborers don’t get paid all that much. Skilled ones can make decent money, and for good reason – they have learned a lot of skills and do hard, necessary work.

  21. JediBear

    Speaking as someone who actually suffers from clinical depression, the very symptoms that suggest you need mental help can rob you of the will to seek it out.

    There should be no stigma attached to seeking mental health services. Everybody’s got issues. Most of us have subscriptions. If anything we should attach a stigma to those dumbasses who screw up their lives and hurt their friends and families because they can’t sack up and deal with the problem.

    I’ve said this for a long time: If you have computer trouble, you go to the IT guy. If you have car trouble, you take it to a mechanic. If you have health issues, you take them to a doctor. If you have a problem with your mind, you take it to a shrink.

    But that doesn’t make it any easier to get out of bed in the morning.

  22. Ian

    @Wzrd1 What you describe to me is not stress but beyond stress. That to me is anxiety and beyond. Also, in the battlefield, that kind of stress is important because it is actually a life threatening situation and the flight or fight response needs to be triggered. The situations that we feel in jobs/relationships/etc are not life threatening. Losing your job will not kill you, but for some reason we feel that it is the end of the world, which causes the stress especially when we argue in our heads that “we shouldn’t have been fired”. If you say “OK i’ve been fired, what shall I do now” you get to take the next appropriate action instead of milling over should or shouldn’t have been.

    @icewings It’s not about putting on a happy face and pretending nothing is happening. You’ve painted an unfair perspective that people like me are smiley faced gibbering idiots. I cannot comment on mental disorders such as schizophrenia (so please don’t think i’m saying you can cure that without medical help), but I wasn’t talking about mental disorders, I was talking about stress.

    Having suffered from depression, anxiety and panic attacks frequently from the age of 12-27 myself, I am very familiar with it. I also got myself out of it by teaching my mind to look at life more positively. Dr Robert Holden has already proven along with many others that positive psychology CAN beat depression and I have proved it to myself.

    Please understand that I am not saying that if you are in a bad situation that you should just accept it and do nothing about it. But alot of stress is caused by refusing to accept the situation is happening to you and doing nothing about it.

  23. “Being strong ain’t about lifting weights. It’s about knowing how to put them down.” – The Mother Truckers

    I’ve been depressed or, really, chemically imbalanced, for probably 20 years. 3 years ago I finally went to see my doctor & asked for something to help. He gave me some samples of Effexor XR and within hours of taking that first pill I felt a clearing in my brain. To this day I am still amazed at how much better I feel and how I could live like I did for so long.

    I always thought if I could just read the right book, think the right thing, live in the right place, have the right job, date the right guy, THAT would fix everything. If I eat better, exercise, meditate, I can make it all go away. Some things are beyond our external, metaphysical control. Sometimes it’s the chemicals in our brains that are on overload that are causing our woes and it’s with chemicals that we can even it out. Better living through chemistry.

    I too, wanted to be “strong” and fix my problems through some action that didn’t involve medication. Once I put those weights down I’ve been soaring.

  24. Melissa

    John Johnson-
    “Kind words, encouragement and praise are hard to come by in astronomy…”

    Now that is just a crime. You guys are beyond awesome. You dear hearts deserve kinds words, praise & encouragement ( & hugs!). Now see, you’ve just reminded me that I am grateful for you. And that makes me feel a little better inside. See how cool that works. ;)

  25. usagi

    Somehow, our society has assigned a stigma with mental illness that we don’t have for physical ones

    There’s no somehow about it. It was hard-coded into the Victorian era morality that still forms the foundation of Western thought. Grossly oversimplifying, mental illness is considered a character flaw. If you’re having mental health issues, it’s because you’re a weak or undeserving person (see several of the comments above and note how pervasive this sentiment still is regardless of how it’s dressed up).

    There are a hell of a lot of people who still believe that. (And people with fully functional, chemically balanced brains really don’t get what happens when the balance goes off–the closest brush I’ve had with it was taking a painkiller that knocked my brain chemistry out of whack. Let’s just say it was horrifyingly scary, and I’m extremely grateful the effect stopped quickly when I stopped taking the medication.) The stigma remains because there are a lot of people who are unwilling to accept that there’s nothing special about the brain. It’s another organ and it runs on electricity and chemicals. Like anything else, it can break down.

  26. Dana Lynn

    The stress from grad school triggered In me a flip, and brought to the forefront the silent bipolar disorder that I had suffered from for years. I really feel that the connections sought out in relation to seizures is interesting. As for the professor who posted above, I am sorry that you feel that way, and that we are brilliant people who make big impacts in this world.

  27. davidlpf

    I got medicated for depression about a decade ago. The main problem I had was dealing with people who thought it was just laziness. Some people thought getting me into a relationship was going to sole everything. One person thought reading gay personal ads and asking is that phone number was a way of getting into relationship.

  28. Peptron

    I have another thought about why mental illness has such a stygma. I get the feeling that quite a lot of people do not want to accept that the brain is the seat of consciousness, and of pretty much all we experience and all we are. Change the brain chemistry, and you change the person. Frontal lobe damage (or merely chemical imbalance) will make the most stable person into a unstable rage boy. Take some other brain part to get other results.

    My impression is that a lot of people do not want to accept that the brain is merely another organ, because that would mean that there is nothing hierarchically “above” the brain (like a soul). So some people seem to have a fantasy of invulnerability about the brain, or rather, a fantasy of invulnerability about what the brain does. That they would stay who they are even if their brain chemistry was completely off. From what point of view, mental illness cannot “exist”.

  29. Sadly, even many mental health “professionals” don’t want to face the fact that brain chemistry impacts one’s state of mind.

    When going through a particularly bad stretch back when I was in college, one of the school “counsellors” had the audacity to tell me everything would be okay if I “just smiled more.”

    -

    @ davidlpf:

    I met my partner, now husband, of 18+ years through a gay personal ad. Whatever works. :)

  30. davidlpf

    @kuhnigget
    I am not gay, altough there is nothing wrong with that, known a few gay people had no problems with them.

    The guy who read out the ads was an a(can’t use that word here), and was angry that a girl he liked didn’t like him and liked me instead.

  31. I’ve heard the stigma more associated with “invisible illnesses”–it includes mental illness, but also autoimmune disorders, etc. that don’t have obvious physical symptoms. Some of my dearest friends have been through horrible trials with doctors because of things like that (including fibro, PCOS, endometriosis, etc.) And even when these things are noticed, they’re often misunderstood–very recently, someone smart enough to know better told me I can’t “really” have obsessive-compulsive disorder because I’m not afraid of germs and don’t wash my hands all the time. Sigh.

    It’s pretty sad. I work in a really high-stress field, and we have a special orientation session for noticing and managing work-related anxiety/depression/stress for precisely that reason. Except when I went to the session, several people in the audience flat-out told the doctors on the panel that mental illnesses “aren’t real.” (Their argument was that, if depression were a real illness, there would be a straight-up blood test for it, like high cholesterol or diabetes. YEAH. Gee, how did these things get a stigma in the workplace?)

    @Wolfen–there are definitely a lot of folks who will treat you that way, but there are also some that really do care about their patients, and those are the ones worth finding. I went through quite a few therapists before I found one who was really invested in helping me. Yes, at the end of the day, I was paying her to listen to me, but (a) just caring about your patients don’t pay the bills, and (b) it worked for me personally because it was more like getting an objective opinion, or closer to one than I would get from my friends. She helped me through ending a terribly abusive relationship, and I’ll be forever grateful for that one.

  32. I went through a period of PTSD a few years back and once I finally got help, after months if agony, I was better within a matter of days and much better in a few weeks. It is so sad that the stigma of getting help is so widespread when there is indeed help that really works!

  33. Number 6

    @Wolfen….

    It seems that no one has responded to your post…I hope you take this in the right way….Your words: “If I were to suddenly disappear one day, I doubt very much that they’d shed so much as a tear for me, except perhaps to lament their loss of income.”…do concern me…It appears that you might be depressed. That might be your perception of how your death would impact others, but is that how others would truly feel?

    Regarding your quote: “Honestly, the prospect of professional help just doesn’t appeal to me because I know that anyone you talk to will just be someone who’s getting paid to listen. They’re really just strangers with no real sense of love, or compassion for you.”…..In my previous profession, I worked in the mental health field, and I did not encounter colleagues who felt the way you think they feel about clients. Also, when a person seeks help regarding mental health difficulties, a relationship soon emerges in which the client and the mental health professional are far from strangers.

  34. Also @ Wolfen:

    I know that anyone you talk to will just be someone who’s getting paid to listen.

    Couldn’t you say the same about ANY medical doctor? Replace “listen” with “take your temperature, do an x-ray, listen to your heart, prescribe medication,” etc, and you’re basically describing an MD. Competent mental health professionals just use a different set of tools.

  35. Juan

    I’ve thought of getting help about my constant melancholy but i never know whether it’s something serious or i am just overreacting. I mean, how do you know when the level of sorrow is beyond acceptable? Besides, this kind of meds sort of scares me. I have a friend that was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few years ago and now he’s a zombie with the emotional range of a teapot. I don’t want that either. I don’t want to be numb, i just want to stop feeling blue all the time.

    The question is, i guess: How do you know when it’s time to get help? Perhaps it’s a dumb question, but i think i could use an answer.

  36. Juan said:

    The question is, i guess: How do you know when it’s time to get help? Perhaps it’s a dumb question, but i think i could use an answer.

    If your melancholy is interfering with the way you want your life to be going, e.g. keeping friends away, messing up your work, making your pets avoid you, then it’s time to get help. And medication doesn’t have to turn you into a zombie. Your friend is probably on the wrong meds.

  37. Melissa

    @Juan
    If you think it might be time to see a doctor, you should. You may not need medication at all anyway. It may be something else in your life that’s causing you to feel this way. But I would absolutely recommend seeing a doc if your quality of life is affected.

    Speaking as someone who’s been on meds. I know the feeling of not wanting to zombified. With most antidepressants, that’s not the effect. But they’re not perfect. Remember it’s a trade off, you are essentially trading the side effects of depression for the side effects of medication. But most, I believe, would definitely choose the latter. I did. Good luck to you, dear. :)

  38. Matt B.

    As for the military thing, they should have a sort of reverse boot camp to help soldiers go back to civilian life. People have to go through a lot (mentally and physically) to become soldiers; why wouldn’t it take some work to turn them back into civilians?

  39. Juan

    Thank you very much for answering, Kuhnigget and Melissa. I’ll pay a visit to the doctor, then.
    Thanks.

  40. RobertC

    I’m not reading everything. BUT, as a sufferer of major depression, I made a choice one night.

    I woke my wife up and told her I wanted to shoot myself. I then told her I was going to get my guns, take the barrels out, and give them to her to hide so I couldn’t.

    Next stop, ER.

    Let’s just say that psychopharmacology has been very good to me.

    There are ups and downs. Sometimes severe downs, but I KNOW it can get better. So we tweak, talk, and work, and I do better.

    Any thoughts of “toughing it out” are ill informed. My brain is hurt, meds help. Period.

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