It’s Normal for Humans to…
If a person’s concern is focused on mental illness and issues, it is sometimes hard to remember that it is normal for humans to move through developmental stages, and to feel stress, and feel different emotions:
- Stress – caused by both physical and psychological stressors, and including both negative and positive events (e.g. marriage, new job);
- Emotions – including fear, anxiety, grief, happiness and others.
Some degree of stress is necessary to life. The key is whether a person’s capabilities meet or exceed the degree of challenges they face. For example, a child facing several adverse childhood events that overwhelm her/his ability to cope will be experiencing stress at a level considered toxic, rather than moderate. Sometimes we add to our own stress level – such as not getting enough sleep, not eating nutritiously, isolating ourselves from others, or letting negative thoughts pervade our minds. This makes us less able to cope when stressors in our external lives are added.
How we respond to stress, and whether we access support from friends, family and sometimes others is the key. Research is increasingly clear that we can take action to change the potential outcomes of stress that would otherwise be toxic.
Grief, the experience of loss influences both mental and physical experience. Losses can be death of a person or pet, but also other important losses in our life – loss of a job or relationship, or loss of a deeply held dream or expectation (sometimes we grieve the loss of the dream of what we hoped to get from a relationship for example). People experience grief in many different ways – and can have many different thoughts or feelings during the journey. We have a tendency to avoid processing these losses, and over time that can take a toll. Sometimes it helps to seek grief counselling as a support in the course of our journey.
Anxiety and fear are closely related. While fear relates to threats in the moment and our reaction is more easily seen by others, anxiety is more about anticipating a threat that may or may not happen in the future, and is not as easily recognized by others. The natural fear responses are flight, fight, or freeze (and some add ‘fawn’). While it may seem hard to accept, fear and anxiety do have positive purposes – to motivate us to take action. However when a person doesn’t ‘bounce back’ from a fear or anxious state and stays in that state for longer periods of time, it can set up problematic patterns in their mind and body.
Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. Short-term stress relief activities, or stress management practices like meditation, creative activities or talking about it to a friend or peer supporter can be enough to ‘bounce back’ to normal. However if our levels of anxiety or other responses to stress strongly interfere with our own or others’ daily living, it can move into the realm of mental illnesses. People with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations, or have repeated panic attacks (episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes). If you, or someone you know is having these types of experiences, then seeking professional support is the most helpful action to take.
It’s also normal for humans to move through developmental stages – both physically and mentally. We are increasingly recognizing that this is not limited to childhood, but is a reality throughout our lives.
Brain development is an important aspect of human development. Brain development occurs over a longer time than previously thought (prenatal through age 25). The later years involve development of executive functions, which influence adaptive skills such as planning and self-regulation.
Advances in neurological research are helping us understand just how plastic our brains are throughout life, and the impact on the brain’s plasticity on our continuing to learn and make decisions, and to find ways to regulate stress in productive ways. Older students can also gain by developing or improving on their positive mental wellness strategies.
We develop skills and attitudes towards stress and emotions through our whole lives, starting with early childhood.
We all bring habits and attitudes into our post secondary years, built in response to the stressors we’ve experienced so far in our lives. Part of success in post-secondary education is developing better habits and attitudes to cope with the increased stress and emotions. The demands of post-secondary education can be an abrupt change from high school so sometimes that increase in stress and emotions can be dramatic. In addition to the normal stressors of life, post secondary education can involve moving to a new city or an entirely new culture, living away from home for the first time, and developing new relationships.
The life stage of ages 18 – 24 is one that usually involves navigating the transition from being mostly dependent on family of origin to being more responsible for oneself, and developing close personal networks of friends and family that are nourishing. So, it is important to develop our skills and understanding of how best to grow productive habits and ways we can cope with stressors throughout our lives. Some students are older and more established, and post secondary education is a disruption to existing life patterns – and so an opportunity to reconsider old assumptions and habits.
Seen from this lens, it may be more obvious why improving self-awareness and developing conscious and productive habits and attitudes is so important for post secondary students – it isn’t just to survive the years of post secondary education. As we advance through our careers, our ability to cope successfully with more and more ambiguity, complex problem resolution and to create highly productive relationships influences our success throughout our lives – at work, in our families, and as citizens.
So What? How does this influence your Strategy?
You can include actions in your Strategy that help students to recognize what is normal for them, and the most productive actions to take when they are concerned about themselves or others. It is important to help students to understand what actions they can take and why, not just to supply solutions – the objective is to help students build their self awareness of what works for them in different situations.
One key for people is to recognize which stressors are more impactful for them, what they’re already doing to cope, and the difference between mild, moderate and severe levels of stress, anxiety, and other emotions. That helps us to know what actions are most appropriate to take, which habits are helpful and which we need to change. Understanding Mental wellness and life assets describes a set of steps to take to help discover this for ourselves.
There is lots of information to help you think about what strategies you want to use, and to know what to look for to know you’re making progress, depending on what outcomes you want to achieve with your activities.
You can use the reference list as a starting point for exploring the topics more broadly if you want further information.
Remember that the ACMHI strategy understands this within the frame of a Mentally Healthy Campus. It also helps to understand why systemic factors matter more than individual willpower and behavior, as well as recognizing normal human experiences and brain development in the context of mental wellness and illness. What is a Mentally Healthy Campus? provides additional background.