Stress and Mental Health

Too much stress is bad for you. This fact may seem obvious, but it isn’t as obvious as you may think. A recent NYT article examines research which demonstrates the risk that stress presents to heart health. The recent studies demonstrate that psychological stress may play just an important part – possibly an even greater part – in heart health than physical stress. This is true not just for people with underlying heart conditions, but also for people with completely healthy hearts. Stress triggers the release of hormones which, over time, increase blood pressure and promote atherosclerosis, a condition that commonly underlies heart disease. The article also suggests ways of reducing stress, such as exercising, activities such as yoga or mindfulness, and some medications.

            As a student, I have often felt guilt for taking breaks or procrastinating. I felt that feeling stress was equivalent to productivity – which was in some situations true, but for the most part constituted for me a huge source of undue stress. For me, part of this subconscious belief comes from popular culture and portrayals of irresponsible, tomboy students shirking work in order to go and fool around with their friends. In order to be praised as diligent, I would actively try to defy these stereotypes, which is to say I would try to avoid having fun. I know someone whose father told them that they were not allowed to have fun until they got into college. The other half of this problem is the stressful modern environment, which emphasizes success and unrelenting hard work as a sort of gospel. We’re always told to do our best, but what is “our best?” Is it working until we don’t feel like it anymore, or is it working until we literally drop? We aren’t really given a choice in this matter. Nobody is telling us that we are not allowed to take breaks, but the modern culture is implicitly telling us so. That is why I hate the word “hedonistic:” it is a disparaging word which could easily be applied to people who simply value their mental health, which to me is a fundamental right. This is just the stress from my privileged standpoint, where all I have to worry about is succeeding academically. There are millions of others who have to deal with all of that on top of other stressors, such as financial insecurity. 

            The point of this rant was to demonstrate that modern medicine has fixed many of humanity’s physical ailments with its wondrous vaccines and medicines, but unhealthy mental habits are not just still present, but are also getting worse. The mounting stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, is literally destroying our hearts, and the stress of the modern world has been killing us for quite some time. The field of medicine is already starting to turn its attention to this topic, but when will policy finally acknowledge the gravity of this crisis? I’m not trying to suggest that there is a silver bullet to this problem, nor that is it a problem that cannot be solved. As I have repeated ad nauseam, what mental health warrants is international attention. It should not just be treated like a health problem; it has to be viewed as a fundamental human right and deserves a spot in the pantheon of social justice, alongside race, gender, socio-economic status, and religious belief, among other things. People disadvantaged by, for example, systemic racism, experience more stress than the average white person (look it up – there are so many studies done examining this relationship). Mental health is not unrelated to all of these things, and it is high time that we realize that.


I'm a high school student dedicated to stimulating conversation around mental health.

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