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Professor and CRC Gordon Flett on coping with psychological distress, the silent killer

Professor and CRC Gordon Flett on coping with psychological distress, the silent killer

If there was ever any doubt, Charlie Sheen is not winning, wrote May 12. While it was beauty that killed the beast, it was most likely pressure (brewed in wealth, drugs and women) that pushed Sheen from atop his skyscraper of a life:

Gordon Flett, Canada Research Chair in Personality and Health, examines psychological distress, emotional maltreatment and coping responses at York University [Faculty of Health]. Flett says while Sheen’s exploits are obviously an extreme case of a stress-related health problem, dealing with pressure and its resulting stress is by no means an uncommon condition.

“I feel badly for the guy [Sheen] because obviously, he’s out there. Everybody is watching him and he’s saying that he’s winning. He’s got millions of dollars to be able to cope with pressure and he has the girls that he keeps around, but mental well-being is not something he’s put a price tag on," says Flett. "There are people that are dealing with all kinds of stress and suffering and they keep quiet about it so nobody even knows what they are going through. They keep it to themselves as opposed to going on national or international TV and letting the world in on it."

And while Fleet doesn’t recommend booking time on "George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight" or "eTalk" to share your story with 34.4 million Canadians, he says heading down to the local pub or the bowling alley with friends for a few hours Friday night after work may be just what you need when it’s time to depressurize.

“Social support is crucial when battling stress. So anybody who is experiencing significant stress, and is also leading a pretty lonely, isolated life, is much more at risk," explains Flett. “If you have supportive people around you, that can really serve as a buffer. I think that’s one reason why people turn to the Internet. They find people there that they can chat with online."

But talking about stress with your partner, friends or co-workers isn’t for everyone. Flett says a lot of people stay quiet about how they feel because there is a stigma attached to it, but if those same people are truly feeling overwhelmed, they should seek psychological assistance.

“Maybe 3-in-10 of the people that should go for some kind of assistance actually goes, while the rest try to cope on their own or they don’t try to cope at all," says Flett. “In the case of stress, people can go for counseling or people can quite easily learn the skills of how to relax whether it’s breathing or yoga or exercise. But usually when somebody is chronically stressed, they need to change some thinking patterns too."

. . .

[ ] unlike blood pressure medication, there is no pill that combats stress, which is too bad, as researchers have charted ‘the silent killer’ through cortisol, the hormone, which is formed in response to stress.

Whether medication is available or not, we can still make moves to help ourselves and minimize stress by first pinpointing exactly where the pressures in our lives are stemming from. Pressure comes from a variety of different sources including major life events like marriage, divorce or even a new job, but wherever it comes from, Flett says it’s usually related to some kind of expectation that’s being imposed on a person to live up to a standard or some other kind of obligation.

“Because the pressure often comes from an external source and it’s weighing on the person, it’s usually a chronic form of stress," says Flett, “so it can have quite an impact because the individual could be thinking about the source of the stress all of the time."

And that’s not good. Paraphrasing the late Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye, considered by many as the father of biological stress, Flett says, “Every day that we have stress; we die a little bit more." Flett acknowledges it’s the small stuff, the daily things that people need to realize fuels chronic stress.

“Experts talk about blood pressure being the silent killer. I think stress is the silent killer. People may not realize how much stress they’re under or if they do realize it, they don’t see any way they can lessen it and it just continues to rack up."

Posted by Elizabeth Monier-Williams, research communications officer, with files courtesy of YFile – York University’s daily e-bulletin.