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Strategies for People Living with Mental Illness: Ten Tips for Managing Stress

September 2008

Whether measured by the unemployment rate, reaction to the economic bailout debates, rationing money to pay for medications or food, or the effects of the high home foreclosure rate, the current economic situation has Americans experiencing more psychological distress than ever before.

In the face of these realities, reports from all over the country offer a gloomy picture: people are straining both private and public psychiatric services, and are even put in the position of making the choice between needed psychiatric medications and such necessities as food or gasoline. People are stressed out. This all causes a ripple effect that may lead to negative outcomes for many individuals and their families.

And what of the most vulnerable populations, those who are already dealing with serious and persistent mental illness?  No one likes uncertainty, and people with mental illness are no different.

“The NAMI HelpLine has been receiving calls from individuals or families affected by mental illness who are further stressed by the news of the struggling economy,” said Martha Brick, manager of the NAMI National Information HelpLine. “For individuals and families living with mental illness, it is often the support of a HelpLine associate, a listener who can relate to their experience, that they find the most helpful.”

In response, NAMI HelpLine associates offer the following Ten Tips as strategies for people with mental illness who are stressed by news of the current economic crisis.

  • Engage with your social networks and friends. Being with people helps to keep you focused on the positive and gives you opportunities to process fears, concerns, and challenges. If you have a NAMI Connection or other recovery support group available, plan to attend.
  • Maintain your medication and treatment plan. Schedule appointments with health care providers, therapists, and others who are part of your treatment plan, if needed to assist during a challenging time.
  • Be mindful of your diet. Caffeine, alcohol, and sugar all contribute to increased anxiety.
  • Avoid short-term “self-medication” that involves using drugs or alcohol. Alcohol, in particular, is a depressant and compounds suffering over time.
  • Play with your pet. Research shows that pets help combat loneliness, reduce blood pressure, organize your day, and are a source of solace.
  • Maintain a structured routine. Many people with mental illness report that structure is motivational and supports a feeling of accomplishment, which can help offset feelings of worry or anxiety that may accompany the news of the day.
  • Participate in spiritual and relaxation practices. Many report that yoga, faith-based practices, breathing, meditation, and visualization contribute to reduced anxiety and promote a sense of wellness.
  • Exercise. Positive feelings enhanced by the release of endorphins are only part of the benefits of exercise. Improved self-esteem and enhanced self-worth are other advantages. 
  • Laugh. Watch an old movie, cartoon, or comedy sketch on TV to elevate your spirits. Laughter often helps people overcome feelings of depression and worry.
  • Avoid negative media, including television and radio news, if it proves to be agitating.
  • Listen to music, or sing. Many people with mental illness report that listening to music and singing familiar songs can help them through difficult times by temporarily replacing worry and anxiety with moments of pleasure and joy.

“Borrowing from cognitive-behavioral therapy, it can be helpful to remember that the economic problems are not your fault--and you can control how you choose to respond to them,” said Ken Duckworth, MD, NAMI medical director.

People with mental illness working on their recovery know that it is a step-at-a-time process. The economic situation is likely to be a similar journey. Things will get better over time.

“Of course we remind people that coping strategies are not intended to replace the components of their individual treatment plan. As with any serious medical illness, however, successfully managing stress is part of the effort to achieve wellness,” Martha Brick concluded.

“We recognize that many just need someone to talk to, someone to help them think through their worry and concern. That is at the heart of the NAMI HelpLine and what we do.”

The NAMI National Information HelpLine offers the following as additional resources for those interested in exploring this topic more:

Try "A Simple Form of Meditation"

Participate in NAMI's online discussion groups with others who may be feeling as you do:

Check out the Stress Center's recommendations from the renowned Mayo Clinic (includes a blog entry on stress and the financial crisis).

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