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Managing distress as a violence prevention strategy by Kari Halvorson, M.S.

Mental Health America aspires to build public recognition about mental health. In pursuit of mental health awareness, the organization has lead yearly campaigns in the month of May for the past 65 years. This year’s theme is “Mind Your Health.” In honor of Mental Health Month, herein is a discussion of two common and under-acknowledged phenomena in American culture—stress and violence.

Stress is a term that is often thrown around with little weight or understanding. Hans Selye, a pioneering researcher on stress, claimed that while eustress, or positive stress, can motivate and enhance performance, distress can be devastating to overall health. Distress can create negative psychological and biological responses. As stated by representatives of the Queensland Organization, “common health outcomes linked to [di]stress include cardiovascular disease, immune deficiency disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, musculoskeletald isorders and psychiatric/ psychological illness.” Despite all of this evidence about the dangers of distress, according to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America study, about 70% of Americans demonstrate physical and mental symptoms of distress, but only 37% think they are adequately managing their distress.

Distress on a personal level can be debilitating, but what does this mean on a social level? Author Eric Silver studied the effects of distress on violence. After examining 3,438 participants within a cross-cultural sample and controlling for secondary factors, Silver saw a significant link between distress, substance abuse, mental illness, and increased violence. More specifically, the odds of engaging in violence was more than four times greater for people with major mental disorder…and the odds of engaging in violence was eleven times greater for people with any substance abuse disorder. What are the implications for Silver’s findings? Silver hypothesized that mental disorder, substance abuse, and violence were largely rooted in distress and impaired social support. Moreover, in the physiological response to distress, some people may respond with the fight, flight, or freeze response.

This is an unconscious and protective mechanism developed millions of years ago to survive hostile environments. What may have once been evolutionarily advantageous is now at times absolute and produces inadequate behaviors. This may be most saliently observed with people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), in which due to a traumatic event or events, patients’ brains are rewired to associate certain stimuli with danger. Being exposed to that stimuli, or similar stimuli, may lead to unnecessary distress, arousal, and a “fight” response.

In lieu of the link between distress and violence, and the current economic recession and increased possible cultural stressors, the International Labour Organization proposed additional measures needed to prevent violence in various service sectors such as education, tourism, and public emergency services. Public recognition, de-stigmatization, and education on distress may be one important step. Additionally, in various service sectors, agencies can take proactive steps, which may decrease distress, prevent violence, and increase productivity. Such steps might include: empowering employees with more control over their responsibilities; providing better health care; implementing social support; developing safety policies and programs; and providing stress management and counseling for those whom are seriously affected by critical or traumatic incidents.

As a buffer against distress, the American Psychological Association (APA) suggests "10 Ways to Build Resilience", which are:

  • to maintain good relationships with close family members, friends and others;

  • to avoid seeing crises or stressful events as unbearable problems;

  • to accept circumstances that cannot be changed;

  • to develop realistic goals and move towards them;

  • to take decisive actions in adverse situations;

  • to look for opportunities of self-discovery after a struggle with loss;

  • to develop self-confidence;

  • to keep a long-term perspective and consider the stressful event in a broader context;

  • to maintain a hopeful outlook, expecting good things and visualizing what is wished;

  • to take care of one's mind and body, exercising regularly, paying attention to one's own needs and feelings.

In addition to the list above, the APA reports that people found it useful to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings related to trauma or other stressful events in their life. Meditation and spiritual practices help some people build connections and restore hope. The key is for people to identify ways that are likely to work well for them as part of a personal strategy for managing their distress and fostering resilience.

Kari Halvorson, M.S. is a Health and Human Development Specialist for the Violence Prevention Agency. Kari passionately advocates for clients’ empowerment, education, and success in preventing violence and thriving in life. She does this through authoring scholarly articles for the VPA, providing hourly consultations, and facilitating violence prevention and educational workshops for organizations.


Photo: Tau Braun

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