There are a number of things can could provoke a stress-based response from someone, from social anxiety, humiliation, to fall-outs with a manager at work, to witnessing traumatic or life-threatening events. Each of these is followed by a period of emotional recovery, lasting different lengths of time for different people.
After any stress-inducing incident it is perfectly natural (and expected) that the human brain will process the acute stress reaction. This will include things like numbing themselves from the pain of the incident and detachment from their emotions and the world around them. Other things that can occur very naturally include reliving the event in their mind, avoiding things related to the incident (such as the place or a person involved) and being hypervigilant. This can cause the person to be anxious, restless, lose sleep, avoid eating and even withdraw from the world around them. It is certainly likely to affect their work and personal lives.
Over time, the person is likely to talk to trusted friends or family about the event and process the event in their mind. This support helps them to deal with the acute stress and symptoms should fade over time.
An important part of this process is support networks – having people in their lives to turn to and talk through our emotions and events in our lives. This helps us to process our feelings and let go of the negative ones.
If person finds they are constantly reliving the stressful situation or the impact affects them for a longer-term period over (months instead of week), then this could be symptomatic of a mental illness underlying their reaction, or the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Many mental illnesses show themselves with similar symptoms, however they tend to be more persistent and disrupt a person’s daily quality of life over time. With long-term mental illnesses we are concerned about an increase in symptoms over time and this is when we recommend people seek professional help.
With a stress reaction, we expect to see a high level of impact and symptoms in the very short term, but that these decrease over time. If they remain high or increase then that’s when we advise people to seek longer-term professional help.
So, to answer the question, it can be very easy to confuse a long-term mental illness with a short-term stress-based reaction if you only concern yourself with the behaviours of a person at one specific time or over a short period of time. To determine the difference, a longer term view needs to be taken.
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