The Effects of Chronic Stress – Why We Need To Escape The Cycle

Stress is a common theme in my life. I have to admit that, for me, personally, it has become a chronic condition. Recently, I have finally made the step of realizing that stress is the evil dictator ruling a vicious cycle. A revolution is necessary:

Stress is something we have all experienced at some point in our lives. From a biological perspective, stress is a phenomenon that occurs when we experience circumstances that disturb our physical and mental equilibrium. These circumstances, which are referred to as stressors, include heavy workloads, relationship problems, illnesses or upcoming, life-changing events such as weddings, divorces or childbirth. Stress is naturally occurring and can even be helpful in certain situations such as being under pressure to finish an essay, but if stress is not relieved it becomes chronic. Chronic stress can have negative effects on our physical and psychological condition, relationships, work or school situation and other aspects of our social life.

Stressors initiate physical and psychological responses which manifest in different ways. For one, our physical condition can be affected by stress, which manifests in tension, headaches, high blood pressure and other physical ailments. On top of that, stress is known to worsen life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, stroke and heart attack. For instance, some studies have shown, that survivors of heart attacks were able to decrease their chance of recurrence by 74% by being counseled in stress management. Furthermore, stressors are generated in the nervous system and can lead to several psychological effects such as depression, irritability, anxiety, sleeping problems and memory loss, if they are prolonged. For example, the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons claims that “[…] stress may adversely affect hippocampal structure and function, producing deficits of both memory and cognition”, which demonstrates that the brain is strongly influenced by chronic stress. Unfortunately, the physical effects of stress can actually lead to the psychological effects of stress and vice versa. In fact, conditions like obesity and anorexia are often caused by depression while depression can be caused by chronic stress. These manifestations of chronic stress can then have further adverse effects on a person’s social life and employment.

More than just being able to affect each other, the physical and psychological effects of chronic stress can also disturb interpersonal relationships in many ways. In the first place, the physical effects of stress can actually result in a lack of closeness within a relationship. For example, having constant headaches or tension may cause a person to be less attentive and communicative. Since communication is such an important aspect in relationships, the lack of it may lead to problems. In like manner, the psychological effects of stress can be a trigger of arguments and other tense situations between two or more people. For instance, when a person is constantly irritated from chronic stress it is difficult to deal with him or her, which is undoubtedly a potential trigger for arguments. Dealing with a stressed person often results in stress in the other person as well. Therefore it is likely that chronic stress does not only affect the person initially suffering from it, but also lead to stress in the person being confronted by it.

Another effect chronic stress can have on a person’s life is slowing or even inhibiting a person’s performance in school or work situations. Generally speaking, the physical and psychological discomfort of chronic stress can have the potential to lead a person to need prolonged sick leave, but it can also cause an inability to deal with everyday work and school situations. For instance, the general irritability caused by chronic stress may result in a person being unable to handle constructive criticism or work in a team. In the event that a person suffering from chronic stress loses employment, the change of situation in itself can be a further trigger of stress. In regards to school, the stress-inducing tasks of finishing essays or studying for exams can lead an already stressed person to feel hopeless and give up on his or her scholastic endeavor. In fact, an Associated Press-mtvU poll suggests that 85% of students report feeling stress on a daily basis and that 42% of them actually feel hopeless to a point of considering to give up.

It is obvious that chronic stress does more than just affect the body and mind of the person suffering from it. But even more than just causing problems in relationships and work –or school situations, other aspects of social life are affected by chronic stress as well. For one, the depression and irritability as well as the physical symptoms caused by chronic stress have the potential to lead a person to become less interested in social events and isolate themselves. Furthermore, the manifestations of chronic stress can also cause a lack of interest in relationships. This fact is especially troubling because research conducted by the National Institute on Aging suggest that “social isolation constitutes a major risk factor for morbidity and mortality […].” Therefore it can be said that, in the event of a person losing interest in social events and relationships because of chronic stress, the overall well-being of the affected person is in danger. Another effect of stress is the growing disregard of it as a normal part of life. It has become commonplace to be stressed for many reasons and, unfortunately, this causes people to ignore the symptoms and write them off as temporary when, in fact, they are very much capable of becoming a serious and permanent problem in a person’s life.

Given these points it is obvious that chronic stress is the leader of a vicious cycle. Routine situations as well as troubling circumstances can trigger an overload in the nervous system which can lead to a person feeling discomfort in many ways. The effects of stress, in themselves, create further stressors which worsen the physical and psychological condition and affect interpersonal situations. It is essential that stress is alleviated before it becomes chronic so that it does not have drastic effects on a person’s well-being. Fortunately, there are many ways to manage stress including meditation, exercise and proper nutrition, which can be essential in preventing chronic stress and improving quality of life.



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Book Review: „Bad” Tan-Tan and „Good” Tan-Tan – a psychological analysis of the protagonist in Nalo Hopkinson’s “Midnight Robber”


Nalo Hopkinson’s bildungsroman Midnight Robber tells the story of a young girl named Tan-Tan and her struggle as she is forcefully removed from the safety of her home planet and forced to grow up in a hostile environment, first, under her disturbed father’s rule and then, having to fend for herself in an unknown and alien place. Apart from the futuristic aspects of the novel, the kind of life Tan-Tan has to endure, including neglect, abandonment, rape and incest, is a very real occurrence in our society today. In fact, Mia Fontaine stated in an article from 2013 that appeared in The Atlantic that “[o]ne in three-to-four girls, and one in five-to-seven boys are sexually abused  before they turn 18, an overwhelming incidence of which happens within the family.” Tan-Tan’s ability to deal with what happens was one aspect of the novel that stood out to me as I was reading it, and, having been interested in psychological defense mechanisms because of having worked at a psychiatric clinic in the United States and having had encounters with people who were experiencing defense mechanisms, I was fascinated with the progress Tan-Tan made throughout the novel. Tan-Tan goes through several different forms of defense mechanisms before she finally matures enough to approach her problems in a very healthy way towards the end of the novel. Professor George Eman Vaillant insists in his essay Ego Mechanisms of Defense: A Guide for Clinicians and Researchers (1992), that there are four different level-classifications of defense mechanisms, which include pathological, immature, neurotic and mature defenses. I believe that Tan-Tan experiences at least one form of these defense mechanisms of each classification throughout the novel.

Even in the beginning, Tan-Tan is living a life of neglect. Her mother and father seem to be lost in their passions. Granny Nanny and her house-eshu seem to substitute for the role of care-givers and Tan-Tan seems to feel a great desire for the approval and the affection of her father. This may be due to the fact that Tan-Tan already feels connected to a female care giver due to her being literally connected to the Nansi Web, which is always represented as female. Tan-Tan deals with this neglect by focusing her attention on the midnight robbers. She dreams of being like them, looking like them, and feeling like them.

“In fact, it seemed like nobody wanted to pay any mind to Tan-Tan no more. […] She was used to staying out of Ione’s way, and playing Robber Queen, […].”

This fantasy could be classified as an immature defense (Vaillant, 1992). Professor Vaillant names Fantasy as one of the defense mechanisms that fall under the category of immature defenses and describes it as a tendency to retreat into fantasy worlds in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts. This is probably a very normal form of psychological defense, especially for a child.

When Tan-Tan has to leave her home planet Toussaint, she begins exhibiting strong signs of fear. She feels alien to the hostile environment and she begins clinging to her father even more than before. However, the disturbing actions of her father, who rapes her on her 9th birthday, bring up an even stronger defense mechanism than the previous one. She begins to develop a split-personality.

“She felt her own self split in two, to try to understand […]”

This could be seen as a form of dissociation, which would be classified as a neurotic defense. Tan-Tan takes on another personality to defeat the emotional distress of being her father’s little girl while enduring something that should not be done to her by the man who calls her his daughter. This defense mechanism continues on throughout the novel. She turns her “Midnight Robber” fantasy into a real persona who fights to protect herself and those in need. This persona has detached itself from Tan-Tan’s pain so intensely that, in one example, she even fails to understand a reaction which is very much like her own would have been. When Tan-Tan, in the form of her “Midnight-Robber” persona, encounters a boy getting physically abused by his mother, she becomes infuriated and starts hitting the mother. The boy goes to the mother’s defense and Tan-Tan is very confused by this action, which shows that she fails to understand that she, too, stood by her father for many years before finally ending his life in self-defense. This could be considered a form of repression as well. Tan-Tan seems to have forgotten the emotions which she felt in moments when her father was not imposing his perverse sexual actions on her. Tan-Tan saw her father as a person with two faces, whose one side was deserving of love. “Good” Tan-Tan loved her father. It was “bad” Tan-Tan who killed him. Her lack of understanding for this situation shows a kind of repression, which can be classified as a neurotic defense mechanism.

Another form of defense occurs when Tan-Tan encounters the people who are tied to the cane field and forced to work. Tan-Tan, in her “Midnight Robber” persona, cannot handle this kind of abuse and simply runs away. Guilt and self-hatred plague her after this occurrence. Having been confronted with this kind of evil, Tan-Tan feels helpless and returns to the immature defense of escaping hardship. This is also the only time that the alternate persona of hers displays any form of psychological defense mechanism.

In the end, Tan-Tan exhibits several forms of mature defense mechanisms. After Janisette discovers her and vows to kill her, Tan-Tan holds a speech in which she finally manages to accept what has happened to her. She also shows a highly advanced level of courage, humility and mindfulness. Acceptance, courage, humility and mindfulness are classified as mature defense mechanisms. Acceptance is displayed in her ability to address what has happened in an open and honest way:

“Yes, he inject Tan-Tan with he child,

            She sister or brother.”

She also exhibits courage in being able to confront Janisette for never having stood up for her:

            “And you one

            Come to accuse she? Of what then, nuh?

Tan-Tan also proves herself to be capable of humility by admitting to killing her father in front of the crowd, which causes her to shed shame and guilt and find a more healthy way to deal with it.

“She kill she daddy dead. The guilt come down ‘pon she head,

            The Robber Queen get born that day, out of excruciation.”

By acknowledging her faults and her shame, she is finally able to identify as Tan-Tan again. “Good” Tan-Tan and “Bad” Tan-Tan have been successfully reintegrated to make Tan-Tan whole. This gives her the strength to stop resenting the fetus inside of her and embrace it, as well as proving the kind of mindfulness that takes a very mature mind.

Midnight Robber is a complex novel about a complex young woman and her struggles. It was very intriguing to watch Tan-Tan’s inner growth throughout the novel. Nalo Hopkinson created a character with very real problems and provides the reader with a kind of map of a struggling young girl’s thought-processes, which is unique but, at the same time, relatable.




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Why I Wish My Homeless Sister Could Live In Germany


I just finished exchanging messages with my fiance’s sister. The owner of her storage unit, the place where she keeps the unsold remains of her life, is putting all of it up for auction. She could not afford the payments.  She is staying at some person’s house who finds it appropriate to steal Pokemon cards from her 8 year old son. Previously to this, she stayed at the local homeless shelter in Salt Lake City, Utah. At first she was placed in a woman’s shelter with her 4 kids. She felt somewhat safe there. Unfortunately they told her it was time to “relocate” to the downtown homeless shelter. She had been there before. She did not want to have to take her children to this place. So she decided to move into an apartment which is owned by a friend’s husband. Unfortunately, one of the conditions for staying there is that she has to put up with a messy, nosy, thief of a roommate. Not completely safe either, but at least the risk of theft or bodily harm is lowered this way. She has been trying to get a job. Job interviews are not going so well, because her teeth are infected and rotting. She feels ugly. She is supposed to show strength and confidence which she does not have. Then, where does she leave her children? Her youngest hasn’t started school yet. She has no income to pay day care centers or babysitters. She was thinking about having her oldest daughter watch her while she attends job interviews. It might work. She worries but she keeps her hopes up. The job interviews she has attended did not work out. She doesn’t have any work experience. You know…other than busting her ass keeping a roof over her head and keeping her family together. They are all sleeping in one room. Which is used as a party room while they are not home. The other people living there leave shot glasses on her mattress which she uses as a bed. She pays for the room in chores. Cinderella and her attic. She keeps her money in her shoe, her underwear. Anywhere that keeps it from being stolen. She suffers from all kinds of pain. Most likely brought on by stress. She is aware of that. But she doesn’t have time to meditate. To relax. She is falling apart while trying to hold her family together.

I know some of you are wondering how a mother of 4 could get herself into this situation. I guess I could tell you some sob story about how terribly difficult her life is and it would not even be a lie. But the truth is…she messed up. She made bad decisions. She put herself where she is. With the help of a system that is simply not designed to sustain a person like her, but nonetheless, it was her fault.

She got pregnant with her first child at a very young age. Yes, I know. This is how it always starts. Pregnancy one ended with a cowardly father fleeing to some unknown place in Latin America. Pregnancy two came around. This time, the father actually tried to be there. Tried to be a family man. Unfortunately, the US immigration system would not have it. On his son’s birthday, they arrested him and deported him to Mexico. Let’s leave out pregnancy number 3 and 4 because we can all see the pattern. So there you go. You have your juice for causing a stink on why this woman deserves what is happening. Despite of this, she decided to pull through. Child number four is now 6 years old and starting school after the summer. For years, they all lived together, in a housing complex, no real income other than food stamps and section 8 housing. Unfortunately, although you are provided with a place to live, you also need to pay your bills, have phone service, buy school supplies and buy toilet paper, shampoo, laundry detergent. Something you cannot buy with food stamps. So the bills piled up and the housing authority had enough of it. So there she is. Mother of four, on the street and no fathers.

Yes, she totally screwed up. She made a load of bad choices. But does that mean she should live in poverty? Does that mean that the roof over her head should come with conditions of bullying and sleeping with one eye open? She doesn’t want a mansion. She doesn’t even want the expensive conditioner. She just wants a 2 bedroom apartment and a job.

In the meantime I am sitting here, in Germany, with my flat screen and my Netflix account, eating popcorn, watching “Breaking Bad”. And I can’t help but wonder why the poem on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty says:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

Because the tired, poor and huddled masses seem to make up the majority of the US. I am not going to pull some lame political speech. I just think the hypocrisy is evident. I think my sister is proof of the giant middle finger which the US seems to pull out every time somebody mentions the words “poverty” or “homelessness”.

Either way, this is her fault. She does not want to negate that fact. But I, too,  have made mistakes. I have made terrible choices. I, myself, got pregnant, while incredibly poor in the US. Lucky for me, I am a German citizen. I had a way out. I ended up in a place that supports families, mothers, people. I came back here, and the first thing that happened was dental care. In fact, the very first thing my boyfriend, a US citizen with a German daughter, did, was get his tooth pulled. Which was something he simply could not afford in the US. In the US, they stuffed him full of Vicodin and told him to wait it out. Right after the flight, his tooth was out. The dentist told him he could have died. Then it just kept coming: “Health Insurance with full coverage, medical and dental”, “Erstausstattung”, which is: money given to you free of condition to buy furniture. “Kindergeld”, 184€ a month, “Elterngeld”, 150€ a month for 2 years of parental leave, “Arbeitslosengeld”, 709€ a month for our family to get by, plus rent paid for a 3 bedroom, 75 square meter apartment, and utilities. Some of you might think: “Well, then why would anybody actually want to work?” And I agree. It is a problem. Some people become lazy because they are taken care of, no matter what. However, those people make up a small percentage of welfare receivers. And I was not one of them. I am currently visiting a university, tuition free, studying English and German. I receive something called BaföG, which is a kind of grant to support you during your years of college. This is 710€ a month plus healthcare. More than anything I receive understanding, support and motivation to become the one to pay taxes to support people like me. This is incredibly motivating.

7 years ago I lived the US. Illegally. Married to a US citizen, but still illegally because I could not fulfil the conditions that came with applying for residency. Most of all I could not afford to apply. My husband did not make enough money to be accepted as my sponsor. But I loved the US. I did not want to leave. So I did odd-jobs for neighbors and friends. Never enough to actually have to file taxes. Poverty was a way of life. A lifestyle which I adjusted to. This is possible. However, I did NOT have children. The thought of raising your child without the means to do so is terrifying and I realized this shortly after embracing the rock-bottom lifestyle I had adjusted to. After enduring years of psychological abuse and willingly staying married to Uncle Sam, my marriage fell apart and I got pregnant by another man only a few months later. We were incredibly poor and could not even afford the ultra sound procedures. You see how my choices are not any less bad than her choices?

She screwed up. She made terrible decisions. But she deserves to be supported. Not because everyone should have a free ride. But because everyone should be given a chance to become a motivated, successful person. Just one chance. The US tends to spit on people who need help. The US tends to reject those who are in need rather than support them. And even if that is not evident in the liberal facade it covers itself in, everyone living under the reign of self-doubt due to being less fortunate than others will tell you that.

Everyone should be given the benefit of the doubt, to pick themselves up and make something of themselves instead of scraping at the bottom for leftovers until there is nothing left but regret, shame and self-doubt.

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