Understanding the connection between major life events and mental disorders
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The development of a mental disorder is traceable to various contributing factors. While some reasons are internal to a person, other reasons are external and out of one’s immediate control. Major life events and other role transitions throughout the years can act as a trigger for many individuals. In specific cases, these types of events can also cause trauma and lead to an established disorder like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Other instances may not be traumatic, but still conjure anxious, depressive or other debilitating thoughts and emotions. As human beings grow and navigate through the world, the ability to withstand these experiences varies on the characteristics and circumstances of each unique person.

Although the ways in which people handle these life events is diverse in nature, the events themselves are practically universal. Job loss, divorce, pre-marital break-up, retirement, widowhood, children moving out of the house, first marriage, job promotion and having a child are all cardinal adjustments that a human being has dealt with in a direct or indirect manner. Another commonality of these external stressors is that many of them occur as a person first enters adulthood in his or her 20s. Because of this influx of major events, both positive and negative, many post-adolescent individuals develop mental disorders during this period.

According to Johanna Jarcho, Ph.D., of the National Institute of Mental Health, the human mind not only reacts, but interacts with the social landscape one traverses. These interactions, along with some other elements, dictate the state of his or her mental health. While a momentous occasion may prompt a disorder to begin manifesting itself and its related symptoms, one’s genetic makeup and upbringing will determine how the person will adapt to serious life changes.

Dr. Jarcho stated, “…the vast majority of mental health disorders do emerge during one’s adolescence or early 20s. If you’re going to have an anxiety disorder as an adult, there’s a 90 percent chance that you’ll have had it as an adolescent. Basically, you’re not going to develop an anxiety disorder as an adult. You’re going to develop it as a kid and then it’ll carry through to adulthood. Emerging research suggests that this is because adolescence is a time when the brain is changing to a great degree.”

A study in 2009 sought out to discover and analyze interplaying processes. The results uncovered an element known as role history. The study’s author, Blair Wheaton of the University of Toronto, explored a contextual approach to life transitions, which broke down the person’s current circumstances into usable information and detailed the severity of stress generated by the major life event. When an individual develops chronic stress in his or her life, it will have a strong influence on the reaction and coping of significant transitions. For example, a divorce after a difficult and conflictive marriage will be viewed as a benefit to one’s life in contrast to an unexpected divorce in a seemingly stable marriage.

The research also details the difference between positive and negative life events, although the study’s hypothesis proposes that if role problems weaken the effect of negatively viewed life changes, then they do not necessarily have a parallel effect on the perceived benefit of positive life changes. Lastly, Wheaton also notes that major transitions experienced later in life, such as a child moving out, retirement or the death of a spouse are similarly influenced by current contexts. For example, the amount of distress measured in an individual facing retirement is dependent on his or her income before ending work.

Overall, mental health experts in the treatment and research fields support the idea that many different life transitions are capable of causing serious mental disruption. In addition, a large amount of these major events typically occur when an adolescent enters adulthood.

At Sovereign Health of California, locations all throughout the Golden State are committed to serving a wide range of demographics. If you or your child suffers from a distressing or traumatic life change, seek support with Sovereign. Chat online or call one of our team members at any time for assistance.

Written by Lee Yates, Sovereign Health Group writer

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