Fit for the Road

Carolyn Magner | March 01, 2010

mentalMental Health Check-up

When you think about good health, you may picture someone running on a treadmill or eating a big bowl of granola.

However, your physical health is very much affected by your mental health, and caring for yourself emotionally is just as important as caring for yourself physically, says Dr. Scott Haltzman, Clinical Assistant Professor at Brown University. Haltzman says the stressful task of driving and living on the road puts truckers at risk for a host of medical problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease or arthritis. But you also may have symptoms of a mental health disorder that’s related to the same stress affecting your physical health.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the most common disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality and social habits and/or social withdrawal.

While it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and stressed on occasion, most people can help themselves by engaging in simple activities such as regularly walking, listening to relaxing music or even praying. However, he says some individuals find that stress doesn’t disappear with a few simple relaxation techniques. “Psychological problems such as depression or anxiety are real medical conditions that sometimes require professional treatment,” Haltzman says.

Major depression, which is a persistent low mood that lasts for at least two weeks, often includes symptoms such as low energy levels, a loss of interest in things, appetite changes or loss of sleep. Often symptoms are severe enough that people have persistent thoughts of death or even suicide. Anxiety disorders can often interfere with concentration and work. Symptoms usually involve physical sensations of tension or panic as well as feeling emotionally overwhelmed or preoccupied.

Depression and anxiety can be the result of problems in your life, but occasionally they can be biological illnesses that are the result of chemical abnormalities in the brain.

“You may need to meet with a therapist to learn ways to understand and deal with these symptoms. Pharmacologic treatments may be necessary to help wipe out the symptoms and get you back on your feet,” Haltzman says.

If you do receive a diagnosis for a mental disorder, your doctor will be required to comply with FMCSA guidelines to determine the severity of the illness. Some disorders are so severe that they impair the driver’s ability to drive safely. It’s up to the medical examiner to determine if the patient is well enough to drive and he or she may require a battery of neuropsychological tests.

Examiners also are responsible for determining if the medications used to treat psychiatric disorders cause sedation or psychomotor impairment. Some anti-depressants cause initial sedation that gets better after a few weeks. Every patient is different, and usually the physician will require follow-up visits and possible referral to specialists.

There are things you can do to strengthen your mental well-being no matter what kind of medical diagnosis you have. Elizabeth R. Lombardo, a psychologist and author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness, urges her patients to avoid personalizing events. “This can be a tough one for many, but it is vital that you remember other people’s behaviors are not usually directed toward you,” she says. “Yes, there are a lot of bad drivers out there who are clueless when it comes to how their power driving affects you. But they don’t even know you. So how could their cutting you off be an indication that they think negatively of you?” She says one patient she works with makes up humorous stories as to why people would cut him off. The result? Instead of getting angry, he has a good laugh.

Truckers have a lot of internal and external stress factors, but Lombardo says it’s important to view your work as a calling or having a higher purpose than bringing in a paycheck. “Stop and appreciate what you do and how you are providing for your community. It’s something to be proud of,” she says.

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