Fit for the Road
Mental 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.
Many mental health disorders can be successfully controlled with therapy and medication. The first step is to make an appointment with your physician for a complete check-up. Tell him how you’ve been feeling and contact him immediately if you display any of the red flags indicating a serious condition where you could harm yourself or others. “It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to call for help,” Lombardo says.
Types of Common Mental Health Disorders
Anxiety disorders An abnormal response to stressful situations that interfere with your normal life may indicate an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder and specific phobias.
Mood disorders Depression, mania and bipolar disorders are called affective disorders and involve persistent feelings of sadness or periods of feeling overly happy — or dramatic fluctuations between the two.
Psychotic disorders Psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia involve distorted awareness and thinking and include hallucinations and delusions.
Eating disorders Eating disorders involve extreme emotions, attitudes and behaviors involving weight and food. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are the most common.
Impulse control and addiction disorders Pyromania (starting fires), kleptomania (stealing) and compulsive gambling are examples of impulse control disorders. Objects of addictions include alcohol and drugs.
Personality disorders Some types include antisocial personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder.
Source: National Institute of Mental Health, Mental Health America
If you see any of these warning signs in yourself, make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health professional at once.
• Feeling down, hopeless or helpless most of the time.
• Severe sleep disruption.
• Concentration problems that are interfering with your work or home life.
• Using smoking, overeating, drugs or alcohol to cope with strong emotions.
• You find yourself frequently crying or wanting to cry.
• You relive a traumatic event over and over.
• Negative or self-destructive thoughts or fears that you can’t control.
• Thoughts of death or suicide.
• Prolonged depression (sadness or irritability).
• Feelings of extreme highs and lows.
• Excessive fears, worries and anxieties.
• Social withdrawal.
• Delusions or hallucinations.
• Growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities.
• Denial of obvious problems.
• Numerous unexplained physical ailments.
• You hear voices that others do not hear.
Source: Mental Health America, American Psychological Association
There is hope and help for all levels of depression
By Misty Bell
You have been in a dark tunnel for a long, long time. Unsure how you got there, you struggled against the darkness, looking for a light. At first you could see a flickering light in the distance, barely discernible. But the harder you struggle to make it to that light, the heavier your limbs become.
You just want to lay your head down and sleep.
But then sleep won’t come, and you lie awake, wondering, again, how you got to this dim corridor. It begins to seem as though you have never existed outside of this, and the effort to even raise your head feels impossible now.
There’s no way out.
If you have never experienced the clutches of depression, you may not understand the above passage. But for anyone who’s been there, you know how overwhelming the feelings of despair, gloom and even physical tiredness can be. And in the midst of it, sometimes it really feels like there’s no escape.
If you’re feeling that way, please seek help, whether it’s visiting a doctor, getting on medication, attending religious counseling sessions, whatever. Depending on the severity of your depression, you may be able to deal with it without professional help; sometimes spending more time around loved ones or getting involved with a new hobby can take your mind off your troubles. But if you find that the feelings aren’t going away, there is absolutely no shame in seeking a doctor’s help. You are important, and you deserve to feel good about yourself and your life.
Also know that you are not alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 10 percent of Americans 18 or older have some type of mood disorder. There is help, and there is hope, so be willing to accept it.
Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS)
American Psychological Association
Phone 800-374-2721 or 202-336-5500
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI)
Phone 800-950-6264 or 703-524-7600
American Psychiatric Association
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
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