So many factors can contribute to stress, and what might be perceived as stressful to one person might be no big deal to another. There is no comparing my stressors to yours. In fact, perception is the key word here. How I perceive my circumstances is far more important than the actual details of those circumstances. Telling someone they are ‘overreacting’, or to ‘just get over it’ is like telling a drowning person to ‘just swim already’. We don’t choose what will cause us stress any more than we choose what foods will give us heartburn.
In her book Unbroken, author Laura Hillenbrand recounts the story of World War II pilot Louis Zamperini, who was shot down over the Pacific and spent the next month and a half adrift in a lifeboat, fending off hungry sharks and an unforgiving sun before being captured by the Japanese. Finally on land and hoping the worst was over, Zamperini soon found that his nightmare had really just begun. For the next two years, he faced countless beatings and humiliation at the hands of a psychotic prison guard named the Bird. When the war ended and Zamperini was freed, he returned the US and began trying to rebuild a normal life. To be sure, he suffered from PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – but not only did he overcome his horrid past, he learned to live again and even to thrive. By the time of his death in his late 90s, Zamperini was traveling the world, sharing his faith in God and telling his story of trial and hope. He even tried to visit the Bird in Japan to offer forgiveness, but the Bird would not see him. Louis Zamperini’s circumstances were far beyond what most of us will ever experience, but somehow he managed to move ahead to a healthy place, finding meaning and joy again in his life.
Fast-forward nearly 70 years later to rural Ohio. Thirteen-year old Emilie Olsen was incessantly bullied by her classmates for her appearance – an Asian girl in a predominantly white school, dressed in camouflage clothing and cowboy boots, she had been the target of bullying for several years. She was accused of being gay and told that she should just kill herself. Bullies had even gone so far as to create a web site dedicated to bashing this young lady because she was different. In early December of 2014, Emilie confided in a friend that she couldn’t take it anymore and was going to kill herself. Two weeks later she was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Before her suicide, Emilie’s parents claim that the school principal told them that their daughter needed to “buckle down” and learn to cope with the situation. More than two years after her death, on a Facebook page dedicated to her memory and to putting an end to bullying, people sometimes leave messages saying she should have been stronger, or that suicide in the face of bullying is nothing more than a sign of inexplicable weakness. But the truth these people are missing is that no one’s opinion of the severity of a stressor matters except the person experiencing the stress. Their perception of the stress and their belief in their own abilities to cope are all that matter with regards to the emotional and psychological effects that result. Bullying to a 13-year old may seem like the world is coming to an end and that life is no longer worth living. Yet somehow the horrific atrocities committed to a WWII POW can be overcome.
Why one person responds to intense stress with anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation while another is able to cope well and remain mentally and emotionally healthy is a complicated question. But suffice it to say for now that everyone responds differently to life’s trials, and negative responses such as anxiety and depression are very common and should never be dismissed as “weak” or “overreacting”. Empathy is what is needed, not judgment.
* If you or someone you care about are considering suicide as an option, please reach out for help. The intense lows that can lead to suicide ideation are temporary. I know it is difficult to believe, but help can be found and you can have a full and happy life. Go to this link to find options for help. And by all means, tell someone.