Could This Problem Be Due to Stress?

By Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

I am currently a student in my first year of college. I know that the stress of a new place and a new lifestyle can cause some odd reactions in people, but some of the things that have been happening to me seem…well…a little too odd to just be due to stress. At first it seemed to start out like a textbook example of manic depression (with a major focus on the mania). I had huge amounts of energy that seemed to never go away, no matter how many activities and how much exercise I did. I slept very, very little (an average of 5 hours a night for quite a few weeks running) and never seemed to get any less energetic. I took huge risks and made quite a few bad decisions. Many of my decisions and actions were extremely impulsive and I barely realized that I had even made a decision. This went on for a little over a month, and it didn’t really bother me. I was always in a good mood and I always had a ton of energy, so it didn’t seem like an issue. Then one day I woke up feeling like a completely different person. I was suddenly sad and pensive, once again thinking about death and aging. (In middle and high school I had this sort of thing happen to me quite frequently. However, it usually had only fluctuated from a much less extreme case of mania to a much less severe state of depression.

People always told me it couldn’t be bipolar disorder because I wasn’t switching all the time from one to the other. I would be manic for several months and then depressed for several months.) For a few weeks the depression symptoms got worse and worse. My seemingly endless energy left and I began to contemplate darker and darker subjects. At one point I again adopted my old irrational fear of aging. I’ve always had a fear of getting older and losing my mental and physical faculties.

At this point I began to predict my early death, honestly believing that i would die in my mid-20′s. As these symptoms got worse, I also started to notice more alarming symptoms. I began to have odd blackouts, for lack of a better word. I would be sitting and suddenly my mind would go completely blank. This complete nothingness would last for a few seconds, though I’m not sure exactly how much time actually elapsed. I would then emerge from this state to find myself speaking- to my shock. I would have no memory of talking and most of the time I would just cut off mid-word, having no idea what I was talking about it. My roommate began to get worried, noticing that I would cut off mid-sentence and talk about something else. Sometimes I would be doing one thing, then stop and go off and do something else, leaving half-cooked food in the microwave or my clothes half folded. The blackouts got very frequent for about a week. I seemed to not recognize myself anymore.

Most of the time I felt like I had absolutely no control over myself. I felt like a passenger of a car that was speeding towards something in the road, but I couldn’t do anything to dodge it. I had to just go along with the ride and hope it turned out alright. At this point, I realized that I needed help. With the encouragement of many friends I took a test online, something like ‘sanity score’ I think. The normal score of a mentally healthy person is something like 68. My score at that point was 164. I tried to tell people what I was feeling, but most of them told me it was just stress. As suddenly as all of that had began, my symptoms disappeared. Aside from the infrequent blackout and the growing sense of mania, I’ve returned to my regular self. Please, I feel better, but I wonder if I will have another episode, possibly worse. Is this just stress getting the better of me or is it something more serious that could actually require psychiatric help?

A. Without gathering more information it is difficult to determine what the cause of the problem is. What is concerning are the blackouts. It is not normal to have blackouts. It’s possible that the blackouts are due to extreme stress or another related mental health problem but they might be the result of an undiagnosed neurological problem. Because the source of the problem is unknown, you should consider seeing your primary care doctor and possibly a neurologist to rule out a medical cause.

Once you have ruled out any medical causes and if your symptoms are still causing you distress, then it would be wise for you to seek psychiatric help. It is possible that you may be suffering from bipolar disorder but you’d need an in-person evaluation with a trained mental health clinician to know for sure.

To be clear, you don’t have to wait until you are neurologically cleared before you seek psychiatric help. It would be unwise to put off psychiatric treatment because as you mentioned, you are at the point where you feel that you have no control over yourself. Psychiatric assistance is warranted if you continue to feel that you’re out of control. If that is how you feel then it is time to get help but be sure that at some point you are evaluated to rule out a medical cause. Thanks for writing.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Dec 2008

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2008). Could This Problem Be Due to Stress?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2008/12/01/could-this-be-due-to-stress/