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How Stress Manifests in Asian Americans

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

Growing up, fostering a positive mental health was never a high priority in my life. I was caught up in doing the things that I thought were important in obtaining success, such as getting good grades, partaking in various extracurricular activities, studying for standardized tests, learning to play instruments, and I didn’t give myself the opportunity to fully understand how I was feeling and if I was truly happy.

I remember throughout my high school years I would go to and from school complaining about having headaches or stomach pain. My go to solution to get rid of these symptoms was to take various western and/or eastern medication. My grandmother even taught me the specific pressure points to press in order to relieve my pain. The problem with this was that these various solutions were only short-term solutions, as I still continued to suffer from these symptoms after the medicine would wear off.

It wasn’t till much later that I began to realize, “Ah, all this pain I’m feeling is really due to stress.” It might have been obvious to the majority of people, but to me it wasn’t. I never connected the dots between physical symptoms and my mental health, which meant that I never got the proper help needed to get better. All the medicine I was taking was only addressing the symptoms and not the root of my problems.

I knew I was not alone in my struggle with dealing with these physical or somatic symptoms and not realizing their connection with the mental, because a lot of my friends and even my mother suffered through the same things at varying degrees while also taking up different forms. I would hear my mother complain about having the similar symptoms as me such as having headaches and stomach pains and also experienced other symptoms such as being unable to fall asleep and developing high blood pressure.

These experiences may not be unique to the Asian American experience, but somatic symptoms caused by stress or other mental illnesses are more prevalent in the Asian population, compared to the white population.

Some have theorized that many Asian Americans, especially immigrants and refugees, experience stress through various physical symptoms mainly due to their lack of acknowledgement of feeling stress, while others have said that it may be due to the fact that more Asian Americans have trouble internalizing and coping with the stress. Either way, there needs to be an increased awareness of the connection between these somatic symptoms and stress because stress has shown to manifest itself through physical symptoms, and when not properly addressed, these physical symptoms can lead to even more stress. It’s an endless cycle.

Within the Asian American community, people tend to blame sickness to external actions rather than something more internal. When I was experiencing these stomach pains and migraines, various family members would always say to me that it was because I wasn’t sleeping enough or I wasn’t wearing enough layers, or that I was doing too many activities. While these instances might have contributed to it, they still did not help fully address the most important factor: I was stressed. This is more than just me feeling pain, but rather there is a mental aspect that underlined everything.

Similar to when I was in high school, many Asian Americans failed to recognize that same connection, leading to them never getting the help needed. More often than not, when experiencing these symptoms, Asian Americans immediately went to the doctors to try to figure out what kind of medication to get. Some medical professionals who might not have been as knowledgeable of this pattern of stress within the Asian American community versus others, were also stumped as to the high prevalence of somatic complaints. Thus, they often resulted to prescribing pills in order to reduce those said pains. In the end, the individual never got the psychological help they needed.

This needs to change. And that starts with changing the attitude that the Asian American community has towards mental illness and therapy. We need to teach people about the roots of stress and not just how to reduce it. We need to have conversations about destigmatizing and normalizing mental health conversations. We need to be learn about the relationship between the mental and physical aspects of the human body and how they interact with each other. The impact of stress is more than just psychological, but also physical. Only through understanding this will individuals dealing with stress within the Asian American community be finally able to find the ways to properly heal.

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