Stress weakens our emotional reserves and taxes our mental and physical health. Prison stress is intense – but life outside can be equally as stressful. Having worked many years in mental health centers in both Chicago and Atlanta, it is clear that stressors on the street rival those that occur in prison. Outside stressors may include the death of loved ones, being raped, being shot, held hostage, financial hardship, physical disability, access to health care problems, and caring for sick loved ones to name just a few.
The difference in stressors inside versus outside is more in the quality of the stressors – not the intensity or frequency. That said, people inside the barbed wire have one tremendous disadvantage when it comes to stress management. Outside the wires you can usually walk away from your stress – at least enough to catch your breath. In prison, however, you often must remain where you’re told and have limited freedom to get temporary relief. This can create some intense, pressure cooker situations.
Prison stresses start with the trauma most experience on arrest. Can you imagine the emotional reaction you would have to being told you’re under arrest, then handcuffed and brought to jail where you wait for weeks to months for the slow legal wheels of justice to turn and tell you your future? Jail and legal stressors can be catastrophic and then by the time they get to, “The big house,” they are well into grieving the loss of family, friends and career. Family financial hardships often weigh heavily on former bread-winners and separation from children and family are devastating for all; but especially for women. Another unique thing about prison stressors is that you are forced to be in such close quarters with inmates and staff who may cause you stress. And it is often very difficult to get away from those who cause you distress.
SO – what do you do about all this stress? Most people are adequately resilient and do remarkably well managing the stress of prison. But stress takes its toll and learning to manage stress and preparing your body for stress can be the most important things you do for your health.
Begin by getting back to basics and making healthy choices for yourself. The three cornerstones of a healthy prison lifestyle are: (1) exercise, (2) avoid junk food, and, (3) practice stress management techniques such as focused relaxation, meditation, yoga, and deep breathing. By strengthening our emotional reserves we add to the reserves so necessary to combating the effects of stress. Healthy lifestyle choices are self-care interventions that may be more important in many cases than the treatment offered by professionals.