Master of Social Work student shares her path to mental health

Crystle Lampitt discussed the connections between physical and psychological health at KUEC’s TEDx event.

Crystle Lampitt discussed the connections between physical and psychological health at KUEC’s TEDx event.

In her mid-20s, Crystle Lampitt felt like she was living the dream. She was working as a TV host in Kansas City, and bought her first home, putting down roots near family and friends. Then, one morning, her body gave her a shocking wake-up call.

“I looked in the mirror to fix my hair and noticed a huge bald patch,” Lampitt said. “There was not a single hair on this golf-ball sized area of my scalp and I had no idea why.”

Lampitt was diagnosed with alopecia areata and two other autoimmune diseases, along with hypothyroidism, a revelation that made her reconsider her priorities, and recognize mental health issues that had been causing long-term problems. She was experiencing mental and physical burnout.

Lampitt’s path to healing eventually led her to the KU Edwards Campus, where she’s pursuing a Master of Social Work degree, concentrating in clinical therapy social work. Lampitt discussed her experiences, and the lessons she’s learned from them, in a presentation for the Edwards Campus’ TEDx event on Nov. 5 titled “Sad, Sick and Stuck: Rethinking Mental Health.”

In her studies, Lampitt learned there was a strong connection between mental health conditions and chronic illness, specifically between stress and trauma-related conditions and autoimmune conditions. Lampitt said that the work of psychologist Francine Shapiro helped shape her understanding of trauma. “There are ‘Capital T traumas’, like shock or war or natural disasters, and ‘Little t’ traumas, like life transitions or early childhood experiences that were overwhelming,” Lampitt said in her presentation. “The big T traumas are like a huge wound on our bodies, and the little t traumas are like lots of little cuts. You can bleed out from both.”

Lampitt’s talk focused on that connection, looking at how our brain’s response to stress or trauma reflects in the body’s physical response. “Whether you identify as having trauma or not, you definitely have a nervous system, so understanding the way it responds to stress can be crucial to our mental health,” she said.

Citing work by psychiatrist and trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk, Lampitt said that our body’s response to stress is tied to the way we have been evolutionarily wired for survival. When we encounter a stressful situation, or something our brain perceives as dangerous, we go into “fight, flight or freeze” mode. Our reptilian brain — the portion focused on basic survival needs — activates our muscles, heart rate and hormones. Our limbic system is running things, and our internal logic system is offline. “We’re so quick to think of symptoms automatically as being a sign of pathology, when sometimes they’re just a sign of our humanity,” Lampitt said. “We think there’s something horribly wrong with us when the fact that we are currently alive is a sign that there’s something very right with us.”

Lampitt suggested that in contexts with safe, stable living and working conditions, creating a sense of personal safety and recognizing the reasons behind certain patterns of behavior can be a healthy approach to managing anxiety as part of cognitive therapy. Regulating your nervous system with deep breathing or pursuing social engagement with people who help us feel safe and fulfilled can also be part of the healing process.

“If there’s one thing you can take away from this, I hope it’s this,” Lampitt said, “To ask yourself over and over again ‘what does your body need?’ and then to listen until you start to feel more at home in your own body.”

Are you interested in furthering your education while making a positive impact on the community? Learn more about how you can earn your KU Master of Social Work degree at the Edwards Campus in Overland Park.

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