What causes mental illness?

  • What causes mental illness?

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    According to my experience, there are various causes for developing a mental illness or a disorder. They are :-

    • Congenital- some children are born with mental disorders. Such disorder cannot be reversed after birth. They include Down’s syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder.

    • Some mental disorders develop due to physical injuries. Maybe severe head injuries or due to neurological brain disorders. Also due to brain surgeries.

    • Some mental disorders develop due to the traumatic experience in a person’s life. Some people suffer severe traumas in early years of their lives. Such traumatic experience may be buried in the subconscious mind and may later develop into mental disorders. Those traumas may be related to severe physical or mental abuse.

    • Some mental disorders develop due to advancing age or due to old age. For example- Dementia. To be more precise- Alzheimer’s.

    • Some mental disorders develop due to drug abuse or alcoholism.

    • Some mental disorders develop due to our present situations and environmental conditions. These may develop due to overthinking and stress.

    The above are few reasons for developing a mental disorder. I have cited these reason because in my experience as a psychologist, i came across clients with mental illness and these were the few reasons why a person had developed a mental disorder.

    The brain is a computer. It collects, stores, organizes, recalls, and deletes information that is downloaded onto it. It can also have a variety of computer viruses attack it which can lead to mental illness.

    Mental illness can occur due to: family history (genetics); malnutrition (whether food or mental stimulus); environment (lack of boundaries, not allowed to interact with others); trauma (child abuse, war, natural disasters); emotional abuse (being told your worthless); lack of medical care (while in the womb and throughout childhood while the brain is growing); substance abuse (eroding of brain cells depending on substance used); age groups (being mute as a child, Alzheimer’s in elderly); brain trauma (car wreck, continuous concussions); and birth defects in regions of the brain that I believe lead to severe mental illnesses (Antisocial Personality Disorder).

    The one thing that you have to remember is that all mental illness is biologically based because all mental illness comes from the brain and the brain is a physical part of our being. Mental illness is actually a medical problem within the brain and how many computer viruses get downloaded onto it. Each type of brain (computer) virus creates a different type of malfunction in how the brain works and sometimes that malfunction exhibits itself in the form of “mental illness”.

    Just really look at the term “mental illness”. Your brain is where mental is created and illness just means something about the brain is sick. Although some mental illnesses might be worse than others, I don’t see mental illness as being any different than high blood pressure, diabetes, or irritable bowel syndrome. It’s all a medical issue.

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    Most mental health professionals believe that there are a variety of contributing factors to the onset of a mental illness. Studies have found that there are physical, social, environmental and psychological causes for mental illness.

    Physical Causes

    (Biological factors) Each individual’s own genetic make-up can contribute to being at risk of developing a mental illness and traumas to the brain (via a form of head-injury) can also sometimes lead to changes in personality and in some cases ‘trigger’ symptoms of an illness. Misuse of substances (such as alcohol or drugs) and deficiencies of certain vitamins and minerals in an individual’s diet can also play a part.

    Social And Environmental Causes

    (Factors around us) Where someone lives and their living conditions along with family and community support networks can play a part along with employment status and work stresses. Living in poverty or social isolation, being unemployed or highly stressed in your work can all put pressure on an individual’s mental health.

    Psychological Factors

    (Your Psychological state) Coping with past or current traumatic experiences such as abuse, bereavement or divorce will strongly influence an individual’s mental and emotional state which can in turn have an influence on mental health.

    Family History

    There is evidence to suggest that heredity can play some part in the development of some forms of mental illness. However like with many physical health conditions (such as Heart Disease or Diabetes) that fact that a family member has experienced a mental illness does not mean that all other genetic family members will experience the same condition. As with physical health conditions, the other factors shown above will play a significant part too.

    Most mental illness arises from developmental trauma, generally, early childhood neglect , deprivation, abandonment by or separation from parents, or other caregivers, or verbal, physical, psychological/emotional or sexual abuse. When young children don’t get their developmental needs met it can easily traumatize them. Including the loss of important early bonding relationships like the death of a parent or grandparent, sibling or other close family member with whom the child has an important emotional bond,

    And it doesn’t have to be intentional, just living in poverty conditions where there is food insecurity or shelter insecurity or unintentional exposure to conditions of fear, or violence or deprivation can be sufficiently traumatic to scar young children psychologically for life.

    Parents don’t have to be the perpetrators, for example sibling or peer bullying or abuse from outside adults and especially trusted authority figures like teachers, coaches, clergy or doctors, or other trusted adults is also damaging.

    A person’s essential emotional makeup, emotional coping strengths, and self soothing abilities are fundamentally established in the first two years of life, and this creates much of the foundation for whatever future resiliency an individual is likely to have.

    Overcoming some of the deficits in emotional management and self soothing abilities that result is possible but requires the application of honest self-evaluation, development of reliable self-awareness, and a concerted effort at developing self-soothing and emotional management skills usually with the help of a trained counselor, and in some cases supportive drug therapy, especially in chronic brain illnesses.

    Brain conditioning from later repetitive trauma (for example, PTSD) or chemical exposure (for example, substance use disorders) or direct chemical poisoning (like damage from mercury can also create mental illness, and lead poisoning from lead paints or tainted water can also damage the brain, especially inchildren but usually that leads to other kinds of mental disability.

    Damage to the brain from physical trauma (for example, blunt head trauma) can create significant mental deficits and severe behavioral problems, notably personality changes and impulse control where none previously existed.

    There are also a variety of organic brain diseases like Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia that are primarily of genetic origin, but are certainly exacerbated by trauma.

    There are neurological disorders, like Turette’s Syndrome, that can give the appearance of mental illness because they cause unwanted behaviors.

    Many people also mistake conditions like Autism, a spectrum of neurological differences, for mental illness because of the unusual and often unpredictable behaviors related to that condition.

    We are often asked, “Since life is so much easier today, why are mental illnesses, such as anxiety disorder and depression, on the rise?”

    It’s true that our life is much easier today than it was 50 years ago. Yet, mental illness is on the rise, and drastically.

    A study by researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center, published earlier this year in the journal Psychiatric Services, found more Americans than ever before suffer from serious psychological distress (SPD). [1] The researchers analyzed a federal health information database and concluded that 3.4 percent of the U.S. population (more than 8.3 million) adult Americans suffer from SPD.

    According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which conducts the National Health Interview Survey on which the research is based, SPD combines feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and restlessness that are hazardous enough to impair people’s physical well-being. Previous survey estimates had put the number of Americans suffering from SPD at 3 percent or less.

    Another study by the National Survey On Drug Use And Mental Health found nearly 20 percent of the adult population suffer from some type of mental illness.[2] This is up from 18.1 percent just a few years ago.

    A 2010 study done by the National Institute Of Mental Health found that for the first time, youth are disproportionately affected by mental disorders.[3] The study found that one in five youth are affected by at least one type of mental disorder. According to the NCS-A researchers, the percentage of youth suffering from mental disorders is even higher than the most frequent major physical conditions in adolescence, including asthma or diabetes.

    Another study, called the National College Health Assessment, by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) found more students are reporting being in distress than four years ago. The study found that one fifth of all Canadian post secondary students are depressed and anxious, or battling other mental health issues. It also found that 8 percent fewer students felt their health was very good or excellent. The study also found that the number of students who seriously considered suicide was 13 percent, up 3.5 percent from 2013.[4]

    Speaking of suicide, it doesn’t get any better.

    A study presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting this past May (2017) found that the number of children and teens admitted to children’s hospitals for thoughts of suicide or self-harm have more than doubled during the last decade.[5]

    Unfortunately, there are numerous studies all reporting the same trends: a dramatic rise in mental illness and suicide. This is particularly true for children and teens.

    So, why the dramatic rise? What has changed?

    There are many reasons for these alarming trends, such as:

    • Increased parental pressures
    • Increased adoption of electronic media (Electronic Screen Syndrome)
    • Increased performance pressures (education, career, financial, etc.)
    • Increased terrorist events and threats
    • Increase in divisive news
    • Dramatic increase in violent TV programs, movies, and video games
    • Dramatic increase in graphic children’s media
    • Increase in sexually explicit material (TV programs, movies, video games, easy access online, etc.)
    • Social media pressure
    • Reduced face-to-face interactions and social supports
    • The breakdown of the family unit
    • Sexual orientation confusion
    • Gender confusion
    • Being exposed to a multitude of opinions (on TV and online)
    • Being exposed to aggressive behavior (a dramatic rise in child abuse, adult abuse, sexual abuse, etc.)
    • Poor/reduced sleep
    • Increased financial pressure on parents
    • Reduced parental contact – children are prematurely separating from parents and families, and bonding to peers
    • Easy access to, and the acceptance of, recreational drugs (of all types)
    • Overly protected/indulged children
    • Reduced expectations for young adults
    • The ‘I’ generation (where everyone believes they are entitled to whatever they want, from opinions to lifestyle choices, and whenever and however they want it)

    And unfortunately, many more.

    While life is easier in terms of survival and work, societal norms have changed making it more difficult on our health, both psychologically and emotionally. Based on the research, this change is affecting everyone, and especially today’s children, which doesn’t bode well for our future.

    The shortage of mental health resources to help those who are suffering with mental illness is another alarming trend that research has identified. On the one hand, we have a rising trend in mental illness and suicide. On the other, there are fewer resources to help address these rising trends.

    What is the solution to these rising trends?

    Unfortunately, there aren’t easy solutions. What is required is a wholesale rethink about the many contributing factors and then adopting healthy change. But based on how society got here, and where it’s currently headed, it’s unlikely we’ll see a positive change anytime soon. The expectation is that things will get much worse.

    So, the best we can do is seek mental health support from the available resources, and then work at making families healthy one person at a time.

    The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior – a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety’s underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.

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    I believe growing up with a Narcissistic Father and BPD Sister had a lot to do with why I eventually “lost my mind”.

    I believe growing up surrounded by such dysfunctional behavior set me up for failure when I was later attracted to even more dysfunctional and abusive men.

    I was always being called the crazy one and being blamed for everything everyone else was doing. I was the scapegoat.

    For the longest time I believed abusive alcoholic sociopathic behavior was normal.

    When I started dating, my family rejected and ran off anyone who they didn’t think was worthy and approved of those who had lots of money, nice cars, good jobs, etc even though they were truely dysfunctional. (Like them)

    My mom is “mainstream normal” and divorced my father early on, but gives me shit about not wanting my father or psychotic sister in my life since 2009. She keeps trying to reunite us. Like they are blood related to me, but not her. Why that matters? I don’t know. I don’t care.

    I was also sexually assaulted at 12 and abused by my alcoholic paternal grandfather. That didn’t help.

    All throughout my adolescence I was severely depressed, but no one really knew why. I didn’t tell anyone anything until I was in my 20’s.

    My mom used to go to these parent support groups where they’d go around the room and complain about their kids not cleaning up their rooms or not filling the car up with gas. When it was my moms turn to talk she’d say “I’m afraid my daughter is going to kill herself and I don’t know how to help her.”

    I moved on to a series of bad relationships and went from frying pan into the fire.

    My first and second husband were both sex addicts. The second husband was an abusive alcoholic. The third husband was a murderer who won an insanity plea with a paranoid schizophrenic diagnosis.

    I was surrounded by assholes and went to therapists for years.

    My abusive family tried to convince me I was the crazy one even though I didn’t believe it. I was put on all kinds of medications. None helped except to make me numb and quiet some of my internal dialogue.

    I have a theory about mental illness. I think everyone hears “voices” when you talk to yourself in your head and ask questions someone or something responds and gives you answers. Intuition. Your conscience. Some “voices” or response thoughts are louder than others. Some may be spirits, guides or angels, not all of them have good intentions. I don’t think most people realize if you are not getting good guidance you can tell them to shut up, fuck off and ask for a better guide. I think this is especially true with paranoid schizophrenics, especially after having lived with one for 7 years.

    During that time period I checked myself into a psychiatric hospital several times. I wanted to kill myself. Let me rephrase that. I wanted to die. I felt like death was the only cure to end my emotional pain and suffering. I really didn’t want to die. I just couldn’t find any other way to get relief from my severe emotional pain.

    The therapy or medications couldn’t really control the outside assholes or inside obsessive compulsive and anxious thoughts in my head. Only I could do that.

    In 2009, I made a very conscious and aware decision to get rid of both.

    I cleaned house on my life and got rid of every single asshole or person who wasn’t acting in my best interest. I also had to get rid of people who were attached to the assholes and/or could not be pryed apart or separated from the assholes. It was my father and sister primarily and everyone who clung to them like a shit covered dingle berry. Gone.

    I learned how to reverse and transmute my thoughts from negative to positive using cognitive therapy.

    The biggest cure for me was learning what to think about “instead” and learning how to detaching myself from my ego. There are several books I’ve read which helped me accomplish both.

    I’ve been off psychiatric medication for over 10 years now. My last visit to the psychiatric hospital in 2010. I’ve gotten off the emotional love hate roller coaster that was my life for many years and kick every one out of my bubble who tries to take me to that psychotic amusement park.

    I refuse to associate with anyone who operates in dysfunction or abuse. Bye. Disqualified.

    I have a good life. I’m surrounded by people who love, adore and support me more than my family will ever be capable of doing.

    I believe I cured my own lifetime of suicidal depression, panic and anxiety. I am free from suffering. I am happy and emotionally stable. I make better decisions from knowledge and awareness. I listen to my own intuition and trust my own judgement. I am enough.

    I’m not aware of well-respected research that shows an increase in the frequency of mental illness (e.g., bipolar disorder & schizophrenia). So, yours is one of the large collection of questions on Quora for which the question makes an assumption that may not even be true. With that in mind…

    Changes in Culture: Consider that many cultures and subcultures still place moral judgments on those with mental illness and, in some cultures, people with mental illness are shunned from society. Even now, there are many with mental illness who cannot function well enough to be employed. This was far more so in the past— even the recent past. Keep in mind that there are still many cultures in which mental illness is not diagnosed… or even talked about. I mention this because, in Western cultures (particularly those with a high average standard of living), seeking treatment for mental illness and lesser mental health conditions is becoming far more culturally acceptable— but you’d want to look at the breakdown by subculture/demographics to see whether this is pervasive or restricted to certain ethnicities, religions, or genders.

    The Advent of Psychology as a Science: There is a hypothesis that the primary difference in the so-called presence of mental illness today vs. in the past is that mental illness diagnoses didn’t even exist until recently. While the manifestations of bipolar disorder (certain manic/depressive behaviors, aberrant thoughts) were first described around the time of the U.S. Civil War (mid-1800s), this was long before the era of psychology as a widespread discipline. Europeans and North Americans became more aware of psychology with the spread of Freudian and Jungian theories of psychology in the early 20th century. I should mention that we’ve been observing that some people have psychosomatic illnesses, depression, or other “thought disorders” at least since 1500 B.C.E. in Greece. I imagine ancient Eastern traditions made similar observations, though perhaps with different explanations. The point is: It was extremely rare for anyone to be diagnosed with mental illness until recently because the vast majority of humanity had no access to professional care.

    Mental Illness Diagnosis in the 20th-21st Centuries: Even such famous a person as the writer Virginia Woolf was not diagnosed with bipolar disorder by the time she committed suicide in 1947. Yet, her journals clearly indicate the extreme emotional pain she was in when she was having a depressive episode and a different kind of pain+euphoria that she experienced during manic/hypomanic episodes. The term “hysteria” has its origins in the ancient Greek word for uterus. Yes, we were considered to be somewhat crazy just by virtue of being a “hormonal female.” As recently as the 1960s, women were routinely prescribed sedatives for what was actually depression (!!). Sobbing was associated with hysteria and these women just needed to calm down. Not only was the diagnosis not right: The prescribed treatment could be downright harmful. By some metric, we’d have to say that there’s been a decline in hysteria in women, by which we’d mean that few women are diagnosed with a mental health disorder on the basis of being emotionally expressive or having hormonal cycles.

    Myopic Assumptions: People like to explain the unproven hypothesis that mental illness is becoming more frequent by pointing to today’s stresses. Many of us have very complicated lives, which is something that is difficult for our brains to keep balanced. But I’d hesitate to say our lives are more stressful. For most of history, keeping a roof over one’s head, food in their bellies, and rearing their children (some of whom would likely die before their 5th birthday) were physically and mentally exhausting. Was it too much for some people to cope with? Of course. Were they dying of other ailments before triggers for mental illness symptoms received attention/diagnosis? Probably, in many cases. (The average life expectancy in 1900 was 46–48 years old.)

    Going by the Book (i.e., the DSM-5): Even in recent decades in the U.S., we’ve seen diagnostic criteria changes in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Obviously, as the criteria change, the diagnoses are going to change. Patients fall into and out of a classification with those changes. Then there is what’s in vogue. Children, particularly boys, were overdiagnosed as having ADHD with the same characteristics as what had previously been labeled as “being a boy.” Intervention included medicating boys so that they would sit still in classroom settings. In the late 1990s, it became popular (never mind the DSM!) to diagnose young adolescents with Type II Bipolar Disorder when less-eager-to-label practitioners were looking at the mood changes of early adolescence as part of the not-yet-stabilized hormone cycles of that time in development as well as part of the process of individuation that is so crucial during adolescence. Such physicians believe that the symptoms associated with early adolescent mood changes might benefit from medical or psychological assistance, but the child is not mentally ill.

    On the other hand: In the United States (not to be taken as indicative of the rest of the world), we’re seeing a decline in life expectancy. For the past few years, longevity has declined due to two primary factors: (1) death from opioid overdose and (2) suicide. In the U.S., suicide by firearm, in particular, has become more common than it was in the past. (I have read that this is due to an increase in the percentage of people owning firearms, but I have not spent time determining whether there are multiple independent studies that show this is not simply a correlation but rather a cause-and-effect situation.) Do more people have suicidal ideations than in the past (i.e., major depressive disorder is on the rise) or do they just have greater access to a sure-fire way of ending it all? There may be no difference in the prevalence of suicidal depression, only a rise in success rates.

    I’m not speaking as an authority but as a regular person who has seen a lot.

    Anything can trigger a person’s brain and throw off their sense of self.


    We gain our self-concept by the feedback we get from others. This starts from babyhood all the way through adulthood. Some people get only favorable feedback from people: feedback that helps them grow a strong self-concept, which helps them accept their weaknesses and develop strength at the core of their being.

    Some people only get negative feedback. They get mishandled as infants. They get punished during potty training. They get punished if they spell their name backwards (this happened to me in kindergarten). Other kids shun them for whatever reason.

    We are talking about little kids here. This kind of stuff might happen to all little kids but they have adults who teach them to handle their emotions. Some kids don’t have this kind of support.

    There are kids who are given everything too that also develop a mental illness.


    A person could have a blow to the head.


    I disagree that genetics can be a sole cause. Genetics have to be triggered by an environmental stimulus.


    Imagine a kid’s very first experience with the outside world. They are going to kindergarten. A strange man stops them in their tracks and sexually abused them. This happens every day that they encounter this man. Imagine the size of this little child. Imagine the innocence and happiness they felt skipping along. Imagine the fear they must fear. Imagine that they don’t have a clue how to tell anyone about this experience? How could they?

    Imagine the nervousness they bring into the classroom now. How scared they are if other people. Imagine when they are told to skip, but can’t. They don’t have anything motivating them to want to skip, to run, to try in gym, to smile and laugh like other kids. Imagine that no one ever asks why. They just label the kid: mentally ill! Mentally challenged!! For fifty years no one asks questions, never asks why. This little girl was me. Wow, was I lucky that I had strength in me enough to resist labels! To recognize that adults were ignorant. It came at a steep cost to not give up my soul and fall into just plain agreeing to these distorted labels. All they would have had to do was ask, get to the bottom of what was going on in my life. But they thought they were so smart and checked every avenue but the right one. I am certain I’m not the only one. I’m certain there are many kids this kind of thing happened to. The Catholic Church was exposed! I expected all of society to be exposed. I expected the Protestant world to be exposed. It never happened. Who knows why.

    Let me tell you: this IS the way life works. Not for everyone. But for some. For enough. One is more than enough. People get labeled with mental illness, when mental illness is not the issue.

    Sadly, abuse can stop a person from thriving in the same way as other people thrive: by being a part of community. They learn to thrive on their own. In some social groups, this is considered mental illness. It’s sad.

    I hope this gives you a glimpse into the question you asked. And I hope it gives you the courage to look past labels.

    It has been found that people with mental health issues

    • have had lots of negative childhood events, like childhood neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse
    • tend to have parents who don’t understand emotional needs.
    • have some genetic mutations that tend toward mental health issues
    • have difficulty digesting green leafy vegetables, and/or don’t eat green leafy vegetables.
    • tend to have diets low in nutrition and high in sugar, corn syrup, white flour, and fried fat.
    • tend to use more caffeine
    • tend to use more substances like alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, etc.
    • tend to experience jobs as more stressful than the average
    • tend to have difficulty saying No when they need to
    • tend to have low levels of patience
    • tend to have poor negotiation skills.
    • have a much higher incidence of experiences in childhood like adoption, single parent, or divorced parents.

    Hi Rohail,

    I’ll give this one my best theory, and we will see how it goes. It’s tough to say what is the #1 cause of all mental illness because not all mental illness is the same. We’re talking apples and oranges, here. Schizophrenia is not caused by the same thing that, say, Generalized Anxiety Disorder(GAD) is. They are two separate disorders, that are thought of to come from two different places. Schizophrenia is thought to be caused by an endogenous component (meaning an internal reason such as a chemical imbalance or physiological disease), whereas something like GAD is caused by an exogenous reason, meaning the external environment contributes to it happening and not a chemical imbalance or physiological reason.

    The other thing is that the semantics are off here because very few mental illnesses/disorders that we know of are caused by something. That implies that there is a direct correlation to something that makes them happen. One example is Down’s Syndrome, which is classified as a Developmental Disorder. We know definitively that that disorder is caused by a genetic component. The person has an extra chromosome that leads to the delays and limitations in the development, which can develop into disorder in a person’s life. Is that to say that everyone with Down’s Syndrome will have a disorder in their life? No. Some can function very well.

    It’s probably better to ask “What is the #1 reason that mental disorders ‘develop’? The answer to that, maybe much more simplistic. The answer that I would give – Lack of adequate coping skills. We cannot cope with something we don’t know we have, and we also cannot use skills to cope that we are not taught. One of the biggest concerns that I have always had with the American school system is that there is a rising number of children, adolescents, teens, and young adults diagnosed with mental health issues in this country every day, yet one thing that we never talk about in our schools, is mental health. Even when we have “mentally ill” kids shooting their own schools up, we still aren’t talking about it. We talk about the weapons they used instead. If youth and adolescents were able to be taught about mental health issues and recognize them earlier in life, one of two things could happen:

    1. They may be able to learn how to cope better so that the problem doesn’t develop into disorder in their lives.
    2. They may be able to seek help for it sooner from a professional before it does damage to many different spheres in their lives, or they turn to substances to cope with it, instead of a professional.

    That’s my theory, and I am sticking to it. 🙂


    We are all different in our makeup, and even if we’re one of a pair of identical twins raised together, we experience life differently.

    What this means operationally is that we all come into the world with certain strengths and certain vulnerabilities (not weaknesses, more like Achilleses’ Heels). The exact combination we get is unique to us, though that may never become obvious.

    As we go thru life, small stressors tend to toughen us up, while bigger stressors take it out of us. If we get one more big stressor than we can take, then our defenses fail and we go under like a river bridge hit by a moving logjam.

    The way we go under is also determined by our personality. Many soldiers, having seen too many atrocities, kill themselves because they can’t stop remembering. Others kill their families to save them. Still others start medicating themselves with every psychoactive substance they can lay hands on in hope that the memories can be killed off. Others just slowly drift away from reality.

    It works the same with civilians, too.

    The stressor : vulnerability model is called the “diathesis : stress” model, “diathesis” being Greek (it wouldn’t sound Scientific to use English for these names) for an inbuilt vulnerability. And “stress”, of course, is English for something that tries to deform or break whatever it’s applied to.

    And that’s “the” main cause: a stress that’s too big for the individual to resist in a situation that cannot be escaped.

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