My personality is largely characterised by my excitable, emotional, sensitive, reactive nature. This is my inheritance – whether I am happy or not with this cocktail, it is there in the background, flavouring my experience of life for good and bad.
In a sense, my experience of life is amplified compared to the average man. The coupling of this with the vulnerable, sensitive, empathic aspect of my personality was always a recipe for mental health problems I feel. Not a mandate, but a formula ready to ignite given the right life events.
When young and free from mental health issues, my life was mostly normal and enjoyable. I would periodically be overwhelmed by things, but was able to cry and survive and move on rather than accumulate hurt.
As example of the kind of problem I experience now after decades of submerging into a sea of mental health problems, most of the ideas for this entry came between 6am and 7am this morning. A steady stream of ideas and connections. My reaction to these was strong – I sensed that there was some insight here – but the point is that I really should have been sleeping. My reactivity – the amplification of feeling about these ideas – relegated sleep into a distant second place. So I now write this in a distinctly tired state.
Impulsivity of ADHD
As another example, the impulsivity that comes with the ADHD that I have seems to be a natural and almost unavoidable consequence of my reactive nature – in conversation I will experience things intensely and will feel a sense of urgency to give my reply. This blocks out my ability to listen further – the urge to respond being so strong. So I fail to listen enough to details since I am reacting too much to the emotional element in the conversation. So, over the years, my short term memory atrophies through underuse – I simply do not pay attention to the details as they are too low in emotional impact to register enough. This short term memory problem then exacerbates the impulsivity – I feel the urge to interrupt as I will simply forget the thing I want to say if I do not say it quickly enough. If I do not get to say it, my over-reactivity to that failure makes me feel bad – and hence creates a greater urge to interrupt and speak next time. This is an example of negative feedback. (This is a theory that came to me in the stream of thoughts this morning – this thought took about 10 seconds to flesh out).
We all experience times of difficulty in life, and the healthy person does so in a proportional way – their reaction is appropriate and not amplified. If your nature, like mine, amplifies experiences, then they become that much harder to manage – you are hot-stepping from one important event to another. This was fine when I was younger, as I was able to live through the experiences and let their effect manifest and dissipate nicely. But if you experience a cascade of overloads, your ability to cope can be overwhelmed, and your mind tags the experiences as ones to avoid. The mere anticipation of a repeat of such an experience creates a physical reaction in the mind and/or body as a defence mechanism. So the likely overreaction if the experience does indeed repeat is mixed in with the anticipatory feelings, and thereby becomes amplified further.
And here we have a feedback mechanism – a previous experience is fed back into the new experience, creating a vicious cycle.
This concept of feedback loops seems to me a common thread to many mental illnesses.
The mental illness state can be nourished by further feedback paths, for example :
- You experience incapacity that is new to you, so you dwell on the matter in the hope of understanding and resolving it. This tends to feed back negatively.
- The incapacity withdraws you from certain situations in life, so your life experience dwindles and the illness becomes a bigger matter proportionally.
- Your friends and family feel uncomfortable with you, and this feeds back negatively.
- If the condition becomes severe enough, you become increasingly isolated, which gives you much greater time to dwell on your condition, and hence amplify it.
- The mind and body are tightly interlinked, so the body’s manifestation of the illness feeds back to the mind – the symptoms are generated by the mind and separately experienced – if you sense doom in this experience, the mind will create more symptoms.
The symptoms of an overload – this mental illness – can disassociate from the cause and continue unabated via one or more feedback loops. Chronic anxiety and chronic depression are examples of this. The ongoing prevalence of symptoms creates feelings of hopelessness that in turn generates further negative feedback.
When you have a toothache, in most cases, the pain will not be constant. It will fade in and out. So it is with mental illness – the mind generate the symptoms in an ebb and flow manner. This flux in a panic attack, for example, is relatively fast. You can be going about your daily life before a scene will trigger an attack that rapidly overwhelms you. The experience is so enormous that it cries out its own importance so we think the worse and it enflames even further.
But if we do not participate in its affairs, it will fade after a few minute. But it will then return – at reduced intensity – in a series of subsequent waves.
Tackling the feedback loops
They key to releasing the effect of panic attacks is to stay calm and thereby avoid the worry feedback that sustains the attacks.
It occurred to me that other mental health conditions could also have a wave like nature. So I looked at my own current mental health issue – headaches, excessive tiredness and foggy head. To awake with a foggy head, headache and extreme tiredness of mind (not body, strangely), that generally lasts all day is tough to take. So an anticipatory mechanism builds up, which almost certainly makes repeat occurrences more rather than less likely.
I have noticed, however, that the blanket day-long nature is not actually the case. It can fade – so slowly that I barely notice.
Why not, I decided, to treat this condition as I have successfully done with panic attacks (which were criminally bad, but are now extremely rare for me). Rather than feel encumbered by my ‘day-long’ plight, try to recognise when my symptoms faded in and out, and let them flow without judgement rather than feed back and amplify.
But the key, I feel, is also to tackle the real root of this and many mental health conditions – the anticipatory fear feedback mechanism. So for the past few days, I have been engaged in these twin activities. Last night I went to a board games meetup. Such occasions at the tired part of the day, with many strangers, and intense game rules to learn, for me generally trigger a tension headache. This is indeed what happened last night. And here I will digress a little.
If someone last night asked my why I was tensing up, he would in effect be asking the wrong question. I was in a relaxed state of mind – or rather, I was consciously cultivating a relaxed, unreactive mind state – as was my plan. I was mindful of any sign of fear, (mostly anticipatory, I noticed, since the people were friendly), and defusing it. But I was nevertheless tensing up (albeit much less than normal, thanks to my fear defusion). But I was not in fact tensing up – I was not making myself tense – it was happening to me.
And this is key to many who misunderstand mental illness. They tell a depressed person to snap out of their depression even though on that day the sufferer most certainly did not create the depressed state – it was imposed upon them by their subconscious in a feedback loop. Saying this to a depressed person is like telling a person to stop beating themselves up when someone else is punching them – they are addressing the wrong cause.
The net effect of my exercise last night was, alas, a headache that lasted into the small hours of the night. But maybe not as bad as I might have expected. But by disengaging with the sense of fear that my headache was trying to instil, I relaxed into the company around me in a way that I rarely do when I have tensed up before. I let the headache continue without buying into its false, historic message.
And I started experiencing the relaxed wandering mind that I now remember was how I behaved normally when younger. The key to the fear, it felt, was that I had learnt to dread people saying or doing things I would react adversely to. (So we go back to the original reactivity issue). This time, I stopped dreading that, and just experienced my reaction – the natural way to behave. And as a result, I started feeling the urge to do what I used to do as a way of dissipating the resulting ill-feeling when younger – I started challenging things. I had stopped doing this for years in order to please people – to tolerate discomfort to maintain harmony. We were playing a complex game and I was tensing up trying to understand the rules. So I broke the ice to say I thought the game was too involved (after all, I had asked the organiser for an easy game to pick up). Straight away, the young lady to the next of me then aired the same concern and I relaxed further. By challenging the underlying habits, I am hoping that I am now setting up a positive feedback loop!
The key, I believe, to much of my mental health is decades of amplification and feedback of the strain from the desire to please other people, which in turn was a response to an often rebellious, childish or inappropriate natural response by myself to uncomfortable social situations.
So my next step is to allow my natural reaction to manifest in difficult situations rather than to suppress is. To express the reaction may be a step too far for now. I will take the Buddhist approach first – to be mindful without judgement.
The conclusion here is a sad one in my eyes. It is like the proverbial flapping of a butterfly wing eventually effecting the global weather patterns – the suppression of my initial relatively innocuous tendency to say and do socially inappropriate or silly things snowballed into decades of extremely disproportionate symptoms, amplified and fed-back into a self-sustaining miasma.
The turning point was my marriage. I had grown used to tolerating the annoying ways of my wife-to-be as they were small compared to her virtues – I rightly reasoned that no marriage was perfect. But the anticipation of the continued suppression of them made confinement with the same person for the rest of my life a forecast that freaked my mind out. This happened just too late, a few days before the wedding, so I did not pull out – I did not have enough time to reflect on events to cancel the marriage. And the habit to suppress became entrenched – I had set a precedent in a marriage I really wanted to make work. The suppression snowballed to eventually generate the headaches and other problems I have now. I believe.
It has parallels to the often life-long effect of the callous words of a parent who repeatedly tells his daughter that she will never amount to anything. Something plausible and innocuous enough not to cause undue alarm as a child at the start becomes embedded internally and negatively dictates a restraining outlook on her whole life, the source unknown to the conscious mind. The belief manifested – she acted out her beliefs that she was useless – and this failure enacted fed back to reinforce the belief.
The mind, it seems, in conjunction with the body’s part in the expression of the mind’s thoughts, can spiral out of balance very quickly via the feedback mechanism.
(2,000 words written and checked in 2 hours – not bad going!).
© Neil Moffatt 2012