Showing your “True Colors”

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I’ve been blogging for around 3 years now, and in addition to writing I try to follow a number of blogs.

One of the blogs I follow regularly is another relationship blog, written by a guy who went through a divorce a number of years back.  His divorce broke him; so he started writing about all the things he did both consciously and unconsciously that ultimately led to the breakdown of his marriage and his divorce.

It’s refreshing, and self-aware.  Like myself, the guy who writes it seems to believe most relationships can be improved by looking inward at the things you are doing as a person, and BEING BETTER.  And a big part of being better is gaining an awareness of what often goes wrong and trying to better understand and accept the other person.

Anyhow, his blog seems pretty successful, and has a really active community in the comments section.  Great group of people by and large, but like any “family” it sure has its own dysfunctions.  And a few months back the comments section broke down.

A new reader came along with a very different set of beliefs compared to most readers.  Beliefs that were frequently offensive and hurtful to others.  These comments started to disturb what had been a pretty happy/healthy commenting community, and many (myself included actually) became upset that this one commenter was, for a lack of a better term, poisoning the comments.

Some asked for this commenter to be banned, or at least something to be done.  But nothing was, and things became worse for a while.

Eventually, when multiple requests to do something to improve the comments section were ignored, one readers suggested that by not doing anything the author of the blog was “showing his true colors.”

Communication can be difficult and frustrating at times; so I can’t say exactly what was meant by that.  But my interpretation of that assertion was, in writing his blog the author talked about things like equality and improving relationships between men and women.  However by allowing dysfunction in the comments section he was showing inconsistency with this.  So perhaps the reality was, he really didn’t care.

This post really has nothing to do with the issue with the comments section story.  Similar to how my last post opened up with a story about renewing a mortgage, and then went on to actually be about how people can place differing values on the same thing; that’s just a backdrop to a larger idea (or at least that’s my intent).  And that’s the idea that in life, there are always nuances.  And things are rarely as straightforward as they may seem.

 

Patterns of Behavior 

I like to think I am a good person.  I have a strong moral compass, and I try to live my life with integrity.  Truly, I try to do “the right thing”, whatever that is.  And I would *like* to think I’m a fairly empathetic person, who does his best to think through the consequences of his actions before he does them.

But you know what?  Sometimes I hurt people.  And sometimes it’s a lot.  In fact, even for the people I care about the most, I PROMISE I will hurt them.

I hurt people in different ways too.  Sometimes by something I do, and sometimes by something I don’t do.  Sometimes I do things that get interpreted in ways I never meant.

Does that make me a bad person?

 

If I do 50 “good” things and 5 “bad” ones, do those bad ones show “the truth” about me?  Do they show that I’m actually a bad person?  That my “good” actions were just a show?

Yeah, I’ll acknowledge there are differing degrees of what good and bad are.  So yes, I suppose it’s possible that one bad action (particularly in the case of extreme behaviors, which again is subjective) can completely undo the good.  But by and large, I say no.

 

In statistical analysis, there is the concept of outliers.  Outliers are values that “stand out from other values in a set of data”, because they are aberrations in some way.

We are all going to have good days and bad days.  We are all going to do things that hurt others sometimes.

What REALLY matters is not each discrete individual action.  A bad action is a bad action.  A bad choice is a bad choice.

What matters is the PATTERN OF BEHAVIOR, and it is these patterns that speak to a person’s true character.  How you consistently act is a much more accurate measure of who you are than any specific action.

 

All or Nothing Thinking 

Cognitive distortions are broken thinking patterns that are often found in mental illnesses and mood disorders.  They are commonly found in anxiety disorders and depression, and are also believed to be part of why it’s so hard to break the cycle of anxiety and depression – these thinking patterns reinforce negative thoughts and emotions, “feeding” the issue (as an aside, one of the most effective ways to deal with/manage depression and anxiety is cognitive behavior therapy, which is intended to rewire the brain to correct these thinking patterns).

There are a number of different cognitive disorders found in anxiety and depression, and perhaps the most damaging is Splitting, or All or Nothing Thinking.

 

All or Nothing Thinking is kind of self-explanatory.  It is a form of thinking where we look at things in extremes, or as black and white.  You are a success, or a failure.  Someone loves you, or they hate you.  Something is perfect, or it is broken.

To be clear, we ALL fall into this sort of thinking once in a while (so when I reference the “comments” situation at the top I am in NO way suggesting anyone there is mentally ill).  But although we all do this sometimes, this type of thinking becomes a HUGE problem when it becomes a common or default form of thinking, or a pattern of behavior.

 

A while back I talked about the primal brain, and how the primal brain overrides reason and logic.  Well one of the big issues with all or nothing thinking is that it’s rooted in emotions, and normally extreme emotions.  It’s part of the automatic fight or flight response that you generally see with depression and anxiety.

 

Impacts on Relationships

Hopefully it’s clear that an automatic form of thinking, which overrides rationality and is rooted in extreme emotions is unhealthy.  But just in case it’s not, here’s a common way it impacts relationships:

In the early days of relationships, we all have a tendency to idealize our partners.  We see them as we want to see them (not as they actually are), and are often blind to their flaws.

This is normal, and science has shown that in the early days of love, brain chemicals are actually altered, contributing to this.

Eventually though (generally between 6 months and 2 years), this altered chemical state goes back to normal and we are able to see the person more clearly.  Normally we see a few rough edges, but are still able to accept the other person for who they are.

With all or nothing thinking however, these “flaws” often become proof that “something is wrong with the relationship”.  And if something is wrong, then this person is not “the one”.

 

All or nothing thinking has a perfectionist view of relationships; where there is a belief that if you can just find the right person, everything will be perfect and you will be happy forever.

But no one is perfect, and not being perfect doesn’t mean someone is a failure.  A relationship isn’t good or bad, rather it will have good and bad elements.

 

Popular dating site eharmony even talks about this thinking pattern and what it can mean to relationships:

Rather than seeing people as having both positives and negatives, overly critical people hold their romantic partners to an unrealistic expectation of having no faults whatsoever. Sadly, this type of “all-or-nothing” behavior can repeat over and over in one relationship after another until a person realizes that they themselves are the problem.

 

Basically, all or nothing thinking does a lot of damage to relationship.

 

And in addition to doing damage, it also makes is so people fall into a sense of hopelessness and a belief that things can never get better.

I’ve talked about loss of hope before and how destructive it is to improving a relationship.  With all or nothing thinking, the mere existence of problems shows that the relationship is flawed.  And if it can’t be perfect, what’s the point?

It makes it hard to see or appreciate incremental improvements, as the relationship is all or nothing.

 

 Seeing Shades of Grey

All or nothing thinking puts tremendous strain on relationships.  And unfortunately, people who suffer from it usually don’t even realize that their way of thinking is unusual and damaging.  It’s a thinking pattern, so for them, that’s their reality – or just who they are.

A question to ask yourself is, do you often think in terms of extremes?  Do you get caught up in thinking that things have to be perfect, and if they aren’t they are ruined?  Do you give up on things easily because you “know” you can’t do them, or you feel they are impossible?  Do you think in terms of “always”, or “never”, “terrible” or “awful”?

If those sorts of thoughts are common, you may deal with all or nothing thinking.  And it may be doing a lot of harm to your relationships, and your personal life in general.

 

Life isn’t all or nothing.

You can love some parts of your life and not others, and still have an amazing life.

You can be terrible at something, but still be able to improve it.

Your partner can love you, but still be a bit of a jerk sometimes.

 

And nothing in life can ever get better, until you can accept that it doesn’t have to be perfect.

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Sorting Things Out

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In the past I’ve written about relationship doubt and some of the things that can cause it.  Broken trust, anxiety issues, a belief that there may be someone out there who is *better* for you; all of these things can cause doubts.

Doubt is understandable but it’s also very dangerous, as belief is tied to effort.  At both a conscious or an unconscious level, the more someone doubts the less they put INTO the relationship.  As a result, if doubt is not dealt with it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, destroying the relationships.

 

In this post I want to look not only at the person having doubts, but also how it impacts the other person in the relationship.

 

 

If someone is having doubts about whether or not they really want their relationship or if it is the right one for them, there are a few things to think about.

First is the nature of the relationship.  It’s one thing to have doubts if you are casually dating, as those doubts are part of determining if it’s a relationship you actually want to commit to.  Once you have committed, things change a bit; and if you are living together, married, and/or have kids together then the complexity of the situation increases significantly.

Even in complex situations it is important to remember that a relationship involves two people.

If you are having doubts, you owe it to your partner to be honest with them.  Any problem or doubts you have affect them too – they NEED to know about it and they need to have an opportunity to be part of any solution.

 

I can understand the idea that sometimes we want to keep our thoughts to ourselves, especially when periods of doubt can be times when we don’t even really know what’s going on in our own heads.

However it’s pretty common to hear stories where one person thought that things were going pretty well, until one day they find out their partner has decided they want a divorce and they have already made up their mind.

To me, that should never, EVER happen.  Relationships are based on communication.  No one should ever be blindsided by these types of things.  If there is a problem, they have a right to know about it, and to at least have an opportunity to try and work on things; instead of being faced with a position where by the time they know it’s too late.

When someone doesn’t share their doubts, those doubts tend to grow and deepen.  And when that happens a distance will form, as the person with the doubts will naturally tend to withdraw and detach themselves from the relationship.

Some people may claim that their partner knew there were issues.  They had to, because they obviously saw the changes in behavior.

Well yeah, maybe.  I’m sure they did know something was up.  But unless it was communicated to them they had no way of understanding the severity of the doubt.  Relationships go through ups and downs all the time, frequently someone thinks they are just going through a down time – and then one day they wake up to find they are facing a divorce they never saw coming.

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Time to Figure Things Out

Relationships change, things happen, and sometimes people question whether the life they have is really the one they want.  When it happens it sucks for everyone involved, but it’s part of life.

And when this happens, the person with doubts often wants some time and space to “figure things out”.  I get that.  It’s understandable that they can’t be fully engaged in a relationship if they aren’t sure they want it anymore.  And depending on the source of those doubts, I think most people’s partners will try to be understanding and give them a bit of time.

Here’s the problem though – a (committed) relationship isn’t a part time gig.  It’s not the sort of thing where you can just take a sabbatical, and come back when/if you decide that yeah, you are actually committed to it.

There has to be some empathy and understanding on both sides, but people need to find a way to continue the relationship even during this time.

If they can’t?  If they really need to “take a break”?

In my mind, that is what separation is for.

It is completely unfair and selfish for someone to expect to be able to “stay” in the relationship that they aren’t committed to it anymore.  People can’t just pick and choose the parts they feel like dealing with (usually the security of home, and family) while checking out on the parts they don’t want to deal with (usually emotional and physical intimacy).

To the best of their ability they need to find a way to do both.

 

In these situations the person with the doubts often wants time to figure things out in their own way, at their own pace.  They want their partner to give them time and space with no pressure.  To wait for them.

In a way there is something romantic about the notion of waiting for someone.

It brings to mind stories of WWII, where soldiers would go off to war and their girlfriends would promise to wait for them.  And the joy they would have when they were finally reunited.

This is different though.

In those cases the relationship was separated by circumstance; and the person waiting believed they would be coming back.

In the case of someone having doubts, why should the other person wait?  They are essentially being told that the person they love is “no longer sure if they want to be with them”.

Think about that for a moment.

No longer sure.

So they love someone and have committed to them, but that person isn’t sure they want things anymore.  Instead of being committed to getting through anything together, the person they love sees them as simply an option – not a priority.

Yet they are expected to just put their life on hold and wait, in the hopes that maybe their partner will continue to choose them.

And if they don’t?

Then that time spent waiting was time wasted.  Time of their life they will never get back.

 

You Can Never Go Home Again

Doubts happen, and as noted there can be all sorts of reasons that aren’t even directly related to the relationship.  Identity issues, depression, anxiety – all of these can cause doubt.  And sometimes those doubts will never go away.

But you need to identify the real cause of the doubt and actively fight back against it.  Because when someone checks out of a relationship because of those doubts they fundamentally alter the relationship forever.

Once you have been made to feel like an option, things are never the same again.  They can still be good, or even great.  But that magic of knowing that you will always be there for each other no matter what life throws at you?

Once that has been broken it’s gone forever.

 

I recently read a blog written by someone who’s partner had checked out on the relationship, and he wasn’t sure what to do.  One of the commenters told him that he should use this time to show his wife how much he loves her, because (in her words) “women like to be chased”.

Sorry, I can’t disagree with this more.

Maybe he had been taking his partner for granted and that was contributing to her doubts.  If so, and those doubts made him realize he had been taking them her for granted (sadly something that is natural in relationships), that’s one thing.  Then he should use this as a wake up call, and adjust his behavior appropriately.

We all want to feel valued, and appreciated (that applies to women and men).  But “chasing” accomplishes nothing.  Someone has to be there because they want to be there – not because they like the thrill of being chased.

It’s like an addict chasing the next high.  If someone is only there when they are being chased, how long will it be until they check out and are gone again?

No, if someone needs that thrill and that rush, then I would say let them go.

 

 

All sorts of things can cause doubt, and at times they can be crushing.  But if you are in a relationship the worst thing you can do is keep it to yourself.

It may seem like a deeply personal thing but it doesn’t just affect one person, so both people have to be involved.  The doubts may originate with one person, but both people need to be part of the solution.

Doubt can destroy relationships but it doesn’t have to.  In fact love can be strongest when it can accept those doubts and continue to thrive in spite of them.

DoubtingLove

Living with Anxiety Part 2 – Doubting Love

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In part 1 I talked about the fight and flight arousal response of Anxiety, and how it can cause a sufferer to be in a state of chronic stress and cause the world to “turn inwards”.

Chronic stress is unhealthy, and is also damaging to relationships.

Stress makes people irritable, tense, causes a lack of sleep (increasing irritability), etc. None of these are positive conditions for relationships.

Relationships also require empathy, and a focus on your partner and the idea of “we”. So adding the tendency to focus inwardly and think primarily about yourself compounds the issue.

But that’s not even the worst part; the worst part is probably doubt.

Anxiety can make people question love.

This can happen in two ways – doubt about the feelings someone has for you, or doubt about the feelings you have for someone else.

Doubts about what someone feels for you tends to lead to a need for constant reassurance. When there are doubts about what YOU feel however, the normal response is to withdraw. Anxiety can lead to either of these types of doubt, and in some cases it can even lead to both.

Daniel Smith talks about this doubt in his book on living with anxiety, and there are also countless other stories of this same sense of doubt.

Here’s one I found particularly poignant:

My depression/anxiety has a particularly pernicious aspect in that my negative thoughts are almost entirely focused on my boyfriend: including thoughts I don’t love him, he isn’t attractive enough, I will never find him sexually attractive and that things will never work out.

This is particularly frustrating because I will have ‘moments of clarity’ either whilst with him or apart from him where I realize all of this thinking is ridiculous, I have an amazing relationship and we have so much in common, and I find him very attractive. Whenever I get to the point of asking myself: ‘do I want to leave the relationship?’ the answer is always a very clear ‘no’ in my head.

Yet my thoughts plague me every time I see him. Sometimes I can shut the thoughts to the back-burner, other times they overwhelm me and I feel incredibly sad. We have been together for a year and half now, and I’m kind of at the end of my tether.

Because this has continued to plague our relationship since its beginning, I’m often forced to ask myself “Is it all just the relationship?” and I don’t know how to get the perspective to figure that out.

I have certainty that I love my boyfriend because I miss him when we are away, I get rushes of pleasure and happiness when we kiss, I relate to him on a really strong intellectual and emotional level. We never have conflict or disagreements, because we hold the same views.

Yet when I’m down I get plagued by recurring thoughts: Is this how I am supposed to be feeling? Do other people feel differently about their partners? I should be feeling more, shouldn’t I? Do I find him attractive? If I don’t find him attractive now, does that mean it is all a lie? Have I tricked myself into feeling this way? If the sex was average, does that mean our sex life is terrible? Maybe we have no physical chemistry? etc etc

I then feel guilt and sadness for being unable to figure out my feelings and for having doubts. After all, it isn’t really fair to him is it? Then there is a cycle of questioning: Do I really love him? Am I wasting my time?

Then when I think of breaking up with him, I get another rush of sadness and guilt because part of me really doesn’t want to, even though another part of me is sick of the doubt and would rather leave to end it all.

The problem with doubt is that it can be very destructive. Like many things, relationships are all about effort. What you get out of them is very closely related to what you put in.

When you doubt, you are less likely to invest the time or effort in a relationship that it requires. After all, why put effort into something that isn’t going to work out anyhow? But by not putting the effort in, you all but ensure the relationships failure (or at the very least minimize the level of satisfaction you are able to have).

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This sense of doubt that anxiety can create is perhaps the most damaging aspect of the condition. Incidentally, the person who wrote the story above found that after trying medication (SSRI’s) the doubts cleared up, resulting in a happier and healthier relationship.

The “Dance” of Doubt

The doubt comes from the combination of catastrophizing and rumination, and creates a pattern of doubt and withdrawal:

  1. Mounting Uncertainty. Anxiety leads someone to question the feelings they have for their partner. Maybe it’s not actually love. Maybe it was just infatuation, desperation or loneliness. Maybe this relationships is not what they really want
  2. Withdrawal. Due to doubts about the relationship, you withdraw from the relationship emotionally, and stop putting any effort in. Or worse, you may become outright neglectful or hostile in a passive aggressive way of expressing unhappiness in the relationship.
  3. Blowback. The behavior displayed while withdrawing causes the relationship to start to break down. Arguments start, and the environment starts to become toxic for both partners
  4. Retreat. Realizing the damage that is being done, the anxious partner starts trying to repair the damage.

This process continually repeats, as the anxiety leads the relationship to go through cycles that do increasing amounts of damage to the relationships each time. Left unchecked, it can destroy the relationship.

In his book Daniel Smith describes his own experience with this process:

Over and over again, I pushed Joanna away and pulled her back, drawing her into an abusive four-step dance.

First, I would grow increasingly uncertain. “Was I truly in love with Joanna?” I would ask myself. How could I be when we didn’t appreciate all the same books, the same music, the same movies? Was it possible that what I called love had been merely infatuation, lust, desire?

Second, torn by my doubts, I would grow withdrawn and sullen, even openly hostile. I would ignore Joanna, make nasty little remarks, put her down in front of her friends.

Third, Joanna would start to fight back. Neglected and mistreated, she would respond with anger and sadness. Why was I being so cruel? What had she done to deserve this?

Fourth, horrified by my behavior, I would try urgently and with great remorse to repair the damage. I’d buy her flowers, send her cute messages during the day, hang on her every word.

Then, after a short respite, the dance would begin again.

The Breakdown of Intimacy

What is intimacy? Though they are often used interchangeably, intimacy and sex are NOT the same thing.

Intimacy is about closeness, and connection. It requires vulnerability, and a willingness to open yourself up to the other person. Intimacy requires trust.

Well, what is anxiety?

Anxiety is a condition that causes chronic stress and tension, and causes people to overthink and imagine the worst in situations. It causes doubt, and fear. It leads people to put up emotional walls to “protect” themselves, pushing people away instead of letting them in.

A common complaint of anxiety sufferers is the sense of being “uncomfortable in my own skin”. The hypersensitivity to the outside environment also extends itself to a sense of self, and a feeling of self-consciousness around others about how they look.

With this discomfort in your own skin there is a tendency to pull away. Touch, seen as a sign of closeness and comfort for most people, is often a source of discomfort for people with anxiety.

Anxiety can create almost the polar opposite of the conditions required for intimacy.

Behaviors impacting Relationships

Anxiety can lead to a number of different actions and behaviors which sabotage and break down love (list copied from the site referenced):

  • Cling – When we feel anxious, our tendency may be to act desperate toward our partner. We may stop feeling like the independent, strong people we were when we entered the relationship. As a result, we may find ourselves falling apart easily, acting jealous or insecure or no longer engaging in independent activities.
  • Control – When we feel threatened, we may attempt to dominate or control our partner. We may set rules about what they can and can’t do just to alleviate our own feelings of insecurity or anxiousness. This behavior can alienate our partner and breed resentment.
  • Reject – If we feel worried about our relationship, one defense we may turn to is aloofness. We may become cold or rejecting to protect ourselves or to beat our partner to the punch. These actions can be subtle or overt, yet it is almost always a sure way to force distance or to stir up insecurity in our partner.
  • Withhold – Sometimes, as opposed to explicit rejection, we tend to withhold from our partner when we feel anxious or afraid. Perhaps things have gotten close, and we feel stirred up, so we retreat. We hold back little affections or give up on some aspect of our relationship altogether. Withholding may seem like a passive act, but it is one of the quietest killers of passion and attraction in a relationship.
  • Punish – Sometimes, our response to our anxiety is more aggressive, and we actually punish, taking our feelings out on our partner. We may yell and scream or give our partner the cold shoulder. It’s important to pay attention to how much our actions are a response to our partner and how much are they a response to our critical inner voice.
  • Retreat – When we feel scared in a relationship, we may give up real acts of love and intimacy and retreat into a “fantasy bond.” A fantasy bond is an illusion of connection that replaces real acts of love. In this state of fantasy, we focus on form over substance. We may stay in the relationship to feel secure but give up on the vital parts of relating. In a fantasy bond, we often engage in many of the destructive behaviors mentioned above as a means to create distance and defend ourselves against the anxiety that naturally comes with feeling free and in love.

Anxiety and Sex

Intimacy and sex are two different things, and in a relationship intimacy is much more important. But maintaining a sex life is actually pretty damned important too.

Not surprisingly, Anxiety can also get in the way of the sexual side of a relationship.

Anxiety is an overwhelming form of daily stress. Many find that living with anxiety daily causes them to experience significant sadness and discomfort in their daily life, often leading to less enjoyment of the things that previously caused them happiness.

That’s why when you have anxiety, it’s not uncommon to also have a low libido. Your sex drive is directly affected by the way you feel, and anxiety is the type of condition that can make it hard to find your partner or the idea of lovemaking to be arousing.
calmclinic.com

When anxiety impacts the sexual side of a relationship Calmclinic.com suggests the following:

Talk Openly to Your Partner

When anxiety affects your arousal, don’t try to hide it. Trying to hide it and overcome it causes further stress, because you’ll find that you try too hard to get aroused. Arousal is an automatic function, and not something you can force, so the more you try to force it the harder it gets. If you talk to your partner about it, you’ll find that the added pressure of knowing that you’re open about the problem takes some of the stress off of you.

Try to Make Love Anyway

Extended time away from an active sex life can put strain on your relationship and potentially lead to more stress. If possible, try to make love anyway for fun. Talk to your partner, and don’t make it a stressful event. Make it something you do to keep your sex life going and try to remember the enjoyment you experience when you do get aroused. If making love isn’t physically possible, at the very least you should spend time being romantic and having fun in an intimate way to at least keep that component a part of your life.

Avoidance

In dealing with sexual problems, calmclinic.com recommends “talking openly with your partner”.

Sound advice.

Unfortunately, for people with anxiety communication is often not a strong suit. Discussing “difficult” issues causes the anxiety response, and it’s hard to deal with issues when the body is in fight or flight mode. As a result, for many anxiety sufferers the “preferred” way of dealing with problems is to simply avoid them.

Avoidance becomes the go-to communication style (though lack of communication style may be more accurate).

Many people say that communication is the foundation of a healthy relationship. Well, if communication is a mark of a healthy relationship, then avoidance is definitely a sign of trouble.

Fighting Back

Anxiety affects many people around the world to varying degrees, and it can put considerable strain on relationships. This isn’t to say that people with anxiety disorders can’t have healthy relationships, as they can. But to do that they need to actively fight back against the anxiety, and recognize that if they are in a relationship then the anxiety is not only affecting them – it also affects their loved ones.

One of the worst things an anxiety sufferer can do is resign themselves to it and say “this is just the way I am”. There is some truth to that, as anxiety sufferers will never get rid of the anxiety. Rather, they have to learn how to manage it instead of allowing it to control their life.

Accepting it will always be there is the first step to a healthy way of managing it. As one sufferer put it:

I think the issue facing many who deal with anxiety is that we want to be cured. We want to go back to that time period we can remember when it didn’t seem to overwhelm our every thought and impact us physically. We want to go back to that time in our relationships when we had no doubts and live there – because it seems as though once doubt sets in, you can’t shake it.

And sure, pills and therapy are fantastic ways to work on anxiety, but I think what we have to realize is anxiety can be managed, not cured.

I’ve found as I’ve worked on accepting that, I’m more receptive to negative thoughts associated with anxiety because I know they will pass – that yes, I have these thoughts which can ravage me emotionally, but that’s all they are – thoughts that my anxiety-distorted brain has come up with. It doesn’t take away the frustration and pain of having them, but makes them much easier to bear.

The next thing to do is educate yourself. The danger of anxiety is in that it is an automatic response or irrational thought. Increasing your knowledge of anxiety allows you to differentiate between rational and anxious thought.

One of the leading treatments for anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT takes the approach that thoughts and feelings affect behavior. Anxiety is based off of irrational thought, or cognitive distortions. So identifying these negative thoughts allows you to “fight back” against them.

There are also medications that can be used to treat anxiety and depression, and they can be helpful and even necessary at times (as anxiety is often tied to imbalances is brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine). My personal opinion is that medication alone is never enough. It can help get anxiety down to a low enough level to start working on changing the underlying thought process. But without that work, you are simply masking the problem. And medication has a tendency to become less effective over time.

Anxiety is a very difficult condition, and not one that can be understood by non-sufferers. It’s not as simple as “don’t worry so much”, though it can often seem that way to outsiders.

But it is true that it’s “in someone’s head”, as it is a condition that originates in broken thinking patterns. Changing those thoughts and mindsets takes time and dedication. But the cost of not doing so is extremely high, as anxiety can infect all aspects of life.

Living with Anxiety Part 1 – Chased By Bears

RoaringBear

Do you ever question your relationship? Do you wonder if you really love him/her? Wonder if maybe there’s something more – someone out there that you would be happier with? Do you ever ask yourself ever questions like “is this how I am supposed to be feeling? Do other people feel differently about their partners? I should be feeling more, shouldn’t I?”

Romantic love tells us things like love conquers all, and true love will find a way.

It tells us things like:

truelove

So if you are having doubts that probably means there’s *something* wrong with the relationship, right? There must be, or these doubts wouldn’t be there.

Add to this the fact that we are often told to follow our instincts, or trust our gut. If you are having doubts, then at least at some level your brain is giving you a warning.

But what if you can’t trust your brain?

What if you can’t trust your own thoughts?

To most, the prospect of not being able to trust our own brains seems ridiculous. But it’s something that millions of anxiety sufferers around the world live with every single day.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is something that we all experience it at some level. And in small doses, it is probably even healthy. But it can become debilitating, and it can destroy lives and relationships.

So what is it?

One good description I found is:

Anxiety is a normal emotional response to perceived danger, and most of us experience moments of it on a regular basis. However, when anxiety becomes chronic and leads to a decline in a person’s function or quality of life, it is classified as an anxiety syndrome or disorder. Individuals with anxiety syndromes experience a wide range of excessive and uncontrollable feelings of nervousness, panic, and fear. These feelings often develop into a number of diverse behaviors and problems, including obsessive-compulsive rituals, irrational fears and phobias, social isolation and avoidance

Anxiety becomes a disorder when it is chronic, and negatively impacts a persons life. There are different variations of anxiety disorders, but they share many traits.

Some of these traits are physiological, and in fact anxiety is sometimes referred to as a state of fight or flight arousal.

With this state of arousal (no, not THAT type of arousal) the body is in a heightened state of awareness. It’s constantly alert for signs of “danger”, and when it finds them the body prepares itself accordingly.

The heart starts beating faster, the body tenses up, and breathing becomes faster and more shallow.

You are ready to either run, or fight and defend yourself.

This sort of physiological response would likely have been helpful in an older era, when life literally was a fight for survival. In a world that involved foraging for food and being chased by bears, hypersensitivity to the world around you could mean the difference between life and death.

Today though? It’s a bit less useful. It still has moments that it’s helpful, but those are outweighed by the drawbacks.

(if you’re interested in a pretty good overview of the fight or flight response check out this article)

For chronic anxiety sufferers, these physiological impacts can take a considerable toll. Sore muscles, tension headaches, irritability, problems with concentration, and difficulty sleeping (leading to chronic fatigue) are among the problems.

Catastrophizing and Rumination

Although the physiological impacts of anxiety can be difficult, perhaps the most insidious effect is what it does to your thinking.

The anxiety response is designed to protect you from danger, and keeps you in a state of alert. Well, when you are looking for danger (consciously or subconsciously) you can always find it – even when it wasn’t initially there (with anxiety it’s common to read too much into things, and misinterpret things). And over a period of time this perception of danger comes to represent threat itself.

The anxious mind will Catastrophize. Catastrophizing is an irrational thinking pattern where the mind will both imagine and come to expect the worst case scenario in a situation, leading to a constant state of stress and fear. It also commonly results in an anxious person not even trying something, because they “know” they will fail.

Catastrophizing goes hand in hand with another cognitive disorder known as Rumination.

Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone makes bad decisions or screws up sometimes. That’s just life. Most people pick themselves up, hopefully try to understand what went wrong, and try to do better next time.

For an anxiety sufferer, rumination can short circuit this. Rumination is a broken thinking pattern where people get caught up in the past. They have a hard time letting go of things, and get caught up in guilt over things they may have done, or could have done differently.

If I had only…”, or “things would be better if…” are common thoughts for someone trapped in rumination.

Rumination prevents you from moving forward in a healthy way. You are so caught up in what “could” or “should” have been that you fail to act on what ACTUALLY IS.

Rumination combined with Catastrophizing also causes people to misinterpret things. Someone may make a simple innocuous comment, and an anxiety sufferer will look for meanings, and sometimes imagine negative meanings that were never there in the first place.

over-analysing-quote

The World Turns Inward

With a heightened sensitivity to the outside world, anxiety puts the body and mind in a constant state of stress. And stress has a way of turning the world inward.

Think about the fight or flight arousal. What is “fight or flight”? It’s a mode of self-preservation. What do “I” need to do in order to escape this situation?

The focus is on “self”.

The anxious mind sees the world in how it affects them, and their needs (though in true evolutionary fashion, and anxious person can also be fiercely protective of their kids).

Daniel Smith has written on anxiety, and he talked about this inward focus in an article he wrote for CNN:

An anxiety sufferer can feel as if he too is imprisoned in his own mind, but with the demonic twist that his mind can think of nothing but itself. Anxious thoughts are radically personal thoughts. Their central concern is what affects you, what threatens you, what you need, you regret, you dread, you fear.

Anxiety is a condition of near-total self-absorption, made only worse by the fact that the sufferer typically realizes that he is being self-absorbed and grieves over his sad inability to see past himself.

I wanted to become: a good husband, a good father, a good brother, a good friend. How could I become these things when, in my towering distress, I could pay heed to no one’s existence or needs but my own?

My buddy Gandalf also experienced this sense of self-absorption in his struggles with anxiety:

I just cannot say enough times how anxiety, stress, and depression short circuit the empathy part of the brain and causes the person to only think about themselves. I know what it’s like to only think about yourself and how destructive this is in a relationship. Yet, it’s completely and totally logical for the person to be selfish at that time and in fact, I couldn’t make myself think of others.

I had to get my anxiety down significantly before I was able to empathize with other people. Now after over half a year of being more or less relaxed, my brain has gone under significant rewiring to be more empathetic towards others. It’s now becoming the natural and default state of my mind.

With a chronic state of stress, a focus on “self” and a breakdown of empathy, anxiety makes relationships (and especially romantic relationships) difficult. But it also damages relationships in additional ways, that aren’t always apparent.

In my next post I will be focusing on these issues.

Under Pressure

pressure

Recently I discussed the idea that many (and perhaps most) relationship issues are not actually issues with the relationship, but are rather issues with coping skills and handling stress and pressure.

Sometimes life gets hard, and there is a sense of being “trapped” in a situation and a longing to be “free”.

Free from responsibility.

Free from expectation.

The things is, that sort of freedom is a fantasy and is not attainable. I would also argue it’s actually not even desirable.

Responsibility, pressure and expectations are part of life. We all have them and always will. Even at your most “free”, you had them.

People sometimes believe they will be happy if they can only find “freedom”, and life without responsibility and pressure.

And when life gets hard, people sometimes are willing to throw away the good parts of their life with the bad, just to have a taste of freedom – even if it’s just for a moment.

But any escapes from them are always temporary, and never real.

Your Life is Not Your Own

We are individuals. We can be who or what we want. We are free to make our own choices. In that sense, we are entirely free.

But just as throwing stones in a pond creates ripples, each and every choice we make has impacts, or consequences. And because of that, none of us are ever truly free.

Does that mean you should live for others and do that what want?

No. Not at all.

You should never live for someone else. You should always be able to tell other people “no”, and do what you want.

But those choices about what you want don’t only affect you. And it’s important to understand that when making them.

Are We Ever Truly “Free”?

Think of your late teens/early 20’s. Some people call these years “the best years of your life”.

I completely disagree with that notion, and think it’s actually pretty sad to think. If your life peaked at 18 or 20, there’s *probably* something wrong. Ideally your current years should be your best – whatever they are.

That said, those years from 18-25 are probably when you had the most freedom.

You were considered an adult. You may have been living with your parents still, or you may have been out on your own for the first time. But chances are, for the first time in your life you were making your own decisions. Your own choices.

You probably had a job, so you now had money to do some of the things you wanted. Maybe you were going to school, but if so it was up to you if and when you wanted to go.

Life was easy.

Your biggest concerns were whether to study, work or to go out with your friends tonight.

Your choices largely affected you.

But even then you weren’t free. You couldn’t truly do whatever you wanted.
If you wanted to go on a vacation or get something new you still needed to save for it. Or rack up credit card debt, but eventually that caught up to you.

If you were on your own you still needed to come up with money for food and rent. And if you were living with your parents, you knew that one day that would have to end.

Your choices still had impacts – it’s just that less people were impacted by them. And those impacts were more indirect.

carefree

Feeling Pressure

So where (and when) does pressure come in?

I think pressure comes in two related forms. Look at the following definitions of pressure:

– the continuous physical force exerted on or against an object by something in contact with it.
– the use of persuasion, influence, or intimidation to make someone do something.

The first definition is like responsibility. Work, mortgage, bills, parenting, our relationship. They are always there, constantly. Sure, there are weekends, and maybe a couple of weeks vacation every year. But as much as we may wish it, responsibilities don’t go away.

The second definition is like expectation. Expectation is when you feel that you need to do something, or you feel you are being measured against some sort of standard.

When you look at these concepts expectation and responsibility, pressure really comes when there is a struggle to meet one or both of them.

Expectations

While responsibility is something we all have and there is no real escape from it, expectation is a bit different.

Expectation may appear to come from others, but it is actually largely internal. Whether others expect something of you or not in many ways doesn’t matter. What really matters is what you expect from yourself, what you believe others expect of you and what you expect you should be able to do for others.

The pressure people feel from expectation comes from within. Often we “believe” that other people expect something from us, when they don’t. Or maybe they do, but not nearly to the extent that we believe they do.

Even if someone does expect something of us, that expectation has no power over us unless we also expect it of ourselves.

When we internalize this expectation, it gives us a sense of how we are being measured. And when we feel we aren’t meeting it, we experience guilt and shame as a result.

So expectation is the voice inside our head, telling us we need to do this, or that. It is the internal critic, and it is this expectation we place on our self that tells us we aren’t good enough, smart enough, or pretty/handsome enough.

Being “Free”

When the pressure of responsibility and expectation becomes too great, people break.

That’s when they feel trapped, and feel a need to be free. But when you are feeling this sort of pressure, the “freedom” you are looking for is simply an escape, and often an unhealthy one.

A few year ago a buddy of mine’s girlfriend died. They had been together for a lot of years, and had four kids together. Not long after their fourth child, things went bad. The pressure of everything got to her, and according to my buddy she talked about just wanting to “be free”. She walked out, leaving him with the kids, and ended up escaping into a world of drugs. Within six months she was dead of an overdose.

That’s a pretty extreme case, but this next one is more familiar:

Another buddy was married, and he and his wife welcomed their first child. In his mind, life was good. They had a house, cottage, and family. They both had pretty good jobs, and a great future. Then one day she told she wanted out, with no warning that there were any troubles between them. He felt blindsided, and tried getting them to counseling, but she was going through the motions. She had decided she was done before he even had a chance.

So they split up, and she went back to her “party days”. Around two years later she contacted him and told him she realized she had made a huge mistake. She wondered if it would be possible for them to try and work things out. The pressure of life had gotten to be too much for her, and she wanted to be free. But she realized that what she was chasing wasn’t real. It was simply an escape from life.

It was too late. Too much damage had been done, and he had moved on.

Pressure and Anxiety

People have different levels of stress, and we also have different ways of coping with the stresses in our life. Everyone feels pressure at some point in time, but this is accentuated for people with anxiety issues.

My buddy Gandalf is somewhat of an expert on anxiety (in my mind anyhow), and he gave me following description of how the dual pressure of responsibility and expectation affects someone with an anxiety disorder…

Most people fear failure. But when they fail most people accept something didn’t work and try a different approach. When someone has an anxiety disorder they cannot separate the failure of a task with the failure of their core being. Plus, they fear others will dislike them if they fail, especially if they value the other person’s approval. With little to no internal self-worth, their self-worth come from the people they are seeking approval from.

This makes anxiety suffers avoid responsibility, unless they can control the outcome so that it’s always a success. They pick battles that they know they’ll win before starting. But in a weird twist they also fear success, because it usually means increased responsibilities they cannot control and automatically succeed at. So the easiest path in life is to avoid responsibilities.

This is freedom, but it’s actually freedom from worrying, not responsibilities. Responsibilities cause fear, worrying, and anxiety, and all they want is for that to stop. Being unable to handle the fear of failure, the only option is to not be responsible for anything. Thus, when free of responsibilities, they are free of the anxiety that comes with it, and they are “free”.

Expectations are a subset of responsibilities. These are personal evaluations of a person by another, like a friend, family member, or coworker. They place a condition on their relationship that one tries to live up to. If the person suffering anxiety feels they are not meeting that expectation, they start to worry the other person will not like them and be angry with them. Also, if the anxiety sufferer feels they are exceeding the other person’s expectations, they want that external validation. When it’s not there, they get upset and feel like they are not appreciated.

Like responsibilities, expectations are to be avoided as well, and resentment occurs when the person suffering from anxiety feels that expectations have been placed on them by others, especially ones that they feel they cannot succeed at, or live up to. The main difference is responsibilities can usually be chosen, while expectations are usually arbitrary.

Responsibility and expectation can be hard for anyone, but when someone has anxiety feelings of guilt and shame also get mixed up in there.

Not a lot of fun.

Managing Expectations

Which brings me back to my regular topic, relationships.

Relationships inherently have both responsibility and expectations. That’s not a bad thing, but when life is hard these responsibilities and expectations can be difficult. And the pressure can take a toll on our relationships.

When we are under pressure, hopefully our partner will be understanding and try to help alleviate some of that pressure. But when the pressure persists for extended periods, then it’s important to try and understand it.

When you are feeling pressured, trapped and in need of an escape make sure you ask yourself the right questions. Is it really the relationship? Often relationships are blamed for pressure because stress spills over into them, making them an easy target.

Maybe the pressure is actually coming from responsibility.

If so, we taking too much on? Are there ways we can lessen the load, or are the responsibilities we face part of normal everyday life?

If our responsibilities can’t change, then we have to look at expectations. Expectations normally come from within. What is your inner critic telling you? Working to silence (or at least reduce) the internal critic is one of the most effective ways of managing stress.

Actively work on managing your stress and your internal critic. Your physical and mental well being will thank you for it, and so will your relationship.

When Hope Fails

Feeling Alone

In the past I have talked about how it is natural for passion to wane in long term relationships. There are things couples can do to prevent it, and there are ways couples can try to rebuild passion once it has been lost. In order to rebuild a relationship you need to make it a priority again. But you also have to believe change is possible, and you have to put in effort.

I’m a cheerleader for long term relationships. I believe in them, and believe that as long as people love each other they can get through anything. I believe with a little bit of effort on both parts, each day can be better than the last. Couples can work to better understand each other and build a deep enduring love. I believe forever can be real, and couples can “grow old together” still very much in love.

Belief for me is the easy part, and part of my goal with this site has been a hope that my belief can be infectious and I can inspire others to believe when they are having a hard time doing so on their own.

But I recognize that isn’t the case for everyone. Sometimes it’s hard to believe, and hold onto hope. Sometimes you try focusing on the positive, but a little part of your brain keeps insisting that things will never get better. What if you do truly want things to get better, but you just can’t bring yourself to put in the energy or the effort?

What do you do when hope fails?

If hope has failed, it may be that your brain and heart are telling you your relationship is beyond saving. But what if it’s something else entirely?

If you look up “sense of hopelessness” you will find it is one of the major signs of anxiety and depression. In my last post I talked a little bit about mental illness. What I didn’t talk about was how mental health has a direct impact on relationships.

According to statistics, mental illness will directly impact roughly 20% of people at some point in time in their life (though some stats show this as high as 25%). Relationships involve two people, so according to my math 40%-50% of couples will deal with a mental illness at some point in time, adding an additional layer of challenge to the normal trials and tribulations relationships go through.

Impacts on Relationships

Stats from counselors indicate that more than 80% of couples who come in for counseling show signs of mental illness (predominantly in the form of anxiety or depression). This is not surprising, as the nature of mental illnesses often break down the very characteristics required for a strong, healthy relationship. They can impact a persons ability to feel love and affection, while also making it harder to cope with the regular stresses of a relationship and day to day life. This in turn puts additional stress on the relationship.

When a relationship is struggling and there is the presence of something like depression and/or anxiety, a question that can be asked is “does the mental illness contribute to the relationship issues, or do the relationship issues lead to the mental illness”. Honestly, that’s a valid question. But I would argue that the answer doesn’t really matter. Allow me to explain…

depression vs. Depression

We all have had bad days and days that we feel depressed. When you’re depressed, you’re generally feeling down, or in a funk. You probably feel listless and a bit tired, and you really don’t want to do much. Everyone has days like that, and they are usually triggered by something that has happened.

When I first heard about depression, I thought this is what people were talking about. As a result, I didn’t understand what the big deal was. After all, feeling depressed is a normal thing that everyone experiences. In my mind depressed people just needed to cheer up, and they would feel better soon enough.

The reality of depression isn’t so simple. Depression as an illness (also known as clinical depression or a major depressive episode) is different. It may start the same as the “normal” funks that people go through, and that’s probably a big part of why most people don’t get help for it. I suspect that many sufferers think it’s just something they can wait out. Or they think they are feeling “down” because of something in their life, and if they just changed that thing they would start to feel better. But as time goes by it just deepens and worsens. Clinical depression is only partially understood, but it causes changes in brain chemistry that can make it very difficult for people to get out without help.

In a similar fashion everyone experiences anxiety from time to time, but when anxiety becomes a common part of daily life then anxiety may be a disorder. I recently wrote on the impacts of stress on relationships. People with anxiety disorders are constantly dealing with elevated levels of stress. The symptoms of anxiety disorders are very similar to those of depression, and these extended periods of stress often result in anxiety disorders causing depression.

Trusting Emotions

Who are you? What makes you “you”? Some people talk about the separation between the body and the soul, and the idea is usually that the soul is the essence of what makes you who you are. It’s your thoughts, feelings, emotions and memories. These are what make us who we are, and what makes us human.

That’s a problem with changes to moods and emotions. It’s easy to see these things as “who we are”, or “how we truly feel” about things. But what if we can’t trust them?

One problem about moods, feelings and emotions is that they are affected by our mental state. At some level we know this happens. I suspect everyone would admit that they have had days where they are frustrated and irritable, and as a result inadvertently lashed out at someone (displacing anger and frustration from something else).

With mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, these “bad days” can become the norm. Moods change and emotions change.

Some of the main symptoms are irritability and bouts of anger. Difficulty sleeping (which likely contributes to irritability and emotional volatility). There’s also tiredness and a lack of energy, a feeling of hopelessness or being trapped, and issues dealing with stress.

Impacts on Relationships

Anxiety and Depression can be devastating for the person who is suffering from them. But they also take a considerable toll for both members of a relationship.

For the person who is suffering, the illness can break down feelings of love, and lead them to question whether or not they actually do love their partner. We are taught to trust our feelings. So when the “feeling” isn’t there, it’s easy to conclude that the reason is because the love has broken down. Often the affected person doesn’t understand why the feelings are gone. They may not be able to identify why they don’t feel affection any more. They may want to, and they may mourn the loss. But because of the chemical changes in their brain, they are unable to feel for their partner.

Ironically, although they find it hard to maintain feelings of long term love they are still able to feel the oxytocin fueled feelings of “new love” – which can act as “proof” or validation that something was wrong with the initial relationship. Research on depression shows that someone suffering from depression has an increased probability of having an affair, as a way of trying to fill the feelings of emptiness inside and “feel alive” again.

For the partner who isn’t suffering, it can be difficult to watch the person you love withdraw. There is a sense of walking on eggshells, as you aren’t sure what to do to help. And the relationship often becomes characterized by cycles of withdrawal and anger. It causes immense stress, and often the “healthy” partner ends up falling into a depression themselves.

There are a lot of books on depression and how it impacts people, but for a look at the ways depression can impact relationships I recommend reading Depression Fallout by Anne Sheffield. She has lived both sides of depression, and has some valuable insights into it.

Making Decisions

Earlier I said it didn’t matter whether a relationship is damaged by a mental illness or the whether the depression was caused by relationship issues. This is because most literature on illnesses like depression say that you should never make significant life choices (such as changes in jobs and relationships) while depressed because of the way illnesses can impact feelings of love and closeness.

When feelings and emotions are impaired, making significant decisions is similar to getting behind the wheel of a car while drunk. You may “get by” safely. But you may also do significant damage, to both yourself, your loved ones and your future. It’s important to try to address the illness first.

Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety can be treated effectively, but unfortunately only around half of the people dealing with a mental illness ever seek help.

If you are having problems in your relationship, and struggling with putting in the effort needed to turn things around because you believe things will never get better, keep in mind that it may not just be an issue with the relationship. Especially if you are having a hard time pinpointing what is “wrong” with the relationship, it may be a sign of something else.

If so, talk to your doctor and tell them exactly how you are feeling. You might just be able to save your relationship, or prevent it from breaking down unnecessarily.

Mental Health Week

mentalhealth_blocks

This week is National Mental Health Week in Canada, and in honor of it I wanted to do my part to raise awareness about Mental Health.

Mental health is something we don’t talk about enough. Kind of like religion, politics and our sex lives, mental health is treated as a taboo topic by most. But it shouldn’t be.

As people we have physical bodies, and at any point in time our physical body can be in different states of health. Usually we take our bodies for granted. They do what we tell them to. They work. It’s only when they stop working correctly (which could be due to injury, disease or just regular wear and tear) that we really think of the “health” of our bodies.

Mental health is similar, and it affects ALL of us. You, me, and all the people we interact with on a day to day basis. Just as your body has a general level of health even when you aren’t suffering an injury, we all have a state of mental health. As described by the Canadian Mental Health Association, mental health is:

It’s a state of well-being in which you realize your own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work and study productively and are able to make a contribution to your family and community.

Just as our bodies are susceptible to illnesses, we are all susceptible to mental illnesses. Today I hope to shed some myths, and provide at least a bit of understanding about the grouping of conditions that are commonly referred to as mental illness.

Mental Health is a sensitive topic, and I’m not a doctor. I’m just a regular guy who wanted to understand mental health a bit better. What is here is based on “my” understanding, but I believe/hope it’s accurate.

The Stigma of Mental Illness

I mentioned above that mental health is treated as a taboo subject. Mental health and illness is very poorly understood, and I think this lack of understanding leads to considerable stigma.

It used to be that when I heard the term mental illness, the first things that came to mind was the word “crazy”, or the idea that someone has “snapped”. I pictured straight-jackets, and people who talk to themselves or go on random shooting sprees. But most mental illness isn’t like that.

What most people don’t understand is that mental illness occurs on a spectrum. It is a generic term used to categorize a number of different issues, such as mood disorders, depression and bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, personality disorders, eating disorders and even dementia. All of these fall under the umbrella of “Mental Illness”. And like any other disorder or condition, there are varying degrees of severity for each of them.

The main commonality between them is that they are:

Disturbances in cognition and emotional responsiveness resulting in problems in thinking and behavior.

When most people hear about mental illness in the news, they are hearing about the cases that are on the extreme end of the spectrum (crazy with a capital “C”). It’s no wonder people don’t even want to hear the term “mental illness” applied to themselves or someone they love. We don’t understand it.

Hearing the term mental illness used to describe someone you care about and then making the mental jump to “they’re crazy” is like thinking that because someone played “the tree” in a primary school Christmas concert they are destined for a career in Hollywood. Or like saying because I play basketball I’m like Michael Jordan.

Just as Michael Jordan was not an average example of a basketball player, the people who hit the news are by no means representative of mental illness.

It may be more accurate to say that having a mental illness means the person affected likely has some issues with their coping mechanisms, which may or may not be significant in their day to day life.

Most people with mental illnesses are able to live regular lives. I have a few buddies who are “affected” by mental illness. And while they acknowledge that their issues affect them, they are regular people just like anyone else. In fact I hate to even use the term mental illness in reference to them because of the stigma associated with the term.

Some Stats

In order to reduce some stigma about mental illness, I think it’s first important to look at a few statistics (courtesy of the Canadian Mental Health Association):

  • 20% of all Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime
  • Mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time through a family member, friend or colleague
  • Mental illness affects people of all ages, educational and income levels, and cultures
  • Almost ½ of those who suffer have never gone to see a doctor about this problem
  • Stigma or discrimination attached to mental illnesses present a serious barrier to diagnosis, treatment and acceptance in the community
  • Most mental illnesses can be treated effectively

These stats come from the Canadian Mental Health Association, but they are fairly representative of global numbers. Let’s take a look at those stats for a moment.

20% of people are affected directly in their lifetime. Think about that for a moment. That’s 1 in 5 people. How big is your family? How many friends do you have? Chances are someone you know will be affected by a mental illness at some point. And it won’t just be someone you know, but it will be someone close to you.

Most people never realize there is something wrong, and as a result they never see a doctor about it or deal with it appropriately. In many other cases people realize that “something” is wrong, but they attribute it to something else in their life.
In most cases it can be treated, but sadly, most people suffer in silence.

Multiple Sclerosis

Are you familiar with Multiple Sclerosis (MS)? Most people at least know the name, and probably many are familiar with the disease.

Our brain is the engine that powers our bodies, and our body control is largely a result of our brain sending messages to our body. When we want to walk, our brain sends the signals down to our legs telling them to move. We don’t even have to really think about things, we just do them.

MS is a neurological disorder where something has gone wrong with the signals that are sent from the brain to the rest of the body. Science doesn’t understand why MS strikes, but it does understand how it works.

Our brain sends messages to the different parts of our body through our nerves, which are covered in a fatty substance called the myelin sheath. The myelin sheath acts as an insulator, similar to the plastic coating covering wires and cables.

For people with MS the myelin sheath has started to break down resulting in disturbances to the signals being sent from the brain.

multiple-sclerosis-neurological-disorder-2

MS is a difficult disease to diagnose and treat because the symptoms of it can be quite diverse. The symptoms include:

  • Numbness or weakness in limbs, possibly accompanied by tingling or pain
  • Problems or pain with vision
  • Tremors or lack of coordination
  • Problems with speech
  • Fatigue or dizziness

The symptoms depend on which nerves are impacted and the degree of degradation of the myelin sheath, and they aren’t constant. There may be problem periods followed by quiet periods of months or even years (kind of like faulty wiring that occasionally shorts out). But MS is usually a progressive disease, with symptoms worsening over time.

In summary, MS is a disease where brain functioning is working correctly but something is going wrong with the messages being sent to the rest of the body. It comes and goes, and it strikes different people differently.

What is Mental Illness?

In many ways, I see parallels between mental illness and MS. In MS the brains messages are misfiring when they are sent to the body. Mental illness however deals with cognitive and emotional recognition and responsiveness.

Often we think of a separation between the head and the heart. The brain is thought of as your intellectual core (and center of logic and reason); while the heart is seen as the source of feelings and emotions. In reality, all of the things that make us “us” come from the brain – thinking, reasoning, logic, feelings and emotions. The heart? Sorry, it just pumps blood.

The brain allows us to interact with our world, and feelings and emotions are often responses to our experiences. “Mental illness” is a term describing when something has gone wrong with the messages being sent and received by the brain (similar to MS), causing feelings and emotions to not line up with our experiences.

In MS symptoms vary depending on which nerves are impacted. Less is known about mental illness, but there are different types each with different symptoms (though there is some overlap).

Types of mental illness include:

  • Mood disorders – involve changes and disruptions in mood and emotions. Depression and bipolar disorder are the most commonly known examples
  • Anxiety disorders – the most common type, causing people to be overly anxious and afraid of situations or event most people consider normal. There are many different types, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety is different from depression, but often leads to it
  • Schizophrenia – involves losing the ability to know what’s real and what isn’t
  • Eating Disorders – involves a distorted body image along with serious and potentially life threatening behaviors to manage food and weight.
  • Personality Disorders – affects the way a person acts, feels and gets along with others. Can also manifest in impulsive behavior
  • Dementia – involves loss of memory, judgment and reasoning along with changes in mood, behavior and communication. Alzheimer’s is the most common form

MentalHealth

Symptoms of Mental Illness

Although there are different types of mental illnesses, there symptoms tend to be similar. Here are some of the different signs that your mental health may need a bit more care:

Physical

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Significant tiredness, or low energy
  • Rapid weight loss or gain

Emotional

  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling sad or down
  • Feeling trapped
  • Feeling incompetent
  • Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
  • Sex drive changes

Intellectual

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Procrastinating
  • Excessive worrying

Personal well-being

  • Withdrawal from friends, family and activities
  • Excessive busyness
  • Loss of sense of humor

When I look at this list, one of the things that stands out to me is we ALL have these symptoms from time to time. We all have good and bad days, and in our bad days many of those symptoms appear.

It’s only when they are pervasive, generally lasting for at least six months (without at least one month free of symptoms) then they move from just being a “funk” to being a cause for alarm.

One problem is these symptoms generally come on gradually and worsen over time. For a sufferer, there are often understandable reasons for them. “Oh, I’m feeling this way because of X”. Eventually the funk can become a persons “new normal”, but because it’s been a gradual process the person suffering these symptoms may not even see what is happening or how much their moods have changed.

This gradual decline was described to me as follow:

People that I barely knew were noticing that I wasn’t myself, and that told me that I really needed to do something. I truly felt like I could just disappear into a hole and never come out, that really scared me and I couldn’t do that to those around me. (I was lucky enough to still have the mindset to care how this affected them, some people are not.)

You really can’t understand when you’re not there yourself. I don’t even understand myself. On one hand, I feel truly blessed with the great family and friends that I have and it actually pisses me off that I know this and still it doesn’t change how “dark” I feel. It makes me feel very selfish that I have all that I do and I still feel this way. I want to be the person that is happy and loving life, but it’s something I continue to struggle with. I can “fake” it around a lot of people when I feel that I “have” to.

Causes of Mental Illness

One of the big questions is, what causes mental illness? Unfortunately the answer is not known. It seems that it can be caused by a number of different things (and perhaps combinations of them).

There is some evidence of biological or genetic predispositions, and it is something that can also be triggered by injuries, hormonal changes, or environmental factors such as stressful traumatic events or even just extended periods of high stress.

Although the causes aren’t very well understood, it’s important to remember that the existence of a mental illness is not a reflection on a person. It’s not a character defect, or a sign that someone isn’t “strong enough”. Just as an MS patient isn’t responsible for having MS, people dealing with mental illnesses aren’t to blame.

Getting Help

One stat on mental illness that stands out is the fact that only around half of the people dealing with a mental illness ever seek help.

Maybe it’s because the symptoms are things people commonly experience and they think they can just “figure it out” on their own. Maybe they don’t notice how much they have changed due to a gradual decline, or maybe there is a fear or the stigma associated with mental illness. I don’t know.

But the fact remains, most mental illnesses can be treated effectively. There is no reason to suffer in silence.

So if you or someone you know is having a hard time coping, go talk to a doctor. Be honest about what is going on and how you are feeling.

The first step to getting better starts with you.