Stress management

I find that the most important thing when living with a mental disorder is stress management. Stress is something that can affect anyone working under too much strain for too long. The more strain we live under already the less we’re able to deal with unexpected events and emergencies. You might recognize when you’re having a bad day, your mood is already bad from the moment you drag yourself out of bed, and after that, every little thing that goes wrong just stacks up until you reach a point where you just want to give up on life, go home and bury yourself under your comforter for the rest of the day and possibly the next too.

Each little thing that goes wrong could be packed into a box and labeled as “a stressor” and each new box stacked on top of your mind represents the strain on your psyche. Balancing one box on top of your head is obviously a lot easier than balancing five or six. At one point or another, you will reach a point where even one more tiny box might send everything tumbling down over your head. Some people might naturally be able to balance more boxes than others, but we all have a breaking point.

My psychologist explained stress to me with a model similar to the the cute drawing above. I think the model was developed to help people with ASD and their families understand what causes meltdowns and how to manage their lives in a way that minimizes chances of such things occurring. But I think it’s an excellent model to explain stress and burnout as well. For us living with a mental disorder simply managing day to day life is already a strain and so it takes less boxes to push us to our breaking point. Luckily, we can make use of our symptoms to gauge where we’re at on the scale. Typically, symptoms worsen the more stressors we’re dealing with.

So, the first step in stress management is to sit down and try to identify the stressors in our lives. These are the things that drain our energy, that cause frustration, or put pressure on us. For instance, as an introvert social interaction tends to drain me, so I need to make time for myself to spend on my own in order to recharge. Even having to manage chores and deciding what to have for dinner can become draining when I’m already bogged down by other things. Another thing that puts a strain on me is uncertainty. Especially if I know there’s a chance something unpleasant is going to happen. When I worked for this grocery store delivering wares from storage and various providers to the two stores, I found I started to increasingly dread when we had to deliver to one of the stores in particular. Because there was a chance we would have to park the van on the opposite side of a busy road from the store and there was no crosswalk where we had to cross. I was always scared to death crossing the road, afraid of getting run over. The more times I had to deal with this unpleasant situation, the more I sought to avoid it until I stopped working for that company altogether.

One thing I was a little surprised to realize was that one of my favorite hobbies: gaming, actually contributed more to my stress. This is because games are typically goal-oriented and having to overcome challenges tends to encourage adrenaline production, which is very detrimental to getting your body to relax. I even had to quit playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons because the time-locked nature of the game stressed me out so much. I did not deal well with having to play the game on certain days in order to participate in events and gain items and recipes that I wanted for my island. Oftentimes, the events unfortunately often coincided with periods where I was too busy with other things to even think about spending hours playing Animal Crossing just so I could look for the recipes I wanted, which would appear at random – which was incredibly frustrating. Having to participate in combat is obviously also detrimental to getting your body to relax and most games tend to have some kind of combat element.

Rather, activities that are actually relaxing can be quiet, creative hobbies such as knitting, painting, or reading. Even just sitting on youtube just watching cute animal videos for a while is quite relaxing. Apparently, looking at cute fur-babies doing cute and funny things makes our brains produce the happy-relaxy juice.

A cute quokka to put a smile on your face.

Some might also find journal-writing quite relaxing with the added effect of putting your thoughts and emotions into words to help offload worries. Exercise is another thing that can help the body relax better and lower blood pressure. Obviously, doing the exercise itself might feel awful and straining, but it does help in the long run. One could even use the exercise as a way to channel anger and frustration in a healthy way. For an extrovert, something like going out to a dance club might be considered relaxing. But if so, one might consider holding back on the alcohol consumption.

Speaking of alcohol, certain foods and drinks might put more of a strain on your body, which in turn puts a strain on your psyche. For my own part, I have a couple of food intolerances which causes my intestines to protest quite painfully and often times even keeps me awake at night.

Sleep is another important thing to consider, which is quite a problem and a source of worry for an insomniac like myself. Stress management blends neatly into managing your sleep cycle as things that stress you out often contribute to terrible sleep, which in turn adds even more to your stress.

So, once you’ve identified the things that put a strain on you and the things you find pleasant and relaxing, the challenge comes in successfully balancing the two. You can’t simply remove all your stressors, but making the effort to reduce them will in turn reduce the time you need to dedicate to recharging. When you know what activities put a strain on you, you can take steps to plan some especially pleasant activities to balance things out when you know you have to do something particularly strenuous. Or when you have to deal with an unexpected stressor, taking steps to decompress afterward will help lessen the impact quite significantly.

Once you start to successfully manage your stress levels, your symptoms should also lessen. Perhaps even to a point medication is no longer necessary. Although your symptoms can return as soon as you’re put under more strain again, so you might have to make permanent concessions in your life in order to stay healthy and happy. Prioritizing is an absolute necessity.

For my part, there are jobs I’ve had to realize I can’t ever do as they’re simply too stressful. I’ve also had to change my diet quite a bit, of which the hardest part has been having to go without my favorite treats and snacks. In turn, I haven’t had to cut down on my gaming too much, which is nice.

Reading

Growing up, I had two passions: Drawing and reading. Once I grew out of wanting to be Superman when I grew up, I wanted to be either an artist or a writer. To this day, I still want to be an artist or a writer. Depression put a serious wrench in my artistic aspirations however and after about 7 years slugging through university with little more than a useless bachelor’s degree to show for it, I had to finally acknowledge my reading problems.

Again and again I would force myself to sit down and read a text and while I understood each individual word, by the end of the page, I had no idea of what I’d just read. I could still read novels okay and follow the story as long as it was simple enough. No Dosteyevskij or even George R.R. Martin for me, unfortunately. My psychology textbooks and academic articles? They may as well have been written in German for all the good they’ve done me. I’m amazed I managed to make it as far as I did.

Some information would make it through my brain soup and stick around for a while, but then some new information would come along and knock the old right back out again. I had the bizarre experience of re-taking an exam and pulling the exact same topic from the first exam. An article on language learning and Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas.  A couple questions I answered correctly the first time around, I couldn’t remember the second time, but I answered other questions correctly the second time around. Luckily for me, I passed the second time. I was just happy I wouldn’t have to re-visit the article from hell a third time.

Even something as supposedly simple as job applications can be hard for me to work through sometimes. Going through dozens of them in a day to find just one or two that sound promising? That is seriously taxing work. More than once, I received a call from a workplace I couldn’t even remember from all the applications I’d sent. Makes for a pretty lousy job interview when you can’t even remember what job you’re applying for.

Other times, I’d apply for a job only to later realize they were located about half-way across the island if not at the exact opposite end. Some people can commute two hours back and forth to work. I can’t. Two hours of public transit in the middle of rush hour? Yeah, no.

It was something of a revelation to find out others with schizotypal disorder had similar problems with reading. I’m still not entirely sure if it’s a schizotypal thing in particular or more of a general effect of long-term stress. I might try to look that up sometime.

A part of me still refuses to acknowledge that I can’t actually read anything more complex than the equivalent of a Harlequin novel. I was the born academic. I’ve always loved reading and learning. What good is an intellectual who can’t even read? About as much good as a boat made of Swiss cheese, that’s what. So I still routinely expend and exhaust myself trying to slug through all the reading and writing I can manage. It’s still almost entirely simple romance novels and roleplay posts, but I like to think I’m slowly working my way up to something more substantial. Maybe I’ll even eventually find a good use for all the light novels and roleplays I’ve devoured.

Anyway, this whole post came from trying for months to stable together something more academically grounded for this blog. I’ve been ruminating over one topic in particular: The relationship between Asperger’s and Schizotypal disorder, or the differences and similarities between the two. But I wanted to study up on what kind of research has been actually been published on the topic. As you might have guessed from this whole post, it’s not going so great for me.

Over-inflated Regret

I don’t know if anyone else has this experience, but I am frequently haunted by my own perceived mistakes. Not only actual, real mistakes, but stupid mistakes too; like mistaking a duck for another bird or a minor misunderstanding in an otherwise perfectly innocent conversation. Even forgetting a timed quest in a game cab just about ruin my day. It’s supremely annoying to say the least. It can also be downright crippling. It can be hard to initiate a conversation or go out and do something – anything, when there’s a good chance I’ll sorely regret it and end my day buried under my comforter wishing I never left.

 

I haven’t found any good sure-fire way to work around this other than try to practice patience, forgiveness and live in the here and now as much as possible. I know logically that my reaction is disproportionate to what’s actually happening but I can’t control my feelings. Eventually, I forget most things, but there’s always some that linger and pile up over time. On my worst days, they become suffocating. Each and every memory becoming a mental hammer to beat myself down with. It leaves me feeling like the next time I go out and make a “mistake” it’ll be like the straw that breaks the camel’s back so to speak. It also makes it very hard to feel motivated to venture out of my comfort zone at all.

 

It’s about as difficult to explain to others as it is to avoid. Failure to make myself understood absolutely will and often does trigger the mental wrecking ball of regret. Talking about it even now, I feel like I’m exaggerating and that it’s just an excuse to stay home, do nothing and feel sorry for myself. Phrases like “suck it up, Buttercup” and “put on your big girl pants” come to mind. And yet, attempts to arbitrarily push myself to ignore my emotional state only pushes me straight into depression. On the other hand, I can’t very well spend my life cocooned in my own bedroom. I’d not only bore myself to death, but also guilt myself into depression.

 

Being stuck in a position where doing anything and doing nothing both leads to unhappiness is really uncomfortable. I end up choosing one or the other more or less at random depending on how optimistic and impulsive I’m feeling in any given moment and just hope for the best.

 

I’ve a sense that doing something is generally better than doing nothing, but I don’t really feel it to be true enough to always keep me motivated. In the end, I fear I end up doing nothing more often than doing something and so my fear of doing anything is too rarely challenged. The only way I know of conquering fear is to challenge it. I just wish it didn’t feel so awful every single time.

 

Sickness – reason or excuse?

One thing I tend to struggle with a lot is distinguishing between genuine need for rest and laziness. I’m constantly second-guessing myself whenever I decide to call in sick from work for instance, because there’s nothing physically wrong with me. I know I could technically go to work and get it done, although not as well and I’d be exhausted and utterly miserable. On top of that, I’d usually be looking forward to an even more miserable time the following day.

Eventually, if I kept pushing myself, I’d reach a point where I can’t make myself do anything at all. That’s surely not a healthy work ethic. I certainly don’t think it’s very constructive to push myself to the breaking point. But when is it okay to stop up and take a break? And how long should that break last? At which point does need for restitution become plain laziness?

I’ve been on a very long sick leave from job-hunting and even though I don’t at all feel ready to go back to that particularly unpleasant rat-race, I felt more or less forced to. It was either that, or stay in an internship I felt entirely unsuited for and found increasingly more stressful and confining.

I didn’t want to drag myself out of bed and either spent most of the day twiddling my thumbs, waiting for customers to service, a task I’ve always despised, even if it’s really just scanning in wares and accepting payment. Most of the time. That is when there was a bar to scan and it showed the right price. Then there was the greens. At the store I worked, we sold surplus goods, so the actual wares tended to wary and the greens varied a lot in type and quality. Often times, the prices could even change throughout the day, depending on quality, quantity and how well they sold. It was confusing and I hate that kind of uncertainty.

It’s the weirdest things that can wear you down. Simply standing around all day wears on the feet and back like you wouldn’t believe. Doing nothing at all tires and stresses and simply not knowing what to expect from a workday can, when you’re not the sort of person thrilled by surprises, really, really drain your energy levels.

Then, when you’re spending all your energy out at work, you come home to dinner that needs cooking, dishes, cleaning, laundry and all the wonderful elements of being a responsible adult. I consider myself very lucky I don’t have any children to look after on top of all that. Sometimes I wonder how anyone can manage all those things. My parents have both done a pretty decent job of it for decades. In my dad’s case all alone for most of my youngest little brother’s life.

For them, simply pulling yourself together and get the job done seems to do the trick. Most of the time anyways. But for myself, I find that approach absolutely miserable.

If I can make work and chores fun on the other hand, it’s so much easier to get done. And taking lots of breaks tends to make things much easier and more fun. Trouble is, breaks can take hours, even days. And then the work piles up to epic proportions, to the point where I’m exhausted just looking at it. To the point where I feel I need to take a break before I’ve even begun.

It’s so much easier, to sit down and disappear into my own, little world instead of with all the things I should, but really just don’t feel like.

It’s understandable that when you’re sick, you can’t do as much as when you’re healthy. But in my experience it’s maybe not so much a matter of whether you’re sick or not, but how sick. For longtime sickness, you tend to have good days and bad days. It’s not like the flu or a cold, where you’re sick and then get over it. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if it’s a good day before I get out of bed. Most mornings, I’m tired but otherwise feel okay. Most days the mood will generally hold throughout the day, other days, I can suffer a major panic attack right after breakfast or on the way out the door.

In reality, the panic attacks aren’t something that come straight out of the blue. None of my symptoms are. It’s usually a slow build-up where I feel maybe a bit stressed, a bit down, but otherwise okay. I think it’s better to alleviate some of the strain while it’s nothing but that. I just have a hard time figuring out a way to properly do that without taking the whole day off. And it feels so incredibly wrong to call in sick when I’m still more or less okay. It’s much easier to justify staying home, when I can barely get out of bed or the mere thought of stepping out the door sends me hyperventilating. It’s either one extreme or the other. Neither’s a good solution. Life shouldn’t be a choice between working yourself to death or be dismissed as lazy and selfish.

I started this post intending to write about whether or not I might be using my diagnosis as an excuse to work less and play more. Instead it became a bit of a rant about how much I dislike work. But they’re sort of connected. Work sucks, play’s fun. I’d much rather play than work.

So then, do I feel like crap because I’m actually sick, or because I’d really, really just rather stay home and play, and just can’t find any better excuse besides making myself sick? Or maybe do I dislike work so much I make myself sick to avoid it?

Thinking about it, it’s possible, isn’t it? When you’re sick, you get to stay in bed. Exactly what I most feel like doing most days. Then it feels more like a reward than a necessity. If you’re sick, you can’t be expected to work, which we’ve already established I’m not exactly a fan of.

Am I so lazy that I’m making myself sick just to have an excuse to laze about?

Cognitive Training

When looking at indicators for successful recovery from mental illness, I’ve sometimes seen intelligence, IQ or cognitive abilities mentioned. Personally, I haven’t often viewed my own intelligence with much favor. After all, what good is an above average IQ, if you can’t even manage to keep your own kitchen in order? Furthermore, if you’ve found your IQ score a little on the low side, don’t worry. Like your muscles, you can improve your “brain power” with training – and as I explain later, being good at puzzles doesn’t necessarily mean being good at living. But that too is a matter of training and practice.

So, when talking about cognitive training, what is it exactly we’re talking about?

Cognitive psychology covers everything from critical thinking to attention and memory. It is what we use when we read, write, remember tasks and shopping lists, follow conversations and work on puzzles and challenges among other things. When you recall items on your shopping list, search out a particular item on the shop shelves or spot a friend in the crowd, you use your cognition to do so.

Attention and memory in particular have been shown to suffer when a person is in a state of prolonged stress. You might notice that you forget more easily or have a harder time concentrating on tasks when you’re under great pressure, especially if you’ve been under pressure for a long time.

So, how does cognitive training work? Simply by using your brain. You can easily find several good “brain training” around. On the App store on my phone, I found Brain Training by Triangle Labs Inc., Elevate by Elevate Labs and Lumosity by Lumos Labs Inc. for free. Even well-known puzzle and memory games like crossword puzzles and the like can be used to train your attention, concentration and memory – or various video games for that matter. However, you can sit all day and “git gud” at a game, but then all you do is get really good at that one particular game. The trick is to combine several games to train different skills and then transfer those skills into everyday life.

I, for instance have struggled a great deal with concentration and memory. I couldn’t concentrate on my studies and couldn’t remember the texts I’d read. I’d also constantly lose focus and had trouble keeping track of conversations. And yet I had little trouble remembering every Pokemon and their types, attacks and weaknesses. Or follow the juicy development between the main characters of this or that cheap romance novel.

So, I joined a cognitive training group to try and figure out what exactly was going wrong and try and train my brain not only to remember Pokemons, but shopping lists and scientific articles too.

The cognitive training part of the group consisted of playing especially developed games on the computer, where you use various parts of your brain to solve problems. There’re attention and memory games, where you remember figures and where on the screen you saw them, names and faces, spoken messages and puzzles like the Tower of Hanoi. Each game started would start out easy, then slowly grow in difficulty.

The games themselves were a lot of fun, but the really helpful part of the group was spending time in the group as a whole talking about the similarities between the games and tasks in our daily lives.

Suddenly, the Tower of Hanoi wasn’t just neat little disks on pegs, but piles of boxes in a cramped room that need to be moved to create more space or the random figure somewhere on your screen became your keys located somewhere in your room.

We also spent a lot of time learning each other’s names, going over a couple helpful strategies. Names and faces are a real chore to remember, especially when you have to remember a lot at once. But you can help your memory along by creating connections or more meaning. Like, “Her name is Mary, like my aunt”, “Michael likes knit sweaters”, “Basil like the spice” or “Stella is a star”. Then, when you see the person, you can help your memory along. My aunt = Mary. Knit sweater = Michael etc.

The cognitive training didn’t only stay on the computer, but was pulled into daily living and chores. When you clean up your room, you locate objects, identify them and categorize them to place them in their rightful places. Granted, real life is three-dimensional and full of distractions, but the task in and of itself is the same. It’s just like the computer game, but in hard mode. Once your brain becomes accustomed to performing the task in simple 2D on the computer, it becomes easier to perform in real life. All you need is to make the connection between the game and the real life task and your brain will know what’s needed.

Over the course of the group, I found motivation and interest in the computer games waning, but I’m still using my brain every day, concentrating on tasks and chores, remembering said tasks and chores and how to perform them. It’s become a fun, little exercise when I’m playing a game to try and think of ways how the game translates into real life.

One really helpful technique I’ve learned from the group is to chop up big tasks into smaller tasks and steps. Dishes get divided up by category, so a big pile of dishes becomes smaller, more manageable piles by category: cutlery, plates, cups and finally pots and pans. Cleaning and tidying is similarly cut up into steps. When tidying my room, I start by sorting the trash, then the laundry. Then I usually lose momentum and end up in front of the computer until the trash and laundry piles up again. But once each item has a box, place or category, it becomes easier to deal with. Feels like I’ve mentioned something like this before on the blog somewhere… well, memory’s still not the greatest, but it’s getting better, I think.

Have I mentioned I also find lists and plans helpful? Writing down each step needed to perform a task and how to do it helps keep focus and reduces a big chore to simply following a set of instructions. Cleaning the bathroom starts with filling up a bucket with soapy water, gathering up the necessary supplies and then starting pouring some cleaning solvent into the toilet, then with washing the walls, the sink and shower finishing cleaning the toilet and then the floor. Like following a recipe when baking.

Nowadays, I’m maybe still not at the level of scientific articles, but I’ve slowly upgraded to more meaty texts than cheap romance novels and at least shopping lists aren’t a problem anymore.