Stress and the melancholic temperament

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Last week I was talking to a friend and fellow melancholic, stressed out in the middle of her Med exams, overwhelmed and fearing the worst.  Why do melancholics get so stressed and what can we do to alleviate stress?

Melancholics are always fearing the worst.  We’re haunted by thoughts of what could go wrong, as if by anticipating it we can avoid it.  But in practice we just end up plagued by worries, anxieties and an overriding pessimism.

It’s a lot like watching my toddler son in a new environment. I take it for granted that I have to watch him constantly. I literally cannot take my eyes off him for a moment. At the same time I’m hyper-vigilant for anything within reach that he might damage or that might damage him.

My wife is the opposite.  She finds herself easily distracted, and is often taken by surprise when our son reaches some precarious object or takes a tumble over an obstacle.

It’s not that she’s any less caring, in fact she’s much more caring than I am, but she doesn’t have the same lifelong practice of expecting things to go horribly wrong.

I’ve found I can’t really help it, but my mind is almost always preoccupied with thoughts of how things could go wrong, have gone wrong, or will go wrong. It’s partly a side-effect of trying to understand how things work: if you know how something works you’re immediately much more conscious of how it might cease to work.

But it’s also because melancholics are a little slower at forming impressions and reaching conclusions compared to some of the other temperaments. In practice it might mean that a conversation with a choleric, a sanguine or phlegmatic unfolds with the melancholic experiencing a definite but incomplete sense of something wrong with the other person’s logic or intentions.  It might take days or weeks for the melancholic to unravel the errors and clearly define the problems in the other person’s proposal.

This increasingly wary attitude to human interaction seeps into everyday life. Whether I’m driving, working, going to the shops, not going to the shops, talking to people, cooking, exercising, reading, or just sitting still – I can’t help but be acutely aware of the possibility of error, an awareness of all the possible threats, dangers or pitfalls in what I am doing, not doing, or planning to do.  The resulting hyper-vigilance is a little like having PTSD but without the flashbacks.

I’ve found it is possible to ‘switch off’ this wariness, but it requires a concerted effort. Doing nothing is hard work.

In times of acute stress it’s not the fear per se that makes life unbearable, it’s the effort to avoid the feared outcome within a condition of uncertainty.  What stresses us is the effort to, for example, avoid failing an exam when the precise requirements for avoiding such an outcome are unclear.  ‘Study hard’ is the obvious answer, but how hard is hard enough?  For a melancholic these situations become a terrible trap because we tend to err on the side of excess, downplaying the costs of stress, and demanding of ourselves an impossible effort as though feeling stressed and exhausted is itself the only valid evidence that we have worked ‘hard enough’.

Unfortunately this extreme and idealistic approach actually blinds us to more creative, considered, and efficient methods.  It doesn’t allow us the space to reflect on how best to prepare, and is especially difficult for young melancholics who are as yet unaware that their most efficient methods of studying might differ markedly from the mainstream approach.  It takes a great deal of experience before we learn to rely on our own idiosyncratic ways of learning.

The best way to make space for reflection is to embrace the underlying fear of failure: to identify the worst, most humiliating outcome, and embrace it as a possible reality.  If you fail your exams you will indeed be humiliated and set back a year, but as undesirable as such an outcome would be, it would at least bring certainty and with certainty an end to the stress.

Taking time to really face such fears soon shows that they are not as dire as they seem.  Remember: it’s not so much the feared outcome that causes stress, it’s the self-imposed effort to avoid the outcome without really knowing whether one’s efforts are efficacious.

Another way to diminish the uncertainty is to build a sense of context, or a set of parameters which might give at least an approximate sense of certainty.  For example, you may not know if you’ve studied hard enough to avoid failure because you expect that studying ‘enough’ should bring with it some magical sense of competence and sufficiency.  But you can start to build a context by asking yourself whether you have consciously chosen or allowed yourself to not study as much as you usually would, ie. are you slacking off according to your own usual standards?

Alternatively, you can imagine what it would be like if you were trying to fail.  How different would that be from your current level of work?  It’s often reassuring to realise that you would find it hard to do nothing; you would struggle to really give up and let yourself fail.

There’s a measure of self-honesty required here, but I think for melancholics self-honesty is not a problem, rather the problem is knowing what questions to ask ourselves, or the broader context we need in order to put our problems in perspective.

The ultimate perspective for a melancholic is the idea that we are all going to die one day, and that nearly every stress we face in life pales in comparison to our final destination.  As morbid as it might seem to other temperaments, the thought of death can help a melancholic regain a healthy perspective on otherwise stressful situations.  The fear of failing an exam is ultimately misguided once we realise that no exam result, medical or other career, nor most of the things that cause us daily anxiety and stress will matter at all when we are gone.

As Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Soon you will have forgotten the world, and soon the world will have forgotten you.

And:

Consider thyself to be dead, and to have completed thy life up to the present time; and live according to nature the remainder which is allowed thee.

As idealists and perfectionists, life for a melancholic is never straightforward or easy.  We need these creative and eccentric approaches to help us navigate a complex world replete with sources of anxiety and stress, a world increasingly dominated by the worst tendencies of other temperaments.

 

 

Stoic Papa

 

 
If thou art pained by any external
thing, it is not this thing that disturbs
thee, but thy own judgement about it.
And it is in thy power to wipe out this
judgement now. But if anything in thy own
disposition gives thee pain, who hinders
thee from correcting thy opinion?

The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius

 

 
Being a parent can be incredibly difficult, and I’m in awe of those who make it look easy.

For the rest of us it’s important never to forget that we are doing something wonderful and difficult. Forget that it’s difficult, and we’ll be crushed under the burden of our own expectations. Forget that it’s wonderful, and all the talk of difficulties will scare people away from the genuine goodness and fulfillment of raising a child.

It doesn’t always feel wonderful, especially in those moments when fatigued parent meets manic child and the two do not mix. Did I say moments? It’s typically hours, and in those hours the most important thing (after your child’s safety) is your own mental health.

When your 18 month old son has decided that the best thing in the whole world is to climb onto the arm of the couch and launch himself backwards, landing flat on his back on the cushioned seat like he’s auditioning for a circus, there’s not a lot you can do.

I don’t want him to do this. He shouldn’t be doing this. It’s dangerous, he might fall! Why can’t he just sit quietly and read a book? I’m so tired…

Eventually my Stoic influence kicks in, and I realise à la Marcus Aurelius that the problem is not so much what he’s doing, but what I’m doing. I have in my head an ideal of how my son should behave, and though my fatigue is real it is made a hundred times worse by feeling frustrated as well. I’m frustrated that he is doing something potentially dangerous. I’m frustrated that he won’t listen to me and behave himself. And I’m frustrated that I can’t think of a way to make the environment ‘safe’ without putting a childproof fence around everything. In other words, I’m frustrated at my lack of control.

To be completely honest, this is my problem not my son’s. He’s quite happy, in fact he’s ludicrously happy, and if I were a child again I would be doing exactly the same things and making my parents equally frustrated. After all, what is the use of having some ideal of how my child should behave if that ideal does not include him being ludicrously happy? Would it really be better for him to sit and play with my smartphone instead of exploring and enjoying his environment out of his own initiative?

In practical terms, all that really matters is that he is safe. And with that in mind all I really have to do is sit close by and catch him if he falls or pull him back if he tries to do something truly stupid. I might still be fatigued, but at least I’m no longer frustrated, and I’ve reduced the burden of my expectations down to simply being there.

Just being there doesn’t feel like enough. It feels like I’m neglecting him. But I’m beginning to think it’s much more valuable than trying to coerce, control, intervene constantly, and even interact constantly, as though he will turn out wrong if I don’t feed him with a steady stream of encouragement and chatter. Simply being there to keep him out of serious danger may be the least I can do; but sometimes the least is all we can reasonably manage, all we need to do, and therefore the right thing to do.

The Melancholic Emperor

My friend Tom recommended the following videos in his comment on a recent post:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLD09Qa3kMk&feature=player_embedded&list=PL361CE5C9167977FC

This is one of the best lectures I have seen, on one of the most intriguing characters in Western philosophy.

While I’m reading some work on the Stoics, I know very little about Marcus Aurelius.  But Professor Michael Sugrue, of Princeton at the time of this lecture, characterises the Philosopher-Emperor as a man of heroic virtue without peer in his own time or in history.

His reflections will be of particular merit to those of us with a philosophical inclination who are weary of the self-interested ethos that rules contemporary life!

Here’s an alternate link, in a single video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z27Saih7JK4

P.S. I would surely fail the Emperor test!