Melancholics and inhibited body language/facial expressions

Aquinas took from Aristotle a cool view of the emotions…

Basically the underlying emotion (or ‘passion’ because they can be viewed as external objects causing us to have a ‘passive’ response or undergo change…like the ‘patient’ who suffers…)

The underlying emotion is love which is our natural response to things that appear good (or are good).

Which is pretty cool, because it means love is the root of all our responses to our experience.

So it goes something like:

I perceive something good in the distance -> desire  (distance can be time or space.)

I perceive something evil/bad in the distance -> fear

I attain the good thing -> joy

The bad thing arrives -> sorrow

— I think about getting rid of the bad thing -> anger

How I feel about good things finally -> I love them

How I feel about bad things finally – > I hate them

I think good things are attainable/ bad things can be overcome -> hope

I think good things are unattainable/bad things can’t be overcome -> despair

Pretty cool, huh?

All of these passions/emotions have an effect on our minds and our bodies, because we are psychosomatic beings.

The old system was  a bit vitalist, so they would talk about heat and life in your body.

Eg. when you feel love the heat expands in your body. Love is expansive, and makes you actually feel warm. Fear makes your heat retract inward, which is why you may feel cold when afraid. In anger the heat rises up into the head. Sorrow is the worst because your heat shrinks right back inside and you feel lifeless and awful.

These passions have corresponding facial expressions. They effect your posture, your gait, your movements, and your face. That’s how people can learn to read “body language”.

So let’s say you feel happy. You’re experiencing joy, and your face shows it. You’re beaming joy naturally without any effort.

But then someone shouts at you “what the hell are you grinning at, you look like an idiot!”.

Being yelled at is scary, being told you look like an idiot is bad. These produce feelings of sorrow and fear, which change your expression immediately. But you might also be confused, not sure why they are saying these things, not sure why your joyful feeling would cause a bad reaction in them.

You might also feel anger, and your expression changes again.

That’s still fairly natural. Your face is responding automatically to the emotion you are feeling.

But what if someone yells at you enough times that you realise your automatic expressions are going to get you into trouble again and again? Then maybe you decide that you should hide your joy, or your anger, or fear, or whatever it is you think will get you into trouble. You become afraid to express your feelings naturally in your expression.

But the only way to stop your face from automatically expressing is to give it a different task to do. So you practice holding a facial expression, or you stay really mindful of what emotion you might be feeling, ready to dampen it down with “serious face” or “polite face” or “happy face”.

The problem is that these faces are not natural. they aren’t expressing your authentic emotion. Instead they are expressing a complicated internal conflict, based on a fear of how people will react to you.

Holding that kind of tension in your face, and monitoring your expression, is very taxing and stressful. It sucks. It’s inauthentic.

I think Melancholics are especially prone to this because we do have strong emotions that are often out of sync with the people around us.

People might think you’re sitting grinning at nothing, when you’re reliving a past experience in your mind. Get told off enough times…get told it’s disrespectful or that you look like there’s something wrong with you, and yes you probably will internalise that message and learn to inhibit your natural expressions.

The way out of it is not easy, because you need to actively resist the impulse to control your expression. It takes more effort to overcome this effort-laden habit, but the effort has to be careful and light.

You might need to relearn intentionally how to let your face express your feelings automatically without fear of other people’s negative reactions.

One place to start is noticing that there is actual muscle tension in your face at this very moment. The weird, constant feelings of tension or tightness aren’t imaginary, they’re caused by tight muscles reacting to your fear of having the “wrong” expression.

If you can be aware of that tension as something the muscles of your face and head are actively doing, then that may help you ease off the tension a little.

It’s not just facial muscles, but also the muscles that control the eyes and the eyelids. Looking at the individual muscles of the head and face might help you understand the strain you’re creating in trying to keep your face unresponsive to your natural internal impulses.

Melancholics and trauma

A reader asked how melancholics express love and affection, physically and emotionally, etc.

I feel like l need to understand why he takes forever to be close to me, doesn’t seem to like physical touch (which l think is related to past trauma) despite me providing a safe zone.

I don’t know the person in question, so this is more of an educated guess based on my own experiences and my interactions with other melancholics.

Trauma

First I would say that it most likely is related to past trauma, or the internal adaptations he’s made to the past trauma.

In a melancholic, trauma could produce adaptations like detachment/dissociation, hypervigilance, agitation, and so on.

Physical touch could be difficult because he’s basically in fight-or-flight mode, feeling in danger and ready to run or lash out at the slightest hint of a threat. His nervous system could be amped up, and every sound or sensation is magnified and feels like a violent imposition that is putting him in danger.

That’s one option anyway.

Alternatively, he could be detaching/dissociating from unpleasant emotions, trying not to feel them. If this is the case, then physical touch would be unwelcome because he’s already doing his best not to feel anything. Physical contact from a loved-one would normally have a relaxing, grounding effect, but in his case it would also bring him closer to his unwanted painful emotions.

Temperament

Dissociation and hypervigilance are pretty common responses regardless of temperament, though I suspect melancholics are more prone to internalise and hold on to past trauma than the other temperaments.

But in addition to mechanisms like dissociation and hypervigilance, melancholics will also respond to trauma in uniquely melancholic ways.

Because melancholics are idealists, they will be drawn to idealising their response. That means they will look for ultimate, perfect, and meaningful responses to their suffering.

You can tell a sanguine or phlegmatic to “learn to let go” but a melancholic will baulk at “letting go” because it implies that the problem is not as significant as it feels to them.

Letting go sounds like “forgetting” and since when has a problem ever gone away just by forgetting about it?

So a melancholic will be drawn to radical, idealised solutions to their internal suffering. Solutions like…rejecting all intimate or dependent human relationships, wishing they could live alone like a hermit on a mountaintop, somehow gaining complete control over their emotions, or simply ceasing to rely on or experience emotions in the first place.

These are the kinds of ‘solutions’ that will really just mess you up a whole lot more, but they appeal to the melancholic because they are inspiring. They hold meaning and promise a lasting solution to the problem of suffering.

What I’m getting at here is that a melancholic might have developed ideals and (unrealistic) goals that further inhibit them from accepting or expressing affection.

I’ve said before that being a melancholic is like being lost in a fog where only the biggest and brightest landmarks can be (dimly) seen. So imagine you’ve grown up in the fog, unable to respond adequately to your own suffering by altering your environment, and this predicament has left a deep and long-lasting impression on you that you never ever forget…

If you can’t change your environment (due to lack of knowledge, power, or both) then all you can do is change yourself.

Maybe the best you can do is try to stop those painful or unpleasant emotions from having control over you.

Melancholics may then choose to identify with examples of human beings who are emotionally detached and invulnerable, in the belief that this is an attainable and desirable way to live.

If this is the case with your melancholic, then he might not know how to reconcile this idealised role or imagined invulnerability with the more simple and healthy enjoyment of expressing and receiving affection.

Summary

All of this is potentially complicated.

In the first instance I would consider either the detached/dissociated or hypervigilant/fight-or-flight responses as possible explanations for avoiding accepting/expressing affection.

Both of those can run quite deep, and people do not necessarily recognise that they are in these states.

The secondary thing is the idealised role that could mean he has past or current ideals that make it hard for him to accept emotional vulnerability and intimacy. He might not even realise that these ideals are incomplete or unrealistic or not good models for a healthy human existence.

If this sounds daunting, just bear in mind that all people of different temperaments have issues and problems and faults. Melancholics are just more likely to internalise it rather than blaming it all on other people or taking it out on others.

Obviously none of this is a substitute for professional counselling etc.

So bearing in mind my non-professional status, there are a couple of ‘themes’ that might help. If possible, you could talk to him about how simple physical affection makes you feel relaxed and happy, and ask him how he feels about it.

Melancholics seem to love talking/thinking about themselves, and a spirit of genuine inquiry (as opposed to a challenge or interrogation) is usually welcome.

After all, if you start breaking love down into more basic actions and feelings, isn’t it that we feel relaxed and happy when we’re with someone we love? And physical contact tells us that the person we care about finds us lovable and attractive. Verbal affection and “reaching out” tells us that we’re important to the person we care about, and vice versa.

If you can find a way to talk about it, and discuss how he feels, I think that might prove fruitful. If he’s melancholic, he may not have a very clear sense of how he feels or why he feels that way. If there are repeated patterns like it taking him a long time to get close, then he might be able to make observations and work out what’s going on.

If you mean that each time he sees you, it takes him a while to physically get close to you, then bear in mind that it might simply be taking time for his physiological and mental state to change. That is, if his “normal” phys. and mental state is fight-or-flight, then yes it will take quite a while to cool down in your presence, to a level where he is calm enough to accept and express affection.

By becoming aware of patterns like these (if that’s what is actually going on) we can learn to adjust.

Anyhow, I hope some of this is relevant and helpful. Since I don’t know the circumstances or the individuals involved it’s quite general and may not be appropriate for your situation.

How I overcame ankylosing spondylitis

Reader Stacey asked for an update on my AS and how I’m now faring, so I thought it would be a good idea to do a blog post on my current status and how I got to where I am now.

The disease

It started back in late 2010/early 2011. I’d gotten married and we’d bought a unit, so it was a time of intense and significant changes.

I was working on the unit – cleaning and painting and fixing things – and feeling pretty terrible about it. I’d never thought much about owning property, and with the housing market so difficult to get into, it was a big reality-check to realise we could only afford a one-bedroom unit on a busy road.

The unit was not in good condition, and I was not happy or enthused about moving in. Yet I felt I just had to get it done, put my feelings aside, and just keep going until it was ready.

That was when I had my first bout of iritis/uveitis. I thought it might have been caused by the anti-mould additive I had mixed into the bathroom ceiling paint.

But I tested positive to HLA-B27, an antigen associated with ankylosing spondylitis and other auto-immune conditions. As wikipedia states: “while 90% of people with ankylosing spondylitis (AS) are HLA-B27 positive, only a small fraction of people with HLA-B27 ever develop AS.”

I had recurrent episodes of iritis, and each time was asked if I had back or neck or other joint pain, with the implication that I could expect to develop these symptoms at a later point. Eventually the ophthalmologist referred me to a rheumatologist “just in case”.

I well remember the first time I felt the stiffness and pain in my sacro-iliac joint.

I was sitting in an armchair in our unit, reading some fantasy book on my kindle, and I remember thinking “is this all there is?” Is that what life is all about? We work to earn money, and when we’re not working we distract ourselves with entertainment. That was never the kind of life I wanted to lead, and yet that’s where I’d ended up.

When I got up from the chair, I noticed a dull ache near my hip.

I thought the ache was from sitting in the chair for too long.

By morning it had gotten worse. I don’t remember the exact timeline, but it got to a point where the pain was so severe I could barely walk. I rang the rheumatology clinic and had them move my appointment forward.

I clearly remember taking tiny steps towards the front door of the hospital. It was one of the most intense pains I’ve ever experienced.

The rheumatology registrar cheerfully agreed that I’d developed to the next stage of AS. He put me on celebrex (an NSAID), ordered x-rays, and explained to me the great new drugs available that would suppress my immune system and slow the progression of the disease – a progression that would see my joints slowly calcify.

The celebrex worked well, but the doctor was keen for me to get everything lined up for subsidised disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs.

Being in the public system, I ended up seeing a new doctor each time I went in – every six months. They all had a similar perspective, though some were more diligent and “by the book” and would order blood tests and x-rays, while others would just tell me to come back if anything changed.

Some were keen to get me on the more powerful drugs, while others seemed content to let me just use celebrex as required. I asked more and more questions as time went on, but received slightly different answers from different doctors.

For example, some spoke confidently about what I would expect to see as the disease progressed, while others were more tentative about the actual diagnosis.

Eventually I pressed the issue, and one of the registrars explained that…well given the history – the iritis/uveitis, the HLA-B27, the inflammation in the SI joints, past history of joint pain (my left ankle would get inexplicably inflamed at times), my positive response to the NSAIDS, and the fact that the pain was worst in the mornings and after sitting, all suggested that it was likely to be AS.

Looking for a change

The pain was at its worst in the mornings, and would hurt like hell when I tried to roll over in bed or get up out of bed.

It also interfered with my martial arts practice – most gross movements were fine, but there were occasional moves that would put pressure on my SI joint and remind me that I was still in the middle of a flare-up.

In a weird way, I wasn’t that upset about the disease. Occasionally I thought about the progression, and that really terrified me. I didn’t like taking the NSAIDs because I knew the relief they brought was only temporary – they wouldn’t halt the disease progression.

But still, it was possible for me to ignore the disease in most of my waking life.

I think that’s what got to me in the end. The fact that I wasn’t upset about having this illness when really it made no sense to me. If I started thinking about it, I felt angry and annoyed that my stupid immune system was inflicting this damage on my own body.

I used to believe that this kind of thing had meaning. I used to believe there was a purpose and a direction to life, and having an auto-immune disease was not some kind of random, meaningless affliction.

Besides, other things in life were going quite well. I was reasonably happy, and involved in a lot of activities. Why not take another look at this disease, dig a little deeper, and try to work out what was causing it?

I spent some time looking into the role that stress plays in diseases like AS. The evidence was suggestive, but incomplete. So when I asked one of my doctors if she thought stress could play a role in the disease, she quite truthfully replied that there is no evidence for it.

But as far as I could tell, there was no evidence against it either.

There was evidence showing that people with traumatic childhood experiences are more likely to experience chronic diseases later in life. There was evidence around the relationship between inflammation and anxiety and depression. There was evidence around the relationship between emotional states and inflammatory markers in the body.

But no, there was not yet evidence that stress or psychological factors of some sort might trigger the flare-up of an autoimmune disease like AS.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

So I decided to revert to a principle I used to believe before I lost my ideals. The principal was that suppressed, unaddressed negative emotions will eventually overflow into some kind of physical manifestation.

Dr John Sarno – requiescat in pace –

I just googled Sarno only to find out that he passed away at the age of 93 on 22nd June this year.

Sarno’s basic premise was that various chronic ailments – starting with back pain – were psychological in origin. Not that the pain wasn’t real, but that the body created real pain to serve a psychological purpose.

With a Freudian perspective, Sarno taught his patients that the pain was created to suppress ‘unacceptable’ emotions. Sarno found that many of his patients were cured simply by learning (and accepting) that this was the real mechanism underlying their pain, while others required in-depth psychotherapy to further elucidate the emotional cause.

I read Sarno’s books, and found them inspiring. Yet I wasn’t one of those who recovered simply by learning about the psychological cause.

I recommend Sarno to anyone with chronic ailments, but with the caveat that my own solution proved to be a little different, or perhaps more nuanced than the books I read would suggest.

I also discovered it was possible to let the search for a cure become a cause of stress in itself.

Perfectionism and emotional themes

Sarno and his supporters identified a set of driven, perfectionist personality traits that seemed to correspond to these psychogenic pains.

The problem is that it’s easy for a driven, perfectionist type of person to become driven and perfectionist about overcoming their illness.

This is made all the worse by the knowledge that some people are cured just by learning Sarno’s theory and accepting it.

Why wasn’t I cured that way? Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough? Maybe I wasn’t being diligent enough in analysing the emotions behind the symptoms?

I kept looking for more information that developed on Sarno’s work.

Eventually I came across a set of youtube videos by a guy named Richard, who had overcome back pain symptoms very similar to my own (but with a different diagnosis), using Sarno’s theory.

Hearing other people’s accounts of overcoming their pain is always encouraging, but Richard included a timeline of his recovery that showed it hadn’t been instantaneous.

It helped a great deal to know that an instant and complete recovery was not the “correct” result, and that I wasn’t necessarily doing something wrong if I didn’t recover immediately.

I emailed Richard in late 2013 asking for more information and he gave the following reply:

can you trace the pain back to a very first time you experienced it?  the place/circumstances of the first occurrence might give you clues about what the mental issue is.

i do believe it takes some discipline after first hearing about this idea / reading his book to really effect a full recovery, in terms of eg tracking and experimenting with different themes.  in the end i had a collection of several emotional themes, including time deadlines, accomplishment goals, and also mental conditioning issues (eg i got used to feeling pain in the mornings), which could all be independent of each other.

try keeping a journal or notebook to keep track of which themes you get results with, at which times.  you can even write down the themes that don’t really work for you, just to make it even more systematic.  i wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a few weeks just to work out all the issues to see lasting improvement.  it really is like learning a new skill, and just as rewarding.

try not to get discouraged if you don’t effect a full recovery right away, and keep at it.

In the end it actually took me another whole year to work out the specific cause.

Richard was right about the themes. My old notes contain lists of all the sources of pressure or stress in my life, and there was a lot going on at that time.

But there was something specific and nuanced about the flare-ups of AS, and I think that’s why it took me so long to overcome them.

Shifting gears

Following Richard’s advice I had developed a much clearer impression of what a perfectionistic, driven, stressful and intense person I was.

I had also come to realise that I was suppressing the emotional symptoms of this stress and intensity.

There’s a section in my old notes where I rated my pain from AS as 7 out of 10. I then rated my subjective emotional stress as 4 out of 10. But then I considered my objective behaviour – how driven I was and how many things I was trying to achieve, and how often I was thinking about them, and awarded myself 8 out of 10 for this self-imposed pressure.

So, I was under immense pressure, but I felt fine! Great! I just had these bouts of severe pain in my SI joints, and the prospect of a slowly crippling disease ahead of me…

Finally, in the midst of self-scrutiny and observation, I had another flare-up and was self-aware enough to ask what had preceded this specific flare-up.

I had noticed a change in my state of mind, like I had shifted gears mentally. I tried to work out what had caused this shift in gears but couldn’t locate it.

Time went on, and finally another flare-up occurred. This time I knew exactly what had prompted the change in my mind, the shift in gears.

It was prompted by a decision to try freelance writing professionally. I’d written for a few years as a side-interest, but had lost my main job and decided I would give writing a real try.

At that point I made some kind of deeper commitment or decision. I felt like a deeper part of me was assenting to this idea that “from now on, I just have to write. Do nothing but write, and keep writing no matter what.”

I realised that this decision was the trigger for a change in my mental state that was soon followed by a flare-up of inflammation in my SI joints. The change in mental state was characterised by a subjective improvement in my mood, despite an objective increase in self-imposed pressure.

In other words, I located the exact point at which I had agreed to suppress any emotional resistance to achieving my new goal.

Reversing the decision

Having identified the decision that triggered the flare-up, I knew that I had to reverse it, give myself permission to relax and let my emotional resistance resurface.

This was not easy, because the whole point was that I believed “I have to keep writing!” My “just do it!” mentality had a lot of weight behind it.

But all the work I had done to find the trigger for my AS made it obvious that if I didn’t make a change I would just continue to suffer.

I reversed the decision by telling myself specifically “It’s okay if you never write another article in your life.” And “It’s okay if you are poor and unemployed for the rest of your life”.

These are things that I felt were manifestly not okay! But that’s exactly why I had to accept them.

I could feel my internal resistance to these thoughts, but I could also feel a kind of relief, a letting go of tension that I hadn’t been conscious of.

It really is okay if I never write another book, article, or blog post again in my entire life. It’s completely okay.

It’s okay if I never amount to anything in life. It’s completely okay.

Relief!

My SI pain went away as I progressively reversed the decision. From memory there were one or two subsequent flare-ups, but they were milder and I caught them early, reversing the relevant decisions behind them.

One final mistake

I didn’t make a big deal of it in my notes. I keep looking for the bit that says “Yes! Solved it! No more pain!” But it’s not there.

The reason is that in between flare-ups I had developed a different kind of pain in my lower back. This pain didn’t flare-up, it was continuous. I felt it in the mornings when I got out of bed, and occasionally triggered it when my back was under strain.

I spent a lot of time trying to overcome this back pain in the same way that I had overcome my SI joint pain, thinking they were the same thing.

Dr Sarno always insisted his patients undergo medical examination prior to utilising his psychogenic theory. The point was to rule out other causes of the pain.

I assumed my lower back pain was another symptom of AS, that it was psychogenic, and caused by stress.

But eventually I discovered the lower back pain was purely mechanical. It had developed as I tried to physically compensate for my SI joint stiffness – my lower back started to bend more and more to take pressure off my inflamed SI joints.

Conclusion

So that’s how I overcame my AS. I haven’t had a flare-up in 2-3 years.

I think the main lesson from my experience is that some people might have to specifically reverse key decisions in order to neutralise the stress and hence the pain.

I hope this is helpful for some of you with AS or those following Sarno’s theory on psychogenic pain and illness. I’m grateful especially for the late Dr Sarno’s work, and for Richard’s advice that really helped me become more systematic and narrow-down the precise cause for my pain.

Melancholic with Type A Personality

I’d heard of Type A and Type B personalities before, but I didn’t seem to fit into either category. Type A are supposedly harder-working, competitive, ambitious, organised, intense, hostile, and stressful. Type B are laid-back, relaxed, disorganised, friendly, and so on.

The problem with a lot of these descriptions is that they seem to be dealing with Type A personalities of a Choleric temperament. But in the pursuit of a cure for my auto-immune condition, I’ve come across more general descriptions of Type A which suggest that a person could be Type A regardless of their temperament.

I don’t think I’d ever be mistaken for being an over-achiever, but that’s because most people think of specific, socially esteemed and easily recognisable achievements like winning sporting competitions, getting promotions at work, hosting big parties, winning awards, and so on.

What about someone who feels bad if they aren’t working toward some kind of goal, however humble or eccentric? Or what about someone who pushes themselves towards goals that they find more difficult than others because of their temperament? Or what about the temperament type that ruminates and analyses everything in exhaustive detail, and treats those silent efforts as a kind of progress to be made?

As I understand it, a Type A personality is about being driven, and it doesn’t matter where you happen to be driving to. I have a med-student friend who is also melancholic and Type A, and  all the study she has to do in addition to family, work, music, and other commitments makes me feel sick just thinking about it. I’m not achieving anything so exalted as a medical degree (or so I tell myself in false humility) yet I greet each moment of potential rest with the question “what could I be getting done instead?”

I’m acutely aware, for example, of not having made any cheese since my blue brie finished over a week ago! Not only that, but my beer reserves are getting perilously low, and I’ll have to make time for another brew soon.

I jumped at the chance to turn this reflection into a blog post, because I haven’t written any for a while and I’m feeling genuinely bad about it, because I’m measuring my self-worth in large part by how productive I am. It doesn’t matter that my idea of productivity isn’t typical: those sardines aren’t going to salt-cure themselves! (Actually, they pretty much do once they get going).

Several months ago, in the midst of severe back pain I tried something a little unusual at the behest of an acquaintance with an interest in hypnotism: I asked my subconscious mind to tell me what the real cause of my pain was.

The answer I received was a mental image of myself lying face down in the driveway of our home, pinned by the front wheel of my car which happened to be driven by another me.  Apparently my subconscious mind loves puns and metaphors as much as I do. The message was clear: I am crushing myself with my own drive.

Still, it’s taken months and additional resources from people with expertise in this field for me to recognise the greater extent of this “drive” that is making me sick, stressed, and sad, when really I have so much to be grateful for in my life.

I’m so accustomed to it, I’ve embraced it so wholeheartedly that this drive feels like “me”. The thought of not accomplishing anything today, or this hour, or this minute makes me feel anxious and nauseated. On some level I’ve decided that I’m running out of time, I need to get things done at any cost. I’ve come to believe in the inherent goodness of purposive activity, and I feel empty and inept without it.

Something is terribly wrong when you feel like you can’t go to the park with your wife and son because it’s too good an opportunity to “get things done”. Something is terribly wrong when the act of getting out of bed to “get things done” is hampered by severe pain despite feeling inwardly fine.  There’s something wrong when the high of analysing, pursuing, and seeking to solve problems and understand mysteries drowns out love, happiness, and the experience of peace.

Part of me enjoys the pressure, the power, the sense of control. But like any addiction, it’s a mask, a distraction and a false sense of self.

How much for your happiness?

Recently a unit in our block went up for sale with an asking price lower than I had hoped. I went to check it out, compare it to our own unit, and see if we could honestly hope for a better price.

Not likely. Not without doing more work, perhaps renovating the bathroom here, which I would have to do myself to be financially viable. So not without considerable stress, effort, and daunting undertakings.

I have to admit when we first moved into the unit this kind of thinking really got to me. It’s a purely mercenary mindset, which on any other day I’ll happily admit I loathe to my core. Yet owning property and hoping to one day transition to nicer, better, more expansive property makes a money-minded approach seem necessary.

I had been counting on the value of our unit rising by more than it evidently has. Perhaps that was a mistake, but the bigger mistake was to let it get to me. The financial imperative runs so deep that I felt as though I’d just been diagnosed with a serious illness. Yet in reality nothing had changed except my expectations.

In reality, I just put a price on my happiness: 15-20k to feel totally miserable. Turning it around, the absurdity is obvious: how much money would you accept to feel totally miserable? Would 15-20k be enough to justify feeling stressed, burdened, and unhappy?

It wouldn’t be enough for me. So why feel bad about it? If renovating the bathroom is a thankless, stressful, miserable and uninspired experience, then don’t do it. You wouldn’t go back to your old job for the sake of twenty thousand dollars; why pile depressing obligations onto your own life for the same amount?

At the end of my life, I won’t be looking back and wishing I’d earned a few extra tens or even hundreds of thousands. Money isn’t going to be that important, especially not when truly significant acts of freedom and productivity and enjoyment can be had for next-to-nothing.

When we first bought our unit, I went through the experience of having my expectations and hopes ground down to almost nothing. That was painful, but I’ve since discovered that what matters is not how much money or how big a house or property we have, but how free we are to do what we want with what we have. The biggest constraint is not living in a unit, it’s knowing that we can’t do anything radically personal to it, because we don’t intend to stay here too much longer. If we were going to stay here, we could do any number of things to improve it, make it more our own, with no thought for market value and the ‘safety’ of mainstream design.

So, I won’t be making myself miserable for the sake of money that doesn’t exist and which may not have any practical bearing on my future life. I wonder what else I can find to not make myself miserable for?

Learn to crush your dreams

For any melancholic a vital skill consists in learning to crush your own dreams, and see through your ideals.

This might sound a little depressing and counter-intuitive, but for melancholics there is a real danger that the ideal will drive us to extremes of attitude and action, leaving us obsessed or even possessed by a single all-encompassing dream.

I’ve had it happen to me on numerous occasions: recently when I decided that I should put everything into my writing, and subsequently felt as though every moment was either a writing moment or a wasted one. I became productive, yes, but more importantly I became acutely conscious of the disparity between reality and ideal. As time progressed and my creativity inevitably slowed, the ideal became an indictment of my stupidity, laziness, ineptitude and ultimately my humanity.

There’s nothing wrong with having a dream or an ideal, and for melancholics it is essential. But we slip up when we allow ourselves to believe that if we attain the ideal everything else will change. The fact is that when or if we ever could attain our ideals, we would very quickly find ourselves bored, dissatisfied, and ready to move on to something bigger and better.

Crushing one’s dreams is really about reminding yourself -often painfully- that the idealised outcome is really not that wonderful. Good? Yes. Desirable? Certainly. Life-changing? To a degree. But only a degree.

I’m currently in the midst of another ideal: this time the ideal of creating ever more wonderful and satisfying products. I’ve made bread, beer, yoghurt, rice wine, coffee, limoncello, pasta and pasta sauce; but all I can think is that I can’t move fast enough onto the next round of magnificent consumables: bacon, soy sauce, tofu, sake, sea salt, mozzarella, fetta, and about half a dozen other ideas that elude me at present.

All of these take time, preparation, equipment; and all I can see is that I’m falling short on all three.

The problem is that I’m letting the dream take over. I’m implicitly accepting that the more I get these delicious products in play, the more my life will change for the better. The problem is that this is entirely true, just not as significant as it seems. This manic phase of urgent productivity is not at all healthy. It strips the enjoyment from the process, turning these enriching and satisfying products into a mere list of achievements.

Seeing through an ideal, crushing a dream, neither of these means repudiating the goal. It just means we need to remind ourselves that true happiness is distinct from these enticing activities, goals, or accomplishments. They are well worth having, but not at a cost to one’s genuine happiness.

When I feel the pressure of the ideal mounting, I try to remind myself that happiness, peace, and a relaxed state of quiet are achievable at any moment. There are no prerequisites, so long as I am not driving myself to distraction in the first place.

There’s no denying that my ideals are pointing me toward a better, more enriched and satisfying life. But it won’t be any of those things if I lose all perspective along the way.

Auto-Immunity: stop hitting thyself?

An auto-immune disease is, as far as I can tell, the disease equivalent of accidentally biting off a chunk of your own tongue.

My particular auto-immune disease causes inflammation in various key joints, resulting in mild-to-excruciating levels of pain that erupt seemingly at random throughout the course of the year.

Each doctor I’ve spoken to has been more or less firm about the association between stress or negative affect and flare-ups of the disease; firmly against any such association, I mean. There is no evidence to suggest that the progression of diseases like mine is in any way linked to psychological factors, though there is good evidence that the experience of pain can be moderated by psychological factors.

Needless to say, I’m not content with this and rest somewhat assuredly on the dictum “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, taking some confidence in what I know to be the limitations of evidential standards and processes, such that if I find a personal or subjective association, I’m not going to dismiss it on the basis of insufficient peer-reviewed studies.

At the same time, it’s somewhat dismaying to see people dismiss actual studies from a position of willful ignorance and wishful thinking. I’ve seen plenty of people embrace conspiracy theories or other combative attitudes towards established medical and scientific practices and institutions. It’s not a pretty sight. Ideally we should know and understand the things we criticise, and be aware of the limitations of our own knowledge, n’est-ce pa?

As such, I’m not going to tell people that their auto-immune condition is the result of stress and negative affect. What I can tell them is that I’ve noticed in myself that my bouts of inflammation seem to correspond with periods of self-imposed stress or pressure.

It seems I am of a temperament which is inclined to say to itself: “Now you know what you ought to be doing, so do it; do it without ceasing. Do nothing else. Nothing matters but that you do this, and do it diligently forever and ever, Amen.”

For example, I had a flare-up some time after deciding that I ought to pursue my writing more seriously. ‘More seriously’ as in, unceasingly and compulsively without any concept of an end point. On the positive side, that helped me produce an unprecedented number of articles – if I remember correctly: 12 published articles in a one month period.

But as my productivity began to decrease, the conviction that “I must write” slowly devolved from a genuine motivation into a mere sense of grinding necessity. Grinding is perhaps the operative word, as my joints inflamed and it became painful to move.

I’ve noticed since that the pain seems to coincide with these bouts of grueling yet unproductive urgency, the sense that I must get something done without excursion or delay.

Yesterday I noticed a growing sense of urgency relating to ‘getting things done’ with respect to domestic production. I’ve been meaning to make some cheese, but have struggled to find a good local source of necessary ingredients. The delay and the awful heat (42 degrees C yesterday) left me feeling unproductive, and this morning I woke up with the telltale stiffness and pain in my lower back.

As tentative as I am to try to dictate the cause of my illness to others, I’m equally cautious in extolling a particular treatment. I’m not trying to sell anything.

However, I have found it personally beneficial to treat the pain as a symptom of the underlying urgency, and therefore to treat the urgency directly. I do this by making a conscious effort to defuse this compulsive state of mind. I reflect on the fact that it doesn’t actually matter if I make a cheese today/write an article tomorrow, or if I do these things next month, or in all honesty if I never do them ever again.

By ‘reflect’ I mean it’s not enough to simply tell myself that it doesn’t matter. I have to really feel that it doesn’t matter, because feeling it means I can let go of the stress, tension, and urgency. Feeling that it doesn’t matter reveals how truly tense and stressed I have become – winding myself up into a state of impossible and unnecessary tension. I can feel the tension now through my whole body, yet I was oblivious to it until I started to focus on ‘letting go’.

Does ‘letting go’ fix the problem? Objective analysis would be nearly impossible. The factors at play are highly subjective, and would be very difficult to study or isolate under experimental conditions. But like Pascal’s wager, if I’m wrong about the connexion I’ve nonetheless benefited from becoming aware of my stress and tension and reducing them to more salubrious levels.

Feeling more relaxed, happier, and healthier is a pretty benign form of treatment. There’s not really anything to lose.

Does the pain go away? As strange as it might sound: I hadn’t really noticed. In hindsight, it must go away because I notice its subsequent return. But I’m usually so caught up in the great sense of relief and relaxation, the sheer pleasure of ‘letting go’ all the stress, strain, and slowly mounting pressures of life, that the pain, the stiffness and the sense of disease seem to just dissolve away.

Stress and the melancholic temperament

 

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.

 

 

Finding a balance

This morning I managed to give myself a migraine.

At first I thought my eyes were just a little blurry from sleep. I was reading the news online, but there was something wrong with the text.  Soon a ‘crack’ appeared to my left, hovering in space and moving gradually forward, like a kaleidoscopic worm made of bees.  The proper name for this is an ‘aura‘, which gives entirely the wrong impression.  It should be called ‘a visual representation of the pain you are about to experience’, or ‘doom vision’; something like that.

Fortunately I knew exactly what it was, and why I was experiencing it.  The past month or so I’ve been struggling with the self-imposed pressures of being a freelance writer.  I made myself sick within a couple of weeks through the simple thought that every moment I wasn’t writing was a moment wasted.

Eventually I realised what was going on and recalibrated my sense of urgency.  I don’t after all, have to write an article every 1.5 days. To do so is neither feasible nor desirable.  Even 1 per week would be a vast improvement on my previous output, and a sustainable increase in my freelance career.

But last week the situation changed again, as my wife was offered a day per week of work at her old job.  I ended up looking after our son for the day and a half that she was busy, thus cementing my role as part-time stay-at-home dad.

It turns out that looking after an eighteen month old is one of the most exhausting things I have ever experienced in my life.  Without sounding like it ought to, being alone in the house with my son for so long left me mentally exhausted.  I don’t know how my wife managed to do it while I was working, though I now understand why I typically had to pick her up off the floor by the end of each day.

So with my wife out of the house for one or so days this week, I added another ingredient to the strange part-time stew I’m cooking.  I’m now trying to balance being a part-time freelance writer, a part-time PhD student, and a part-time stay-at-home dad.  Thus far they add up to more than a full-time load hence my lack of activity on the writing and the PhD front this past week, hence my all-consuming sense of urgency to nonetheless get ‘something’ done, hence my fruitless staring at the computer screen first-thing this morning, and hence, I believe, the premonition of cranial catastrophe that followed.

Fortunately, knowing the cause meant I could immediately drink some water, go lie down, and tell myself reassuring things like that it doesn’t actually matter whether or not I have an article published this week, that looking after our son is a far greater challenge and will take some getting used to, and that these are still early days, and we have much to learn toward building a life that is as good as we would like it to be.