Stress and soaring thoughts

I know how it feels to be stressed. My thinking slows down. It gets heavy and sluggish, like each chain of thoughts drags dead weight with it.

When I’m not stressed my thinking soars. My thoughts become fast and light, they float and bump into each other merging into new ideas. When my thinking is like this I come up with ideas like, my weeknotes stretch into two thousand words or more because I have so many ideas to get out, and I write essays for my masters with fluid ease.

I’ve been aware of stress’ effect on my thinking for some time but never really gave it much thought. And then, on a day when my thinking wasn’t stressed and ideas were colliding, I listened to a What Comes Next podcast about AI for good, featuring an interview with MyCognition, a “digital platform that enhances cognitive fitness through a structured programme of insights, assessment and training”.

They mentioned case studies from schools using their platform to help children with special educational needs learn to self-manage their behaviour, and research that shows “poor cognitive functioning increases the risk of poor mental health and increasing evidence shows that cognitive issues are predictors and risk factors for mental illness” My interest was piqued. I wanted to know more about cognition. LMGTFY

“Cognition is defined as ‘the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.’ At Cambridge Cognition we look at it as the mental processes relating to the input and storage of information and how that information is then used to guide your behavior. It is in essence, the ability to perceive and react, process and understand, store and retrieve information, make decisions and produce appropriate responses.”

Cambridge Cognition

How our brains take information from our senses and experiences, and process it, affects how we react, understand and behave. That makes sense to me. It fits my conjecture that mental illness and ill-health is a result of traumatic events ‘rewiring’ the pathways in our brains and manifesting as stress, anxiety, depression, etc.

So, if mental ill-health can exhibit as poor cognising, could the reverse be true? Could getting our brains thinking in a particular way help to relieve anxiety and stress? When I’m stressed and I go for a walk with my notebook, pick a topic to research, google things, make notes, explore ideas, I feel less stressed. When I go for a walk and take my stress with me I don’t get to my thought-soaring state. Maybe having something to focus my thoughts on, and get a particular kind of mental process happening, allows for cognising in a way that results in positive feelings for me. 

Maybe this is why some people enjoy sudoku puzzles and crosswords, because engaging in something that makes our brains cognise in structured, logical, focused ways means we aren’t using the pathways in our brains that allow chaotic, fight-or-flight stress-inducing cognising to occur.

Being a mental health carer

For the past six and half years I’ve been a carer for a family member who has serious mental illnesses. And this is the first time I’ve blogged about it. There are lots of reasons why I’ve never written about it before. It seems unfair to write about my tough times when her’s are so much worse. I never knew how to separate what she was going through from my experience, and it doesn’t seem fair to tell her story, that’s for her to do. But over the past few weeks I’ve become more aware of my feelings about my experiences, and since it’s Mental Health Awareness Week I thought I’d try to put some of those thoughts in writing.

Being a carer is isolating. I’ve never met or even talked to anyone else who cares for someone with mental illness, and I’ve never been able to talk about my experiences. I wonder about how other carers cope, what they have to go through, whether I could ever help them.

Being a carer is inspiring. I’ve seen someone who has experienced the most devastating of life events and the effects of a life-defining, self-destructive, crippling illness and yet never give up. With every victory over a fear she shows me what being brave really means, and with every step she takes towards a better life she shows me what being strong really looks like.

Being a carer is physically and emotionally draining. Nights without sleep, days without eating, hours of holding her in restraints, even more hours of standing between her and the negative consequences of her actions, dealing with police, ambulance, doctors. No breaks, no days off, no holidays. All of it takes its toll. I feel it in the ache of my back and in the heavy slowness of my thoughts.

Being a carer is defining. It made me question the kind of person I want to be and helped me figure out what is truly important to me. When I hear people talk about TV programmes they’ve watched I’m glad I don’t have time for such mundanities. When I see people getting worked up about stuff that doesn’t even affect them I’m glad my stresses are the result of having a positive impact on someone else’s life.

Being a carer comes with lots of responsibilities. Last week was a tough week. Looking back on it I can see how one decision in particular that I made turned out ok. If I had made a different decision the repercussions would have been life threatening. That’s a huge burden to bear, and one that I bear alone because of the isolation.

Being a carer is an adventure. There are so many things I’ve done, places I’ve been and experiences I’ve had (good and bad) that I would never have had if I wasn’t a carer. I’ve never been one to settle for an ordinary life but being a carer took that to an entirely new level.

Being a carer is unappreciated. I never expected any gratitude for being a carer, but I also never expected the negativity, criticism and suspicion about my motives. I guess that’s just people being people and it doesn’t bother me anywhere near as much as it perplexes me.

Being a carer is awesome. Although no one will ever see the work I’ve done or know the things I’ve achieved, I feel like her life is my masterpiece. That probably sounds weird, and I struggle to find the words to communicate what I mean, but when I look back over the last six and a half years I know there is nothing I would have rather done with my life.

There have been lots of tough times, more tough times than easy, and I’m sure more to come. I get through the tough times by being tougher, because it’s the only way I know how. I feel lucky to have been prepared for all of this by my own life experiences, training from jobs I’ve had, and a stoic personality that doesn’t like to quit. Is my approach healthy? Probably not, but I feel a certain amount of self-sacrifice is called for in order to achieve something more important. I feel privileged to affect a life so profoundly.

The circular problems of mental capacity

There are some infinite loops in how someone suffering from a mental health crisis receives treatment in hospital that makes the situation more difficult for everyone involved than it should be. The scenario plays out like this:

Infinite loop 1: physical and mental health

Someone who requires medical attention for physical health concerns is seen by paramedics. The person refuses treatment but because the paramedics judge that they don’t have mental capacity, they are told that the decision is being taken from them and they have to go to hospital. Once in hospital they continue to refuse treatment. The doctors and nurses are powerless to treat them because even though its obvious that they lack the mental capacity to make decisions about treatment they haven’t yet been seen by a mental health professional. But the mental health professional won’t see them until they are medically fit.

This is the first infinite loop the person finds themselves in. They can’t receive treatment for their mental health until they are physically healthy, but their mental health prevents them from becoming physically healthy.

Infinite loop 2: decision making and mental capacity

If they do speak to a mental health professional at some point whilst in hospital, they are told their options and given a choice about whether to accept treatment, but that mental health professional knows that they don’t have the mental capacity to understand the choice because that’s why they are there, but because they haven’t had a mental capacity act assessment yet and deemed officially to still have mental capacity.

This is the second infinite loop the person finds themselves in. The lack of mental capacity gets them into a situation where they have to make difficult decisions that they don’t have the mental capacity to understand, but because they are still considered to have sufficient capacity they are expected to make decisions as a person with capacity would.

So, as with so many things, these infinite loop problems are characteristics of a systems problem where no policies and procedures can encompass the complexities of human behaviour and real life, but the people in those situations are bound to follow the policies and procedures.

I’m grateful for…

Hand coloured design of the word Grateful

…learning restraint techniques so many years ago. I was taught restraint techniques when I worked with children with severe and complex emotional and behavioral problems. The techniques provide physical and emotional containment for someone in an emotional crisis. To onlookers, the physical restraint looks like it’s just about stopping the person from moving freely but it isn’t like the restraint techniques used by the Police which are designed to ensure compliance, these technques help the person feel safe when they aren’t able to manage their own emotions and stay safe when their emotions make them behave in ways that put them at risk.

I’m grateful for knowing how to do that