ON MENTAL ILLNESS: When Too Much Effort Works Against Us

Jack Bragen
Friday August 04, 2017 - 11:23:00 AM

When we are trying to do something, and the going gets difficult, most people are taught that we just need to try harder. However, if your brain has a biological vulnerability, too much effort at some things can worsen or even initiate a psychiatric condition. This applies to both physical and mental effort.  

Of course, we should make an effort. Effort is the cornerstone of getting well and doing well. If we fail to make an effort, our lives will go nowhere, and we could easily spiral downhill.  

On the other hand, when the effort level is 200% of what it should be, this could become damaging. The "do or die" attitude, that propels many "normal" people to be able to function in their jobs, for some people, is poisonous. 

This may have been one of numerous factors that originally got me sick. However, once the neural route responsible for my illness established itself in my brain, whatever first caused my illness was not quite as relevant. 

I know someone who believes people ought to just force themselves to do something even if they don't feel like it; and that, supposedly, is the solution to our work quandaries. That is probably applicable to an extent. We have to function at some things whether we like it or not. If you get a court summons, you must respond to that. If you have a utility bill but would rather use the money to go out to a movie, you'd better pay the utility bill. 

Someone who worked as head of a rehabilitative recycling center for mentally ill adults once said that it is called work for a reason--it is not about doing what you'd like to do. That person, due to unpopularity among subordinates, was nicknamed "Dragon Lady." Regardless, she had a point.  

The Dalai Lama, in a television interview, used the word "effort" when describing meditation. I think he essentially said that it requires a lot of effort to become a master of oneself.  

The part of the brain that generates effort becomes more developed the more it is used. Effort can be uncomfortable at times. Yet, many things that are worth doing require effort.  

How to know when effort is too much? This is can be learned through experience. In addition, your body or your surrounding circumstances may provide some hints, when effort is becoming excessive.  

For example, when too many mistakes are made or when we become accident-prone, it could be an indication of pushing ourselves too hard. You may also be able to tune into your body to look for signals of overload. These can vary from person to person.  

Sometimes when mentally overloaded, I'll get a particular cough, one which is different from that caused by congestion. At other times, when I anticipate doing something, and have excessive dread about it--to the extent that I can feel it physically, I will often preemptively opt out of the task or activity. This is a choice of not forcing something when my body is giving me a warning.  

(When I went to traffic school following my most recent traffic ticket for a moving violation, which was in 1989, the instructor said, "Stress will kill you." And he said those words with strong emphasis. It is important not to get behind the wheel of a car unless you are calm, not sedated by medication, and feeling at 100%. California law has severe penalties for driving while impaired.)  

You should not let someone coerce you into doing something that you do not feel ready to do. Yet there are some exceptions to that.  

When your body and/or mind are giving you a message that appears to be saying that you've had enough, it may be time to at least take a break.  

Effort toward something positive is generally a good thing. Yet, when effort is too strong to the extent that it causes mental or physical injury, or causes an accident of some kind, it is probably time to reassess your approach.  

In some sports, such as distance running, a "second wind" is achieved by relaxing, rather than trying harder. My father, when he tried running for a brief span in his forties, described the second wind as this: Things are getting increasingly difficult, and abruptly you let go of the tension, and the running becomes effortless.  

When I was a teen, someone once tried to tell me that "relaxation helps in a lot of things." At the time, I didn't absorb that. More forcefulness isn't always the answer.