I ran across three amazingly cogent articles in the last few weeks. All strongly, though unintentionally, related. Here's the first (with one forward link to the next post about the other two articles).
Scientific American: Taming Stress
An emerging understanding of the brain's stress pathways points toward treatments for anxiety and depression beyond Valium and Prozac
Anxiety and depression are apparently both two possible (over-)reactions to stress (not that other things cannot contribute, but stress appears to be a major contributing factor). Opposite sides of a coin, these are my one-sentence summaries of the two conditions:
- anxiety is an over-generalized reaction that can trigger hyperactive fight-or-flight reactions even in the absence of a suitable stressor
- depression is a condition when the body gives up the fight externally, feelings of helplessness and acceptance of an ill-fate follow. Inwardly, the body may begin self-destructive internal conflict (e.g. ulcers).
Everyone experiences these conditions in some measured amount as we go through the trials and tribulations of life. The point when they become debilitating enough to be described as an illness is somewhat arbitrary. Reactions strong enough to be classified as an illness are not what primarily concerns the rest of my discussion here as I don't think I'm ill. But the pathways are the same, so the study driven to help those with medical need is interesting and enlightening to us all. (I am also personally interested in the depressive condition because I've friend(s) that took medication for depression. I won't talk more about that here though.)
So, now I get to my own personal, "Aha!" Those intense, persistent feelings of distress that I sometimes find driving me into a frenzied state of action are an anxiety reaction to stress. The stressors that appear to cause me the greatest, most long-lived, most easily-activated stress responses, even with the removal of actual stressful circumstances, involve friends and love-interests, um, particularly the latter. For whatever reason, I find I've a tendency to be moved towards anxiety rather than depression. Which can be a good thing because it can spur me to greater personal productivity and creativity. However, it can also be emotionally painful and draining, so it is not without significant price.
I've even found that the absence of anxiety can make me feel unmotivated and unproductive.
This makes for a complicated situation with regard to women. Here's the generalized, possible cycle that I imagine is possible:
- I'm single, pining for love in one way or another, and stressed about it. The stress flows over into other aspects of my life in the form of anxiety. But the anxiety gives me energy for creative productivity and self-improvement. At this stage, I know that having a relationship with the right woman will make me happy and that my creative productivity will be spurred by this happiness rather than the anxiety.
- I get what I think I want, woo-hoo, a really wonderful girlfriend and I'm happy to no end. :-)
- Eventually, like everyone, my happiness is not as long-lived and intense as I thought it would be (impact bias; my affective forcasting wasn't quite as perfect as I thought it would be) and I lack the productivity that I had prior to the relationship (loss of anxiety).
- So, I find the relationship feeling stagnant, and I think perhaps I should breakup so I can go back to my productive self and also find a relationship with the right woman, because "I know that having a relationship with the right woman...." See step 1.
- Lather, Rinse, Repeat.
Ultimately, it's very often only tangentially my own decision anyway. She, whoever she may be, has a lot of say in the situation. Perhaps she has very much the same dilemma (perhaps unconsciously)? Or perhaps she finds that being single and pining leads to unproductive depression rather than productive anxiety, so she is uninterested in ever not being in a relationship. I have heard tell that there are some people who always want to be in a relationship of some sort.
As far as relieving stress when I wish to, I think it'll be useful to remember and try to act upon avoiding the exacerbating factors that the article mentions:
- no outlet for frustration,
- no sense of control,
- no social support, and
- no impression that something better will follow.
The examples in the article were enlightening, particularly the volume control scenario. I think I've found myself in similar situations and I've wondered why I can turn music up loud for myself but find loud sound otherwise very trying.
Jogging or other intense physical activity that leaves me exhausted is my 'gnawing on wood' outlet. So, if upon receiving a phone call or email or some other missive, I suddenly announce that I'm going to go running (on a dark, rainy night in an unfamiliar city), then it's likely I just got some news that I find pretty intensely unsettling.