Mental illness often presents us with a mental chaos. Panic disorders disrupt the everyday flow of life with high anxiety; generalized anxiety disorders present falsities about what we should be afraid of. Bipolar disorder with the disorder of moods, and schizophrenia and psychotic symptoms generously give false beliefs. All of the above in some way disorganize the mind as well as everyday life, and it is often the chore of reigning it back in that helps in the battle against these disorders. Personally, I have most of the above. I have panic attacks as well as generalized anxiety disorder, along with bipolar 1 and paranoia. And I thought that I would share two of the structures that I use to keep my mind organized and also ask others to share how they keep the chaos reigned in.
Why is organization the focus of my attention? It may be especially puzzling when discussing coping with either highly localized events like panic attacks or broadly general symptoms like anxiety or paranoia. There are two reasons, a biological one and a pragmatic one. Biologically speaking, these three disorders all in some way are effected by the structure of the hippocampus. The region of the brain responsible in part for memory and responses to new events. It’s the latter that I find interesting. In a paper by VanElzakker a similarity between bipolar disorder and schizophrenia is found in the CA3 region of the hippocampus, the part responsible for the intake of new information. This area is abnormal in both disorders in similar fashions. Additionally, it is thought that the hippocampus is partly responsible for pathological anxiety. To me, this implies a tentative stance that control over novel experiences (ones outside of one’s normal life) ought to be controlled in some manner. This is where organization comes in. One needs to control the environment that one is in such that novel experiences are no longer new and unpredictable. Rather, they are part of the expected flow of daily life.
The pragmatic dimension of this is that organizing one’s thoughts and behaviors seems to work. Imposing order from the outside seems to get results on all these symptoms. It’s not a cure-all, but it can soften the edges, which is often good enough. So some of what is below are things that I’ve found for myself, and others suggested by my psychologist. There are two approaches that I’ve usually used to organize my mind, acclimation to environments and writing. These are just two that I use, but I’d love to hear more about how others do it too.
Acclimation to environments was suggested by my psychologist. It works in several ways. If I know that I’m going to experience something that may traumatize me or set off my panic, what I often do is try to get access to the location that it will be at. There I get comfortable with the surroundings as a place until it feels safe. I do this rather than simply taking on everything at once, new location, new experience. It can be too much. Rather, I organize my thoughts in such a way that the novel event is no longer so novel, it’s just a happening that occurs in a safe place. The other thing that I do is using locations as a way to organize my behaviors. For instance, I use the undergraduate lounge in the philosophy department as the locale for studying. My general apprehension about studying or writing tends to die down if whatever I’m working on is supposed to happen. So rather than being a usual mess of anxiety over what to do first, I have a location where everything will get done at some time. There, I no longer feel anxiety over getting things done. Instead it’s the place that I feel things get accomplished, so my thoughts are organized into that role automatically.
It takes some time to get used to an area. I often need to form a habit in order to organize my thoughts and associate them with a certain area. But after the habit is formed, it’s easy to keep it going. I simply go there and get it all done. My anxiety and depression dissipate by simply walking through the door. A downside to this is access and isolation. If I cannot get to the room, it becomes unexpected and I start to melt down. So selection is key to enforcing this.
Writing is the second thing that I’ve only recently discovered to be helpful even in times of high anxiety and mood swings. While sick recently, I experienced a lot of mood swings which is chaotic to say the least. Additionally I had a test that caused a lot of turmoil in my anxiety. It turned me into a wreck. My thoughts were racing every direction they could take. Everything from random things to be anxious about to self destructive thoughts about how much of a failure I was. But with writing I found that my moods calmed down and my thoughts were forced into an organized structure. Even with all the buzzing confusion, just starting to write whatever came into my head began the process of organizing the flurry into a coherent stream. At first, the writing was disjointed, but it organically came together as my thoughts became focused on what to write next.
It also distracted and coerced my anxiety into a structured format that I could explain to myself. The act of explaining my mind to myself proved to be just as useful as the organization of my thoughts. Writing was meditative in forcing me to reflect on everything that I was thinking and coming to a rational conclusion about what was happening. All these scary events that could throw me off became organized into a rationalized stream. It was wonderful, it took the edge off of everything that was happening and provided an outlet for the anxiety. It was also productive, I felt like I had accomplished something, which also boosted my spirits.
So I’ll leave it there with the two things that I do. It’s hardly a comprehensive or exclusive way of approaching organization. Rather, I’d like to hear what you do to organize your thoughts when they become the chaotic mess.
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I am always looking for ways to cope with my mental illness. You have hit on several things that I use as skills to maintain my stability as best as I can. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for sharing strategies you have found to be successful, hopefully others will as well. Writing I have used for sorting through and understanding my feelings long before I had any concept that that’s what I was doing, and as I have commented and posted (the former I believe on your blog, the latter on my personal blog) about, I use it in a very different way than you do. But that all goes back to personality type, and what’s important is that it’s helpful for the both of us. 😉
I think one of the best techniques I have learned it to not try much to “. . . keep the chaos reigned in.” I learned it the hard way, but for me hyper-focusing and worrying about my moods just makes them worse and more intense. This makes complete sense from a practical standpoint, worry begets worry in a vicious cycle, greater stress ensues, and the heightened stress gives you less ability to check your moods.
In a way, it’s kind of a longer term ‘acclimation to environment,’ only in this case the environment is your brain and body. If you allow your disorders to take you slightly out of your comfort zone, little by little that comfort zone enlarges until you find you are able to easily do things that before would have been struggles even doped on benzodiazepines.
Of course this is a highly individualized technique, and not for everyone. Even with the way it suits me, it took some severe pain and trauma to get where I am – and I do still need to reach for the Xanax from time-to-time. Just not nearly as frequently. 🙂