When to Pull Back When You’re Living With Mental Illness
by Mike Hedrick
Living with schizophrenia, it’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll come up against barriers, some of which may seem insurmountable. You’ll face tough days, weeks, months or even years, and all that pushing for some semblance of recovery or normalcy can easily overwhelm you. Stress is the light switch for symptoms of schizophrenia. As the stress starts to build, your paranoia can increase, you may start becoming obsessive and delusional and you can easily lose yourself in the midst of all these symptoms and find yourself in scary situations. When curve-balls come your way, you have to know how and when to pull back. In essence, you have to be conscious of what you’re feeling, you have to recognize your mind’s reactions to stimuli and be aware that the things you are experiencing are mostly in your head. Having a “wellness toolkit” filled with strategies that work for you will help you figure out your limits and gain an essential awareness of the maximum you can take without falling into delusion.
Pulling back is a complicated process. It requires a certain awareness of your situation and the things that have the potential to set you off. You’ll benefit from having a set of parameters and methods for combating paranoia and delusions and you must be present and mindful of your situation. There are things you need to have in place in order to pull back and sometimes, even with checks and balances well in place, it can be difficult– especially if you have responsibilities that require more mental focus and attentiveness than you feel comfortable with. I realize that not everybody has the freedom to take a step back from their obligations, but there are small things you can do to take some of the pressure off. Overall, though, you have to have certain things in place in order to find your balance.
First and foremost, recognizing your mind’s reactions to stressful or overwhelming stimuli is a skill that can take years to learn. Being self-aware and introspective enough to be conscious of the things happening in your head takes a good deal of trial and error. Part and parcel of living with schizophrenia is being cognizant of when you don’t feel right and knowing when your mind is telling your things that aren’t true. I wish I could say there was a textbook method for doing this, but there doesn’t seem to be a prescribed process for everybody, as everybody experiences things differently. For me; it’s a process. I try to be aware of what my mind is telling me. I could be walking down the street and feel a spike of paranoia about what the people whom I pass are thinking, but it only really registers as a feeling of fear. I have to name that fear and find the reason behind it to be able to move on and say, “Okay, Mike, this is a paranoid belief that those people thought you looked funny. It’s a function of your mind, it is not real.”
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The second thing you have to be conscious of in living with schizophrenia is your limit for taking on stressful stimuli. You will not know your limits automatically, but you will soon figure out what they are. Throughout your day-to-day, you’ll come upon situations that have the potential to spark your anxiety and paranoia, you’ll face things and people that have the potential to rupture your fragile fabric of stability and you’ll come up against situations that test you. This is true for anyone, schizophrenia or not, and you’ll find that you have limits that must not be breached. For me, these things include large, crowded places and work responsibilities that are over and above my comfort level. I know how easy it is for me to fall into delusions when significant expectations are placed upon me. I need to be aware of both my comfort level and the point at which I need to throw up my hands and escape the situation. That said; it’s perfectly acceptable if you need to take the time when you’re overwhelmed to gain a semblance of stability. Sometimes you have to to take a step back, pull back, and find your homeostasis. Of course, you can’t always escape a situation, especially if you’re at work. It may be a good idea to disclose your illness to your superiors. They may not understand, but there’s a good chance they will and will make arrangements for you to take the time you need. Even if you don’t disclose, you can probably take a sick day or at the very least, use your breaks to step outside, go to your car, take a walk or do anything that allows you to breathe deeply and sort out the situation in your head.
Finally, you have to have a set of tools, you have to have methods for dealing with the stress and delusions and paranoia when they appear. This is also something that comes from experience of living with schizophrenia. In personal growth work, and in safe places like therapy, we can learn strategies for dealing with the enormity of the things that come up in our lives, and put those strategies into our tool-kit. This tool-kit can include things like awareness, recognition, acceptance, breathing techniques, escape strategies, unwinding techniques and all manner of things that have the power to lessen the load on your shoulders in the midst of your crises. My favorite techniques include deep breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, taking a hot shower and getting a good sleep. I find that I usually feel much better in the morning after decompressing through sleep. Having tools that work for you is essential for dealing with crises that can and will come up for you.
Pulling back and regaining stability is complicated but recognizing when stress appears, knowing your limits and having the tools necessary to cope will help exponentially in the long journey of living with mental illness.