With the words “over the limit” and “bar” put together like this, it does sound like I’m about to discuss alcohol consumption but I’m not! Actually, what I’m talking about is feeling “overwhelmed”. This is a word I’m coming across more and more in my reading and general exploration of “reasons why” the human race reacts as it does to the stresses of modern living – the distinct feeling I’m getting is that, at this point in time like no other in history, with ever-increasing regularity and at an ever-younger age, we are all reaching our limit.
So, what happens when we get there? In my experience a whole gamut of behavioural traits kick in which – again according to my reading of “Thresholds of the Mind” (Bill Harris) – can be loosely categorised under the headings “dissipating”, “blocking” and “distraction”(*). The first of these involves pushing the stresses away by any means at our disposal to temporarily relieve the pressure: crying, anger, physical activity, talking and so on. The second is a sort of self-defence through isolation achieved by shutting down, become depressed or even ill. The third is one we are all more than familiar with: taking our mind off the stress with alcohol, drugs, shopping and numerous other activities that may even begin to contribute to the problem.
Then when those mechanisms begin to creak under (or indeed contribute to) the strain, a saturation point is reached and we become ill. Thus we have fibromyalgia, ME, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, feeling like we are living in a perpetual state of having the flu and a whole host of health conditions and mystery symptoms that are becoming ever more rife in our frenetic twenty-first century world.
The theory seems to be that the earlier you experience some sort of crisis, high-rating emotional turmoil or major upheaval, the lower your emotion threshold is set in terms of being able to cope with other “normal” stresses later in life. This may seem a little odd; after all, the more you work a muscle, the stronger it gets and there is some truth in that, with emotions too. But we’re not talking about mental strength or “ability to cope” at a conscious level, indeed I’m an exceptionally strong person, if measured by how much I’ve been through in my time without losing my way, my sense of self or my core optimism. No, what we’re talking about here is reaching an emotional threshold below the surface of the conscious mind, a point where our panic-alarm goes off at the slightest provocation, an over-reaction that causes your body to go into “fight or flight” mode, which means it starts calling in all of the heaviest-duty coping mechanisms at its disposal, at deepest-cellular level – those that are really designed for firefighting big crisis situations, an onslaught of the most threatening kind. Muscles and myofascia tense and freeze, adrenalin and an array of other chemicals flood, allergies and over-reactions to substances in our physical world suddenly arise and then actual physical changes take place in the longer term, triggering an array of health issues due to the fact our bodies are simply not designed to sustain a state of super-arousal over such long periods. Every situation, every stimulus from the outside world, however mild, risks triggering such an over-reaction. Its like calling in the fire brigade for a small fire in a bucket when a jug of water would have done.
In short, a series of genuinely threatening events in life result in this lowering of the emotional threshold and so the alarm keeps going off all the time now, like a car alarm triggered by the wind. And an over-zealous emotional trigger can lead to a complete breakdown of health in the long run as the body ends up running itself to exhaustion point at a very deep level and in ways (and with resulting symptoms) that we are still struggling to fully document or comprehend – though I’ve noticed that there’s far more information out there than was available just a couple of years ago, as people compare their stories and trigger more and more research into this. Yet its far from mainstream: when confronted, GPs seem to know little or often nothing about any of this, in fact mine recently phoned me for advice about a patient! It seems to affect all of us to some extent, ranging from those who experience the occasional stress migraine to the worst cases where people become too ill to function. And the one thing that all these people have in common is the experience of feeling occasionally – or chronically – overwhelmed; by work, by stress, by LIFE.
A conundrum remains in terms of why experiences early in life can have this long-ranging effect. It could be that “chemical” changes take place when a child is put under stress that then take far longer to reverse than the person takes to recover from the causal event. It interests me that one thing fibromyalgia, ME/chronic fatigue and SAD have in common is lowered cortisol levels – and whilst we tend to associate high cortisol with “stress”, we all require a certain amount of it in our system, especially first thing in the morning, in order for us to get up and get going with our lives; in effect, so we can cope with life and function in the world. A new study has now brought to light a likely link between childhood trauma and the lowered cortisol that can lead to chronic fatigue and makes fascinating reading.
I’m interested in all of this (you’ve guessed it) because I am one of those low-threshold people. Its something that has affected my life profoundly, especially over the past few years during which I’ve experienced the chronic health issues of the type I’ve referred to; fibromyalgia and myofascial pain – relentless back and muscle pain that simply doesn’t seem to get any better. A plus point is that it encouraged me to pursue my art full-time, a no-brianer lifestyle decision given the amazing health benefits that I have discovered to be a side-effect of giving myself over to “the zone” on a daily basis (more on that later). However, I’ll be honest, trying to identify what, if anything, had lowered my emotion threshold so profoundly in the first place was a struggle to begin with because, on the face of it (whilst I’ve been through bucket-loads of trauma in my adult life and have tended to point the finger at all that as the cause of my ill-health!), I consider that I had a happy childhood, a loving and supportive family, an uneventful school and university career and then – bam – health issues began to creep in when I reached adulthood, starting with glandular fever just a year into my first job and culminating in illness severe enough for me to gave up desk-work and switch to something far more adaptable to my health-fluctuations half a decade ago. I’ve tended to assume that it’s all down to genetics; maybe I was just made “highly strung” and less able to cope with our stressful modern world than other people. More recently, I have begun to wonder if it wasn’t earlier events that set me up for a much later “crash” when adult events pushed me over the limit, making my fall much harder and long-lasting, the effects so much more profound.
On rooting around a bit deeper, I have had to admit to myself that I became “a worrier” quite early on in my childhood and would then ruminate on whatever issue was dominating my mind at the time beneath the surface of my otherwise “normal” childhood. We tend to think of worrying as the domain of adults and that childhood should be largely worry-free, certainly nothing more profound than getting schoolwork done on time and that sort of thing. However, I have identified three major trends of worry that dominated my childhood; were these really enough to seriously impact upon my overall feeling of wellbeing beneath the surface of my childhood? I now wonder if these had more impact on the positioning of my emotion threshold than I had previously realised – could I be about to demonstrate that this threshold-theory holds water?
I’m not trying to be overly-autobiographical here except in so far as I want to demonstrate a point but, for me, three currents of fear underlay my childhood and were sufficient for me to be able to say I was often – if not always – ruminating about something that was (as I saw it) a serious threat to my wellbeing. The first I have dealt with in another post; I was bullied at school and – as is typical of most children in that situation – saw “no way out” of my situation when I was in it. The second is that my dad – with whom I was really close prior to this event although we seemed to drift apart afterwards – had a heart attack when I was about 8 or 9, following which all I ever seemed to notice about him was his detriorating health. I know that, from then on, my reality was that I expected him to die whenever it was that he had the “next one”; a horrible thought to have hanging over your childhood (in fact, he died when I was 20). The third is that the times I was growing up in (the 1980s) and the fact I had an active and very vocal CND-supporting brother conspired to make me believe that world-ending nuclear holocaust was not only a threat, it was imminent and I became a worrier about this in a way that I know would be hard to explain to anyone too young to recall the Cold War. I should add that my own internal map of reality, that unique spin on the world that we all develop as a result of our parenting and early-life experiences, was probably skewed in the way of a worrier as my dad was the world’s worst worrier all of his life and I grew up with that attitude all around me. In effect, I became like Chicken-Licken; these things that happened to me were like acorns falling on my head and I think I spent much of my childhood wandering around expecting the sky to fall in at any moment!
And what you expect to happen becomes your reality, in one way or another, a bit like Chicken-Licken whose fears made him walk straight into the path of the fox.
Which is the key to why childhood experiences are so very key – they set up all of our expectations of life, sometimes (unless we manage to consciously change the way we think) for the whole of the rest of our lives! Which is why, whatever the environment a child grows up in, they deserve for it to be one of “safety” and where they are protected from unnecessary fear-mongering. The first realisation that you are not fundamentally “safe” – but with all the added vulnerability of being a child and so feeling you can do little or nothing about it – is the biggest trauma a child can face; like someone living in a giant’s world, confronted by scenery that is just too big to take in properly, some of the stresses that would daunt an adult can literally dwarf, and so totally overwhelm, a child’s emotional wellbeing. Based on my own experiences, I can’t help wondering how the news of today, filled as it is with doom-laden predictions of the future, is impacting upon some of the more attentive children who are likely to pick up on this, especially those with parents who discuss their own darkest fears out loud, forgetting how much children absorb from their environment. The moral of the story: we should do far more to protect our children from “too much information, too soon” and it is a failure to do so that is contributing to an epidemic of emotional-overload for these young people later in life. Sometimes stress or trauma is simply unavoidable; life (or death) simply happens, even to the very young. However, we should try not to add to this by shocking children into adulthood with information they are not emotionally equipped to deal with, so pushing them to their emotional threshold during their formative years. The trend for honesty and openness to the nth degree with our children is often to blame (as well as a culture that saturates the airwaves with adult material in such a way as to make it unavoidable) and we can be more selective and balanced about what we share with them if we try. Good to encourage an awareness of the news when they get to a certain age but do we have to fill them with fears of total social meltdown, for instance? Worst-case scenarioing is something we do as adults to prepare ourselves to take on the tasks ahead but children are in a position of feeling they can’t do anything about the world they live in and so why put them through all that. To protect our children from what they do not yet need to know (or worry about) isn’t lying, it is simply doing our job as guardians of our children so that they can better cope with life as and when they become adults.
So, even though on the face of it my childhood was a happy one and my school-career successful, it seems in hindsight that my emotional limit was exceeded several times over by one event or another and as one all-pervading worry after another took a hold of my over-active imagination. Could it be that these events set me into such a pattern of worry that my emotional threshold bar was jolted from its supports and caused to crash down to a much lower setting so that when the challenges of adult life kicked in, I found I had already reached my saturation point?
Certainly I’ve got a track-record of reacting badly to stress (although, in fairness, I’ve been through some pretty rough times). Yet the irony is that it’s not usually the biggest stresses that I react to but, often, the smaller ones! In fact, at the times that I have been in the thick of some of life’s worst stresses, I have always coped and “got on with it” more than amply, my coping mechanisms (yes drink, diversion, etc etc) have kicked in and I’ve fought tooth and nail to survive, to come out intact. When I was bullied and badly manipulated (again) in my first marriage, I got out and I survived in the face of all the many obstacles that were thrown in my way. It’s in the aftermath of coping – months or even years later – that the damage hits me; when I’m back on calmer waters. It’s as though my emotional health has already reached saturation point and so the slightest additional stress becomes “the straw that breaks the camel’s back” – just as a light shower of rain can cause a flood if the ground is already saturated from rainfall that has already accumulated beneath the surface. Again, this seems to be a common experience of those who experience being overwhelmed and one that makes it all the more bewildering when it occurs since the reaction to stress doesn’t necessarily coincide with the causal event, making it all the harder to make an obvious connection; it just seems as though you are unwell for no apparent reason and people simply don’t take you seriously!
The long and the short of it is that we all have our emotional threshold and life’s experiences can move the bar down (significantly!), which then becomes the new limit of what we can cope with thereafter. The more mature we are when the first crisis occurs, the better we will cope with the inevitable stresses of life as we become adults. Can the bar be moved back up again? Well, finally, I believe it can, using a variety of methods, lifestyle changes (change your job, get outdoors more, do things you really enjoy…etc etc) and – in my opinion, the most effective by far – meditation or anything at all that takes you, regularly, into a place where you enter “the zone”, somewhere that is crisis-neutral, beyond thought and where the cumulative stresses of the past can be healed, the detonator taken out of them so that they become a row of empty shells rather than shelf-loads of live explosive that can “go off” at any time later, often without warning.
Going to such a place allows you to have a sort of spring-clean of your emotional self, like thinning out the contents of the attic. Yes, I still have all of my memories in tact and wouldn’t have it any other way; but they are no longer super-charged with the original emotion that I felt at the time and I increasingly find I can go through them like a stack of old photos, enjoying a chance to look at them again without having to feel exactly what it was like at the time. The more often you go to such a place, the stronger you become, the less the tangle of life’s continuous experiences accumulate and stockpile as fully-charged memories that you continue to react to without (most of the time) even realising you are doing it, determining your every emotional state like a ghostly imprint left by a past life that has long been water under the bridge.
Meditation as a priority part of my daily routine (and no you don’t have to take up yoga or wear orange robes to enjoy the benefits) really does all of this and more for me and I find the health benefits accumulate as my threshold gets higher and higher, my over-reactions to life occurring less and less. I literally feel as though I have more space in my head and my motivation and creativity have dramatically increased; I feel I have regained some of the playfulness and enthusiasm that I can recall from childhood. Ideas simply pop into my head, connections are made, I feel sharper, I see more detail in familiar things. Above all, I feel so much more “chilled”. The method that I use to achieve my daily deep meditation is an assisted one using Holosync technology but I won’t go on about that here as this is not a sales-pitch; if at all curious, you can Google it yourself as its creators are far better at explaining the benefits than I, plus there are loads of positive testimonials out there if you can be bothered to read them all; all I can say is that it really works for me.
At a gentler level, any creative activity in which you become totally absorbed can have a similar effect; in my own case, as I learned some time ago, painting is a very particular method by which I can enter deeply into “the zone” for hours at a time whenever I want to and at the same time as getting some work done – how brilliant is that!
Once there, in that place, I won’t quite say “the sky’s the limit” (although I’m not ruling it out) but certainly the emotional threshold is raised significantly higher than before and the need for coping mechanisms – excessive drinking, eating, whatever your pitfall – gets left by the way side (well, most of the time). Life will always dole out its stresses and it seems we are going to need to learn how to deal with these more than ever in the times to come. The funny thing is that the more I expand my mind with meditation, the more overridingly optimistic I feel in general, even in the face of the increasingly dreary news that is being thrown at us from the world at large. Perhaps it’s because I feel that, in some sense, what has happened in my own life is just a version, in miniature, of all that is happening right now on a global basis; the world as a whole has reached a point of being overwhelmed by its past experiences and is undergoing a breakdown of its economic health as well as a myriad of other symptoms affecting political stability and so on. So, as with me, perhaps things have to get worse before they can get much better and the choice the world must make is whether it is going to succumb to long-term chronic illness or, rather, is prepared to evolve, to expand its global mind and find a new way of existing by looking at “old” things in a new way, getting back in touch with nature and re-jigging its priorities into a more balanced state of being – with more than a touch of creativity thrown in for good measure.
I leave you to decide which way you think it will go but my money is on the fact that, with so many people simultaneously reaching an overwhelmed state we are ripe for change, a mass enlightenment – literally a global mind-expansion as we think ourselves and the planet back to better health. Here’s hoping…
*Category headings taken from “Thresholds of the mind” by Bill Harris of Centerpointe Research Institute