ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Inadequate Coping Skills

By Jack Bragen
Thursday May 16, 2013 - 03:33:00 PM

When someone, anyone, experiences emotional distress, they have an instinctive reaction to try to alleviate or get away from that. When someone with a severe mental illness experiences distress or perhaps painful emotions, they may have a lot of difficulty coping with it. 

Some persons with mental illness, not all of us, do not have good systems for dealing with the stresses of life or with emotional pain or distress. This could be one of the factors that caused getting ill to begin with. (This is not to dismiss the role of a genetic predisposition.) 

Overwhelming emotions can cause some persons with mental illness to become destabilized including when they are taking their prescribed medication. Some turn to illicit drugs in a misguided effort to somehow feel better. This causes them to embark on an entirely new set of problems. Others have different behavior problems which are a desperate attempt to obtain relief. 

When emotional pain is constant, it can cause the bearer to lose hope. The suffering of medication side effects (or that of depression, which can also be caused by some medications) can be unbearable and can seem to never go away. This can lead to despair, which can then trigger becoming destabilized. Becoming medication noncompliant may sometimes follow this. 

A person with mental illness may be triggered into a full relapse by an extremely upsetting event or series of events. When this happens, the relapse is sometimes delayed from a few weeks to a few months after the triggering event. I had a relapse in 1984, about three months after being held up at gunpoint (for eleven hours, alone) in a robbery at one of the supermarkets where I worked. 

Excessively strong emotions can be poisonous for someone with mental illness, especially if their stability is fragile to begin with. The death of a loved one can lead to becoming unstable, if the person can't handle the grief that comes with that. Jealousy can be destabilizing, if the person experiences that emotion strongly. Becoming too fearful can definitely trigger becoming paranoid. Excessive anxiety, which is its own symptom of mental illness, can lead to other symptoms. 

Once the symptoms of mental illness have been triggered, they in turn can cause a greater volume of painful, fearful or angry emotions, and these new emotions can cause becoming even more symptomatic. In this way, getting destabilized can snowball. 

Medication may work through lowering the "volume" of thoughts in general, even though the problem that needs to be dealt with may be local to one or two sites within the brain. This could be a reason why medications work so imperfectly, and also why medications, although they are often needed, can do a lot to make life more difficult. 

To deal with painful emotions, I have invented my own brand of meditation which for me works some of the time. Having a method of meditation that even sometimes works means that, when upset, my "will" is directed toward meditation. This, for me, is a very good path, when I could have otherwise been at a loss for how to deal with suffering. Most persons with mental illness may not be able to do meditation like this. I am lucky to have this coping skill. 

However, other coping skills can be taught to persons with mental illness, such as deep breathing or other methods in a psychotherapist's tool bag. Not all psychotherapists are evil, and I have met some who are quite good. When times are tough, a person with mental illness ought to take extra steps to take care of one's self. This could include getting extra support from family, friends and mental health professionals, getting plenty of rest, and not trying anything excessively difficult. 

When someone with mental illness gets closer to becoming well, oftentimes they have a lot more emotions that come up to consciousness, emotions that were previously dealt with by getting symptomatic. 

Learning healthy channels for dealing with painful emotions, the stresses of life, and painful truths is an important, long term step in progress toward some level of recovery. 

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As always, my books are available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle format, including but not limited to: "Instructions for Dealing with Schizophrenia-a Self Help Manual," and "Jack Bragen's Essays on Mental Illness." I can be reached with your comments at: