When was the last time life felt like your balloon was ready to burst?
How did you let air out of your balloon?
This two-minute video explains the bulk of mental illness symptoms as overwhelming life complexity using the balloon metaphor. Watch for a simple explanation of a complicated topic affecting roughly one in four people in your life at some point.
What we might label “mental illness” often arises from high complexity in our lives like multiple catastrophes (the death of a loved one, a severe personal illness, losing your job, a relationship ending, etc). This trend of suffering leads to feeling like life will become harder. While the symptoms may seem like mental illness, classic mental illness in these circumstances is rare. A person feeling this high complexity is like a balloon ready to burst. Whatever is genetically weakest in the person (physically, mentally, etc) will eventually break as more and more complexity piles up. I’m not a trained psychologist, but I’m assuming the differentiation between complexity and classic mental illness is important because mental illness is much more difficult to treat effectively. People with high complexity have more hope of a good outcome when given effective treatment to manage through this challenging period.
Method #1 – Escape the Negative Narrative
Understanding the relationship between mental illness and life complexity is a key start towards improving outcomes when you’re in a difficult situation. Now how do we reduce complexity? One tool is escaping the negative narrative by expecting the unexpected. We can’t predict everything that might oxygenate our balloons like cancer, accidents, emotional catastrophes, but we can think differently about these events. When bad things happen, we might think ‘Why me?’ I’ve said that with diabetes, insomnia, and my parents dying. Maybe I’d think “Why me?” if something that severe happened again. But now when something bad happens I think “probability and statistics” which is my reminder that life has down moments. It’s more comforting thinking that nothing bad will ever happen. But I know that similar bad things will happen again. I will feel pain. The universe isn’t conspiring against me.
Given that severely bad things happen a dozen to a few dozen times over our lifetimes, eventually a few will happen in a single year (maybe even a week) like the sad red faces in the chart below. We label it “bad luck”, “Murphy’s Law”, “misfortune in threes”, or again for me it’s “probability and statistics”. When those red frowny faces show up I might tell myself a story about how it’s all connected, but as the chart shows at the bottom I now expect the occasional rollercoaster reality.
This is a chart of generalizations of my outlook on life at different phases with the Teenage me expecting all sunshine and unicorns, early Adult me preparing for some ups and downs but mostly ups, and slightly Wiser me expecting to periodically hold on for dear life.
Storytelling our lives is our default mode, but connecting those dots is the beginning of mentally graphing a trend that catapults us into the complexity mire the video described. So stop connecting the dots. If there’s an obvious connection, then it’s worth reflecting on that relationship. If we’re creating a narrative, then our storytelling mind is creating more harm than benefit.
What stories have you created recently?
Method #2 – Unlabel Everyday Events
How was your day? “Good”
How was your day? “Bad”
How was your day? “Twenty-four hours long, slept well, solid start with burpees, stretching, and meditation, tasty coffee, a smiling dog, slow drivers in the rain, problems at work, beans, eggs, and sweet potato lunch, mo’ coffee, mo’ problems, heavy traffic, hard CrossFit workout, a little writing, a little reading, dinner fit for a king with my queen, good chat, tv and stretching, collapse.
Normally, I’ll just say “good” because you don’t want to hear all that but I’m not a fan of binary labels for the events in my life. Like food choices, it’s just not that simple. Events aren’t good or bad. They’re just events. Even the days when someone dies, I appreciate the people remaining even more. I’m with Shakespeare on this one.
Nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. – Shakespeare
How was your day?
Other Complexity Mitigation Techniques
How else do I let air out of my balloon of complexity? Exercise, meditation, eating well, socializing, learning and experiencing new things, and the power-ups described here. But disconnecting the negative narrative of events in life and not labeling my days removes the oxygen source from my balloon. The last two avoid creating stories and associations that don’t exist independent of my own mind.