Mental Health — The Perspective of an Optimizer

I’m an optimizer. I have the mindset of an overachiever in most things I take on. I mean, like.. almost everything.

If I’m working on a project, I’ll make sure to produce the best results I can and contribute with the things I believe brings the most value.

If I’m buying a new camera ahead of this amazing trip I’m going on, then I’m researching cameras for four days straight. Cool, I found the camera I want and I order it. Oh, it’ll take five days for it to arrive? Great, then I’ll spend 14 hours watching YouTube videos on photography to prepare myself for its arrival.

I’m doing the dishes? I know in what order to place the cutlery in the sink for it to be as effective as possible.

I’m going to the store to do some grocery shopping? I know which way to take to the store to make up at least 20 seconds compared to the alternative.

I come up with the idea to write a blog post about my experiences and thoughts on the increasing problems of mental health? Yeah, you can bet that I listened to two different podcasts about blogging and influencing while I was at the gym this morning.

Does this kind of mindset bring any results?

Sure! I’ve had a VR-project I worked on called “the best demo at the entire convention!” when a few friends and I represented our University at Comic Con in Stockholm.

I had been doing photography for about three weeks when I took this picture while driving down Highway One with two out of the just mentioned friends.

…and you already know my dishes are fkn flawless.

What about consequences?

Yep, I was on a sick leave the entire fall of 2017 due to exhaustion syndrome. I’ll be at least 18 months overdue with my final degree at University and as of writing this post I’m still on a prescription of sertraline to help me recover.

Your reaction might be ‘But I thought you said that you’re an “optimizer” and that you had your shit together?’ and that’s probably what I thought as well. I had a bunch of exciting projects going on, I was providing a lot of value to the people around me and I was getting rewarded in gratitude and amazing friendships etc. I was attending all the social events, hosting additional ones, taking on voluntary work and new projects parallel to my advanced studies. Don’t get me wrong, I was managing it and I loved it but I forgot about one thing. The most important thing, myself.

I wasn’t listening to the signals that I was reaching my personal limit. When the activities I previously found energizing and exciting became dull and a burden I simply moved on to another activity or just added a new project to engage myself with to keep myself going.

So what happened? I had an emotional breakdown. From nowhere.

I was probably in the happiest period of my life. I had recently met my girlfriend. I had just traveled the US for a month with amazing people. I came home to Sweden and started working on a really interesting project/concept of locomotion in Virtual Reality along with some of my closest friends. I was invited to a casting for a model agency and I was really happy with my situation and my life. I’m not going to downplay it, I was absolutely buzzing.

Then one evening, my friends and I were chilling in the beach house we lived in while working on our project, watching some random YouTube videos of some topic we thought was funny at the time and I had queued up some more to keep it going. Nothing special. One of my mates then accidentally interrupted the current video we were watching and at the same time deleted the queue of videos I had spent like five minutes setting up (I know right) and I just snapped. Like, I got “WHAT the F are you doing!!!?!?”-mad, on a flip of a coin.

It just took a second or two for me to realize that I had severely overreacted but instead of just calming down and maybe laugh at my weird reaction it got weirder.

I started crying. And I had no idea why.

I went to the room I slept in and I closed the door to try and get some distance from what just happened but I just kept crying. I cried for probably three hours straight, having no idea why I was upset. I called my girlfriend who was at home in Stockholm but I couldn’t explain it to her either.

I spent the next three weeks in bed or on the couch, eyes closed, listening to music or to whatever was on the TV (the olympic golf broadcast was salvation haha). The next six months was more or less the same but with ~ a few “productive hours” per week. Now, almost two years later, I’m almost back to being myself but I’m still on medication. For what? Exhaustion Syndrome and a depression with that.

No one around me saw that coming beforehand, and I definitely didn’t.

I took this selfie with my friends just a few days before I hit my limit, totally oblivious and high on life.

So what ACTUALLY happened? The Science.

The brain is an amazing thing. It controls all our motor functions, conscious and subconscious. It enables us to think, reflect, take perspective on things, plan, act, react and be proactive.

It has also evolved the ability to push itself just that extra bit when it feels it’s needed. Increasing its stress levels for a short period of time to achieve the best outcome possible. It has evolved this behavior through centuries, making the difference of life and death when we were hunting for food. Or life and death when we had to react quickly when escaping a forest fire etc. It’s an extremely powerful feature and it’s not negative in itself.

However, in today's society our values have changed. The most important things in life isn’t finding food or escaping the challenges of nature. Instead we grow up getting conditioned to think that the most important thing is to build a career. One should be successful, productive, attractive, wealthy, talented, inspiring, driven… the list goes on. Oh and all this has to be visible on social media as well. And there you’ll also get reminded of the amazing progress everyone else is doing with all the same goals that you’ve set for yourself. And while you’re working on all these goals you’ve set for yourself you also have the expectations from the people in your proximity, your friends, your peers, your colleagues and probably most significant: your family.

It’s not that your family is trying to put pressure on you or that they want to stress you out. They’re just trying to help, they love you, they want the best for you. BUT, they do it from their perspective and they’re projecting the conditioning that they learned when they grew up. “One should get a proper education so that one can get a proper job”. While this definitely isn’t an awful idea, it’s no longer a fail safe way and it’s definitely not the only way to get somewhere in life.

Back to the brain and what the consequences of all these expectations are. The ability to increase stress levels evolved for the purpose of achieving one task, a make or break situation, in some cases life and death. When the situation passed, the hormone sertraline made sure that the stress level decreased to its normal level and the brain functioned at the normal level. Today we have an abundance of activities that we put loads of energy into, resulting in the stress levels of the brain being pushed up way more often, and putting a lot more strain on it. A telling fact is that the word priority didn’t exist in plural before the 1900s.

With all these different catalyzers of stress, more sertraline has to be exerted to maintain the balance in the brain. If then more and more catalyzers are added on, and there’s no time for recovery and cooldown in-between the sertraline levels in your brain will get depleted. What happens next is that much like an engine that’s been overheated for too long, or a graphics card that has been overclocked without the sufficient cooling support, it shuts down to protect itself. That’s what happened to me when I had my emotional breakdown, one reaction pushed me over the edge, the last drop after years of sustained high stress levels, completely overlooking the strain my priorities had on my mental health.

What should one take away from this article?

I’m not going to preach about changing your life, moving to a distant cabin and spend 4 hours every day meditating. I’m simply asking you to not completely overlook the way that your habits, priorities and values have an effect on your mental health.

Stress in itself isn’t a bad thing. The thing that’s bad is the consequences of maintaining a high stress level over a sustained period of time.

What one needs to do to take care of ones mental health is simply put:

  1. Give the brain opportunity to lower its stress levels, aka. give your brain a break. It doesn’t have to be major changes, it could be taking a 40 minute walk now and again to clear your mind. Or keep a routine where you don’t schedule any activities on Thursday nights, your brain will learn this and it will know that rest is coming.
  2. Decrease the number of stress triggers.

It is important to note here that by decreasing the number of stress triggers I’m once again not telling you to necessarily do less activities, but I’m asking you to take a step back and question the importance of the activities and priorities you have.

When you’re running to catch the train on the subway, question the importance of not having to wait five minutes to take the next train if you had missed it.

When you’re super stressed out and nervous as you’re heading to that job interview or casting opportunity. Remind yourself that you don’t have the job they’re offering before you step into the room, so you really don’t have anything to lose. You’re just there to tell or show them what you have to offer, it’s in their hands to take a decision if you’re a match for what they’re looking for.

When you’re chatting/texting/emailing/messaging this person, it could be a business opportunity, it could be someone you’re interested in or someone else. Either way, he or she hasn’t responded in a while. You’re getting anxious that you said something wrong, maybe done something wrong, forgot to do something, or maybe he or she doesn’t like you!?

Chill. Perhaps he or she is busy with whatever. Maybe they’re distracted due to stress, they have an upcoming job interview or they’re trying to catch the train. Don’t over-analyze their lack of responses.

Lets even say that the reason of lackluster communication is that the person doesn’t like you. Does it really matter? In the grand scheme of things. Is it worth triggering your life-and-death-situation brain feature because of it?

Put your priorities into perspective. Help others put their priorities into perspective. Talk about the stuff that’s on your mind, explain what you’re feeling and you’ll have an easier time answering if its really worth getting yourself worked up for.

The thing that I had the biggest problem with and the one thing that put the most strain on my mental health was my University studies. Not the studying itself, but the feeling of never being done and not having a separation between my working life and my private life. As an optimizer I want to perform my best with whatever challenge I take on and when you go to University you’re a student from the minute you’re enrolled until you’re graduated. This led to the behavior and thought process that no matter what I was engaged with, I always had, in the back of my mind, “I could be studying right now”.

Instead of acknowledging that this was a problem in my mentality I filled my “free” time with activities that I either could argue also brought me value and was worth my time or I occupied myself with things that were distracting enough to suppress the anxiety I felt when I wasn’t studying.

Why didn’t I question my mentality? Because I didn’t know anything about mental health. I remember in junior high school when my arts teacher went on a sick leave due to depression and my reaction was something a long the lines of “Oh, that’s too bad, I like her. I wonder what makes her so sad..”.

Before I got my exhaustion syndrome I had no idea what a depression actually meant and the implications of it. I had no idea of the sheer panic of having to plan more than five minutes ahead due to your body screaming that you have to rest. I had no idea that lying in bed and listening to music was an activity and an effort. I honestly didn’t know that depression and exhaustion had a correlation with chemical imbalance in the brain.

I’m fully aware that there are individuals that are actively advocating that “Depression is a choice” and I don’t doubt that their ignorance, lack of knowledge and the threat of something unfamiliar makes them believe that. It’s most likely the same kind of people that vote for xenophobic parties and protest against gay marriage.

This is why I feel that it’s important that we share our experiences and why I decided to write this blog post in the first place. I’m not trying to sell a product or promote a brand. I just think that it is important to spread awareness about mental health, that we talk to our peers and make them aware of the consequences that could come from disregarding it. It is important that we’re available as support to those who need it, both the ones who have already pushed themselves to far, and the ones that are too caught up to notice what might come.

I encourage you to discuss how you feel. The feelings that are the hardest to put into words, are the ones that will help you find a better perspective when you express them. If you don’t have anyone to talk to or you prefer to talk to someone you don’t know, my dm’s on instagram @ ericbq are open, slide right in. I truly want to emphasize the importance of investing in yourself. You might feel that there are individuals around you that are more important but to use the airplane analogy, if you don’t help yourself first, you might not be able to be there when the others need you either.

If you recognize some of the patterns that I’ve described, either in yourself or in someone close to you, don’t disregard it. Talk to people close to you, make an effort and question your and their perspectives.