Signs that Something's Wrong| 973 words
I’m interested in making sure that I can do productive labor, such as thinking and writing. Often, when I find myself unable to function at peak performance, it’s because one of my basic needs hasn’t been met - I haven’t been sleeping well, am dehydrated, etc. Due to a frustrating design flaw, I do not have direct access to those needs. As such, I have often found myself relying on a series of indicators to check if I’m functioning properly. Similar to how a barometer might tell you that it’s going to rain tomorrow, I hope that these indicators will tell me when the current way I’m living my life is unsustainable.
The primary indicator is that the current way I feel is detached from the things that usually control my feelings. For instance, I might feel lonely, even though my social life has not objectively changed. Another thing that commonly happens is that my tolerance for mistakes in others and myself becomes very low, resulting in me being much more irritated than usual.
More specifically, I watch out for feelings/moods that “don’t make sense” in the usual picture of how my life works, i.e., that can’t be traced to an apparent cause. If I notice that I’m tired, I think about how well I’ve been sleeping. If I stayed up late the previous night, then I move on. If I think I’ve been sleeping well the past few days, then alarm bells start going off. Other common feels/moods that don’t make sense are:
- Being more irritated at things than usual.
- Being lonely even though I often have company.
- Being uninterested in doing many things.
- Feeling very lethargic.
- Feeling like I want to time-skip, i.e. actively distract myself just to get through the day.
- Feeling vaguely anxious.
- Not being able to fall asleep.
When one of these feelings occurs and doesn’t seem to have an obvious explanation, I start looking for subtler explanations. Sometimes I feel vaguely anxious before realizing that I consumed a relatively large dose of caffeine earlier in the day. Sometimes I can’t fall asleep before realizing that I took a stimulant like 10 hours ago, and it might still have effects. Hopefully, I’ll be able to find something. Sometimes that thing will point to a problem that I can fix, e.g., if I haven’t drank water in several hours. Sometimes, however, I won’t be able to easily figure out why I’m feeling the way I’m feeling.
In the best case, the thing that happens next is I start listing possible things that have been going wrong and try to see if it’s any of those things. This list usually begins with food, water, sleep, exercise, sunlight, and social activity. I can’t recall a time when it hasn’t been one of those things. I’m not sure what I would do if I felt pretty bad and had been consistently getting good amounts of all of those things. Probably talk to a friend or schedule a call with a therapist.
Once I have a reasonable guess as to what I’ve been missing, I try to take an action that will meet that need, e.g., take a nap, go for a walk, drink some water, etc. Then I think about how my life is structured and try to rearrange it to get more of that thing. Right now, I get (I think) enough of all of those basic needs by default, so I haven’t had to do any rejiggering in a while.
In the more realistic case, the badness of the current situation is enough that it’s relatively hard to think about why I’m feeling the way I’m feeling. I don’t have a good thing to do in these situations. I think I would benefit from having a habit that went something like “if you feel kinda bad, pull up a document and start writing about what’s going on in your brain and body” or “call a friend and talk to them about what’s up.” I don’t really like talking about my feelings with other people, so I’ll probably try to go with the writing thing.
It’s also plausible that the correct move in this situation is to just do whatever you want until you have enough energy to think about what’s happening with you. I’m not sure how to balance “feeling bad is a problem that you should fix” and “sometimes humans just feel bad, and that’s okay.” My guess is I currently endorse some combination, which is painfully underspecified because all of the relevant bits are in how to make the tradeoff.
To close, I will share an anecdote that drove home the need to systematically figure out what was wrong. About a month or so into quarantine, I was feeling pretty tired. I had been sleeping pretty well, so I wasn’t sure what was going on. I told my mother (who I was living with at the time), and she recommended that I go outside and get some sun. I thought this was a ridiculous suggestion, but I have learned that my mother is often right about things that can be learned with life experience (who knew?) so I went outside anyway (pro tip: try things, especially if they’re cheap, recommended to you by someone with experience, and could potentially solve a relatively large problem). After standing outside in the sun for about 10 minutes, I felt much better. It turns out that humans are solar-powered! Because I’m dumb, I didn’t even have “I’m tired because I haven’t been getting enough sunlight” among my guesses.
In being systematic about figuring out possible reasons for bad feelings, I hope to avoid situations in which I feel bad for extended periods because I wasn’t able to think of an obvious fix like “stand outside for 10 minutes a day.”