Catching the spiral before you spiral

This is an essay to my former and future self. This is an essay that I wish I had read 100 times before and an essay I will probably read 100 times in the future. This is an essay that—if I can get the damn, hard thoughts out PROPERLY, I can save myself SO MUCH PAIN AND SUFFERING. So…here is the essay (at least an attempt at articulating the ideas trapped in the nooks in my head right now).

I find (note that this my personal opinion, as is this whole blog!) that most things in my life that that happen suddenly actually happen relatively gradually, it is just that you (I) do not realize that there is a ~gradual decay going on (underground!) until BOOM, all of a sudden things change (and by then it is too late to do _anything_ other than react to the situation).

This is not a medical/mental health thesis and I have no evidence that this is how your brain works other than my own personal analysis (and psychoanalysis) of some of my limited experiences on earth. So do not take it as a law of physics—but do take it as an honest interpretation of how—random internet person—see the world around me (at least current version of me).

So what do you find in life that appears to be happening suddenly but in reality happened gradually, right from under your nose? I am going to focus on this essay on one particular vertical (described below), but you will notice that this phenomenon—the gradual<>suddenly relationship—is actually present EVERYWHERE. If you lean into this idea, you will find that all sorts of things: organisms, organizations, ideologies all tend to follow this “ghost curve” of sorts. We tend to view the world by the outcomes. We see the headlines and the outputs. The reality, generally at minimum, is that *things* are far more a function of INPUTS.

Inputs are all of the ~things leading up to the outputs. While it can be convenient to analyze the outputs, more often than not the right things to look at actually come far before the output. Anyways, I think this concept is best explained via diving into one vertical example.

So the example I have been thinking about recently has to do with “having a bad day.”

I will define a bad day, in this context, as the type of day that runs in GRAY. Let’s not confuse this type of bad day with just an “eh” day. An eh day is stepping on a piece of gum. This is not what I am talking about. I am talking about a really bad day. A really really bad day—a day that you remember for being bad.

These are the types of days where all the color evaporates from the air around you—life feels heavy and gloomy rather than vibrant and cheery. And you, you are the victim in this mode (not the agent, not the hero—but the loser). You slowly walk through the scene as a cynical character, slumping along. The glass is not just half empty, it’s fully empty (an oxymoronic phrase!). And you are a sloth, sliming your way through the world with blinders on—where they block out any ounce of positivity. You are depressed.

You ever have one of those days? If you do not know what I am talking about—kudos to you (I will say kudos to you but I actually think, and this is a big topic for another essay, that the BAD DAYS make the good days better. And that good is what? without the concept of bad? So good for you if you have _avoided_ the emotional depths of bad days. But I actually would not trade places with you. Bad days add richness to life. Add texture. Add depth. I would say that for a lot of my life I actually never had really ~emotionally rode the rollercoaster. I never really dove into the depths. I blocked that out. I was a stone. And then the floodgates opened. And while painful—extremely painful and disruptive I will emphasize—it added MORE color to life (not less).

I imagine most of you, though, know what I am talking about when it comes to bad days. You have been there (and by there, I mean likely alone, and feeling alone, on some sort of couch or desk or bed. TRAPPED IN YOUR HEAD).

Sometimes, those days turn into weeks and if you are especially unlucky, those weeks turn into a month and sometimes many months and sometimes you blink (or sleep a lot) and it turns out a whole year has gone by. Some people call this a slump or DEPRESSION. Let’s call this the spiral of doom. It’s not a fun name because it’s not a fun activity (well let’s be honest that Spiral of Doom is a kinda fun name at least for something SO depressing!). The spiral of doom starts with one bad day and those bad days just keep happening. Sooner or later, this becomes your new normal. And digging yourself out of this whole becomes an increasingly challenging exercise. It gets worse as it gets worse. And it gets harder to explain HOW HARD things are, because externally (unless you are experiencing visibly somatic symptoms), it is extremely difficult to communicate your pain with the outside world (increasing your feeling of aloneness).

This is the spiral. And yes, the spiral absolutely sucks. It can pause your whole life. It can suck the joy out of your life. It can derail your agenda. Your plans. Your excitement. Gone. In some jobs—like being a startup founder—getting caught in a spiral of sorts means the end of your company. Means the end of your momentum. Means the end of your identity (at least in your head).

The spiral of doom is a completely self inflicted wound. What I mean by that is that all the bad parts of the spiral happen entirely in your head. We cannot (entirely) control the world around us. Bad things will happen to us (and so will good things!). But we can tame the beast inside our heads to the extent that we can avoid RUMINATING on things and creating skewed versions of reality such that we are tormenting ourselves. Torment is a harsh word but the real word we are using here. Because that is how intense the emotions can feel.

And let’s call out this all sounds a bit dramatic. And that is because, for the person experiencing the spiral of doom, it is. But for the people reading about the spiral of doom, it is not. It is one of those FEELING BASED SENSATIONS that distorts reality. When you enter the spiral, you leave the logic world and enter the distorted EMOTIONAL LENS.

I write largely from experience. If you are reading the words off the screen and nodding your head, well hopefully you feel it in your heart (I, too, sometimes get trapped in the cognitive side of my brain. I would read this essay and be like LOGICALLY THIS MAKES SENSE. But this is not a logical exercise. Me, writing, is an attempt to translate my FEELINGS into words. So, as a reader, try to feel it (or don’t TRY, as that may disrupt the process, but LEAN INTO THE EMOTIONS. Surf the wave).

The thing is…and this is perhaps the main point of this essay so you can loop back to your logic side so you can really see what I am talking about (without being skewed by your emotional sunglasses): this spiral does not happen suddenly. The depression—not DSM 5 / clinically diagnosed depression to be clear—is not coming out of nowhere. The spiral is not inevitable. There are ways to set up life infrastructure such that you can prevent yourself from having these downfalls.

In other words, there are many mini inputs—you can totally control that will help you prevent falling down this hole. You can probably think of things you can do—maybe processes or activities or people to talk to or THINGS that you know will boost your mood, help you feel better, and help you restore what is called “wise mind.”

Wise mind comes from a type of therapy called DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy). I have done some DBT over the years (not necessarily my favorite thing for several reasons that I will save for another post.

Wise mind looks like this:

There is a natural human tendency to operate from a place of pure reason and pure emotion.  When we are viewing the world through either lens, we miss out on the big picture.  It can feel cold and lifeless to view events and relationships with nothing but logic and rational thought.  Conversely, it can feel chaotic and disorganized to view our lives from the perspective of pure emotion.  In order to live the most effective and balanced lives possible, it is advantageous to learn how to integrate reason with emotion.  This integration is “wise mind.”

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), presents three basic states of mind: reasonable mind, emotion mind, and wise mind. When operating from reasonable mind, we view the world rationally and pay attention to observable facts and phenomenon. You may notice that you are in reasonable mind if you feel somewhat detached from the situation and find yourself noticing the facts and planning future behavior based solely on observable knowledge.

When you are in emotion mind, you may experience an intense subjective state wherein logical thinking becomes difficult or cloudy. You may notice the facts, but find yourself distorting them or amplifying them based on your current emotional state. In emotion mind, it is difficult to remain objective and you may engage in behaviors that are solely driven by your subjective perceptions and internal emotional state.

Wise mind is the balance between reasonable mind and emotion mind… it is the “middle way.” The core sense of wise mind involves a deep sense of intuitive knowing. In this sense, intuition goes beyond reason and what is perceived by the senses (Deikman, 1982). This deep-seated intuition comes from an integration of “direct experience, immediate cognition, and the grasping of the meaning, significance, or truth of an event without relying on intellectual analysis” (Linehan, 1993, p. 214).

People experience wise mind in different ways. For some, it is that still, small voice within that knows what is best. You may not always listen to that voice, but it quietly persists in its truth and wisdom. For others, wise mind is experienced as a “gut feeling” of what is the best course of action to take. We all have the capacity to access wise mind and harness its pure and loving wisdom. When acting with wise mind, you are taking effective action and doing what is in your best interest. You may not always want to do what wise mind knows is best, but listening to wise mind is part of making the choice to lead a life of meaning and contentment.

Essay here

So the question for all of us is what practices can we set up—what is our list of inputs—that will help us return to wise mind. What is the hammer/glass thing we can break to put us back on the right track? Or better, what infrastructure can we proactively have in place to help us avoid going too far off the rails?

Everyone has unique answers to this question. And everyone perhaps should. There is no one way to experience life and therefore no one generalizable infrastructure that is best for everyone (unless said infrastructure was entirely adaptable, which it should be).

What’s funny, as a digression, is that for a large part of my life I viewed religion as a solution to spiritual belonging. While religion can provide that—I actually now think religion has a place in the world, perhaps even more meaningful place, as an answerer to the above prompt. Now, not for everyone—as religion can be restrictive, but in a lot of ways religions provide INFRASTRUCTURE and guiding principles for how to live (in such a way where you avoid the spiral of doom). Think about it. I am most familiar with judaism but I imagine you can generalize this to other sects and groups of people.

In judaism, you are suggested to:

  • Spend lots of time with family and friends on Shabbat
  • Not use technology every day of the week
  • Eat ~healthy and clean foods (via Kosher)
  • Spend time every day meditating (talking to yourself and god via prayers)
  • Do a longer meditation on the weekends
  • Marry someone from your community who shares the same values as you
  • Have a kid to help you add purpose to your life
  • Belong to a community where people share your values
  • Sing songs often
  • Dance on important holidays with your friends

I mean…this is not a particularly crazy list if I were to bet on the category of things that you can put in place, infrastructure wise, to help you live a happier life. Could the list be updated? Very likely so—I have some ideas below, that would work better for me at minimum, but still, it is not THAT FAR from what I could imagine.

Anyways, so what would be on your list?

I think of the list below almost like a guide, to myself, to prevent bad days from becoming bad weeks. I think more people should write this guide. You do not have to publish it of course, but even writing this I think will help to some capacity. Aside is that this should be part of the curriculum/onboarding to the mental fitness center.

So anyways, here is at least a version of my list:

  1. Reminder to yourself that having bad days is not necessarily a bad thing. There are no mountains without valleys. There are no high points without low points. A bad day is a human thing and you can accept that part of life.
  2. You can experience bad days. You are not a toddler. Bad emotions can happen to you and you will be okay. You do not need to run from them. Reminder that you are not a victim. You get to control how to respond. Just because you are having a bad day, does not give you the ability to run away or blame the world around you. You are not a victim—remember that all heroes overcome obstacles. Remember that you can choose positivity.
  3. As part of this, remind yourself that you do not need to make any decisions today. This is probably the most important part. If it’s a bad day, and you are in a bad mood—try not to react. You do not need to send that text message or that email. Wait a day. Sleep on it. There is no need to turn one bad moment into a bad episode. Just wait. It is frustrating and annoying, but just wait. Talking in person helps too. Just give it some time. There is no logic to this—you believe in what you are going to say. But if you just trust yourself that you will give yourself 24 hours before responding to someone. It can make a really big difference. Notice when you have your blinders on to avoid spinning out into an emotional storm.
  4. Make sure you work out (do physical fitness) every day. No matter if you are having a good day or a bad day. Make sure you work out. If you do not work out for a few days in a row, you increase your likelihood of having a bad day. If you are having an especially bad day, you will be tempted to not work out. This will create a loop. This is avoidable. Get outside and do something active. The first 5 minutes will suck. But no matter what, once you get going, you will start to feel better 5 minutes later. This is guaranteed. As dark as the moment is right now, you have never, in your entire life, ever ever ever REGRETTED working out. Think of how miraculous that is. Get outside. Go workout. It is the single best thing you can do. Your body and mind are linked. Do it.
  5. Make sure you are eating right. Again, if you are having a bad day, you may be tempted to eat unhealthy or overeat. Avoid that temptation. It will make you feel worse later on. You know this from experience. It is not about eating not enough food. You should eat enough. But just eat healthy. You can eat unlimited chicken breast and vegetables. More carbs will not make you feel better. Dairy will not make you feel better. You know this—remember the stomach aches. Make sure you are eating right and drinking lots of water.
  6. Call your friends. The real ones. You know who they are. Call the one you have not spoken to in a while. But you know they are there for you. You are lucky. You have lots of great friends. Not average friends but great friends—people who really care about you. Call them. Meet them in person. Honestly give them a hug. Sounds weird but is true. Texting won’t really help. You will try, but it won’t really help. You need to hear their voice. You are not alone. You feel alone. But you are not alone. And you can prove that to yourself—enter reality by talking to your friends. Believe it or not, you are not the first person in the history of the world to go through hard times. Others know what it feels like.
  7. I hesitate to say “do nots” but there is at least one you should really pay attention to: Do not try and logic your way out of this. You are going to really try to do this. I am sure of it. You are going to try to map things out. Where did I go wrong? What could I have done better? Stop. The logic won’t help. Accept that. It sucks. But accept that. You have tried this before. You have written tens of thousands of words about this. You will not be able to logic it. Why? Because you have an emotional blindspot. It is annoying when people tell you that — you’re like, yo! Where is the blindspot? I have mapped it all out. Show me! You are begging. You are desperate. And this is exactly why you need to accept. You need to SURRENDER. Repeat this to yourself. Surrender the control. Surrender the logic. Enter the wise mind. You sound crazy writing this but this is literally what you need to do. Think Hinkie—trust the process.
  8. Because your logic mind is so powerful (or so you think, maybe a better word is so intense), you will inevitably want to get some of your ideas out. You will want to race to logic. You are wired this way (neurologically, you are diagnosed remember! and also how you were raised plays a role). The right venue for this is writing. Write! For yourself. Not for others. Write write write. Write 10,000 words. You will feel better. It may be painful. You may need to wince your teeth a bit. But write. Write as many words as you can in one setting. Let your monkey mind loose. Get the thoughts out. It may be hard to get started and focus enough. Just write. Get it out.
  9. Be long-term greedy, short-term patient. You will not be able to change people in the short term. Accept that part of reality. Be long-term. Remind yourself. You are in control of your emotions. All great heroes must overcome obstacles. They would not be heroes otherwise.
  10. But also know that you are not a hero. You are nothing. Not worthy of nothing, but not entitled to anything. No one owes you anything. The golden rule is fake. Remember that. You are independent. You are a stone.
  11. Avoid doing the things that other people say work for them just because it works for other people does not mean it will work for you. Do not force yourself to watch tv. You do not like TV. You will especially not like it when your mind is racing. Do not fall for this trap. Stick to this list. Believe in it. You have thought about it. This is not an accidental list. Trust it.

The list above is not permanent or comprehensive. It is a start. But try it. I am writing to myself. I do not know if this list will work for you. I would not recommend it. Make your own list.

Remember that the spiral of doom is not inevitable. You can escape it and prevent it. Follow the playbook.

As briefly mentioned, the above sort of prompt can also be done for other aspects of life. You could do the same exercise for organizations. If you read the news headlines, you may think companies just shut down out of nowhere. Not true. The reality is a long string of inputs that led to the outputs. For instance, people sometimes say that “companies die when their founders die” (some version of that, not literally die but rather give up). I think founders die a slow and painful death, long before the company actually shuts down. You can prevent this by following a playbook of sorts to make sure you have the appropriate momentum (and awareness of the business health—to avoid a spiral of doom at a broader level). These systems become more complex the more variables you add to the equation.

So generally speaking, there’s a lot to learn from studying inputs. If I were giving someone advice, not that I would do that often because truly what do I know, I would tell them to pay more attention to inputs. The outputs are really distractions.