Mental Illness + Free Will

I wrote a post about free will as it pertains to abuse a little while ago. The concept of free will interests me on a philosophical and psychological level because I think it’s so nuanced.

The main question it boils down to are the statements: you can’t help it or you can help it.

You can’t help sleeping all day and phoning in sick to work when you’re depressed or you can. You can’t help lashing out at someone in the grips of an anxiety attack or you can. You can’t help staring dissociatively at your phone for hours on end and not doing the things you ought to be doing, or you can. You get the gist.

I follow a lot of psychologists on Instagram and this is where I get most of my information on this topic. Some things I agree with, some things I don’t. A lot of them contradict each other which is a great reminder to listen to our own truth and not put these professionals on a pedestal.

I found a brilliant account on Instagram the other day that had posts about nervous system regulation and polyvagal theory. I’ve seen information about this topic before but only in a really abstracted way that didn’t really land for me. It was never presented to me in a tangible way that I could truly utilise. ‘Til now!

In all honesty, when I saw the above post about a freeze response, I started crying because I feel like that almost every day. Like, when I get home from work it’s like I’m waiting for that sense of dread – that sense of dissociation. I’ve noticed that something which is a trigger for me is feeling cold – I just want to shrink into myself. I want to shrink into the foetal position and I want the world to disappear. And I can sit for hours, doing nothing.

“With each rung down the ladder we lose more of our ability to think clearly and to respond.” – Florence Witt

So how does this factor into free will? By definition, being in a state of immobilisation or freeze – when our autonomic nervous system responds as if our life is threatened – leaves us unable to make rational decisions. We’re completely shut down – in survival mode. No new learning can take place. Pretty extreme, right?

I thought I just had a problem with procrastination or that I was just plain lazy (which of course, I can be) but polyvagal theory has given me a glimpse into a whole new world of understanding my self, my body and I suppose, my trauma response.

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How often do you blame yourself for procrastinating, being lazy, or feeling unmotivated?⁣ ⁣ Maybe you don’t deserve as harsh a judgment as you give yourself. Especially since these things are service level labels for a deeper level problem. ⁣ ⁣ Laziness, procrastination, and motivation do not stem from inaction and we may not have as much of a choice as we think or assume. These things stem from immobilization, not inaction. The difference is that immobilization is an automatic process (not a choice) and inaction is a voluntary process (a choice). ⁣ ⁣ The problem is that we often assume we’re in full control over our productivity, most of which stems from the ability and fitness to mobilize and “get going.”⁣ ⁣ Since procrastination, laziness, and motivation are the product of immobilization, the solution isn’t to inspire a more productive choice or lifestyle. The solution is rooted in our ability to regulate our emotions. ⁣ ⁣ Emotions live in our body. It’s less so the case that we avoid specific feelings but rather we avoid the discomfort associated with certain feelings. With this in mind, it’s clear that we don’t avoid tasks, we avoid the discomfort that comes along with certain tasks. ⁣ ⁣ This is why we’re less likely to avoid the things we like doing. And it’s no wonder you’re more motivated and focused when it comes to completing something you enjoy or find meaning in.⁣ ⁣ So, what’s the solution? The solution lies in our ability to feel emotionally regulated and access our emotional resilience. My suggestion is that we scrap productivity labels all together. You’re not unmotivated, you’re avoiding task discomfort. You’re not procrastinating, you’re avoiding task discomfort. You’re not lazy, you’re avoiding task discomfort.⁣ ⁣ 𝘍𝘪𝘯𝘢𝘭 𝘯𝘰𝘵𝘦: This can be particularly challenging to do if you’re experiencing dysregulation due to homophobia and racism and intergenerational trauma. Our histories shape (and have shaped) the way we get access to safety (which produces a regulated nervous system). We can’t talk about nervous system dysregulation if we’re not also addressing the sociopolitical climates that create dysregulation and immobilization.

A post shared by Jake Ernst, MSW RSW (@mswjake) on

Mind. Blown.

However, similar to determinism, polyvagal theory could lead us to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our lives. “If I’m immobilised, I can’t change my situation.” Yes, during that period of immobilisation or fight or flight. But what about the rest of the time?

N.B. A word on fight or flight, by the way, is that in my experience of dealing with fight or flight and immobilisation, I find myself with more access to my personal power during fight or flight. At work the other day, for example, I had a particularly stressful first half of my day. I could feel my heart rate rising, I felt out of control, tense and on the verge of tears. I made the conscious decision to go to the toilet to do box breathing. In addition to that, when a colleague pulled me up on the situation at hand, I was able to speak honestly about how I felt, even though I was on the verge of tears. Maybe that’s partly because I was at work and there would’ve been a grave social cost to shutting down completely. Either way, I certainly didn’t feel 100% powerless. During a freeze response, I more or less do.

These states of autonomic nervous system dysregulation are probably quite common. I think they could form the basis of many forms of mental illness. I can definitely see how consistent freeze responses could manifest into depression and obviously anxiety is strongly linked to fight or flight. What can we do to regain some kind of power in our lives if we find ourselves blighted by this kind of dysregulation?

“The solution lies in our ability to feel emotionally regulated and access our emotional resilience.” – Jack Ernst

Speaking to my counsellor a few months ago about the struggles I faced in my life (I can’t remember exactly what it was we were talking about), I said: “It’s really a question of distress tolerance” – which was absolutely spot on. The capacity, or lack thereof, to tolerate distress is a factor in any mental illness or really any struggle we find ourselves facing in life. Poor distress tolerance leads to self harm, addiction, denial, toxic relationships etc. People go to great lengths to avoid feeling distress. Many of these attempts are misguided in the sense that they produce more suffering in the long term.

Speaking of misguided attempts at alleviating pain, pharmaceuticals is another example. Not in every case, but in many. It’s just a socially acceptable, medically-endorsed misguided attempt.

On Florence Witt’s page, she has a wealth of information about how to ease dysregulation in the moment which involves: different kinds of conscious breathing, listening to music, singing, laughing and grounding exercises. In terms of increasing awareness about our emotional state the rest of the time and stimulating the ventral vagus nerve, she recommends identifying “triggers” and “glimmers”.

A “trigger” is something that sends us into dysregulation. For example, feeling really cold can send me into an immobilised “freeze” mode. It’s like the first nudge on a row of dominos which consequently breaks down all my defences and leads me to shut down entirely if I don’t manage to regulate myself in time.

A “glimmer” is something which does the opposite – it helps us feel calm and safe. One of my glimmers is drinking a cup of tea and being warm in bed (with candles and fairy lights on preferably :)).

Maintaining a level of non-judgemental curiosity about our emotional state and the things that cause us to feel the way that we do forms the foundation for gaining understanding and building up our emotional regulation “toolbox” (I’m never using that metaphor again).

It’s too easy to judge ourselves and our emotional responses. How often did you hear “you’re okay” or “stop it” in response to your distress as a child? Many of us were taught to unfairly judge our experiences of pain, suffering and confusion. To distrust what it was our bodies were telling us and suppress our feelings. It’s natural that our first reaction to our ever-changing emotional landscape would be a dismissive one. But this robs us of our power to free ourselves from the entrenched trigger cycle.

To anyone who struggles with mental illness and/or distress tolerance – I see you. It’s hard as fuck. But look at all the information available to us! How blessed are we to live in the information age? We can do this.

Thanks for reading.

– SMUT. ❤ xxxx

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