Fear of Inertia

You know it’s a bad day when you’re asking yourself, “Is this day over yet???” and it’s only 8 am.

You know it’s a bad day when the coworker who doesn’t know you well mentions that “You’re pale as a ghost! Are you OK?”

You know it’s a bad day when you’re mentally paralyzed; immobile not from a physical cause, but from a mental and emotional exhaustion so profound that it brings with it a physical inertia.

Almost imperceptibly, these isolated days melt into weeks, and before you know it, your boss is telling you, “You’ve been miserable for like, the last three months.”

But here’s the paradox: Despite the fact that some notice your “misery” they still expect you to function normally, if not exceptionally well.

When you feel like you’ve emptied yourself of tears, when you feel like an enervated slave to the system, cornered in a terrifyingly complex trap, fear begins to reign – an irrational, terroristic dictator. The cycle repeats itself over and over until you begin to question your sanity. You tell yourself you just need a break, a chance to regroup and get yourself together. But there is no break in sight, not even on the far horizon. Working for a corporate giant that views its employees as pawns, emotionless drones that will feel nothing and continue to perform above expectations regardless of whatever upheavals the powers that be decide to cause takes a serious toll – especially when the day-to-day tasks require interaction with the rude public. Add to that living arrangements under the domain of a hapless, careless landlord that operates with a set of double standards; dealing with rude, irresponsible neighbors on a daily basis, and you have a recipe for Basket Case Extraordinaire.

The above effects are intensified by the fact that in each situation, you’re trapped. With the job market in the toilet, there are no other options for employment, even if you’re searching. The income is necessary – not to keep up a luxurious lifestyle, but simply to pay the bills. So, if you’re “lucky” enough to currently have a job, you’d better keep it! So what if you’re miserable? Suck it up, it’s not that bad! If you lose your job, you’ll be on the street. Which brings me to the other issue: a place to live. Because of financial issues, moving out and away from the frustrations of apartment life is impossible. So both sources of misery are inescapable. You need a place to live, so you need a job to pay for it. But you hate where you live. But you can’t afford to live anywhere else. And you can’t find another job. The end result is a painful state of desperation as you find yourself struggling to preserve two situations that bring misery; questioning why you are prolonging the agony. The only answer is that you are a responsible person. You hold yourself to a code of doing the right and responsible thing – even if it is to your own detriment. The only question that remains is: How long can this continue before you break down completely?

Mental illness runs in my family. A victim of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), I fear ending up like some relatives who suffer from bipolar disorder or severe depression. A state of mental inertia sets in – a seeming inability to perform even simple tasks, a lack of motivation, a neglect of even basic personal care – that is incomprehensible to others not suffering from the disease. This inertia frightens me more than anything else. As a person who tries to remain active and responsibly fulfill all of my obligations even despite my current emotional state, the thought that my anguish could escalate to the point of this dreaded inertia is truly terrifying. Considering the fact that I experienced it for the first time ever – this week – the fear is intensified. Questioning myself at every turn and fighting an emotional battle each day is exhausting.

I am blessed to have some wonderful people in my life. Yet I still have these awful feelings and my ability to cope has dwindled to naught – despite the love and support I receive in other areas of my life. These two major areas of life – work and residence – are taking an unspeakable toll on me.

Lab Rats and the Rat Race

I’ve been with my current employer for eight years. In those eight years, I’ve served under six different managers. I’ve liked several, feared a few, but respected only one.

At this moment, in the midst of unwarranted upheaval in my current location, I find it difficult to respect any of my superiors. After years of “musical managers” the stress of being expected to perform exceptionally well in an unpredictable environment is becoming too much for me to handle. Not knowing who my boss is going to be tomorrow or next week and not knowing what is about to happen is simply unnerving. The panic attacks I thought I had conquered have returned with a vengeance, even on days when I do not work. In an economy where countless families are struggling to survive, it is drilled into those that have jobs that we should be grateful, grateful, GRATEFUL for our jobs. This makes a difficult situation at work that much harder – the chances of finding another job are slim. Therefore, you’re trapped. You need the job and the health insurance, but the stress is unbearable. At this point, you become a ticking time bomb of emotional frustrations. Why am I saying you? I mean me. Myself. I am a ticking time bomb of emotional frustrations.

This situation reminds me of a classic laboratory experiment with rats. The scientist takes two normal, healthy rats and places each in a separate cage. The first rat’s cage has two levers in it. One lever produces food, the other, an electric shock. The rat quickly learns which lever is which and avoids the shock-producing lever, while using the lever that produces food. In this predictable environment where he feels he has some control, he is happy, normal, and healthy. He socializes normally with other rats. He is emotionally well-adjusted.

The second rat’s cage also has two levers. But instead of each lever consistently producing the same outcome, they vary. This lever sometimes produces food, sometimes a nasty shock. And vice versa. In this completely unpredictable environment, the rat has no sense of control over what happens to him. He becomes a nervous wreck, exhibiting hostile or withdrawn behavior, overeating or not eating at all, becoming ill and even engaging in autistic rocking behaviors.

Scientists say this model can be applied to humans living in any unpredictable environment – from living in a war zone to having an alcoholic family member… Or a job where the management is constantly changing and what’s right today may get you yelled at tomorrow – not to mention dealing with customers who blame the person behind the counter for everything from the color of the carpet to their own epic blunders. In unpredictable environments, people get stressed. They feel anxious. They feel depressed. I feel stressed/anxious/depressed.

I find it particularly interesting about the aforementioned experiment that the physical health of the rats was affected by their environment and emotional state. Rat #1, who has a measure of control over his surroundings, is happy AND healthy. Rat #2, who has no idea if he’s getting zapped or fed today, easily gets ill, in addition to becoming a blubbering neurotic.

“Study after study shows that the more in control people feel, the less stress they feel and fewer negative sensations they experience.” – Dr. Richard Fried, PhD

Obviously, when one feels a lack of control and is stressed, the first thing to do is try to regain a sense of control in other areas of life. Some suggestions:

• Exercise. Regular physical activity is essential to work off stress hormones.

• Stress reduction techniques. Progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercises, journal therapy and the like can be helpful.

• Get professional help. Seeing a therapist or counselor to learn coping techniques.

I’ve tried all of the above. I walk vigorously for at least 30 minutes a day. I try to use deep breathing, especially when in the throes of a panic attack. I see a therapist on a regular basis. But these strategies take time to work. Not to mention, if a new difficulty arises while you’re still working on coping with the last one, you’re in trouble. And if you’re like me, having to be drugged to deal with work is out of the question. It just sounds completely outrageous and totally unfair.

Time does heal. Once away from work, it takes days to recover from the stress. But by then, it’s time to return to work. In a situation where people are treated as pawns in a corporate chess game, the stress of the rat race has a new dynamic – that unpredictable lever. Will it dispense a reward today? Or just another nasty shock?