By Dr David Laing Dawson
We humans were not designed for stress free environments, with the exception of a few stolen days luxuriating in the tropical breezes on a beach in Costa Rica. And we know we will enjoy it all the more if we had a difficult time getting there.
As someone else expressed it, we humans will quickly perish if the hardest thing we have to do is get into our SUV’s to drive to the nearest Pizza Parlour.
We all need a little stress.
And then we have human variation. Some people thrive on challenge and stress. The more, the harder, the better. Others don’t. A little is enough. Too much and those well-known physiological symptoms emerge: anxiety, panic, exhaustion, headache, nausea, stomach cramps, sweating, sleeplessness, irritability.
Paradoxically, experience and research tell us that most of us cope quite well with flood, fire, disaster, famine, and pestilence. The stress seekers and the stress averse alike. These are singular calls to action that focus the brain and our survival instincts. And that includes those of us vulnerable to psychotic illness.
But those of us who have or are vulnerable to psychotic illness are susceptible to specific kinds of stress.
Two of those stresses can cause psychosis in anyone, eventually: sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation. But sooner and worse with someone prone to a psychotic illness. Sleep is important. Without sleep – that regular period in our day when the organizers, sweepers, and cleaners take over our bodies and prepare our filing cabinets, our energy panels, and our sensory apparatus for the next day – we will go off the rails. And our complex information processing system known as the brain craves input. Without input or very limited and distorted input it will also go off the rails.
We can, in simplified terms, consider some psychotic illnesses as originating in a vulnerability to disordered mood control and others in a vulnerability in our interpretive mechanisms. The first is a problem with that apparatus in our brain that normally allows us to experience pleasure, excitement, fear, sadness, anger and then return to a neutral state. This vulnerability, the vulnerability to run-away emotional states, makes us vulnerable to situations of prolonged and extreme excitement: religious rallies, political conventions, parties, alcohol, fan conventions, intense conflicted relationships, long winters.….
Someone with, or vulnerable to, bipolar disorder, needs regular sleep, social involvement, but should limit exposure to prolonged and emotional human gatherings, and, of course, avoid alcohol and stimulant drugs (e.g. cocaine)
The second form of psychotic illness (schizophrenic disorders) may originate in an inability, or loss of ability, to take in, engage with, and correctly interpret all those social cues around us that help us make sense of where we are, who we are, what is happening, and what is expected of us. This person is vulnerable to the stress of large unruly classrooms, going away to university, taking on a new job, meeting new people, courting, having a baby, migrating to a new culture, even attending a singles dance. And, of course, to any substance that alters perception.