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Giving Up? Challenging the Desire to Mentally Check Out

Jan. 24, 2022 Psychology Today

Zhuang Zhou, a Chinese Philosopher from the late 4th century BC, espoused the following thought:

“Flow with whatever may happen and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.”

In many ways, I believe the philosopher was illustrating the potential of letting go of our will and desire to react to events emotionally, and to simply accept and flow through them. 

The continuity of stressful experiences from something like the pandemic can leave some individuals with an overwhelming desire to “check out” mentally or respond defensively in a robot-like, emotionally numb way. Such stressful situations engaged routinely can lead to fatigue. In fact, “pandemic fatigue” has become something therapists are seeing more of these days.

Whether it is the enduring aspects of a phenomenon like the pandemic or any other major impacts to our life, such as the prolonged effects of grief, substandard economic conditions, persistent health issues, or other negative experiences, the eventual costs can add up.

When People Give Up

During any persistent, adverse experience, life still marches on for many. Being caught up in anything negative and persistent also comes with the daily tasks of simply living alongside it. This requires a sense of control and mental effort to maintain. Herein, the extensive subjective experience of mental fatigue can set in and eclipse our motivation to fight the good fight. The outcome of fatigue is currently observed in health care as burnout. Researcher Christina Maslach sees the artifacts of fatigue showing up as cynicism, sarcasm, compassion fatigue, and a lack of efficacy—not doing a good job or doubting one’s ability to sustain.

Motivation and Cognitive Control

Humans have the potential to plan and execute on things they have never encountered before. For instance: wearing a mask, using hand sanitizer, social distancing, and so forth. Further examples include the care-taking of a family member, or working through a major life transition. Experiences like these initiate a sequence of thought processes like envisioning a flurry of outcomes, examining actionable paths, and weighing one’s ability to execute on them. According to Dr. David Badre, professor at Brown University, what we call cognitive control is motivated by our control system in the brain, which evaluates the value of engaging something, the cost of doing it, and our mental efficacy (mental investment required) for enduring it (Badre, 2021).

In fact, researchers have found that acute and lasting stressors tend to impact the lateral habenula (LHb) area of the brain, which has been implicated in depression but is also activated during stress. This area can transform reward responses into punishment-like neural signals. This is further likely transformed into anhedonic behaviors where activities begin to feel pointless, useless, etc. (Shabel et al., 2019).

As such, confronting a persistent negative experience involves some heavy mental investment and for some, this may be viewed at a great cost with no value return for the day-to-day expended effort. 

Perception Rules Our Internal Kingdom

In the movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her companions eventually encounter the great Oz as a larger-than-life, disembodied face with a commanding voice. However, later they discover that Oz is simply an ordinary man behind a curtain with all his gadgetry designed to manage others’ perceptions of him. Dorothy and her friends see that not everything is exactly what it appears to be.

Our minds, similarly, may read situations like words on a page at face value, without any deeper attenuation to context. And as we tire of day-to-day challenges, it becomes easier to slowly devolve into more exaggerated contextual evaluations of our situations (Barrett et al., 2011). Perception, as it relates to what we do, what we engage in daily, and how we see the world, requires daily care-taking, psychological calibration, and fine-tuning.

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