Bad Brain Time Survival Guide

How my brain glitches in bad situations, and how I'm working around it.

As I promised, now that I've had some time to ponder it over, here's the results of my therapy homework. I think it came out really well. And as I promised myself and my therapist and my friends when I set out to do something like this, I made this poster with an abbreviated version of everything written here, and have hung it up next to my other main resource, Everything Is Awful and I'm Not Okay (and Tamamo Cat, the brave and bold maid cat with the good good claws).

All of these things are very specific to me. But I thought this might still be of interest to some people, and sharing things like this that I'm ashamed of is important for me to break the shame.

Severing the Chains of F(rustr)ate

This section is about the bad cycle I tend to get into when it comes to my friends, and how it comes about.

Stage 0: Grumby Feelings

Something happens which causes my mood to become profoundly negative. This could be related to something that happened just recently, or it could be a thought or occurrence triggering an old injury to throb. Sometimes “old” means “three weeks ago”, sometimes it means “six years ago”. Whatever the case, this is where I feel something unpleasant. Loneliness is the most common, and it’s very common for me to get conflicted about feelings of loneliness and misdirect them by assigning them to something else – for example, boredom/ennui. Self-directed disgust is increasingly rare, but it does happen, and it used to be even more common than loneliness. Anger and frustration happen sometimes. Despair, too.

At this point, the cycle has not actually started. This is simply the catalyst to the cycle: an unpleasant feeling that I don’t want to feel.

Signs of Stage 0

The most common indicator that I’m in stage 0 is the recurring thought that “I need to do something.” Sometimes I’m even self-aware enough to be honest with myself about the reason: “I need to do something to get rid of this bad mood.”

I’ve adapted to my depressive and anxious desires for inaction by preferring action, and this is where that manifests.

Other common signals include clenching my jaw or fist, feeling tension in my chest, etc. – these are signals associated with bad moods for me. Occasionally this will also be marked by turning up music, either happy music in an attempt to drown out the negative feelings, or angry music in an attempt to bravado through them.

But overwhelmingly, the most reliable signal that I feel that there is a problem is this thought that “I need to do something.”

Escaping the Cycle at Stage 0

My initial instinct in the face of unpleasant or uncomfortable feelings is always to act.

Escaping the cycle here means choosing to resist those instincts and not act. Not yet. This is not to say that action isn’t sometimes a good thing in these situations. But acting blindly because “Feeling unhappy and doing something is better than feeling unhappy and doing nothing!” is just as likely to get me into a further uncomfortable position as to get me to comfort. If I try to solve a problem I don’t actually have because I’ve misunderstood myself, then it won’t help and (more) frustration will be added to the mix, and as frustration is also a negative feeling, this will only increase the magnitude of the situation I’m trying to resolve. And if I want to act, but I can’t for whatever reason (busy with something else, in a place where I don’t have access to my usual stuff) then that increases the frustration too.

Instead, my best choices are contemplative and meditative.

  • Meditate for as long as I’m able to. I may chafe at “doing nothing,” but I know for a fact that this has helped me stabilize in situations ranging from “I am raggedly and openly sobbing regularly” to “I’m just a little bit moody and I don’t know why.”
  • Journal into it. No editing. Write forward only, and stop as little as possible. Because these rules force me to keep the words flowing faster than I can censor my thoughts, this is a meditative activity for me, and a very comforting one, and at the end I have an artifact that I can use for reference in therapy, with friends, or just for deciding what to do next.
  • Do a quick body and mind scan. What do I feel, physically and emotionally, and what thoughts have I noticed going by in the last bit of time? This is essentially the hyper-abbreviated form of meditation: briefly pause the ongoing processes and check their integrity. This is good if I don’t have the time or space to do a full meditation.
  • Grab the Feelings and Needs lists from the Center for Nonviolent Communication, and run over it like a checklist. What feelings ring true to me right now? What needs ache when I call their names? Compassionately connecting with myself is a good first step, and requires me to stop thinking in circles and attune to myself.
  • Use the “5 senses, 15 things” technique to exit the budding anxietysphere. Name 5 things I can see, 4 things I can hear, 3 things I can feel, 2 things I can smell, and 1 thing I can taste. This is another alternative to meditating which again focuses attention on the senses to ground me back in reality.
  • Go for a walk with no headphones and take in the scenery and sounds and sensations. Let the thoughts come, and let them go.
  • Play a rhythm game. The speed of the beats frustrates circular thinking, which gives me a moment to breathe so that I can regain control of the out-of-control mind.

After doing one of these things (or more!), when I feel like I have at least a vague grasp on what it is I’m feeling, then and only then should I consider how to act next. Though what decision I make depends heavily on what feeling I have, common solutions are:

  • Take care of myself. Tend to hygiene, do something that helps me feel pretty like shave my legs, clean up the apartment, drink some water.
  • Treat myself to a leisure activity. Read a book, play a video game, play with Cannoli.
  • Take on or advance a project. Write, program, study Japanese, research.
  • Get some exercise. Go for a walk, play Beat Saber, take the stairs down to the first floor and back up again.
  • Pick a friend and explicitly call on them for companionship, letting them know your status for transparency: “I’m feeling [mood | ambiguously bad]. Do you have some time to [chat about (mutually liked subject) | play (mutually enjoyed game) | do a phone call | brainstorm about (creative subject)] with me? I’d really appreciate your company!”
  • Pick a friend and explicitly call on them for help processing the feelings: “I’m feeling [mood | ambiguously bad]. Do you have some time to help me figure out these feelings and work through them? I could use your help on this expedition!”
  • Pick a friend and write an appreciative note to them detailing something I love about being friends with them, a fond memory I have about them, etc. Being kind to my friends can help with certain bad moods.

Stage 1: Squeezing Joy From A Stone Heart

Here I am just trying to do anything that generically Makes Me Feel Better, usually without involving friends for fear of seeming needy. This is typically some kind of project – writing or programming, most typically. Or cleaning up my space, physical or digital. Or playing video games or listening to music. Or trying to manipulate the dopamine lever directly. What distinguishes this from merely being productive is that the purpose for which I am doing it is explicitly to make myself feel better – to improve my mood, without being specific about how. Often, during this stage, I’m impatiently and repeatedly checking in to see if it’s working, do I feel better yet? (Ironically, this is exactly how to make sure it does not work.)

Signs of Stage 1

As mentioned above, I’ll be in the middle of doing something. My mood will be impatient, and I’ll be paying at least as much attention to whether it has made me feel better yet as to what I’m actually doing. I’ll be frequently checking in on chats and Twitter, waiting for Something to happen. This stage could also be called If I Can Just, because a lot of my internal monologue here is engaging in a weird kind of bargaining. “If I can just (get the apartment clean/finish this one feature/complete this story), I’ll feel better.” Inevitably, this conditional turns out not to be true, my victory is hollow because I’m not enjoying the process or the results, and the betrayal increases my frustration.

Escaping the Cycle at Stage 1

First, put the keyboard down and step away from the IDE. Even if I’m midsentence, midalgorithm. Write whatever comments I need to dump my mental state and stop. Take off the headphones and put down the controller. Close Twitter and Discord for a hot sec.

This returns me to Stage 0, at which point I can continue my escape with the same strategies I would use there.

Stage 2: Come With Me And You’ll Be In A World Of Pure Exasperation

Now, having been unable to defeat my feelings on my own (and though I don’t think it’s the right move, I do think “defeat” is the right word for what I’m trying to do in that situation), I feel the need to call on my friends for help.

But I’m anxious about the vulnerabilities exposed in asking for help, so I don’t.

Not even “I do so subtly.” I just don’t.

Instead, I try to summon friends to my cause less obviously – by talking to them about the thing I’m working on or doing, in hopes that it will start a conversation that I can use to lever myself into a better mood – or at least use as a springboard to talk about being in a bad mood.

Signs of Stage 2

Similarly to Stage 1, this is distinguished from being simply chatty and productive because that underlying feeling of impatient frustration is present. I want people to pay attention and I want them to pay attention now. This comes out because I keep checking back to where I posted this (publicly on Twitter, or privately in chat), and I may mentally ask myself what my friends are up to if they’re not paying attention to me here. If I receive responses, I may discount them for a number of reasons, but under the covers they usually add up to “they aren’t what I actually wanted.” (And why would they be? I haven’t asked.)

My frustration builds here, and thus physical signs of stress – clenched jaw/fists, tightness in my chest – may increase.

Escaping the Cycle at Stage 2

There are two easy paths out of the cycle here, as well as a way to combine them.

  • Close the chat/Twitter, and return to stage 0. After getting order of things, decide whether it’s worth it to explicitly call for help or not.
  • Be straightforward. Especially with friends who have been through this process with me and know what I’m referencing, it’s very possible to just outright say “Actually, I think I’m feeling kinda stuck [“and I don’t know why” or “because (reason)”]. Could you/anyone talk to me about this?” Don’t be afraid to reach out to a specific friend in this step, or as a follow-up if no one responds to me/that friend is currently unavailable for emotional help. In the meantime, return to stage 0 and try to reconnect with myself.
  • Say “I think I’m feeling kinda stuck, and I’m going to take a few minutes to [Stage 0 escape activity] to figure out why. Are you/is someone available to talk about this after I get my head on?” Go back to stage 0 and do one of those things. Then come back and follow up. If the meditation helped and I don’t need help anymore, report as much. If I still want to talk about it, see if anyone’s taken me up on it and go talk to them.

Stage 3: Basically Just Mental Self-Harm

So my appeals to my friends have not magically disappeared my unpleasant emotions. Shock!

I follow a chain of twisted but internally consistent logic:

  • If my friends loved me, they would have fixed me.
  • I am not fixed.
  • Therefore, my friends do not love me.

(This sets aside the fact that there are tons of more likely reasons: I didn’t ask, my friends are passive, I didn’t ask, my friends are busy with other things, I didn’t ask, my friends are distracted and forgot to reply, I didn’t ask, or my friends figured I was just rambling into the void.

Oh, and I didn’t ask. Could be that, too.)

Now that I feel like I’ve been rejected, I look for evidence of this conclusion that I’ve already drawn. (Also, my stress levels are even higher now.)

Signs of Stage 3

This is the paranoia stage. This is the stage where I start monitoring everything my friends do. And that’s very uncomfortable for me, so that is probably a good sign to key on. My thoughts are very quick to draw the conclusion that they’ve already drawn from literally any evidence at all. Did someone say they were talking to someone else in private? They’re probably talking in that window about how much they hate me. Is this friend replying to someone else and not me? A demonstration of hatred by talking to someone else to make me jealous, clear as day. Is this friend not really replying to anyone, just doing their own thing? Probably avoiding me. Etc.

This is where I start using my Pathetic Mode. That is, the type of behavior where I stop capitalizing things, stop using emoticons, add despair-y status messages and tweets, etc. in hopes that someone will notice that I Am Sad and care.

Escaping the Cycle at Stage 3

As I haven’t really done anything since Stage 2, the same escape mechanisms apply.

Final Stage: Despair Of The World, And Of Yourself…

Because I’ve decided that a) my friends don’t love me and b) this truth is borne out by the evidence, I feel horribly hurt and pull away from my friends.

I sign out of messengers, close Twitter, etc. Ironically, this is probably a good step if I’m in a messy emotional state, as I often need time to myself to straighten things out… but nonetheless.

Here is where I definitely switch to the angry music, start pacing the room in agitation and nursing fantasies of leaving and going to friends who would actually care about me. Or maybe I don’t deserve friends. Maybe I lost them for good reason.

This kind of thinking whips me into a frenzy of discomfort, and eventually my stress levels become so high that they overflow my ability to handle stress.

If left unchecked, the final stage culminates in a meltdown. Previously, this would mean me starting a fight with the friend(s) I felt betrayed by. Now, I have gotten better at realizing what’s going on and simply calling for help, usually completely overwhelmed by agony by that point. Even so, I often avoid talking to the friends I was anxious about – even though I accept that the anxiety is likely not real, I still fear what I will find if I try.

Signs of the Final Stage

This kind of thinking about my friends as if I’m so certain they hate me is a big red flag. So is shutting myself out and thinking of ways to do so dramatically, then swearing them all off as needless drama-bombing. Usually this is such an overwhelming threat to my emotional well-being that I’m unable to focus on anything else until I exit this stage, either safely or by meltdown.

This is the most obvious stage, thankfully.

Escaping the Cycle at the Final Stage

It’s not too late to get out here and avert the building meltdown.

Withdrawing may have been a good idea for the moment. I may not be ready to face a whole group of friends. A good move here is to reach out to one trusted friend and express what’s going on and call for help. It’s okay - maybe even better - if this friend is not part of the core group.

At this point, it’s probably too late to completely reset to Stage 0 – but just because the stakes are much higher doesn’t mean that the same strategies won’t work. Connecting to myself now is still a good idea, it’s just that I’m much more likely to want assistance coming down from this agony high.

Special Sign: Best Friends For- What?

This cycle applies to all my fairly close friends, but the one most frequently targeted by it is my closest friend, whoever that happens to be at the time.

I’ve been trying to kick the habit of having a “best friend” that I put all my emotional eggs into, and I’m getting better at that. I spread my contact and my needs among all my friends. But when this cycle starts, their name tends to suddenly jump to my head very, very often, with suspicious, almost accusatory questions. “Why won’t anyone, and by anyone I mean [BFF], respond to my post? Why haven’t [BFF] and I been talking? Do they hate me? I think they hate me. What did I do to deserve this?”

This is because I still have the reflex to expect my bestest friend to be able to detect, with very few cues, that I’m in distress and why and be able to fix it. That may have been the case when I was in the painfully-uncomfortable-for-both-parties situation where I had one Special Friend and that was it. But now that I don’t have one person that I spend all my time with and mold myself to, that habit makes no sense anymore. No one is so deep in my head that they know I’m in trouble without me saying so except me.

And that’s a good thing. All I have to do is remember to ask for help.

Friendship Mythbusters

This part of the document (whose original title was Bustin' Makes Me Feel Good) is about what myths I've built up around friendship in ways that hurt me and my friends, with the aim being to debunk them while still being kind to myself.

You Really Can Do It!

It’s not quite true that…

If you are in distress, the only way to solve it is to get love and attention from your friends.

The wonderful reality is that…

You are a smart, capable, creative, self-aware person, with plenty of interests and hobbies to do and plenty of new friends waiting to meet you, and you’re perfectly capable of understanding the distress you’re in and taking care of yourself when you are in pain. You’ve survived a lot, and no friends could have gotten you through that if it weren’t for your own natural resilience. Even if none of your friends are available, you will be just fine.

But it’s okay that you used to think that because…

Your friends are really kind, wonderful people who care about you and want you to be happy. That’s why they’re your friends! It’s wonderful to reach out and spend time with them when you’re feeling lonely, or to invite them into something you’d enjoy doing. The desire to call on them when you need help is totally natural.

Gentle Friends Are Waiting For Your Call

It’s not quite true that…

If you are in distress, it is not acceptable to want to solve it by getting love and attention from your friends.

If you ask your friends for love and attention, you are whining.

Your friends will be happier if you just choke to death on your own conflicted emotions than bother them to help you deal with it.

The wonderful reality is that…

Your friends love you and want you to be happy, and they want to spend time with you. That’s why they’re your friends! Call on them for help or just to spend time with them, and not only will they not be upset with you, but they’ll appreciate that you trust them enough be vulnerable with them, or that you enjoy their company enough to want it when you’re upset, or that you’re giving them an opportunity to have a good time. And a lot of people would love to spend time with their friends, and they’re just waiting for someone else to ask! Far from feeling burdened or considering you weak or needy for wanting to spend time with them, your friends could see this as an opportunity to deepen your friendship, or to reconnect with friends you haven’t spent time with recently.

But it’s okay that you used to think that because…

You are a very empathetic person, and you want to keep everyone – especially those close to you – as comfortable as you can, even if it means taking on a little extra discomfort yourself. This care for others is part of what makes you a kind and thoughtful friend. Just remember that your friends feel the same way about you, and that calling on others doesn’t have to be a burden on them.

Genuine Friendo Seal of Love

It’s not quite true that…

If you ask your friends for love and attention, the love and attention they give you will be begrudging and fake, its sole goal to get you to stop whining.

Additionally, this begrudging fakery has its limits. Call on it too often, and you will lose those friends.

The wonderful reality is that…

If your friends really wanted you to stop asking for help and nothing else, they would just ask you to stop. And most likely, because they are your friends, their reason would be that they aren’t able to help – not because they don’t want to. Saying so is a much faster and less risky-to-the-friendship way to get out of this situation, isn’t it?

But it’s okay that you used to think that because…

This kind of misconception relies on an understanding that your friends care about you, and an empathetic fear that you might put your friends in a situation where they’re forced to choose between hurting you with bluntness and giving you a false sense of care. And knowing that your friends care about you, and wanting to avoid putting them in uncomfortable situations, that’s a sign of good friendship, isn’t it? Just, again, remember that your friends feel the same way about you.

How Are You Cared For? Let Me Count The Ways

It’s not quite true that…

The only way to ask for love and attention is to say "I want love and attention." straightforwardly.

The wonderful reality is that…

There are a million ways to express love, a million ways to receive it, and a million ways to ask for it. Every friendship is different, every friend has their preferences and skills, and it’s good to think about the ways that you receive love and your friends give it. Maybe you just want to vent and be heard. Maybe you want someone to help talk you through something. Maybe you want some company, or a phone call, or whatever else. Now’s a good time to ask for whatever it is!

But it’s okay that you used to think that because…

Thinking about things this way comes from wanting to be honest and plain with your friends. And you know what? It’s perfectly okay to just come out and say “I’m in a bad way and I need some love right now” now and then. Even if it sounds silly, its meaning is very clear, and no friend of yours would laugh at it. They’ll look for a way to give you what you need, if they’re able, or tell you they can’t, if they aren’t.

Honesty Really Is The Best Policy

It’s not quite true that…

The safest way to get love and attention without breaking the rule against asking for love and attention is to make an appeal with the secret motive to get love and attention.

The wonderful reality is that…

There’s no rule against asking directly. And asking directly is safer for your emotional state, easier to carry out for the asker and easier to detect for the recipient, and more likely to get you the help you need or the knowledge that you need to turn your search elsewhere. Even if the very worst happens, you’ve survived this kind of betrayal before, and you will survive it again. And if there is a friend you can’t trust, it’s better to know that than not. Every outcome is made better by being direct.

But it’s okay that you used to think that because…

You’ve been hurt at vulnerable moments before by certain people who aren’t your friends anymore for very good reason. And that’s terrible, and it’s natural to want to protect yourself from letting that happen again. But you did protect yourself, already – you rid your life of the people who hurt you like that. The people you have in your life now have earned their place there by being trustworthy in situations just like this. It’s okay to lean on that trust when you need it.

It’s Not You, It’s Them

It’s not quite true that…

The only reason an appeal, direct or indirect, for love and attention will be rejected is if your friends don’t really care about you.

If you aren’t getting the love you need, it’s because your friends don’t feel loved by you, and you need to do something for your friends in order to earn their love back.

If you aren’t getting the love you need, it’s because your friends are angry with you, and they’re withholding love from you in order to punish you.

The wonderful reality is that…

There are tons of reasons friends might not be able to help you when you need it or in the ways you need it, even when they still care about you and want to help you. They might have their hands full dealing with things of their own, emotional or otherwise, or be tired from having dealt with the same. They might not have time to give you their full attention, even if they seem to be present in other ways. They might be upset for reasons that have nothing to do with you. Or even if they are upset with you, they might not be in the right mood to give you what you need. In public and group situations, each individual friend might think you’re talking to someone else, or not feel confident enough to believe that you want them specifically to help. And indirect pleas are most dangerous this way, because your friends might not even know that you needed them or in what ways! Always keep in mind the possibility that the message just didn't quite get across the way you intended it.

None of these things mean your friends don’t care about you or don’t want to help. Many of them point to what wonderfully complex and interesting people you’ve chosen as your friends, and are opportunities for you to learn more about them.

If you ask directly, and they can’t help, they might tell you why they can’t help right then, or not be able to talk about it until later. Even if not, that doesn’t mean it’s a mark against you (or them!) in any way. Try calling on them again some other time and see how things go. But for now, it just means that you should look elsewhere.

But it’s okay that you used to think that because…

Again, you’ve dealt with “friends” who have done all of these things. And again, it’s natural to want to protect yourself from being in socially precarious situations where you don’t realize. But again, those people have been removed from your life, and those who are left can be trusted to be straightforward with you. And if it turns out they can’t be trusted with that, you can deal with that as it comes, just as you dealt with it before. No sense worrying about it until the evidence is strong enough to act!

Paging Dr. Friendo

It’s not quite true that…

You need to have your feelings entirely sorted out before you go to your friends about them.

Being emotionally raw with your friends makes you look irrational, and will harm them, make them think less of you, or make them view you as dangerously emotional.

The wonderful reality is that…

Your friends are empathetic, intelligent, thoughtful people, and they’d love to help you get your head on straight and sort through things when you feel lost or overwhelmed or upset. And lots of them are very good at it, too. And even if you do think you know what you need, you may be completely off base with that, or your needs may change over time. At times, it can even be better to be a little bit raw, which gives your friends a lot of space to work with. And telling your friends how you feel in its most unprocessed form is a very genuine vulnerability, which your friends will be happy to be trusted with. Even at your most raw, you are a much kinder person than you once were, and you are thoughtful enough to frame your angry or upset feelings in a way that keeps them your problem without shifting the blame to someone else, much less attacks them for it.

But it’s okay that you used to think that because…

As mentioned, you’re empathetic, intelligent, and thoughtful too, and you’re very much capable of understanding these things yourself, too! You want to avoid putting too much emotional labor or uncertainty on your friends. And it is good to know exactly what you need right now and what you want to ask your friends for, for both their sake and yours – the better you understand what’s going on, the better you can ask for help, and the more likely that help is to be what you want, which means your friends get the joy of having helped you. It never hurts to meditate on the problem or the feelings first. But don’t get deep into your own head trying to solve the entire problem all by yourself before talking to anyone about it. Let your friends explore with you sometimes, too.

Call On Me Any Time

It’s not quite true that…

You can’t open a conversation with a call for help. You need to make the other person comfortable and let them get everything they have to say out first.

If you’re having a pleasant conversation or activity with your friends, bringing the topic to your feelings would ruin it, especially if those feelings relate to the pleasant activity itself. You’re obligated to continue it as it is until it reaches its natural conclusion.

You have to wait for permission to bring up feelings, in the form of friends asking how you’re doing or asking about something you’re having trouble with.

The wonderful reality is that…

Your friends are your friends because whether they ask you how you’re doing or you tell them, they care about how you’re feeling. Your friends would be much happier to know that you’re suffering and you need help. Your friends would never require you to keep up a positive conversation for their sake. Even if they aren’t able to handle the topic change at that moment, they would prefer to know that you are in distress and need to step away from the conversation than subject you to something you’re not able to handle at that moment.

And the odds are that they will be able to help you, and after they help you, you’ll be much more able to enjoy the pleasant activity or topic. And if you’re enjoying it, they’ll enjoy it more, too!

But it’s okay that you used to think that because…

Ultimately, all of these things come of wanting your friends to be happy and comfortable, wanting to give them joy. Which, as has been covered, is a wonderful thing to want, as a friend. But remember again that your friends want the same thing for you.

Final thoughts

I'm feeling a lot better nowadays. This was a cycle that was killing me, and the myths that made it up made little cuts in me everywhere, all the time. Confronting them openly, with my friends and my therapist at my side, and not being judgmental of myself or afraid of what I'm going to have to face as a result has been absolutely amazing for me.

I'm supremely pleased with how this turned out from top to bottom.

And to everyone who helped me with this, sincerely, thank you. I hope this will make our friendship stronger, and it certainly has made me a better friend and a better person.