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How to Fight the Desire to Mentally Check Out

Unfreeze, reframe, and accept what is.

Key points

  • Enduring and persistent stressors can impact our lives, creating fatigue and a sense of loss of control.
  • When stress persists, it becomes easier to devolve into exaggerated and negative evaluations of our situation.
  • Consider a leader whose composure and stamina under stress are admirable. You possess such abilities as well.

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 individuals with an overwhelming desire to “check out” mentally or respond defensively in a robot-like, emotionally numb manner. Stressful situations, engaged routinely, can lead to fatigue. In fact, “pandemic fatigue” is a phenomenon therapists are increasingly identifying these days.

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

When People Give Up

During any persistent, adverse experience, life marches on; there are many daily tasks that entail simply living alongside it. This requires a sense of control and mental effort to maintain. Here, 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 fatigue show 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 caretaking 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 in something, the cost of doing it, and our mental efficacy (mental investment required) to endure 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 results in anhedonic behaviors in which activities begin to feel pointless and useless (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.

'Fran_kie, Adobe Stock Photos', 'Illustration Of Tired Man, licensed for use'.
Pointless
Source: 'Fran_kie, Adobe Stock Photos', 'Illustration Of Tired Man, licensed for use'.

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 attention to context. And as we tire of day-to-day challenges, it becomes easier to slowly devolve into more exaggerated and negative 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 caretaking, psychological calibration, and fine-tuning.

Unfreezing Negative Perceptions and Refreezing Healthier Outlooks

We are hard-wired to operate in a messy and unpredictable world—that’s the good news. However, when we are at the point of “giving up,” we are in a state of disequilibrium, or out of balance with the greater context of our experience (Williams et al., 1984). Thus, we may act out defensively and see things in black and white terms.

Unfreezing is about taking a static perception we hold and attempting to modify it (Williams et al.,1984). One way to reframe and refreeze an experience is to seek out an identifying role model that exhibits the qualities we desire in such a situation. Maybe it is a friend or family member who has dealt with the same thing. Maybe there is a leader you admire whose composure and stamina under stress are admirable. The point is that you need to know that the same potential exists within yourself.

Radical acceptance is another important opportunity. Like the seasons of the year, all things have a beginning, an end, and a new beginning. Problems that become continuous stressors will also have an end eventually—but what will you do while you are waiting? Accepting our situations allows us to "unburden" ourselves and lean into our abilities.

The other day, I witnessed a woman working at the front desk of a clinic that was understaffed and overwhelmed with patients. She would sing occasionally and it made her co-workers chuckle. She was finding her way to manage her situation positively. This form of distress tolerance is a part of radical acceptance, and it can help.

We know that positive emotions build better health. Positive emotions can also help refute our catastrophic evaluations of situations. We can learn to adapt to situations, modify our perceptions of them, and even find acceptance and growth amongst them. Yes, there is a reality to every situation, but we can also choose to see opportunities in those lingering experiences.

By engaging the potential to change how we perceive situations, we can challenge our fixed identity and broaden our understanding of what we can do.

LinkedIn/Facebook image: Stockbakery/Shutterstock

References

Parish, Carisa (2020). Johns Hopkins Medicine: How to Deal with Coronavirus Burnout and Pandemic Fatigue. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/how-to-deal-with-coronavirus-burnout-and-pandemic-fatigue

Badre, David (2021, January). How We Can Deal with ‘Pandemic Fatigue’. Scientific American, (), . https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-we-can-deal-with-pandemic-fatigue/

Shabel, S. J., Wang, C., Monk, B., Aronson, S., & Malinow, R. (2019). Stress transforms lateral habenula reward responses into punishment signals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(25), 12488–12493. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26743645

Barrett, L. F., Mesquita, B., & Gendron, M. (2011). Context in Emotion Perception. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(5), 286–290. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23045740

Williams, D. D., & Davis, J. H. (1984). Change and Persistence: A Paradox in Promoting Health Behaviors. Journal of Community Health Nursing, 1(1), 21–26. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3427599

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