Everyone deals with stress, right? Yep. What makes people with schizophrenia any different than the average Joe or Josie? Simple answer: our brains! Not all brains are created equal.
So, our brains are different. Although most people with schizophrenia are strong in some areas, the truth is that most of us are not strong in one area. That area is navigating the social world around us. This is especially true of those of us who are not in treatment. We tend to be hypersensitive to expressed emotions. For example, when someone is upset, even the slightest bit, we tend to pick up on that more quickly than the general population. Additionally, we tend to personalize these expressed emotions, thinking that we are to blame for someone feeling a certain way when that isn’t the case. And sometimes, especially when we are untreated, we may miss the mark altogether, thinking that someone is mad when in fact they are not.
All of this can lead to an overabundance of stress. Normal, everyday occurrences can be magnified exponentially and what most would view as a benign incident, some of us may see as a malignancy with no known cure. To be certain, this is not a black-and-white issue. Many shades of gray are present within the population of those of us who have this disorder, with those of us who are being treated effectively usually faring better than those of us who are not in treatment at all.
I will use two extreme examples to illustrate the topic of avoiding stressors or not avoiding them. Both examples involve me. The first example will be of me untreated. The second example will be of me now. This might not be very objective, but I have no one else to use as a yardstick.
During my untreated days (pre-1997), avoiding stressors was a survival skill. Since I was not very successful, this was not a very well-honed survival skill but one that I attempted to practice on a daily basis. Why was it so important for me to exercise this skill? Simply put, I was pretty paranoid during those days (1994-1997). Yes, I thought people were plotting to harm, and yes, I felt like and fantasized about doing some pretty horrific things in retaliation to those perceived threats and dangers.
This is a no-brainer (pardon the pun). Avoiding stressors was necessary for my survival. As a result, I spent quite a bit of time alone. Although that might not sound like a healthy choice, it was. Had I been forced into a social situation (especially in 1996), I’m not sure what my reaction would have been. Probably not a very healthy one. My advice: If you have a loved one who may have or has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and he wants to spend most of his time alone, let him.
Me now sees the world a bit differently. Not every social stressor is a do-or-die situation. In fact, for the most part, I really enjoy the company of others. I still like my alone time, but then, a lot of people who don’t have schizophrenia enjoy that also. So, when faced with stressful social situations, I choose to do one of three things:
- Avoid the situation altogether
- Avoid the situation but come back to it at a later
- Meet the challenge head-on
More often than not, I choose #2 or #3; however, there are times when I still choose #1. The important, take-home message: I choose. The disorder no longer dictates which option I use. I might not be where I want to be regarding my social skills, but I believe I’ve come a long way and I believe that I will get better.
In closing, if you have schizophrenia or you know someone who does, give yourself (or your loved one) time. Count your successes; there will be plenty of them. Don’t just count them. Celebrate them! You are overcoming what some believe to be the most difficult malady to hit mankind. You’re learning to live with it. You’re going to have some setbacks, but you are also going to have your share of successes. Remember, the only person who can decide whether or not you avoid or don’t avoid a particular stressor is you. Only you have that power. That is a pretty cool thing.