The dangers of desperation are many, but often have much in common in their source. Its my goal to explore the topic of desperation and perhaps provide some tools to recognize it and help fight it. As per usual, this exploration is not meant to be definitive, but rather from my observations, experience, study, and stories shared by others. It is my hope you will find value in the following, and that it provides you with further food for thought in your own development and journey.
I have written before on the topic of Frenzy, a state of mind that due to one’s excitement for new experiences or partners seems to disable rational and cautious decision making. Somewhat akin to mania, frenzy possesses not just energetic optimism as much as it is a blindness to causality coupled with the euphoria of anticipation. Wanting to “do all the things – right away”, folks may rush headlong into risk without forethought, seeking yet another experience or activity one after the other with a sense of immortality and limitlessness.
Desperation, on the other hand, can create similar lapses in judgment even though it’s coming from an entirely different emotional space. Whereas frenzy/mania won’t even seem to acknowledge fear, desperation is primarily driven by fear. Yet both can show similarities in behavior such as rushing into the unknown with joyful abandon, irrational risk taking, and serial decision-making or commitments.
Ways to Recognize Desperation
Before we get too deep into the how & why of desperation, and what to do about it, how do you spot it? Certain ways desperation can express or manifest are pretty recognizable, like clinginess for example. However, the factor at the root of desperation, Fear, can take many guises. Whether in yourself or in someone you know, here are a few ways to recognize the trap of desperation and its patterns:
- Acting Out: attention seeking through negative or inappropriate behavior such as:
- Drama: No matter how small the situation or incident, the dramatist will exaggerate and blow it out of proportion
- Oppositional: call it what you will, a habit of contradicting and challenging is often asking you to prove yourself loyal and loving to silence their insecurities
- Pity Party: constantly looking for acceptance, comfort, and/or forgiveness by dwelling on minor slights, errors, or difficulties
- Extravagance: money can’t buy love, but to the desperate it can inspire guilt which is a major manipulation tool for those seeking to cement a relationship that’s still very early and uncertain.
- Hyper-Vulnerable: puts all of their prospects of survival (bank, house, car, job) in another’s hands without delay; willing to immediately turn their world upside down at the drop of a hat without any preparations for personal welfare, security, or survival.
- Incomplete: the desperate will often define a fulfilling relationship as two-halves becoming a whole; whereas a healthy relationship is actually two-wholes that create a third entity called The Relationship.
- Intrusive: the desperate have trouble respecting others privacy and one’s time; they want your constant intrusion and can’t imagine another not feeling this way. A habit of unannounced visits are one indicator.
- Martyrdom: it’s not a matter of being nice or giving, but rather giving or accommodating far too much too soon; seeks to do everything despite their own responsibilities or health.
- Need vs Want: wanting someone in their life is good, but needing someone means their sense of stability and ability to survive depends on someone else, not themselves. Significant fear of inadequacy, value, and competency often lurk.
- Over-Communicating: there is a time to share and a time to shut it, the desperate don’t know how to navigate problems with over-sharing (forced intimacy) and incessant communication (forced connection).
- Pleading: the desperate will plead and beg forgiveness and a second chance (or 3rd, 4th, etc) where most would have some semblance of dignity.
- Possessiveness: jealous of friends, family, and even children are perceived as a threat to the relationship
- Self-Victimizing: often used as bait to find a “white knight” to save them, uses online chat rooms and social media feeds or real life social situations to create acts of perceived harassment, slight, or harm taken against themselves.
- Serial Dating: you know the type, can never be without a partner and tends to find “the best partner ever” and ready to move across the country (or world) after 2-weeks. In the lifestyle we refer to them as collar collectors, pet collectors, wearing a “Velcro collar”, etc.
A Closer Look
Desperation is typically found in the root of fear, and like fear, desperation takes on many forms. While these various manifestations of desperation may share a similar root in fear, it can feel very different. I present below three example of the faces of fear behind desperation.
Perhaps one of the easier manifestations of desperation to recognize is neediness or clinginess. From some of our earliest phases of life, being protected and nurtured is required for our survival. This includes not just physical security, but also emotional security as well. The drive to be within a relationship, and never apart, is largely through the fear of being alone or abandoned as a dire threat to their survival. Feelings of emotional abandonment and/or isolation registers in one of the most primitive areas of our brain, once again the amygdala. This may also be true for feeling “set adrift” after a significant life change that removes the rigor and structure of a daily regimen. Stimulation of the amygdala sends us into a state of primal panic [Fear and panic in humans with bilateral amygdala damage. Nature Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1038/nn.3323]. To silence the panic, one may attach themselves to another quickly (often too quickly) or seek to maintain potentially toxic relationships regardless of its risk. The typical result is that because they are never alone to explore themselves, they often don’t have the opportunity to prove themselves capable of not just survival, but thriving success. One who is needy will rarely learn to be comfortable with themselves as a whole individual.
Attention Seeking & Drama
Another sign of desperation is in attention seeking and drama. Typically I have seen those that act out, instigate, or otherwise make unnecessary ripples in the otherwise calm waters as “attention seekers”. Part of the challenge is attention seers have not learned to distinguish between good attention and bad/unhealthy attention – but rather ANY attention is better than none. To understand this lets use a common example of a child. An infant relies on getting their parent’s attention for survival for basic needs. However, the more the infant’s needs are neglected the more the child associates getting attention with survival and safety. The resulting outcome is the development of a belief system that supports the necessary to go to whatever lengths to get attention [Wolff, P.H., Organization of behavior in the first three months of life. Res Publ Assoc Res Nerv Ment Dis, 1973]. What can complicate matters is that either apart from or in addition to early developmental needs, other forms of abandonment or trauma can produce similar responses. High stress situations where individuals face survival challenges in the event of either sudden or persistent needs can bring about similar associations. [A.K. Goenjian, et al., Prospective study of posttraumatic stress, anxiety, and depressive reactions after earthquake and political violence. Am J Psychiatry, 2000].
Many people tend to associate anxiety with over thinking or dwelling on negativity, and as such risk aversion. However a form of negative thinking can lead to just the opposite response and make one more impulsive and gravitate to greater risk taking. Desperation is often behind poor decision making and impulses that accompany poor outcomes. Anxious and negative mental chatter can give rise to finding any way to silence the noise and provide some peace or comfort. As such, some may make rash, hasty, and often regrettable decisions as a way of generating something else on which to focus. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a condition whose central feature is excessive and uncontrollable worrying. Typically, people with GAD report difficulty withstanding uncertainty and intense emotional discomfort. One characterization made in those suffering from GAD was an inability to make quick decisions when a situation calls for it. Yet those experiencing intense anxiety also indicated a high tendency towards impulsivity, emerging from a sense of “negative urgency” with an increased likelihood to engage in rash action in order to feel better “right now”. People who tended to worry a lot become impulsive when they are feeling unable to manage their emotions, but are not sufficiently motivated or driven given situations where deliberate decision making may be required [E.Pawluk, N.Koerner, et al., j. Personality and Individual Differences, 2013]. Further examination into possible explanations for impulsivity in those with GAD found a greater tendency to view uncertainty as intolerable and that feelings of distress were unbearable. Thus Uncertainty and Distress can act as triggers for impulsivity in people who worry excessively [E.Pawluk, N.Koerner, et al., j. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping. 2016].
Intense and Uncomfortable Feelings
Many people that struggle with the feelings of desperation and the situations that arise from them ask themselves “why does this keep happening to me?” The answer to that question, meant to provoke some degree of contemplation or reflection, is another question: “Are you running To something, or running From something…” This question may seem simple, but can be very hard to pin down if you are in the middle of the emotional tempest that is governing your actions.
It’s important to bear in mind that our emotions evolved as an “internal language” tens of thousands of years before we developed the use of symbols or words. While difficult to convey precisely to others, emotions inform us as to our situation in our environment by experiencing our feelings. Emotions or feelings however are not objective truths per se, rather just another piece of information about our state in the world. The strongest of our emotions are also the most primitive because they have a direct link to our survival.
Those who have heard my Primal Play workshop have the benefit of learning how to tap into these for play & scene purposes, and understand how primitive drivers can also control us. The primal emotional drivers (typically attributed to activation of the amygdala) tend to feature 5 key actions: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Feed, and Fuck. It sounds too base, but that’s exactly the point – it IS base and the most primitive and longest developed part of the human experience, and also therefore the most powerful because its purpose was to aid survival.
The How & Why of Desperation
We have long left the lives of dwelling in trees and caves and have since built over 7,000 living languages globally to communicate and explain our experiences. With symbol and language comes phenomena like thought, context, causality, and chains of reason. As detailed as these things may be, they can be distant and seemingly unimportant. Reason is the quiet speaker in the room when compared to that of Emotion.
The challenging thing about how we experience emotions regarding possible risk is that our primal survival response mechanisms get fully engaged. Part of developing ones Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is realizing that the amygdala, responsible for driving strong feelings to immediate action or impulse, does not know the difference between a very real and present physical threat and other kinds. To the primitive mind of the amygdala it’s all the same, be that an emotional threat, a remembered threat, or even issues conjured by imagination or fantasy. All threats are perceived as just as real. This can sometimes result in what is called Amygdala Hijacking; a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, which describes emotional responses which are immediate, overwhelming, and often “out of proportion”.
Bear in mind that simple survival emotions exist the way they do because they developed far prior to language or symbols. They are by nature harder to convey or explain, so the experience of feelings are powerful in order to drive us to Act. There wasn’t the means or the time to explain the WHY behind an emotional experience when faced with matters of survival. This holds true for us as individuals, families, or within a community. The response was necessarily visceral and primal, and thus required we move when demanded. Since then our neocortex has developed significantly, supplying us with rationale & logic, concepts & causality, and thus also symbol & language.
That is not to say, however, that these areas are well connected or have significant channels of internal communication. The Neocortex and the Amygdala are operating in parallel, one analyzing and the other responding, with the latter creating significantly stronger drives and impulses. It’s up to us to develop the skills (mindfulness) to make that dialog happen and investigate the drivers and motives of our feelings and actions.
Internal investigation is required because both our emotional and intellectual messages and inputs are valid and valuable. Neither is greater or “better” than the other, but they perform very different tasks and work in very different ways. If we can integrate the broader experience, together they inform us of our state in the world and our environment as well as our inner world and personal compass. Neither source is more or less valuable, they are within us, integral to us – both always present if we choose to acknowledge and listen to them.
So what are some of the factors behind desperation? There are many but I’m going to focus on those that have a body of research behind them.
It has been shown that there is convincing evidence for a role of the gut microbiota composition in the regulation of the stress hormone corticosterone (cortisol in humans) [Psychopharmacology, May 2015, Volume 232, Issue 10, pp 1793–1801]. It has been further shown that there is an important role of bacteria in gut-brain communication and stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression [National Academy of the Sciences, vol. 108 no. 38, Javier A. Bravo, 16050–16055].
GABA Deficient Anxiety:
Reactions to stress, and activation of the sympatheti nervous system give you feelings of anxiety, fear, restlessness and the inability to fall asleep because of racing thoughts and “what-if’s”. Normally GABA [an inhibitory neurotransmitter] is released to deactivate or inhibit these stress response effects [https://www.drlam.com/blog/about-gaba/15864/]. However, when insufficient in its production within the brain, GABA cannot help silence the self-talk and obsession associated with anxiety, leading to a state of panic.
Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) or “Burnout”
While still struggling for recognition within the medical community, the theory behind AFS is a chronic state of fatigue brought on by prolonged states of stress. Over time this depletes the adrenal gland’s ability to trigger the production of hormones responsible for helping us cope with stress and produce energy for the body to act to primal survival mechanisms (once again, as typically directed by the amygdala). Typically hormones that drop are adrenaline (epinephrine), DHEA, testosterone, pregnenolone, and others. The challenge is that AFS is not thoroughly researched and remains highly debated.
How to Overcome Desperation
Those looking for quick fixes and easy solutions will be greatly disappointed. Then again, there are RARELY ever easy answers and quick fixes, at least not those without significant cost to your long-term wellbeing. Like many psycho-emotional challenges, it takes fighting the problem on all fronts. Speaking from my own experience as well as those of others, any battle to regain control of your life requires strong commitment, enlisting a support network of others, and making lifestyle changes. There are answers, and here’s some things you can do about it:
In all honesty, building your skill in mindfulness is the best way to overcome the problem of Desperation behavior. Cultivating mindfulness, as strongly advocated by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn of UMass Medical School, has shown significant benefits through his work in integrative medicine. Such benefits include overall stress reduction, internal “silence” to take time to think and choose our responses, knowing your core or “true” self, depersonalizing situations, aiding the body’s natural healing process (or at least not causing inhibitions to them), improved sleep, etc. While typically based on Buddhist practices, a secular approach in developing mindfulness includes Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), and combining modalities of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Personally I find the best ways are adopting regular practices of Meditation (I like Zazen myself), Yoga, TaiChi & Martial Arts, etc.
Writing is the act of encoding what we experience in our “inner world” of thoughts and feelings into concepts and symbols. Writing also requires significant pathway activation, recruiting our language areas, fine motor control, the visual cortex, memory & recall, conceptualization, and imagination. This is why writing (and reading what you have written) is so impactful – it’s a veritable lightning storm within the brain. Writing for the purpose of helping one with feelings of desperation and panic often involves journaling to help you process your emotions by linking them to concepts and words. When we find that we can name a thing, we also feel that we can control a thing – and that phenomena often has a calming effect over time. Writing affirmations or mantras to be reviewed and recited also helps you make concrete choices in words we use that cement beliefs over time, and helps us break habits of repeating toxic phrases that gets us stuck into viewing the world or our lives in particular ways.
Note: the act of writing has been studied through fMRI and other techniques and is fairly well documented. Writing often involves the following regions: anterior cingulate cortex; cerebellum, particularly on the left (Angular Gyrus, Broca’s Area, Wernicke’s Area); hippocampal and parahippocampal regions of the medial temporal lobe; inferior parietal cortex, especially on the right hemisphere; lateral and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex; occipital lobe; parietal lobe; posterior cingulate/precuneus (PC); posterior middle/inferior temporal gyrus (pMTG/ITG); posterior midline area that includes posterior cingulate, retrosplenial, precuneus, and cuneus regions; ventral temporal cortex.
There are foods which create an environment within our bodies that can promote stress responses, and those that can help reduce the severity of stress responses. Things to minimize because they make stress response worse are foods that cause inflammation such as saturated fats, salt, refined carbohydrates, sugar, alcohol, etc. Learning to stay clear of stimulants also can help by not adding to the tendency to fall into a manic phase, such as avoiding or minimizing caffeine, certain cold medicines, cola, etc. Another big step is to learn to identify food sensitivities and intolerances which can put your body on high-alert and add to overall physical (and thus emotional) stress. Foods you can look for are lean proteins such as in chicken, turkey, and fish; fresh vegetables high in fiber and low in starch; foods that tend to reduce inflammation (olive oil, tomatoes, nuts, fatty fish, dark berries, ginger & turmeric, etc.); and foods which help restore your intestinal flora and are based on your genetic cultural background (for better compatibility) such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, miso, yogurt, etc. Using a journal or app to log your foods is also a great starting point to become more mindful of your choices. You don’t necessarily need to count and weigh everything – start small just by stating what choices you made for yourself and how you felt afterwards. Look for correlations between your food and how you feel.
Most people don’t like this one at all, but the reality is that exercise has so many benefits and comes in so many forms. For one, getting your exercise helps produce those wonderful “feel good” compounds and expend that energy which your primal panic mechanism is so busy creating. Jittery legs, nervous fingers or hands, highly chatty & talkative? These are signs of “nervous energy” from your body activating reserves of energy to act in some perceived threat response. Exercise gives you an outlet to use that energy productively. Exercise also has the benefit of looking to shut us down so we can rest and recover from physical exertion or exhaustion and therefore help us sleep better (see below). Exercise doesn’t have to mean a mindless struggle on the treadmill. The best kinds of exercise for the purpose of dealing with stress only means (A) engaging in physical activity that requires significant exertion to produce fatigue; and (B) requires enough concentration or focus as to take your mind off other concerns. Personally I enjoy martial arts and mountain biking because injury occurs if I don’t pay attention to everything happening right then and there, which squeezes out all the other nonsense. But it need not be extreme or punishing sports at all, you can put significant effort and attention into home renovation work, landscaping/gardening, spring/fall cleaning, etc. One trick is to wear a heart-rate monitor (preferably one with a chest strap, not just a watch or similar monitor) to measure your actual heart rate. You’d be surprised of the benefit you will get just by become more… wait for it… Mindful of the exercise you ARE getting.
Sometimes stress makes sleep easy – or impossible. Desperation tends to follow the panic response accompanied with insomnia. Exercise (above) can certainly help create the right internal chemistry to help you fall asleep. If I can’t sleep, I will “Dom my body” with extra hard tasks or exercise because if it has that much energy then I might as well spend it until it’s utterly depleted. I’ll show me not to sleep!! Other things you can do to help get the sleep your body Needs (even if it might not seem to want it) includes taking a relaxed slow pace getting ready for bed; avoiding screen time and sources of “blue light” which our eyes and brain interprets as daylight wakeup time; avoiding TV, movies, or games at least 60min before bed (if it’s something that gets your heart rate up, then give it even more time to settle down); making a list of your to-do tasks on paper to get them out of your head; journaling before bed to dump thoughts or emotions out of your head; etc. There are plenty of good resources out there on tips for sound sleep – you just have to make the choices to help yourself.
I know this can sound cheesy, so please bear with me a moment. In my post on building confidence, I talk about how a big part of our primal panic response is due to a sense of threat. Another way of putting it is that feeling highly vulnerable is often experienced as feeling insecure. If anxiety or panic ensues, and desperation settles in, its usually because we feel like we need a solution NOW. Often those that are struggling with desperation are looking to others as the solution, versus within themselves (since they don’t feel they have the skills, knowledge, etc). The trick of fear (anxiety, panic, etc) is that it distorts reality; while the problem may seem to be following you, there’s some really good news – YOU are also the solution.
When we feel vulnerable we also don’t feel confident in being able to cope or manage. As such it’s likely we look for help or cope in other ways, sometimes in healthy ways and sometimes not. The key to feeling confident in being able to deal with feeling at risk or vulnerable is by practicing your ability to manage it. Confidence is not just something you have without having built the skill. Confidence without competence in a skill or way to manage things is called arrogance. But if you invest the time and effort to build the skills you need, which often requires just admitting you need to learn it and practice it like any other skill, then you also build confidence. Confidence follows competence, not the other way around. Sometimes that means you “fake it till you make it” or as Amy Cuddy says it “Fake it till you Become it” [https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are].
It is my sincere hope that this has been in some way valuable for you. Maybe you know someone struggling with these issues, or maybe you see some of these thing within yourself. As I said, while there are rarely easy answers and quick fixes, the solution is You. Resolve to make decisions, not just act. Resolve to enlist those that may help you. Resolve to favor choices for the “Good-for-me!” bucket on the scale. Resolve to see challenges as what they are, only challenges, and that nothing (even our worst problems) last forever. It takes fighting the problem on all fronts, and hopefully this has given you a few more tools to enlist.
– Sir Vice
© Limits Unleashed 2017