“I’m going to disappear for a few days,” I told my friends last Sunday, laying on the floor of my apartment. “I’m okay, I’m just going to disappear.”
For good reasons, I don’t think they necessarily believed me. I was being a little dramatic that night and was quickly approaching an emotional meltdown. It had been a long day. A long week. I was really tired.
But I meant it.
And I did.
As of writing this, I’ve stepped outside twice – to drop my roommate off at a building, and to pick up my ClickList at the local Kroger. Notice that neither of these required me leaving the safety of my car. They also didn’t require much talking or human interaction (unless you count trying to drive through campus during pedestrian rush hour, which deserves a post of its own). And you know what? That’s exactly how I want it to be.
Some of you might have noticed that I haven’t written in a while, either. I have two reasons for that – the first is that I caught a stomach bug and during my recovery, I just had no energy to write. The second reason is that lately, I’ve been feeling emotionally brittle – something easily broken by the smallest shift in the current.
The way I described it to my mom is this: if you’ve ever been skiing, you know that there is a moment near the beginning where you’re being tugged by the boat, and in the span of about five seconds you are either going to be rocketing above the waves having the time of your life, or you’re going to wipe out and have water shoot up your nose at 45 miles per hour. These last few weeks I’ve been in that state of tension – yes, anxiety does have a major role to play in that – but there’s more than simply being anxious.
I want to take a moment and talk about emotional brittleness.
The age-old belief that women are emotional more emotional than men is worn out and wrong in a lot of ways (I know a fair few unemotional women who are perfectly functioning human beings, nothing wrong with them), but I do think that there is some merit to understanding where the highs and lows of extreme emotions come from, and why we might see them a lot in women, especially young women just starting out on their own. Take into account that these are just observations of mine and that I’m not a clinician of any sort, and we should make it through this okay.
Right off the bat, hormones do a lot in the way of emotional fluxuations. We females know this. From about the age of eleven, girls are taught how to get through emotional roller-coaster-like symptoms, such as excessive crying or sudden, unexplainable rage. We blame it on hormones, changing bodies, new routines, whatever. And some of this really is the case, for sure, so we shouldn’t disregard that at all. But I think there is more to it than that.
After all, what makes a stable-minded woman walk into a room she just cleaned, see a sock on the floor, and burst out into tears? What makes a reasonably happy one hear about slight inconvenience and absolutely lose her mind? What is it that caused me, a generally happy person who loves to spend time with the people who are special to her, want to close the door and hide under a blanket for three days in a row?
Similar to a social burnout which many introverts (like myself) often feel, emotional brittleness can be described as an emotional state in which one feels fragile, overwhelmed, and unable to get a strong grasp of any one thought or feeling. For me, it is when I feel in the least control of my words my actions. Everything makes me cry. Everything frightens me. People who I genuinely enjoy talking to become terrifying, because I don’t know how to feel when I’m around them. It’s like my social-situation sensors are in low power mode. Consequently, I feel exhausted and want to hide in my room for a few days.
Unlike social burnout, however, emotional brittleness isn’t something that just goes away with time. It stays with you – in my case for several days of off-and-on waves – and just when you think you’re better, it comes back. I’m not always anxious when I feel this way, especially when I have the support and understanding of my friends and family, but if anxiety makes an appearance, it’s often worse than ever.
For me, emotional brittleness is characterized by a sudden desire to shut every window into my life for the purpose of regaining some kind of control over my habits, my physical state, my mental state, or some combination of those listed. It happens suddenly, as if in a panic, and what happens next is that I cut off communication with everyone, regardless of the consequences, and reduce my comings and goings to a bare minimum. If not kept in check, this type of behavior leaves me worse off than when I started, and many of the people on the other side have no idea what to do with me. Often their feelings are hurt, or they don’t understand why I’m doing what I’m doing.
Yeah, I don’t either.
Fortunately, there are a few ways that we can deal with this so that everyone is still happy and healthy and on their way to maintaining a happy life and positive relationships. They may be difficult to implement (especially if you’re in the throes of an episode, as I’ve been in the last few days) but they can save you a lot of cleanup in the aftermath.
Most importantly, it’s good to maintain some communication with the outside world. This does not mean attending parties or clubbing with friends – no, what I mean is that you need to check in with someone just so that they know you are okay. Take time to be alone, to not reach out, to not have an external inputs, but be wary of complete isolation. My general rule is to send one text to someone on the really bad days – my mom, for example, or my best friend – just to exercise some healthy communication, and to help them leave me alone by letting them know that I’m good, I just need space.
The second thing to do is to maintain hygiene. This might sound a little strange, but often when we reach the isolation stage of emotional bitterness, hygiene goes out the window, and our overall health can decline. If you find yourself in this place, there are a few things to absolutely keep doing:
- Shower regularly. Forget the whole “dry shampoo” thing – showering is good for circulation and will get you on your feet for a little while, which is great if you’ve been vegging all day. Use bodywash. Moisturize. Make sure that your body is taken care of.
- Continue with skin care and teeth care regimens. You are working on emotional healing here – and I can assure you with 100% certainty that you WILL NOT get better if you don’t take care of yourself. It’s hard to feel emotionally strong when your body does not.
- Tidy up – even if it’s just a little. Tidying up our spaces helps us to tidy up our minds. Especially when I’m in this place, it helps to generate a feeling of control over my life, which is often what sends me spiraling down this path, anyway.
Finally, you need to know when to get help. A burnout resulting from emotional brittleness is often cured by a few days of quiet and solitude, but if it doesn’t, there may be something deeper going on, in which case it’s entirely okay to involve the professionals. Believe me, it’s not nearly as horrible as it sounds.
Finally, I want to take a moment to talk to the people who DON’T experience this. Right – you’re probably reading this because you’ve felt some of these symptoms, but if not, chances are you know someone who has, and their behavior has confused you. While I won’t try to explain to you what’s going on in their heads (because it’s different for everyone) what I can do is give you a few ways you can help speed up their recovery.
The most important thing to do is give them space. Chances are, even if they enjoy your company, they probably want to be isolated from everyone, which is nothing personal. Unless they ask you to be there, it’s probably okay to let them incubate on their own for a while. They’ll come back to you when they’re ready, don’t worry.
There is a small caveat to that, however, which I mentioned above: communication is STILL key, and it might be smart, depending on the person, to reach out once a day just to touch base. You don’t even need to ask them how they’re doing – sometimes sending a text which does not require a response (like a “hey, just thinking about you” greeting) is extremely gratifying, and though the recipient may not reply, know for sure that they are grateful for it at some level.
Finally, be ready for them when they come back. Chances are, they won’t be gone long if they are left to their own devices. We introverts are sturdy creatures for sure, but only if we take care of ourselves. When we emerge from our caves, we might be more talkative than normal, or have unusual bursts of energy. Be ready for that.
In the end, it’s important not to generalize when it comes to these situations, because even though the majority of people who suffer like this might be women (because let’s face it, women take on a lot of stuff to stress them out) not every emotional response can be attributed to hormones or even the environment. If you forget everything I’ve written so far and just remember one thing, let it be this: emotional brittleness occurs after a long period of small, mildly upsetting things happen and accumulate over time. The definition of “upsetting things” can be very flexible (for me, having a ton of people over at my place all the time isn’t upsetting, but is definitely exhausting) and without adequate time to recover, I snap.
The best (and worst) part is that this doesn’t just happen to women – it can happen to anyone! It also means that when this happens to someone you know, there’s probably more than “hormones” under the surface, and I think that’s a lot easier to talk about.
Thank you for reading. I hope this post was helpful and uplifting. How do you with emotional brittleness? I can’t wait to hear from you!