"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
December 7, 2012
Why is overreacting or not emotionally reacting so common in people with mental illness?
by Sarah Hancock

Why is overreacting or not emotionally reacting so common in people with mental illness?

This past week was hard for a lot of people with whom I work. I work at a Clubhouse which is a psychosocial rehabilitation center for people with mental illness. The majority of people I work with at the Clubhouse have a serious diagnosis. I’m not saying that one diagnosis is more serious than another, what I am saying is that people who attend the clubhouse are generally those who are relatively new to the recovery journey. Or, maybe I should say, they are in the beginning stages of their recovery, regardless of how long they’ve been on their journey.

Isn’t it the same for each of us? For example, my father is an accountant. For him, balancing a checkbook is as easy as making toast. For me? Regardless of the fact that I’ve been trying to figure it out for the past 20 years, I’m embarrassed to say I can’t. Each month, no matter how hard I try, I may as well be learning it for the very first time. I have dyscalculia (it’s like dyslexia, but with numbers).

On the other hand, if you asked my father to make something from a spool of wire and handful of beads, he might refer you to the scoutmaster, whereas I would easily and eagerly craft a beautiful necklace. (How’s that for pride?)

Our lives are much the same way. Some people without mental illness are baffled when a loved one diagnosed with a mental illness overreacts or doesn’t react to a situation. However, we all react differently depending on how we perceive what is happening. Emotions are subjective. Just because we feel at different intensities, doesn’t negate what we feel.

When I moved to Rexburg from San Diego and experienced my first winter, I thought I was going to die of frostbite at 40 degrees. My roommates from Idaho laughed at this California Girl, telling me it wasn’t cold! As the temperature dropped to -20F, I could never get warm, even when sitting right next to the dorm furnace vent. When I went home for Christmas, I think I wore shorts and sandals daily -- in 40 degree weather -- while my family was bundled up in their warm jackets, scarfs and mittens. I’m sure my mother was trying to bundle me up the entire time I was home, living every mother’s adage, “I’m cold! Go put your sweater on!” Who was I to tell her she wasn’t really cold? No matter how hot I felt wearing that sweater in Sunny San Diego, I could not convince her she was hot, too!

Sometimes my loved ones don’t understand when I react differently than they do. When my husband’s father passed, I was the one who calmly called the sisters, made the program, set up chairs at the funeral, helped grandchildren reconcile their loss and offered as many tissues as I could during the family’s distress and mourning. I did not cry. In fact, I was quite genuinely chipper. It wasn’t because I didn’t mourn my father-in-law’s passing; it wasn’t because I didn’t love him. It was because, for whatever reason, my emotions weren’t processing things at the same rate everyone else did. Five months later, after a very fun date, my husband asked me what was wrong and I broke down sobbing because I missed his dad. On the other hand, I’ve been in situations where I’ve cried my eyes out or gotten enraged over things which my loved ones just kind of roll their eyes at. No matter how much they told me they weren’t sad, or they weren’t angry, they couldn’t convince me I wasn’t either. I felt sad. I felt angry. It was a real emotion for me regardless of whether they felt it or not.

When someone you love, serve or work with “overreacts,” listen. Just listen. We can’t tell anyone how they should or shouldn’t feel. Just like my roommates couldn’t tell me I wasn’t cold and I couldn’t convince my mom she was hot. Getting upset with someone for not reacting the same way you do is like me expecting my dad to make a necklace, or him expecting me to balance a checkbook, despite the fact that I can’t conceptually wrap my head around it. Gratefully, he can buy necklaces and I can use a banking App.

We all have different strengths, abilities and insights. We are in different locations and on different journeys with the same destination. As my dad likes to put it, “if we were all the exact same, some of us wouldn’t be necessary.”

We are all necessary! We all have something unique to offer. Keeping that in mind, when we build on one another’s strengths, one another’s weaknesses aren’t as apparent. When weaknesses aren’t as apparent, we can focus on what is really important and not get as frustrated with the smaller stuff.

If you would like to learn more about dyscalculia, check out the National Center for Learning Disabilities (http://www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/dyscalculia/what-is-dyscalculia).

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About Sarah Hancock

Sarah Price Hancock, a graduate of San Diego State University's rehabilitation counseling Masters of Science program with a certificate psychiatric rehabilitation.

Having embarked on her own journey with a mental health diagnosis, she is passionate about psychiatric recovery. She enjoys working as a lector for universities, training upcoming mental health professionals. Sarah also enjoys sharing insights with peers working to strengthen their "recovery toolbox." With proper support, Sarah knows psychiatric recovery isnít just possible ó itís probable.

Born and raised in San Diego, California, Sarah served a Spanish-speaking and ASL mission for the LDS Church in the Texas Dallas Mission. She was graduated from Ricks College and BYU. Sarah currently resides in San Diego and inherited four amazing children when she married the man of her dreams in 2011. She loves writing, public speaking, ceramics, jewelry-making and kite-flying ó not necessarily in that order.

NAMI San Diego's Fall Keynote Address: Living in Recovery with Schizoaffective Disorder

Having recently moved into a new ward, she currently serves as a visiting teacher.

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