Mental illness can be incredibly frustrating – impacting all areas of our lives and making it harder to do things that we want or have previously been able to do.
What Is Frustration?
The Oxford dictionary defines being frustrated as being annoyed or impatient because you can’t achieve what you want. It’s often linked with anger, annoyance, and stress. Many definitions of frustration describe situations where we’re blocked from doing something that we want to do either by external or internal factors. A common example of an external factor is being stuck in traffic. The traffic jam is external to us – we might be able to travel via a different route but we can’t fix the traffic jam. An example of an internal factor would be struggling with time management. This struggle could mean that, more often than not, we arrive later than planned for appointments, meetings, get-togethers with friends.
What Does It Feel Like?
Frustration can feel similar to anger, fear, stress, annoyance, or rage. We might feel a though there’s lots of ‘stuff’ in us and we can’t get it out. Physically we might need to move. To kick out at something, or exercise until we’re exhausted. We might want to shout or scream. Physically we might feel hot, our heart beats faster, we could feel tearful, tense and/or shaky.
Frustration With Being Unwell
Anyone who’s had flu will recognise the feeling of being frustrated with being unwell. It’s frustrating to be in a position where we want to do something but our body just can’t play ball.
Mental illness is no different. The impact that it has on our life can be immensely frustrating. Symptoms can affect our performance at work, our ability to care for our family members, our confidence, our friendships, and all other parts of our life.
Illness can be expensive. Prescriptions aren’t cheap. Even if we use a prescription pre-payment certificate, the cost of a year’s worth of prescriptions alone soon adds up. There are other expenses, too, such as any aids we need to buy, and the expense of relying on ‘convenience’ items such as ready meals.
It also takes time. Everything takes longer when we’re unwell because we’re dealing with our thoughts, our muscles might ache and we often feel sluggish and slow. Often we need to spend time picking up prescriptions and attending appointments, too. They’re there to help us, but still add extra things to fit into our week.
All these effects of our illness can be frustrating.
Frustrated With Ourselves
Many of us carry a lot of ‘self-stigma’. We say things to ourselves that we wouldn’t dream of saying to a loved one. If a friend or family member went through a rough patch, we’d probably be kind to them and offer them gentle support. In all likelihood, we’d tell them to go easy on themselves and not to expect as much of themselves as they do when well.
However, when it comes to ourselves, many of us are less understanding. Our internal monologue might go something along the lines of ‘snap out of it’, ‘pull yourself together’, and ‘other people have it so much worse, sort yourself out’.
We criticise ourselves for being unwell, blame ourselves for our symptoms, and internally repeat stigmatising phrases to ourselves over and over again.
Struggling With ‘Simple’ Things
A common source of frustration when we’re unwell is how difficult seemingly ‘simple’ things have become. There might be things we’ve done for the majority of our lives without a second thought, that now require time, preparation and thought. For example, we might have had a fantastic memory but now need to write everything down. We could have been the most confident kid in class growing up, but we currently struggle to leave the house.
These things can contribute to frustration with ourselves, our illness, and the world in general.
Sometimes we feel ‘stuck’ or ‘trapped’ by our illness. We might desperately want to do something but feel unable to.
Sometimes we spend a while unable to think or move. The frustration surrounding the ‘stuck’ feeling can exacerbate it.
It’s hard to help others to understand because they can’t see what’s in our head. We don’t always understand either, so we can’t explain it to them. As much as it might be frustrating for someone who’s trying to help us, it’s also frustrating for us, because we feel trapped in a cycle of wanting to do something, feeling unable to, becoming frustrated that we feel unable to, deciding that we should ‘just do it’ and feeling unable to ‘just do it’. As the cycle continues, our frustration often builds.
Taking It Out On Ourselves
Sometimes we cope with frustration by taking it out on ourselves.
We might deliberately hurt ourselves. Or engage with a more passive act that still has an impact on our health, such as strictly limiting our diet, using alcohol, using drugs, over-exercising or over-eating.
We might unintentionally hurt ourselves. Sometimes we lash out and accidentally hurt ourselves in the process.
It doesn’t have to be a physical act. The way we speak to ourselves can have a huge impact on how we feel, and if we’re constantly talking down to ourselves then our confidence can suffer and it can be harder to improve our mood.
Taking It Out On Others
Sometimes we take our frustration out on other people. We lash out at them either using physical force or by shouting or screaming at them. We might deliberately provoke arguments or fights. Our frustration could come out as stress and we start piling lots of criticism on others for not living up to our standards.
We might push people away and isolate ourselves from them; stop replying to messages and going to social events. We could be deliberately cruel to try and get them to leave us alone.
If we take our frustration out on ourselves or others we might regret our actions at some point. This regret can lead to us criticising and becoming frustrated with ourselves for ‘not coping better’. The cycle of frustration, acting out, regret and frustration then continues on and on, over and over.
Coping With Frustration In The Moment
There are ways that we can cope with frustration without hurting ourselves or others.
Being patient, slowing down, and pausing are difficult skills to learn, but they can give us the space to allow our frustration to dissipate. Various techniques can help us to do this such as taking deep breathes, square breathing, or counting.
We might find it helpful to release our feelings. This could be through exercise (as long as we don’t overdo it), angrily scribbling on a sheet of paper and ripping it up, splattering some paint, throwing a ball against a wall for a bit, or singing loudly to some loud, angry music.
Some of us might find that those actions escalate our feelings and that, for us, it’s more effective to soothe ourselves and calm ourselves down. We could wrap ourselves in a duvet as tightly as possible, practice mindfulness, get a hot drink, find a pet to stroke, take 5 minutes to watch our fish swim around their tank or take our shoes off and head into the garden to walk on our grass with bare feet.
Sometimes it’s helpful to accept that we feel frustrated, let ourselves feel it, and wait for it to pass until we feel calmer.
Coping With Frustration Longer Term
Longer-term, we can learn techniques to manage our frustration.
Identifying the times we feel frustrated, and the thing(s) that have triggered it, can help us to work on the root cause(s), and reach the point where we’re able to overcome them or manage them better.
Talking to someone can help. They might be able to see things from a different perspective which can help us to learn to see things from other’s perspectives. There are also skills and techniques we can learn to change our thinking patterns and bring our frustration down more quickly when it flares up.
Managing our expectations and adjusting to our ‘new normal’ can be important when learning to cope with illness-related frustration. We might be ill for a while and then recover, or mental illness might be something that we have to manage for the majority of our life. If we’re not well then that will affect our ability to study or complete our work to the standard that we would if we were well. Understanding that ‘success’ might look different at times when we’re more unwell can help us to be kinder to ourselves and to recognise that on the whole, we’re doing okay.
It Will Pass
Frustration will always pass. At the time, it can feel all-encompassing, but it will always fade.
It’s important to be kind and gentle with ourselves. No matter what our illness or anyone else tells us, our illness is not our fault. The symptoms we’re experiencing are not a choice. We haven’t caused it and we didn’t ask for it. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate, it affects people of all ages from all walks of life; it’s not our fault we’re unwell.
We deserve kindness and care both from ourselves and from others. It might be frustrating right now, but we can get through this. We are not alone.
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