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6 Ways Going on Autopilot and Mental Illness are Connected

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I’ve been on autopilot for almost six months. Let’s talk about that.

Wake-up, take meds, go to bathroom, brush teeth, sit on couch and watch TV — repeat x1000.

It happens to the best of us, regardless of any sort of condition. I suspect though that for those of us diagnosed with a mental illness, as I am, this is a common struggle.

This isn’t my first time here, but it might be my longest. I can definitively blame COVID-19 for some of it. The new societal norms of COVID likely triggered it for me, but as someone diagnosed with major depressive disorder and who has symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I pretty well place the blame on their shoulders for keeping it up for so long.

I haven’t written anything since March, and I love writing. I haven’t been doing drawings, photography, Lego building or any other of my creative pursuits for just as long. I haven’t been able to read a book. I’ve washed the same 20 pieces of clothing repeatedly. I’ve streamed more shows than I can name and could tell you very little plot line. I’ve gone to work, gone through the day, come back to my couch, on repeat. For days and days, weeks and weeks and months and months.

Are you there autopilot? It’s me, Heidi. Let’s break up.

What is it autopilot and why do we do it?

“Going on autopilot” can be one of those basic phrases we hear in daily life, but don’t precisely have a definition for. Autopilot in the true sense of the word refers to a computer system that automatically controls particular aspects of airplanes and ships. As far as humans go, it means to go about life without much thought, doing things mindlessly or simply out of habit.

It’s undeniable this is normal and can even be helpful. If every day we had to slowly think through all the steps we take to wash our hair or make scrambled eggs, life wouldn’t move very quickly. This was the whole point of the dreaded times table quizzes and WPM typing tests (p.s. I’m old). It can also help us get boring stuff done, for example cleaning while also being able to concentrate on something more fun like music or TV.

Autopilot can also be a coping mechanism that becomes unhealthy.

Unhealthy coping is generally born out of past experiences, and it’s likely it was quite useful at some point. It may even still be OK in small doses. In my experience though, mental illness doesn’t mix well with doing things in moderation, hence the past six months.

How are autopilot and mental illness connected? I’d like to offer the following thoughts:

1. Dissociation is basically autopilot to the extreme.

Dissociation occurs in dissociative disorders and is also a common symptom of PTSD and certain personality disorders. It can also play a roll in depression and anxiety.  Dissociation is a disconnection from the self. In my case, I can feel so disconnected that I stare at the wall for hours.

2. The “inability to focus and concentrate” is on many of the mental illness symptom lists.

I know for myself this plays big into the autopilot struggle. For example, I’ll find for months I can’t concentrate on a book and will instead mindlessly binge through multiple Netflix series as a result.

3. Anhedonia is a symptom of depression referring to the inability to feel pleasure.

If nothing interests you any more, going on autopilot can seem pretty appealing, as it has for me. I’ve had times where the things I typically love such as art, photography, drawing and even writing bring me no happiness or enjoyment. My thinking then often becomes if I can’t concentrate or even enjoy anything, I may as well do some wall staring — and as I mentioned above, I’ll do just that.

Image of a bed with the words "The problem isn't that I can't isolate... the problem is that depression ALWAYS wants me to."

4. Another symptom that can pop up in mental illness is the “inability to make decisions.”

Again our good friend autopilot works well for this. Can’t decide? No problem, never make any decisions again by just doing the same thing over and over again. It’s boring, but it’s easy.

5. Withdrawal from society is a huge player in many mental illnesses, and is bound to feed into our old friend autopilot.

Friends, family and society at large have this pesky habit of trying to get us to do stuff, and often times that stuff is “new and interesting.” Like checking out the latest movie or trying an improved menu item. Avoiding people = avoiding experiences = keeping autopilot happy and safe.

6. Sleep and autopilot are twins.

Being tired and sleeping too much is another common symptom. And maybe it’s just me, but not a lot of thought occurs once I’m sleeping. As a person who struggles with depression, I’ve done my fair share of snoozing. Sometimes yes it’s because I’m exhausted from fighting battles with my mind, but more often than not it’s to get away from those battles and the pain. Sleep is an escape, and it takes little effort. It also perpetuates depression in an unfortunate loop, but that’s a whole other issue.

There are probably many other ways autopilot and mental illness are connected, but those are the ones that came to mind for me.

Since you’ve made it this far, I’d also like to share some suggestions on combatting this, because the fact that I’m even writing this should be a clue that my six months of hypnosis are now over. Here are my suggestions:

1. Do something totally different

I’m sitting writing this on a farm where I booked myself a little staycation. I’ve never done anything like this before. Low and behold, since being here I’ve done photography, gone on walks, read over a 100 pages of a book, written this — and I’m still here two more days. Yes I could have just turned on the TV and stayed in a type of “vacation autopilot,” but the point is I didn’t. Sometimes we need to jump-start the brain, if it likes it or not.

A little trip like this isn’t possible for all, but there are other things you can do, even with COVID restrictions. Go for a walk on a path you’ve never taken, listen to the podcast you’ve always wanted to hear, try cooking something from another culture, write letters to your relatives. I know it’s not easy to do; trust me, as someone who sometimes battles to just put on socks, I get it. Regardless, by pushing yourself just a little bit, you may find you can escape the doldrums.

2. Enlist Help

Remember the point about isolation? Let those pesky people into your life! Those friends who like doing stuff and trying new things are who you need; don’t push them away. If COVID stops you from in-person meetings, you can still visit online or on the phone. Ask that “annoying person” in your life if they have something they’ve been meaning to learn or try, and join them in doing it. They will encourage you and your relationship will likely grow.

Don’t have a lot of friends? No problem! This is the perfect time to make some new ones. With many people and programs being forced online, this can be your opportunity to make new connections all while avoiding some of the awkward in-person stuff. The Mighty itself can be a great place to meet new people; you can try joining a group or just post a hello.

3. Accept It

This is likely not a suggestion you were expecting, and that is understandable considering it seems counter-productive to what I’ve been saying. So hear me out. “Accepting it” has to do with the theory of “radical acceptance.” Radical acceptance suggests that if we can accept reality, as it is, we release ourselves from the suffering of trying to deny its existence. Sounds simple, but it’s actually pretty hard.

It doesn’t mean you approve of the issue or you don’t try to change, but that you don’t fight with reality. It is how it is. An exciting side effect of this is that by being honest and compassionate with ourselves, a lot of magic can happen, and it can allow for more critical thinking. Remember when I mentioned unhealthy coping? If you can get yourself into the mindset of radical acceptance you may be able to uncover when and why you developed autopilot as a coping method, and even more exciting, you may be able to come up with a more healthy approach. I’m  personally still a work in progress with this, but I’m making steps (sidenote: this can be great stuff to work through with a therapist!)

Do you struggle with going on autopilot? Have you ever connected it to a mental health diagnosis you may have? Have you found that the “new normal” of COVID-19 has triggered autopilot in you, or made it more difficult for you to get out of? Have you discovered why you go into autopilot mode? What has helped you to get out of it? I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions!

If you enjoyed this article, please take a moment to check out some of my other articles here on The Mighty. If you’d like to follow along with my journey, you can find me on Instagram as @mentalhealthyxe.

Header photo by Thomas Mowe on Unsplash

Originally published: August 12, 2020
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