The Helicopter Analogy of Mental Health

I have decided that helicopter controls make the perfect analogy for mental health. When under stress, we have a lot in common!

  • When descending (settling) under power, a thing called a vortex ring state can occur where you’re basically sucking yourself down along with all the air around you. If you don’t escape your own downwash, you crash. Paradoxically, struggling against it by applying more power, which should theoretically pull you upward, just makes the problem worse: you fall faster. You can’t go up, and you can’t go down, so the only way out is to move to the side.
    • Sometimes you feel like you’re spiraling out of control. The harder you think about it, the worse it seems to get. In such times, all you can do is step out of your own downwash—distract yourself, step out of your routine, or even ask a friend for help. If you’ve got coping mechanisms lined up ahead of time, these can help a lot, so now is a good time to think about what those could be.
  • If you go up too fast, the rotors over you—which are designed to flex—will actually bend down enough to strike your own tail, which will also cause you to crash. To counteract this, you should ascend more slowly or move laterally while you ascend to direct the acceleration in multiple directions.
    • It’s not only okay but recommended to make gradual and measured progress toward a goal. This also means that taking an indirect path there may also be the safest.
  • Hovering is the hardest part of learning to fly a helicopter. Aerodynamic forces are constantly buffeting the helicopter in every direction. Moving any one control to counteract these forces has implications in the other axes which involve touching the other controls too.
    • Our mental health tends not to remain in a steady state either. We naturally fluctuate between highs and lows. But as with flight, we should always practice maintaining some control over time so as not to veer too far into either extreme, since these can lead to an endless series of overcorrections.

I have probably stretched the metaphor too far already, so I’m not even going to force retreating blade stall into a one-step-forward-one-step-back analogy.

On Being Sick

I’m sick, but I don’t know why.

I’ve probably been sick a while, but I got a new doctor who managed to prove something is wrong. I’ve felt bad for a long time, but it’s slowly gotten bad enough that it’s becoming difficult to function normally. I’ve been trying things out for a long time, seeing if vitamins or eating/avoiding certain foods would help, but so far, nothing’s worked, and now I can see that it’s not going to be a matter of what I eat.

I don’t really know much, or else I’d share what it is. I don’t really want to share specifics like lab results, but I can share a bit about the subjective experience. I know I feel like I’m on the edge of exhaustion at all times, and I can’t seem to rest enough to recover. In fact, if I exert myself, I still feel it days down the line. I also have back problems, which has caused permanent numbness and burning in my right leg, but that’s probably unrelated.

Well, unrelated? Nothing’s unrelated. Just like everyone around me, I can perceive something’s not right, but I only see a slice of a cycle that’s been in place for a while. Being sick has led to being sedentary, which has hurt my back further, which has prevented me from moving and cooking properly, which has led to weight gain, which has further fed back into the beginning of the cycle.

Maybe cycle isn’t the right word, either. Maybe it’s more like a snowball. Once it’s moving, it’s hard to stop, but if you don’t stop it, it keeps getting more dangerous. I don’t think my problem is anything serious enough to wipe out a village yet, and hopefully, with this awesome doctor on my side, we’ll figure out what’s going on and find a good fix. We’re already following up, so I’m hopeful.

Wait, Maybe This Is a Migraine after All

I am kind of unsure why I was so insistent in the past that the headaches I regularly deal with couldn’t possibly meet the definition of a migraine. And I get asked that sort of question pretty regularly because I deal with debilitating headaches pretty regularly.

I guess I was getting hung up on some of the weirder symptoms that my doctor asked me about (auras, photophobia). But let’s look at what I do experience for a moment.

  • They’re relatively frequent. Sometimes a few times a month.
  • They’re universally relegated to one side of my head. Almost always the left side.
  • They usually last a day or a few days.
  • They very slowly pulse, ebbing in waves of pain for a moment before flowing into a momentary remission.
  • I’m beginning to realize they are often triggered by stress and anxiety. I noticed one come on strong just after a stressful, depressing meeting the other day (smack dab in the middle of a relatively stressful week for me). On the other hand, during my December holiday break, I was completely headache-free.
  • Most importantly, they’re pretty bad, and on some days, I just know I won’t be able to function well. Such as today, I’m taking off work unexpectedly to deal with it. (With all the appertaining guilt and anxiety about that fact.)

If Wikipedia is to be believed, I am pretty sure that I am in fact dealing with a true migraine (as much as the idea of “true” and “false” diagnoses bothers me).

I reckon it’s time to discuss this with my therapist or even my doctor, but I’m not looking forward to what I imagine and predict will be a struggle to be taken seriously and get some kind of medicinal help.