Are you a boiling frog?
Dr Stewart Hase, Consulting Psychologist, diorablue.
There is a fable that, if you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out. Smart frog! But if you put the frog into water around its own body temperature, it will sit there quite comfortably and boil to death as you gradually heat the water. The unaware frog!
While there are a couple of ways of interpreting this story, I want to concentrate on the mental and physical health space.
One of the best examples, and perhaps most relevant to the reader, is that of stress. I quite commonly meet people in my clinical and coaching work who are boiling frogs, and suffering from depression and/or anxiety, as well as feeling very physically run down. When I hear their story, it is clear that the stress has been evident for a long time and ,very gradually, the person has deteriorated. One of the reasons that people didn’t seek help is that they failed to notice what was happening, as the blow torch gradually burned away. Their partner or friends may have made comments but these have been ignored.
Sleep, often the first sign that something is wrong, starts to be disturbed, resulting in increasing fatigue and frustration. This then leads to avoiding exercise because of tiredness, as well as time constraints. As the pressure increases people start to get agitated and the fuse gets shorter. Tiredness and agitation interfere with relationships and the stress increases as a result. The body starts to release hormones in an effort to cope but these create damage to the body including the immune system. And we feel even worse as a result.
The person tries to work harder, to catch up and becomes even more fatigued. Decisions start to be affected and mistakes are made. Performance drops off at work as the brain becomes more inefficient and preoccupied with surviving, and performance is impacted in other places as the libido disappears.
The harder the person tries the more the stress rises. Stress diminishes the appetite and the person loses weight or eats rubbish food and puts on weight, which makes them feel even worse about themselves. Life stops being fun and fun disappears from life due to increased effort at work and fatigue. There is no time to rest or to lift the mood by doing things that used to make the person feel good. The only thing we think about is work and what we need to do. The furrowed brow becomes a permanent fixture. Other avoid them.
The interesting thing is that this is a slow process and its not until someone tells the person how ill they look or a health event occurs, such as depression, panic attacks, cancer, stroke, heart disease or a severe infection. At that point the water has boiled. Up until then, the person just doesn’t notice.
From a mental health angle, it is likely that part of the reason for our rising epidemic of depression, anxiety and self-mediation with drugs such as alcohol, is that we have become slowly boiling frogs.
There is a useful idea in psychology called the JND or Just Noticeable Difference. That is the point when we can notice things like changes in temperature, pressure or pain, for example. It also applies to mental and physical health. We need to become more aware of the JND, become more sensitive to when something is just not quite right with us.
And, more importantly (particularly for men), we need to not only recognise it but not ignore it or fob it off as an aberration. We need to do something straight away, as we would if we had a painful elbow. We’d look after it.
This might mean turning down the blow torch: no job is worth severe depression, a wrecked relationship or a heart attack. It might mean using some strategies to restore equilibrium such as a holiday, going home early, not taking work home for a week or two, increasing exercise, learning relaxation techniques, going to the movies, reducing the increasing alcohol intake, spending more time with people (or the dog) we love and who love us, and restoring ourselves.
We’ve all heard about the rising cult of mindfulness. But being mindful, or aware, of the JND is the start. Doing something about it comes next.
Remember, it’s OK to say that things are just not right and then talking to someone about how you are feeling. As a psychologist, I much prefer to see people in the early stages of boiling rather than when the water has reached 100 degrees centigrade.
If you heard a funny noise in the engine of your car or had breaks that were making a screeching noise, you’d probably take it to a mechanic. Wouldn’t you?