Mark Twain once said that, in retrospect, we find two-thirds of all our problems were non-issues. Yet, we waste a lot of time resolving them. But there are people who don’t feel comfortable unless they have a trouble to face or a problem to solve.
To such people, spending an entire day, or even few hours, without a problem is unimaginable. The idea of a problem-free life is beyond them—in fact, it unnerves them. Surely, there is some hidden threat yet to be unearthed, they believe. They start to search for a problem, and aha! they find it. They feel a vague fear, a kind of uncertainty in a life sans axes to grind or issues to resolve—so they invent them. And then they consume themselves solving these self-generated problems. Such people may be called ‘problem generators’.
A typical problem generator
To problem generators, any change in their fixed routine is a source of tension. For example, they get stressed when they have to travel. They try to plan in advance to the minutest detail of their journey—they even stress about how many undergarments or pairs of socks to carry along. What’s worse, the planning continues even after they have safely boarded the train/aircraft. [One of my clients had been clinic-shopping because he thought that he may become impotent in future!]
This obsession to always anticipate problems causes suffering to others, who perceive them as self-centred and suspicious. They are unpopular among all—even their family and friends.
Being engrossed in one or the other—real or imaginary— problem, always trying to cross the bridge before it comes, makes them increasingly aloof from all. And their loneliness only increases with age.
At its advanced stage, this habit leads to depression, paranoia, or hypochondriasis.
Is it an illness?
By itself, the urge to find problems in everything is not an illness. It can even help you adapt to life better as you are prepared to solve problems. But as a compulsive habit, it is not only self-torture—because it keeps you from enjoying the natural flow of life—but also a sure shot-way of distancing yourself from near and dear ones.
The Thorndike’s Law of Effect, a behavioural law, states that any behaviour—overt or covert, physical or mental—that is followed by a satisfying experience gets repeated. The said ‘satisfying experience’ can be an external or internal reward. For problem generators, the reward is the pleasure sensation they derive when they find a problem. In the absence of a problem, they feel uncertain, fearful, and tensed, which releases adrenalin.
When they finally have a problem on hand, the tension is gone. The adrenalin levels diminish and they experience a pleasant feeling that accompanies dopamine release.
Scientist Kenneth Blum calls this phenomenon Reward Deficiency Syndrome [RDS]. According to him, some people are chronically deficient in dopamine and hence seek stimulation or excitement to sustain the levels of the hormone in their brain. The reasons for subnormal dopamine levels could be genetic. They could also be due to early environmental experiences and nutritional deficiencies. Maternal rejection is an environmental experience that plays an important role in this. It leads to weak formation of those neural circuits that are responsible for dopamine production. Among the nutritional factors, deficiency of specific proteins is among the key causes of low dopamine levels.
The way out
If you or your loved one shows symptoms similar to the ones described above, the following tips may help:
- Consume enough protein in your meals, taking care not to exceed 20g – 30g in a single meal. Eat vegetables as well; they are essential to absorb the protein in the small intestine and provide co-factors such as vitamins and minerals to convert the protein from food into dopamine.
- As you wake up and go through the day, avoid indulging in inventing a problem—force yourself if you have to.
- For few minutes a day, try going on the autopilot mode, functioning spontaneously, without planning. Keep the autopilot mode only as a small dose of psychological medicine in your life. Don’t do it if you have to force yourself. Then, it’s not auto-piloting. After a few weeks, slowly increase the duration and frequency of being on autopilot.
- Till auto-piloting comes naturally, before you start the autopilot mode, tell yourself: “Alright, I will hunt for the hidden problem but, before that, for some minutes I will be on auto mode after which, I will indulge in my habit”.
- After a few days of running on autopilot for some time during the day, move to the next step: imagine yourself enjoying a day [or even half a day] going through life for what life is. Don’t plan. Enjoy the spontaneity. A Zen Buddhist monk defined Zen [life] as “Eating when hungry, drinking when thirsty, sleeping when tired”. So, for one day live Zen.
- Set aside a few minutes every day as ‘worry time’. In this time, worry intentionally and intensively. You can even invent problems out of nowhere in this time.
But when your mind tries to cook up a problem outside of this designated worry time, tell yourself: “This problem is important, but I will deal with it in my worry time. Right now, I will stop and enjoy the flow.”
Try the above self-help methods for a couple of months. If they don’t work, consult a mental health professional trained in behaviour therapy.
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