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Insufficient Arousal - Activation: From Emptiness to Inertia

Mark Gorkin, LICSW

In the previous Shrink Rap? essay (Stress Doc Newsletter, APR 2000) a not uncommon sequence was noted: a feeling of ennui with the absence of immediate compelling environmental challenge. Then, an unexpected interview by Cosmopolitan Magazine. Suddenly, Im hyper. Is this my fifteen Andy Warhol minutes? The fame frenzy is not unlike my flight into "romantasy" over that ideal, elusive woman. Cosmo cravings begin a kaleidoscopic reflection on the interaction of cyclothymic (mood swinging or, possibly, bipolar) addictive and/or narcissistic tendencies. A rapid cycle and an "aha!" is a catalyst for a compact 2x3 matrix model of "Six States of Physiological Arousal - Activation." Here are the two basic dimensions -- "Arousal Source" and "Levels of Arousal - Activation" -- and the resultant six boxes.

Six States of Physiological Arousal - Activation

Levels of Arousal - Activation

Insufficent Excessive Optimal
Arousal Source

Internal Emptiness- Agitation- Relaxation-
Exhaustion Manic Meditation

(Cognitive-Affective) ---------------------------------------------------------------------

Boredom- Phobia- Alertness-
External Inertia Panic Animation


As previously explained, the "Arousal Source" is a gradient, from the biochemical (Internal Stimuli) to the environmental (External Stimuli). The "Cognitive-Affective" (or "Thinking-Feeling") dimension interacts with, affects and is affected by both biochemical and environmental stimuli. Nature and nurture forge a complex blend. Both sources and arousal-activation states excite or inhibit each other in an ongoing feedback loop. The dimensional interplay influences the ability to: a) manage ones psychophysiological arousal and resulting emotions, b) process and make sense of past, present and future self-world information, including memories and dreams, goals and visions and c) generate an array of responses to everyday problems and opportunities from the adaptive or innovative to the dysfunctional or regressive.

Let me begin by defining the six pairs of states. Due to length constraints, the matrix columns will be outlined in the next three newsletters. Todays focus is on Insufficient Levels x Internal and External Arousal Source: "Emptiness- Exhaustion" and "Boredom-Inertia." Descriptions will draw upon Websters Dictionaries (Third World New International and New Universal), Rogets International Thesaurus: Fifth Edition, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) IV and personal reflection. The dictionary provides a broader framework for viewing the essence and potentialities of these states. The DSM sharpens the functionality-dysfunctionality focus.

I. Internal Source - Insufficient Level

A. Emptiness-Exhaustion Arousal State

1. Emptiness. Two pillars of the black holes of burnout and depression surely are "emptiness" and "exhaustion." Websters and Rogets provide rich lenses into both terms, especially emptiness. Relevant synonyms to the word "empty, for example: ineffective, hungry, dull, vacant, insincere, vain, meaningless, inexpressive, nonexistent, empty-headed (ah, who doesnt periodically wish for such an obsession-free state?), ignorant, thoughtless, baseless and trivial.

Key dictionary descriptors of "empty" are:

1) the quality or state of: a) lacking or being devoid of content and b) being uninhabited, unfrequented or containing no human beings.

At the extremes of emptiness theres a profound sense of loss of self, a feeling of being hollow or an impostor. Perhaps on the verge of being swallowed by some psychic black hole. Ones symbolic and (sometimes literal) backbone, ones bio-psychosocial integrity is in a profound state vulnerability, if not deterioration. Other definitions for emptiness:

2) barrenness, especially lack of imagination or creative ability,
3) lack of something necessary to spiritual growth or sustenance,
4) inanity, foolishness and senselessness, lack of significance or purposefulness.

Websters Third uses a line from Aldous Huxley as an illustration: "A life ghastly in its emptiness and sterility."

So emptiness is not simply existing in a void or feeling isolated but conjures being disconnected from ones inner world of imaginative dreams and visions along with feeling alienated from an outer world of existential meaning and action. Spiritual essence and creative potential appear to be withering away or drying up. No wonder the next definition:

5) hunger: a) a lack of love, warmth or affection and b) marked unhappiness deriving from the loss of something loved.

Emptiness is more disturbing than a state of aloneness. The former not only has you feeling deprived of significant others, but also bereft of caring and reassuring internal voices past and present in your actual and psychic landscape and mindscape. Childhood losses and separations, as well as genetic predisposition may contribute to an emptiness that is on the "black hole" or "bottom of a dark barrel" edge.

Personal Vignettes

Here are two "emptiness" examples that must be considered within the historical context of a father's breakdown (diagnosed as manic-depression) and hospitalization and overall family stress when I was 1 1/2 years of age.

At the age of twelve, upon my return from summer camp, I unexpectedly learned about the death of my beloved grandmother. This Polish-Russian immigrant personified "Emotional Intelligence" way before Daniel Goleman developed the term. Grandma was the emotional pillar for our family. Upon the announcement, which I intuited from my mother's body language, tears of loss and loneliness burst forth. (To this day, I wish my parents had taken me out of camp for the funeral.) For a couple of years I was able to talk to Grandma in assembly and still feel connected. But as family, school and peer group life became increasingly stressful closeted mental illness, mediocre academic performance, bullied and taunted by peers I became increasingly anxious, phobic and emotionally traumatized, steadily subsuming a false persona. The groundwork was being laid for childhood-adulthood depression. Cut off from most real emotion, I even stopped talking to "Gram." Subconsciously, I likely was angry at her for abandoning me. The emotional void was growing. (Twenty years later in therapy, through deep grieving, I began to recover the inspiring emotional connection with Grams.)

During summer break from college, upon my parents shocking announcement of their separation and my fathers intention of moving out, I broke down. The profound pain, both from fear and my own existential emptiness was overwhelming. I was a 19 year old child without an identity, being stripped of a "save my sanity" false persona; an emotionally stunted adolescent without the cover of an intact "functioning" family.

And it is this overwhelming sense of emptiness thats ripe for addictive numbing, stuffing or escaping through eating, drinking, drugs, TV vegging, sexual compulsions, real or virtual, as well as a low self-esteem or egoal-driven frenzied quest for fame and vindication.

Yet the semantic glass is not all empty. One more defining line:

6) uninhabited or unknown territory.

Websters illustrative quote comes from an individual unknown to me, Green Peyton: "Áppears as a sort of outpost, standing at the edge of emptiness."

So a state of emptiness may also lie on the edge of solitude. Emptiness is a blank canvas; frightening, disorienting, seemingly overwhelming but also a vast frontier waiting to be faced, challenged, explored and personally and communally designed. In hindsight, by temporarily leaving, my father blew up the facade of a functional family structure, and exposed the enmeshed and disconnected ties. This was the first step in the slowly evolving recovery process for all members and for my family as a whole.

What made him break
From our mistake
Perhaps we'll never know.

But in the wake
Of psychic quake
The formula to grow.

The silence cracks
Each spouse attacks
The couple hardly known.

But on these tracks
Of broken backs
Emancipation sown!

As the pioneering artist, Pablo Picasso, noted: "Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.")

2. Exhaustion. Websters provides both a psychological/physical and organic/inorganic perspective on exhaustion. First a broad psychological definition:

1) neurosis following overstrain or over exhaustion.

As I once penned: "If no matter what you do or how you try, Results, Rewards, Recognition and/or Relief are not forthcoming and you cant mean No' or wont let gotrouble awaits. The groundwork is being laid for apathy, callousness and despair." Exhaustion in the burnout tunnel goes beyond common fatigue.

2) fatigue: loss of power resulting from continued work but removable by rest.

Exhaustion may have long-term consequences. Websters example: exhaustion in productive power (as of soil). "The Erosive Spiral" moniker for burnout seems prescient.

3) the transitory refractory (non-responsive) state induced in a receptor or motor end organ by continued or repeated stimulation.

For example, having a serious case of the "brain strain." Even better, my vivid definition of burnout: "The gradual process by which a person detaches from work and other significant roles and relationships in response to excessive and prolonged stress and mental, physical and emotional strain. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism and confusiona feeling of being drained, having nothing more to give."

And it may not be a big jump from burnout exhaustion to generalized mood disorder. Chronic stress seems to be a culprit in receptor dysfunction and the optimal firing of neurotransmitters vital in the operational effectiveness of mood stabilizing chemicals like serotonin or dopamine. Prolonged stress induced exhaustion can literally biochemically, not just psychologically culminate in depression!

And finally, Websters engineering perspective when read with a flexible mind has much to say for both the inorganic and organic worlds:

4) the tendency of a material (as a metal) to break under repeated cyclic loading at a stress considerably less than the tensile strength in a static test.

Under prolonged stress and exhaustion (especially with sleep deprivation) our psychological defenses are weakened. Cracks develop in the psychic armor. Old painful memories, often revolving around separation trauma and loss, start percolating up from the depths of the unconscious and subconscious. Suddenly, even the smallest slight from a supervisor has the force of an old judgmental sledge hammer or a subtly cutting knife wielded indiscriminately, explosively or manipulatively by a parent, sibling or (ex-)spouse.

II. External Source - Insufficient Level

A. Boredom-Inertia Arousal State

1. Boredom. The result of a decided or prolonged lack of engaging outer stimulation is boredom or ennui.
The latter is defined by Webster as follows:

1) a feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction: languor or emptiness.

As weve just seen, emptiness is multifaceted and, in the "Six States" Model, it has a decided quality of inner insufficiency, especially biochemical and spiritual, as well as a lack of imagination. The semantic distinctions and similarities between "emptiness" and "boredom" reveal, once again, the fine line and interplay between inner and outer sources of arousal. Of course, these distinctions are sharpened and/or blurred by individual capacity for attention, memory, and cognitive-affective evaluation.

For example, lets look at boredom in the context of exhaustion from excessive repetition. Theres "The Bjorn Bored Syndrome," named for the late 70s to early 80s tennis great, Bjorn Borg, who dramatically burned out after a half dozen highly successful years on the pro circuit. Perhaps it was five back to back French and Wimbledon tennis titles or the endless hours of practice (or not being able to beat Mac the Brat at the US Open). The lack of novelty and environmental diversity along with attenuated personal vitality was clear. As was the resultant BBS: When Mastery times Monotony provides an index for Misery!

Continuing our semantic meandering along the border between "Emptiness-Exhaustion" and "Boredom-Inertia" reveals an inner-outer boundary state that is often recognizable by those who have grappled with boredom or burnout.


Websters defines apathy this way: Without feeling or "a + pathos" (feeling, suffering)

1) release of freedom from passion, excitement or emotion,

By the way did you know that the first dictionary "S"-word for passion is not sex but "suffering," as in the Passion Play sufferings of Jesus or, more generically, the sufferings of a martyr? (Imagine all this time I never realized my Jewish mother was such a passionate woman?)

2) absence or lack of feeling or emotion: unfeelingness or impassiveness and
3) absence or lack of interest or concern listlessness or indifference.

For me, the message is clear: a whole and vital human being must have some connection to, understanding of and compassion for ones own and for others feelings and sufferings. Whats the biblical aphorism?: "If not for myself, who am I? If only for myself, what am I?" Being able to express pain and passion and to share the same with significant others, while understanding the need for boundaries e.g., giving of oneself and to oneself is what allows for healthy and genuine engagement. Dysfunction too often arises when we forget "The Basic Law of Safe Stress": Do know your limits and dont limit your "No"s!"

Without boundaries, without limits, with emotional bottlenecks choking off or draining away energy and purpose, one loses the capacity for vital motionone becomes "inert."

2. Inertia. Once again, Websters provides some pithy descriptors and physical sciences definitions of "inert" and "inertia" that has analogous psychological-behavioral application. Three dimensions of inertia:

1) indisposition to motion, excitation or action,
2) resistance to change
3) lack of activity; sluggishness.

Now the physical conception of inert:

1) not having or manifesting active properties: not affecting other substances when in contact with them.

The concepts of learned helplessness and situational depression come to mind. A state of being inert not only involves a type of insecurity and immobility but also a self-defeating belief that ones actions cannot effect any positive consequences upon or rewards from ones environment. Helplessness and hopelessness (the latter, according to psychiatrist, Jerome Frank, "an inability to imagine a tolerable future") become a paradigm for paralysis.

Websters Universal spells out the semantic shift from the physical to the outer-inner environmental and psychological:

2) a person may be inactive from mere lack of incentive, but one who is inert has something in his constitution or his habits which operates like a weight holding him back from exertion.

This description evokes my analogy to an untreated depressive as someone trying to run a hundred yard dash with an invisible 50 pound weight tied to his or her ankle. A final definition expands the range of motionsomewhat:

3) a property of matter by which it remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force.

The psychological equivalent appears in the rigid or compulsive individual who has little capacity for flexible adaptation. Life becomes black or white, all or none and "one right way." Or, for example, an analytic type may be inflexible or stilted in the realm of emotional communication. These folks remain doggedly and dysfunctionally linear in an organic, rapidly changing and chaos theory-driven universe.

Of course, there are times when taking a firm stand is motivated by integrity and an unwillingness to compromise on principles, ethics or values. But too often hard liners conform more to my closing lyrics from "The Self Righteous Rap" and to a favorite quote from Gide's, The Immoralist:

If lifes a soap opera: "As the Head Swells"
No need to be walking on those ego shells.
When the righteous start ranting theyre all of a kind
The bigger the ego the smaller the mind!

(Email [email protected] for the complete lyrics.)

And as French novelist, Andre Gide, sardonically observed: "One must allow others to be right; it consoles them for not being anything else."

Finally, the distinction between rigidity and integrity is sharpened when problem-solving calls for exploration, letting go and risk-taking. These adaptive processes are frequently sacrificed on the alter of false pride, "one right way" perfection, fear of being seen as a "failure" and feelings of unworthiness or inadequacy. A capacity to accept failure as a vital component of learning and growing is a cardinal dimension of psychological integrity.

Let me close with a parable from my early "Stress Brake" radio daze. It captures the dangers of an egotistical or self-righteous attitude. It also reveals the disheartening parallels between an obsessive-compulsive spinning of one's wheels and a (resultant) state of inertia. As a backdrop, let me warn you, years ago I really had a holy (if not somewhat compulsive) attitude about punning. And I was living in the psychic shadows of a still tender post-burnout psyche from a self-defeating "holy grail" dissertation quest. Stress Doc/Farmer Claudeheal thyself:

That Hole-In-One May Not Be Your Ace-In-The Hole

Once there was a farmer named Claude who lived in the country. And Claude was convinced that if he could dig the right hole he would find gold on his land. After several weeks of digging and digging, he began to wonder: "Is this the right hole?" But Farmer Claude plowed his doubts underground. He was going for the gold.

Months passed and Farmer Claude was still digging. His pride and tunnel vision would not let him consider that there might not be gold, or that maybe his hole was misplaced. He was in the pits. Claude grumbled, "What can I do? After all this work there just has to be gold at the end of my tunnel." So he clung to his vision.

When neighbors wondered what Claude was up to, he paid them no mind. "Anyway," thought Claude, "at least Im not sitting around not knowing where Im going. And nobodys going to get me to admit I got myself in this hole." But despite his holier than thou bluster, deep down, Claude really wanted to crawl in is hole.

You might say that Claude had forged a hole in his soul. But there still could be light (if not gold) at the end of his burnout tunnel. Claude need to face his loss and give up his false pride. If Farmer Claude could take an incubation vacation by holing up for a while, he might hatch a new perspective or play a different hand, not just dig another hole. Remember, letting go is not a sign of defeat; it frees you to climb out of your hole.

I wish this tale had a happy ending. But alas, Farmer Claude still felt it was better to dig the wrong hole to an impressive depth than to let go and start over. "At least Im not a quitter," said Claude. Its true. No one could accuse Farmer Claude of being less than "hole-hearted."

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