Chocolate Rage and Self-Efficacy
August 4, 2019

I’ve half-jokingly said before that I experience “chocolate rage.” That is, when I eat too much chocolate, I become extremely irritable and even aggressive. I also feel an unusually high amount of fear and an overwhelming desire to be alone and to hide in a corner. I mean that literally, by the way. Like, if I could climb into a very tiny closet in the most remote part of the house and shut the door and turn off the lights while I’m in a chocolate rage, I’d gladly do so. I told my students about this problem once, and they laughed at me. They apparently had a hard time believing that mild-mannered Mr. Castle could ever get angry about anything. So, my “aggressive” may not look like someone else’s...but my wife and daughter can surely attest to the fact that I really do become a quite different animal after consuming chocolate. And I’m not alone: chocolate rage is apparently a real phenomenon, though of course not everyone has that reaction.

Anyway, I’m really writing this post to document a feature of anxiety and/or depression that I’ve noticed lately. Side note: isn’t it interesting how we become more attuned to ourselves as we age, even well into adulthood? Several decades (and maybe even our entire lives) are spent learning to recognize our bodies’ signals. My daughter, for example, doesn’t recognize that she has to go to the bathroom until she’s about to burst. But I find that I can notice that particular urge long before I hit critical mass, and I also have a pretty good sense for how long I can hold it. Similarly, we probably spend decades (and maybe even our entire lives) getting to know our own minds. I’m of the opinion that the mind is what the brain does, and that, because the brain is an organ and can get sick or break down like any other body part, the contents of our thoughts and feelings can become quite strange, terrifying, and alienating (though they may not always be perceived that way by the person entertaining them). It annoys me a little to have to defend this point, but I still know too many people who treat the mind as connected to or even perhaps synonymous with an immaterial soul and who therefore believe that minds are somehow unaffected by bodies. This view seems utterly untenable to me, since we’ve surely all known people whose minds were changed by mental illness, stroke, or head injury. I don’t believe in souls; but even if I did, I’m sure I’d still believe that minds are completely disconnected from the soul and completely connected to the body because of how I’ve seen people’s minds change as their brains change. But I say all that to say that introspection—the mind getting to know the mind—is a strange phenomenon, isn’t it? Does your liver get to know itself? And to make introspection even more difficult, so much of what happens in our brains is inaccessible to us; i.e., a lot of it is subconscious. But maybe that’s not so different from getting to know the rest of the body, you know? After all, it happily carries out its functions without our conscious regulation, and it’s probably usually the case that we only become aware of its inner workings when something starts malfunctioning. So, maybe that’s the best way of thinking about what prompts us to take stock of our mental states: when something starts malfunctioning, we start scrounging around for the owner’s manual.

I wasn’t aware for years that I struggled with anxiety until a doctor suggested it to me. I had come in to get checked out for chest pains and heart palpitations. She ran an EKG, and everything came back normal there. But I had high blood pressure, and she probably also noticed that I was breathing fast and looking generally very scared. She recommended that I cut caffeine out of my diet for a while. I did, and I noticed a drastic change in my mental state over the course of several weeks as my adrenaline levels and blood pressure and heart rate dropped back to normal. That was the very first time that I became aware (but only dimly then) that my mind wasn’t a good guide to the state of the world, that there was a difference between the raw sense data and the responses my mind generated to those data, and that the mind could perform its own powerful positive feedback loops without external input. (I use “positive” here to mean amplification as opposed to attenuation, not to denote something happy or good.) I could’ve derived the same conclusion from the fact that dreams can be so horrifying and yet utterly disconnected from sense data, but somehow it never occurred to me. But anyway, that was only the beginning of self-awareness for me. Years later, after wondering why I kept finding myself in such violent moods, I finally noticed the correlation between eating chocolate and wanting to tear people’s heads off. And there have been other discoveries along the way, including recognizing many symptoms that at times could probably have been diagnosed as clinical depression.

As I said, I really just want to focus this post on a single feature of my mental furniture of which I’ve become aware recently: self-efficacy. Wikipedia says that self-efficacy is “an individual’s belief in their innate ability to achieve goals.” I’ve struggled for years to start good habits but have honestly never yet succeeded. I used to blame and shame myself for this failure a lot. I used to believe that my lack of ability to create good habits was caused by a lack of good character traits, that I was lazy or cowardly or undesirous of change at some deep or subconscious level. It may be the case, of course, that such a diagnosis is accurate; but I’ve also come to believe that at least a huge part of my ability to make good decisions boils down to whether or not I believe that success is possible. And to be honest, most of the time I don’t believe that it’s possible. Yes, I’m aware that such a disbelief is a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the moment, though, I’m not interested in how our beliefs shape our actions or inactions; I’m interested in how we arrive at those beliefs in the first place. I’ve wanted for years to get into the habit of exercising regularly and maybe fasting intermittently, and I have mostly been unable to do those things for any extended period of time. But two discoveries this summer have at least given me insight into what may be preventing me from creating good habits. First, I noticed that consuming caffeine—usually by drinking regular coffee—makes me feel superhuman for a while. I feel like anything is possible. I can focus for hours on a project without feeling bored or tired, I want to get out and exercise, and everything about the world—even the mundane stuff—seems wonderful and interesting. (Too much caffeine also has the negative side effect, though, of making me extremely anxious, as I described above.) Second, I was able to run three or four times a week regularly for about a month this summer, which is a huge achievement for me. I was becoming increasingly aware of how sensitive my motivation was to things like lack of sleep, stress, and chocolate, so I was specifically trying to take care of myself on those fronts as a way of improving my chances for success in running. And it worked for a while!

Before my wife had post-partum depression, I’d never thought much about depression in general, and to be honest, I don’t think I really believed that depression was a real thing. I think I just thought that it was people being sad a lot. But I’ve seen and experienced so many facets of it now that I cringe to think about how naive I was. Anyway, one facet of depression that in my opinion doesn’t get enough press is the fact that depression makes it hard to do things. It makes getting out of bed hard. It makes getting out of the house hard. It makes spending time around people hard. It makes adulting especially hard. I’m no psychologist, but my guess is that depression makes things so hard to do because it deflates a person’s feelings of self-efficacy. Everything seems impossibly hard, seems to require an infinite amount of energy, seems unlikely to succeed, seems unlikely to matter even if it does succeed.

So, I think I can draw a few conclusions from these findings. (1) My inability to create good habits for myself seems directly related to my poor sense of self-efficacy. (2) My poor sense of self-efficacy is mostly not rooted in reality. In reality, I actually have a working physical body and a mostly-working mind, with the ability to learn and apply new skills. But I feel that things are impossibly hard, that they require amounts of energy that I’ve never possessed and never will possess. And (3) it’s possible to improve my sense of self-efficacy at least a little bit—even in the face of depression or anxiety—by changing my sleep habits, my diet (by avoiding chocolate especially), my physical activity, my physical location (by being out of the house more), and my contact with others. As I heard someone say recently: practicing self-care won’t guarantee victory over the symptoms of depression, but not practicing self-care will guarantee defeat at their hands.

I haven’t discovered anything here that psychologists don’t already know. But the interesting thing to me, I suppose, is that I’ve discovered these things about myself. I’m apparently a moron, too, because I’ve heard all that stuff about self-care before, but somehow its significance and the reasoning behind it just never registered with me. Anyway, I put this all down mainly so I could remember and reference it later. But I hope you’ve found something worthwhile in it for yourself!