One of my closest friends, on hearing I was going to start doing some writing, brought me the following questions she was curious to hear me address:
Have you felt that math and the thought processes that you use to solve math problems have aided you in better understanding your mental health? Or made it more difficult? Do you see “mathematical thinking” as a therapy for you? If so, how do you think others who struggle with mental health could use a similar thought process to help?
I have wanted to write about this for quite some time, but didn’t quite know where to start. I am pursuing mathematics as my career, and “mathematical thinking” is both familiar and important to me. I have also suffered from post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety/panic attacks, and ADHD in the past, and some of these still affect me. Plus, very nearly everyone I’ve ever cared deeply about has one or multiple similar psychological conditions. So issues of mental health are also quite familiar to me on a personal level (though I am not an expert, so please do keep that in mind).
But I’d never really thought out in detail the connections in my own life between these two areas of my thought life. My immediate response to the question of whether “mathematical thinking” affects how I think about mental health was a resounding yes, but I struggled to put exactly how into words. Hopefully I can now provide a partial answer to these questions.
I think the most natural place for me to begin answering is to point out why I think these questions stuck out to me so vividly. These questions imply, or at least suggest something simple yet deep. You see, the questions implicitly expect that there is a connection between these two, between mathematics and my emotional health. This is so often ignored, downplayed, or outright denied. For instance, how often are mathematicians and scientists stereotyped as stoic, unemotional people? More than you think, probably. How sad and strange it is that by expressing passion (an emotion) for a subject like math, we are labelled unconsciously as unemotional people. There is in our culture a bifurcation between the objective and subjective. To be fair, the difference is a real one, but it is often misused. My friend’s questions are about a specific kind of interaction between the objective and subjective. I have put some time into thinking about objective/subjective interactions before in different contexts, and I imagine many of you have as well, so I hope this is a helpful framework through which to discuss the topics of mental health and math side-by-side.
One things I view as a “key skill” in mathematical thinking is being able to isolate and compare various broad and important concepts. I try my best to carry this skill over when I think about other things, and find it helpful with thinking about my mental health and mental health issues more broadly. What I arrive at when I have applied this to my thoughts is that objective and subjective perspectives are both crucial to my life, and that neither can totally explain the other. Mathematicians are just as emotional as everyone else and rely on subjective perspectives just like everyone else, and artists think objectively about the world around them too.
There are two opposite errors that seem to pop up fairly often here. One is the emphasis on the objective over and against the subjective; and the second is the opposite. Both of these are worth discussing in relation to mental health, and so I’ll handle them one at a time.
Firstly, I think there is pretty strong evidence that a bias towards the “objective” in our culture. We tend to associate “objectivity” with fields like physics, math, and perhaps even chemistry and biology. We tend to associate “subjectivity” with humanities, perhaps also religious/political beliefs. I find it quite odd that our culture seems to value what physicists and biologists say about what we view as “subjective” fields and that we don’t care at all what artists, musicians, or religious figures say about physics or chemistry. I find it odd because both of these situations represent a person who is an expert in one topic speaking about an unrelated topic, and we trust the one and reject the other. The only way I’ve been able to make sense of this situation is a bias in favor of what a person views as “objective.” I also find it odd because the “subjective” fields from before are actually largely objective. If you told an artist that Van Gogh was a bad painter, there is a good chance she would tell you that you are wrong, not merely that she disagrees with you. This is an objective claim. Any discipline in the humanities you can think of will have certain objective ideas at its core.
From my perspective, it seems like this stems from a confusion of objectivity with a sort of empiricism – roughly the idea that only something that can be demonstrated by some kind of experiment counts as true. This kind of thinking tends to place math, physics, and chemistry on a pedestal, and places everything else into some kind of ranking. I think this idea has a lot to do with stereotypes about mathematicians and scientists, an overvaluing of math/science and an under-appreciation of humanities, arts, and culture. Personally, I also find the trend of downplaying subjectivity very dehumanizing. For if things like emotions are merely chemical reactions, what makes us any different from a camel, an insect, or even a rock? Why is one kind of chemical reaction more valuable than another? When the reality of subjectivity is denied or downplayed, we end up with these kinds of really tricky questions.
So, when I contemplate my mental health from this angle, I constantly remind myself that it is actually real, which is actually sometimes a kind of comfort. It is actually objectively true that I experience emotions, and my emotions matter a great deal. This is a part of my experience as a person that is worth talking about. To downplay the role of subjective experience, for the person dealing with mental health issues, is to say that their emotion does not matter. So, reminding myself of the importance of my mental health in that way helps me.
One the flip side, we cannot overvalue subjectivity either. We are feeling beings, yes, but we are also thinking beings. We have the incredible ability to reason. It is worth pausing for a bit on that. We are capable (at least a lot of the time) of recognizing objective truths about the world around us and articulating those truths. We can also combine different things we already know to learn something new. To deny all of this would, as before, be to deny a crucially important part of what it means to be human. And not only would denying the importance of objectivity deny us a large part of who we are, it would pretty much mortally wound whatever is left of us. If all that matters is how you feel and how you see things, what about people with depression? They see themselves as worthless, some even think the world would be better if they were dead. When we rightly encourage our depressed friend, telling them that they are not worthless and that we care about them. This only makes sense if their opinion about themselves is superseded by something else, objective and outside of them. And even more generally, if our value as human beings is based on anything subjective, then we will be crushed under the burden of having to prove ourselves every minute of every day.
This leads into another main point where my “mathematical thinking” helps me with my battles with mental health. Even in the face of very real pain, I know objectively that I am more than this. I can explain to myself using reason how I know this. I can know that I am loved, even when all my feelings say I am not. I can know I am safe, even when all my memories tell me I will never be safe. This kind of objectivity helps me stabilize myself emotionally. As I remind myself constantly of these things that are true about me, the battle becomes easier to fight.
These combined ideas have been very important in my thinking and reflecting on life and faith. We cannot get anywhere on any important discussion unless we recognize the full humanity of ourselves and others, which includes our intellect and ability to think reasonably as well as our deep emotional and subjective experiences of the world. Any worldview that denies, vilifies, or downplays either of those, to be blunt, is dehumanizing. And one other point I ought to make sure is clear – there is a sort of “middle ground” between the subjective and objective. To see an example of what I’m trying to say here, consider a man who goes 48 hours without food, and tells you “I am hungry.” On one hand, this is a report of a subjective experience of hunger. On the other hand, this is an objectively true report on his part. And there are certain things that are true in general about what it is like to be hungry, or how hungry people tend to behave, or which kinds of actions relieve this feeling of hunger. Talking about things that we experience subjectively like emotion, morality, and beauty doesn’t preclude the possibility that there is also an objective element to all of these. Perhaps this point will be a discussion for another time. But for now, more on mental health.
Now that I’ve laid out some initial thoughts, I want to zoom in specifically on mental health and thinking mathematically. The thought processes of mathematics/science have led me to understand more deeply that scientific thinking does not and cannot solve everything. Science is not omnipotent, nor was it ever meant to be. Part of my approach to my own mental health is scientific – I have had ADHD since childhood and I take medication which helps me in a lot of day-to-day activities. But my medication is not a fix-all either. ADHD is very misunderstood, there are lots of symptoms and even more ‘side-effects’ of ADHD that I live with daily, some of which are good and some harmful. What remains after medication must be dealt with in other ways.
It is important to remember that most mental health disorders are at least partially caused by brain malfunction. Yes, there are factors other than brain chemistry, and there are times when those factors are actually primary and the chemistry only secondary. I have mental health issues that are only tangentially affected by biology and are largely caused by other things. But it is undeniably a factor for many, and medical malfunctions call for medical solutions. It’s just common sense. Things like prayer and emotional support absolutely also have a role in these situations. Even with a broken leg or cancer, there is an obvious role for emotional and spiritual comfort. But to deny the objective nature of a chemical malfunction in the brain is a tragic error.
On the other hand, the subjective element of mental health is undeniable. It isn’t always chemical. Much of my struggle with mental health is primarily caused by things like traumatic experiences mixed in with poor self-perception or other emotional struggles. These cannot be fixed with medication or science. The only way I know to heal from something like this is to talk to another human, to be understood, to be known and loved and cared for.
I have dealt with major depressive disorder (aka depression) and post-traumatic stress disorder (aka PTSD) or borderline versions of these disorders, on and off for the last 4 or 5 years. Just so that nobody worries, I’m doing quite well now compared to when all of this began. Praise God, the worst is behind me. I remember all too vividly, a little more than a year ago, shaking and crying uncontrollably, unable to move my own body for an hour, because of nothing more than a memory. Even today, sometimes a simple flash of a memory hits me physically like a violent push. I remember the temptation towards self-harm. I remember knowing that the pain of self-harm would have been far more bearable than what I was feeling and thinking about myself every day. I remember when the words “I care about you” sounded to me like someone trying to convince me 2+2=5. I remember assuming that everyone hated me subconsciously as much as I hated myself, that I would never be worthy of being anything more than a metaphorical punching bag to help other people recover from their own pain.
For anyone reading this who knows these or any similar feelings, I am here for you and I care, no matter what your thoughts tell you. Even if I don’t know you, or if you think I don’t like you, or whatever else you think about me, I honestly do care. Email me, text me, reach out to me in any way, and I will gladly speak with you and help you in any way I can. Reach out to me or someone else you trust if you need help, because you matter. You have infinite value and worth, as does every human being on this earth. You are so much more than those feelings you have, just like I am more than the pain I’ve just described.
To repeat a previous point, everything I described is not caused by a chemical imbalance, or at least not primarily. When I was just beginning to discover my own emotions, I grew close to someone whose emotional struggles had an unfortunate effect on my own. I consider this person a friend still, and I don’t want to go into details about what exactly happened – but what I’ve already said should tell you enough about how it affected me. I grew to believe that I was unworthy of normal friendship because I didn’t know how to handle the confusing and painful thoughts going through my head.
Biology didn’t cause this, so biology shouldn’t be the primary solution either. The answer to my problem was loving friendships, and above all experiencing the love of Jesus Christ. I have friends who, when they learned what I was going through, resolved to dig me out of this hole I’d fallen unwittingly into. I was incapable of telling myself that I was worth caring about, so they became that voice they knew I needed to hear. I was too weak to fight all the memories and negative voices myself, and they knew that and fought for me and spent months rebuilding me psychologically so I could fight the battle myself. And, most importantly, they as Christians saw the spiritual battle going on in my soul, and they knew that only the love displayed by the cross could give me the strength to carry my own painful cross. And that’s exactly what happened. No greater love has anyone than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. I had friends who carried my burdens alongside me, and who pointed me to the one who truly laid his life down for me.
I could never have recovered were it not for this. I don’t want to go so far as to suggest that conversion to a religion is the only answer to mental health issues, but I will say that it is the only ultimate, lasting source of healing and hope that I know. I remember so vividly realizing that God cared so much about my pain that he came down and suffered alongside me, just like my friends had been doing for months. This didn’t magically delete all the pain, but it has infused me with the strength and hope to pull my battered soul off the ground and fight back.
This leads well into a very practical way that my mathematical thinking has aided with my mental health. When I first became a follower of Jesus, I grew strong enough to fight back against the forces that were dragging my soul into despair. That meant I had to learn how to fight. Once we recognize that this is a fight, we can be strategic. When you are in a competition of any kind, including a war, you analyze your opponent and pinpoint their weaknesses, as well as ensuring to utilize your own strengths. Realizing this, I took my years of training in thinking analytically and took to analyzing all the darkness that plagued me. I did this through emotional and spiritual conversations with trusted friends, through reading, and through intentional introspection. These dark emotions and thoughts seemed to have some kind of goal in mind, and I tried to discover what those goals were.
One thing I realized that the dark can be just as emotionally powerful as the light, so emotion alone would just lead to a standstill in the battle. Negative and positive emotions can be equally intense and swaying. So, as important as the subjective, emotional elements were in the process of healing, I needed another weapon. And praise God, we have another weapon. The darkness has no claim on truth. Darkness can only attack with half-truths and deception, but with the light is everything true and good. This I know to be true as a believer in Jesus. Therefore, I attack darkness with every weapon available to me, both with emotion and with truth.
And I don’t mean “my truth” – that’s just emotion pretending to be truth – I mean the truth. This can come from both religious and secular sources – part of the truth I use to fight came from seeing therapists and being in group therapy. Part came from church and from studying the Bible. Part came from recognizing the role of suffering in a broken world. Part came from learning philosophy and theology, growing in my understanding of God’s amazing power, majesty and love. And since you can’t fight an emotional battle with facts alone, I leaned on and continue to lean on those around me that I trust the most. They know me, they know the details of my flashbacks, to the point I only need to say one or two words and they know exactly what’s in my mind. They know that I sometimes don’t have the strength to remind myself of what is true, and I know they have given me permission to pour out the various emotions that come up when I’m in a bad place. These kinds of friendships point me back to God and allow me to process everything going on in my head.
I hope a reader will think of all of this as initial thoughts, and not ascribe to them more weight than they deserve. I do believe what I have written here, but as with any conversation involving human psychology and emotion, things are very complicated. I hope to develop some thoughts further in the future, and I also hope to share more of my personal struggles with various mental health conditions.
As a closing note, I am interested in knowing what questions others have, especially on matters of mathematics, the Christian faith or my personal experience with it, or other matters about which I am interested. Feel free to reach out with some questions, I’d be happy to discuss whatever I can!