Erich Wenzel has serious insight into empathy and mental health. As the founder of Feeding Curiosity, a website and podcast, he speaks with people of all ages and background exploring the precarity of human experience at the same time challenging ourselves to think, question, and synthesize, wherever your curiosity takes you.
In this article, Erich writes about his own path to maintain mental health and offers excellent advice on how to interrupt negative patterns and how to push past socially ingrained messages to men that they should hide their feelings and “suck it up”. I highly recommend visiting his site after reading, and check out the podcast we did together – link at bottom of page. Another thing you don’t want to miss – Erich’s poem he wrote about his experience with negativity called Digging the Hole. Enjoy!
When the idea to start Feeding Curiosity came to me, I would have never imagined that one of the core components would be highlighting how to manage mental health. On average, I’m a calm and enthusiastic person and don’t have many wild swings in how I deal with the stress of my life.
Diagnosis or not, mental health matters
Here’s the thing…even when you don’t have any diagnosed condition, we still have to pay attention to our mental health. I can remember a period in high school where I was digging myself into a hole mentally. In that headspace, I would look at those around me and see all the ways that I wasn’t like them. I was so busy telling myself what I was not that I couldn’t think about what I could be. It was like digging a hole that you’re standing in.
I’m a nerd – Shovel
I’m not athletic – Shovel
I’m always going to be alone – Shovel
I distinctly remember sitting alone and just beating myself up mentally. There was no way I could have done anything good for myself. I could talk my way into why I didn’t deserve anything good.
Sharing felt like a burden on others
What was worse is how I had thought about dealing with pain. I wanted to be there for those I cared about. I wanted them to share what they were dealing with because I wanted to help. But for me, I would never share anything about my negative spiraling thoughts. Sharing how I was feeling felt like a burden on those around me and those I cared about.
How boys are socialized into men
Being a male comes with cultural baggage in how you’re supposed to act. You’re supposed to suck it up, and you’re not allowed to feel. We’ve all heard it, and we know it. These signals are ingrained into how boys are socialized into men. This culminated in the view that I could not share my internalized pain with anyone. I’ve come to view this similarly to an infected wound. The longer you wait, it begins to fester and grow. When you don’t have an outlet for what bothers you, it feeds off itself.
Did I seek professional help? Nope. I can’t tell you exactly what changed. I remember realizing that what I had been doing was a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I kept acting and thinking this way, what I thought was going to happen would happen.
Everyone’s mental state is unique
It wasn’t until years later that I can look back on these experiences and contextualize them within a framework of mental health. I approach the idea of mental health similar to that of a high watermark. What stresses one person out compared to another varies wildly. Like any other attribute, it is specific to your temperament and experiences. We think of the standard expression of depression as pulling into one’s self. Some people like myself can, for the most part, function normally, but on the inside was an endless stream of negativity far worse than anyone would ever say to me.
Get out of your head and into your body
It wasn’t until I started working out regularly that I began to grasp any concept of mental health. Initially, this may seem counter-intuitive, but what working out has taught me is that I can do things that a younger me would never have thought possible only because I tried before saying I couldn’t. I had to let myself start over and not judge myself on others progress. We all are starting at different levels. We all have a day one but another person’s day one might be years ago. We often forget that everything is built on consistency and on yesterday. Working out has become a playground to test me physically and mentally. It is about pushing yourself a little farther than what you thought was possible.
When you feel your mind is cluttered with ideas bouncing around or weighing on you. One way to interrupt your thoughts is getting out of your head and into your body.
I’m not saying go run a marathon or lifting heavyweight. Find something you enjoy. You’re more likely to reinforce the habit if it is easy to keep doing it.
Engineering the mind
As I’ve learned more about health, I’ve become more and more interested in psychology. It’s about understanding the inner world – our psyche. As an engineer, I see the discipline as seeking to understand and explain the world. Engineers are the intersection of theory and application. Why can’t we do the same for our minds?
Mindfulness is a break for your brain
Over the last year, I’ve become interested in mindfulness and the idea of developing the awareness to be present. At first, I pushed back against mindfulness because I am so on the go. I love my routine and slowing down even a little bit made me feel lazy. I always thought I should DO something.
But I now know that always doing and being busy isn’t optimal. You need a break for your brain. What I needed was a legitimate reason to make a change. What made me take it seriously came in the form of break-up. It is through pain and hardship that we learn about ourselves.
Historically, I deal with trauma as I did in high school; internalize the pain. I ask myself what I could have done when there was nothing to do. I tried everything I could and in the end, burnt myself out.
Interrupt the pattern
In the fashion of pattern interrupt like we can use working out, I used meditation. I used the app Headspace. My only rule was that I had to do a minimum of 10 minutes a day for a month. The first three days were hard without any noticeable impact. But around day seven, I had a shift in attention and a new space seemed to be there that I hadn’t noticed before. In the beginning, I think it is useful to not be judgmental on yourself when starting mindfulness. If you are like me, you’re going to have racing thoughts and be twitchy. It’ll feel like you’re not making any progress. This is where the consistency comes in.
Meditation is workout for your brain
In the modern world, we are bombarded with stimuli, so when we have effectively removed all of those even for as little as five minutes, the silence is deafening. The practice of mindfulness is a workout for your brain. In the same fashion, we test ourselves physically in the gym you test inner self with a method of mindfulness. The person who first attempts running will find themselves out of breath quickly, or their muscles will be sore. The mind reacts similarly when exploring your thoughts; you will find resistance.
You are an inside fighter
Where I am in my life is very different than the boy I described. In many ways looking back on my perception of myself and where I fit into life is notably different. I’ve accomplished goals the younger me would have never thought possible. I’m the host of a podcast, and I wrote this article sharing my experiences with the world. I believe we can cultivate empathy, and realizing that we all have invisible battles in our heads is essential. We are all inside fighters whether you know it or not.
- Find your patterns – When you start having a negative cycle figure out a way to break the loop.
- Go on a walk, take a shower, do jumping jacks,
- Get out of your head and into your body
- If you want to try mindfulness there are many great apps to work with:
- As I mentioned, I used Headspace initially, but have since used Sam Harriss’ Waking Up
- If you’re not ready to get into mindfulness, try reconnecting with the breath:
- Scientifically this is called diaphragmatic breathing
- Wherever you start with an inhale for 5 seconds, pushing your belly button out.
- Hold for one second
- Exhale over 5 seconds, pulling your belly button to your spine.
- Start with three breaths in this way
- This is a great way to calm your nerves or if you need a quick pattern interrupt.
- Scientifically this is called diaphragmatic breathing
Erich Wenzel has a degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. He works as a Test Engineer for a third-party testing facility in the certification, inspection, and testing (CIT) industry for the last five years. While pursuing his degree, Erich has worked full-time at his position allowing for a unique perspective of one foot in the engineering and academic world.
Outside of the working world, he became interested in the optimization of the human body. He is asking the question, “What can I do to allow myself to function better in any aspect?” Erich has a deep fascination with how the body works from strength and flexibility to psychology — seeing his routine and life as an experiment.
About Feeding Curiosity:
Feeding Curiosity is a website and podcast built on two principles. First, we explore the precarity of human experience. We all have a story to tell, and no matter who you are, we can learn from you. Second, we challenge ourselves and others to think, question, and synthesize, wherever your curiosity takes you.
When Feeding Curiosity was expanding outward to capture more stories, Diana was one of the first people I wanted to reach out to understand her story. When we had our conversation, we had not talked about what she would share during the interview. Her openness in describing the trials she has been through was enlightening.
Listen to our conversation:
#24 – Diana Fornaris: Boxing and Finding Yourself
#42 – Rachel Thomas: The Collateral Damage of Addiction
#45 – Ben Kapolnek: Invisible Battles