When calm gets replaced by qualm

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Article Date: 
Dec 04 2012, 2137

For each one of us, happiness and bliss, melancholy and gloom differ as much as the same type of illness in different individuals. The offending factor that triggers the illness may be the same, but the fact is each one of us presents symptoms that are different, sometimes unique. One of us, for instance, wants to be covered with a thick blanket, because one feels extremely cold due to a certain illness, while another shoves even a thin covering, because one feels extremely warm and clammy. A physician who knows such subtleties as consequences of different causes, treats each individual as belonging to distinct categories. In other words, as the physician, pathologist, historian, educator and author nonpareil Sir William Osler said, “The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.”
In like manner, psychiatrists aim to get a deeper understanding of the workings of brain patterns, feelings and interpretations that follow — because, all of this and more would help them to decide whether happiness and bliss, melancholy and gloom could be regarded as qualitatively diverse emotions. The two examples cited are, in a way, analogous with physics. Water and ice differ quantitatively on a continuum of temperature, although they have qualitatively distinct structures and properties. This is called ‘complementarity’ — it deems electrons as wave or particle-like.
A behavioural psychologist will, in akin manner, look at two individuals anticipating their appointment letters for a much-preferred position with identical words — happiness and bliss, melancholy and gloom, as a quality or condition of being relevant. A neurologist will, for the same reason, try to figure out the amount of dopamine, a neurotransmitter secreted by the brain, to entail qualitatively different states — happiness and bliss, melancholy and gloom — if only the given individual showed a large amount of the neurotransmitter in the frontal lobes.
Any which way you look at illness or disease, there appears to be a connection between a certain event and an unswerving biological or behavioural reaction. For instance, in conditions such as uncontrolled high blood pressure or diabetes, there is a sense of lurking fear — an outcome of the individual’s emotional state, in the wake of the long-term consequences of the disorder and its sequel. This state of anticipatory expectation of the worst possible scenario can ‘prompt’ emotional reactions, such as anger, irritation and also frustration, along with a sense of disillusionment.
Philosophers hold implicit viewpoints regarding the quality and intensity of our emotions in health and illness. They believe that a person’s qualitative contexts cannot provide all the evidence needed for a complete or profound understanding of feelings and emotions. This is because our emotional states are not as sensitive or theoretically relevant in the non-clinical perspective. The reason being, we all differ with our individual responses to stimulus or react indecisively in certain contexts. For instance, the most relaxed among us sometimes carries a feeling of uncertainty of the future — a job loss or illness. When such a presentiment of unknown or anonymous fear percolates into their psyche, their relaxed sense of composure becomes rattled or shaky. In other words, their calm is replaced by qualm.


(The writer is a physician and a doctorate in philosophical literature)