In many role-playing games, there is a concept of a Mana bar. This bar holds “Mana,” a magical reserve of power that you can use or spend on performing actions, activities, and tasks. At full mana, the character can do pretty much anything without fear of running out. There are buffs that you can apply to boost or increase your mana, debuffs that will decrease or stunt your mana, and mana regenerates when the character is at rest (sleeping or out of combat).
Game Terminology applied to Life
If we apply this to people in the real world, we can think of it this way:
Most mentally healthy people run on a completely full mana bar each day. When they wake up in the morning, they have a full-capacity bar. They spend mana as they go about their daily activities, and because there are no debuffs and they start at a full bar, they hardly feel the strain of low mana until near the end of the day. If they do, they can apply a buff by drinking a potion or taking a nap and continue their day refreshed.
People with mental illness people start their day with a debuff on their mana bar. When they wake up in the morning, they start with their bar somewhere less than full capacity, and the deficit is considered the cost of their illness. When they go to spend mana, they may find that additional debuffs apply to certain activities and tasks, and because of this, they often feel the strain of a low mana bar much more quickly. Applying a buff (or many) ends up only temporarily helping and rarely does it allow the person to complete their day as normal.
Tasks and Debuffs
If every basic task has the same base cost, a mentally healthy person would know that is exactly the cost to complete that task. For a person with a mental illness, those costs become a bit more nebulous. The debuffs require them to spend more per task to complete. Furthermore, these debuffs are unique for each person, and they vary depending on the task. They can also change from week to week, or even day to day.
There are many different kinds of debuffs, and they can stack up. A few examples would be a constant drain on mana over time, a fixed deficit from the maximum capacity, lowered defenses causing you to be more prone to additional debuffs, and fatigue.
All of this can lead to the Impossible Task. The impossible task is a task that is undoable. It’s impossible. Most of the time, the task is “simple” and the inability to do it is frustrating. I labeled this debuff as one random task is prohibited. This is because the task can be something like making a phone call, or filing a paper, or going to the post office. They are usually uncomplicated but your brain blocks them. Even if you have sufficient mana for the normal cost, the cost is now so high it’s impossible to complete.
Debuffs can also affect the physical body. These debuffs affect the health (HP) bar, rather than the mana bar. They can look like migraines, rashes, and stomach aches.
Breakdown of Executive Function
All of these debuffs together can lead to a break down in executive function. Executive Function is a set of mental skills that we use every day to learn, work, and manage daily life. When things start to go wrong with mana and debuffs, we start to lose control of executive function and things start to become difficult. Managing tasks, focusing, and managing emotions becomes difficult. For some, that means some tasks stop getting done, others morph into a new task that is more manageable, such as ordering delivery instead of making dinner.
A Common Language
The thing that is really cool about this analogy is that it offers a common set of language to talk about all of this without ever needing to get into the specifics of the why behind it. When something is insurmountable, you can say “I have insufficient mana.” Or if someone asks you what is wrong, you can respond “I have a lot of debuffs right now.” And you can say “I’m out of mana.” to express that you’re tapped out and need to recoup.