Giving up can be fatal

Giving up can be fatal

by Eunice Chua 28 Dec 2018

How many times have you said to yourself, “I’d rather die than do this”? Such phrases are mere exaggerations most of the time; we just really want to emphasise how much we don’t want to do something. But imagine if it really happens – how refusing to carry on with something actually leads to death. It may sound like far-fetched fantasy, but if the activity in question is the most fundamental act of staying alive, giving up can end in death.


Most of us are lucky enough that we won’t have to experience the sort of dire circumstances that could drive a healthy, mentally stable person to give up on life completely. The documented cases of such incidents occur in war settings or scenarios where one is stranded with not much hope of rescue. These cases reveal that almost as soon as the person decides that life isn’t worth fighting for, they start exhibiting clear symptoms of the “fire” in them being extinguished. Death follows in a matter of days or weeks if they fail to come around.


It’s possible to identify when a person has given up on life because they often go through five stages of behavioural changes upon making up their mind.

  1. Social and environmental withdrawal.
  2. Apathy and melancholy.
  3. A complete loss of willpower (aboulia), characterised by a person’s failure to take care of their own basic hygiene and needs.
  4. Physical akinesia, where they stop feeling physical sensations of hunger and pain and lose control of bodily functions like holding in their bowels.
  5. What appears to be a sudden recovery, but is actually a relapse prior to expiration.


The science behind “give-up-itis”

The sequence of behaviour is so systematic and predictable because there is an actual science behind how it occurs. Specifically, these behavioural changes are triggered by a deterioration of a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate circuit, which deals largely with motivation.


Damage to the anterior cingulate circuit can likely be attributed to the sudden drastic fall in dopamine levels when a person gives up. Dopamine is the major neurotransmitter in this part of the brain and plays a big role in regulating our reward-motivated behaviour. In situations of high stress, dopamine levels rise as our bodies fight for control. However, when a person genuinely believes there is no way out at all, dopamine levels drop because there’s no longer a motivation to fight. This then manifests as observable symptoms of the five stages. In other words, the body stops fighting when the battle in the mind is lost.


Why this phenomenon matters

These days, you don’t have to be entangled in life-threatening situations to feel the extreme despair. Feelings of stress and anxiety are sky-high on a daily basis, and more people these days are harbouring feelings of depression and even suicidal thoughts. But knowing now that these feelings of despondency can be attributed to neurological factors means that we do have a choice on whether or not to give in to “give-up-itis”.


When things hit rock bottom, have the courage to give life and yourself a chance. If you find yourself relating to any of the aforementioned stages, it’s not too late to save yourself. Talking to someone, be it a friend, family member or even a psychiatrist, will help dispel the notion that you are alone in your struggles. Make the conscious choice to get back on your feet and conquer your obstacles rather than let them conquer you!