A Brief History of Existential Terror

“[M]ental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.”

–Viktor Frankl

The healthy state of humans is mild existential terror. In Frankl’s words, “a certain degree of tension.”

For 99% of human history, this was true not in the Frankl-meaning-of-life sense, but in the my-environment-is-hostile-and-trying-to-kill-me-holy-shit-is-that-a-lion?-RUN! sense.

Humans lived in a constant state of mild existential terror because death could be on the other side of the rock at any moment.

We evolved in a world with high levels of day-to-day uncertainty and illegibility. Whether or not a hunter was able to kill an antelope wasn’t a sporting concern, but an existential one.

Given this reality, humans worked incredibly hard to reduce uncertainty and volatility. The brain of homo sapiens developed to fulfill a primary role much like a lawyer’s primary role in a corporation: always looking for the worst possible outcome and trying to avoid it. (The analogy holds for its secondary role as well: trying to sleep with everything that walks .)

For the majority of human history, this was adaptive. In the last century, it has become maladaptive.

In the last hundred years, a meaningful portion of the global population no longer faces death threats on a day-to-day or even year-to-year basis.

Over the course of the 20th century, this focus on reducing uncertainty and volatility led to high modernism, with its fixation on legibility.

Across the political spectrum and all aspects of life, the modern drive continues towards making everything legible and controllable continues. The fundamental belief of the high modernist is that if we can eliminate uncertainty by making everything legible then we will be able to achieve an ideal condition that will allow for human flourishing.

Finally, we wouldn’t have to worry about that antelope and would be able to eat avocado toast “like civilized people.”

Moses Succeeded

For the first 99% of human history, humans had a low level of skill and adaptiveness relative to their environment.

One homo sapien versus one neanderthal, or one lion, or one woolly mammoth, was not much of a match. The homo sapien was physically outclassed. That’s not taking into account starvation, fatal accidents, and murder by other humans.

Chart based on Schopenhauer’s observation that mankind is doomed to vacillate eternally between the two extremes of distress and boredom. Adapted from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow.

It’s only in the very recent evolutionary past, with the cognitive revolution about 70,000 years ago, that humans started moving up the food chain.

Given their starting point, homo sapiens naturally gravitated towards creating an environment that would be less difficult to live in. Over time, skill increased and the difficulty of the environment humans were living in decreased.

The move started slowly, but accelerated with the Neolithic Revolution and again with the Industrial Revolution.

As we move towards the end the Industrial era, we’ve overshot. There is a space of dynamic equilibrium at the boundary between boredom and anxiety. This space is often called flow, the feeling of being fully absorbed. It’s the “in the zone” sensation professional athletes talk about, where they are able to black out everything but the task at hand.

The term is misleading here, as it suggests it is possible to live in a perpetual state of flow, as opposed to the reality, which involves a bouncing back-and-forth between boredom and anxiety, with brief moments of flow.

An author working on a book, or a freelancer working on a project, or an entrepreneur working on a business, does not spend their time in a perpetual state of flow, but rather experiences little moments of flow, while mostly vacillating between anxiety and boredom.

Just as efforts to achieve perfectly consistent animal populations have resulted in massive damage to ecosystems, so too do efforts to achieve consistent flow. Vacillation between anxiety and boredom is a healthier, more stable pattern than “perpetual flow.”

The effects of high modernism on our psyche are predictable. I noticed them for the first time when I read Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 novel Babbit for a class in college.

Having successfully bought all the right status symbols and joined all the right clubs, Babbit still finds himself bored of his mind. He hits a mid-life crisis and goes into crazy-making mode: having an affair, and going clubbing in an attempt to relieve the boredom.

I was surprised to find that even in my early 20s I could relate. The path before me was so legible that I too felt a need to inject uncertainty and volatility into it.

The problem is not that the high modernist agenda of the 20th century failed to make life legible, but that it succeeded beyond even Robert Moses’s wildest dreams.

However, the perfectly legible life is not only impossible, it’s undesirable. Compared to the illegible mess of Hong Kong, Brasilia makes perfect sense on a map, with the residential, business and restaurant districts all neatly separated. However, the lived experience of Brasilia, mechanically moving from pre-planned district to pre-planned district, feels lifeless compared to the vibrant organism that is Hong Kong.

In the same way, the traditional life script of the 20th century—school, good job, marriage, house, kids, better job, retirement—makes perfect sense and has a certain beauty to it on paper, but feels mechanical and lifeless as a lived experience.

William James nailed it in 1890:

“The progress from brute to man is characterized by nothing so much as by the decrease in frequency of proper occasions for fear. In civilized life, in particular, it has at last become possible for large numbers of people to pass from the cradle to the grave without ever having had a pang of genuine fear.”

James was writing in the 1880s, a time in which day-to-day life would seem chaotic by today’s standards.

The typical modern human’s day-to-day environment has achieved such a low level of uncertainty that existential terror has been replaced by the existential vacuum: Boredom.

What was Once a Feature is now a Bug

In an unpredictable, illegible world, existential terror was a feature that encouraged the human attempt to stabilize the environment, and thus make life more predictable. At some point in the 20th century, however, we crossed the flow threshold and went barreling into a state of boredom.

A 1988 study found that people born after 1945 were ten times more likely to suffer from depression than people born at the turn of the 20th century.

A 2012 study found a positive correlation between a country’s GDP per capita, as quantitative measure of modernization, and lifetime risk of a mood disorder trended toward significance.

Diseases of civilization are not just physical, they are psychological as well.

The human tendency to run away at the slightest feeling of existential terror is no longer a feature that promotes survival. Instead, it has become a bug that brings on depression by driving humans from low difficulty environments towards even lower difficulty environments.

Depression is perhaps too strong a term. In my observations it seems to mostly manifest in a subclinical form of depression commonly called “being bored as fuck.”

If not properly addressed, it can quickly become depression of the more serious variety. We need a certain degree of existential terror to function.

Screenwriter Brian Koppelman pulled himself out of depression only by writing Rounders. Many now-famous “creatives” have similar stories of pulling themselves out of depression or near depression only by taking on a project that induces existential terror.

Viktor Frankl

This feature/bug inversion was noted by Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl’s thinking evolved from the theories of early psychoanalysts, who thought the ideal state was a patient free of conflict. In Frankl’s view, some amount of anxiety, conflict and suffering (read: existential terror) was normal and healthy.

“Suffering is not always a pathological phenomenon,” he wrote, indeed, “suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if the suffering grows out of existential frustration.”

Yet the response to such suffering common in Frankl’s time is still common now. The first sign of fear causes most  doctors to bury their patient under a mountain of tranquilizing drugs.

Frankl recognized that the tension created by anxiety is not a bug, but a feature necessary for mental health.

Coming back to Frankl’s opening statement:

“Thus it can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.”

The widespread existential vacuum of the 20th century, the feeling of boredom, was brought on by both biological and cultural evolution: biological in that man is the only creature whose behaviour is not guided by instinct alone, and cultural in that during the 20th century many traditions that constrained behavior collapsed, organized religion being the major one.

For most, the vacuum is filled by one of two strategies, both of which seek to avoid the sensation of existential terror: conformism (doing what everyone around them is doing), or totalitarianism (seeking someone out to tell them what to do).

The clueless seek out both the totalitarianism imposed upon them by the sociopaths, and the conformism imposed upon them by the rest of the clueless class, as ways to relieve the pressure of the existential vacuum.

The Dose Response Curve and Existential Terror

Just like exercise, existential terror follows a hormetic dose response curve. Too little is as dangerous as (and more common than) too much.

When I went to the doctor seven years ago with back pain, I was prescribed a chair with more lumbar support and told to “take it easy.”

What actually cured the back pain was the opposite: a standing desk and strength training. I was suffering from too little stress, not too much.

Similarly, though flight at the slightest twinge of existential terror was an adaptive choice for most of human history, it no longer serves us well. We must move towards the terror, not away.

Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Have Ulcers explains the neurochemistry at work here.

The brain contains a pleasure pathway that makes heavy use of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Most people assume was that the majority of dopamine hits come in response to a reward. Monkey pulls lever, monkey gets banana, Dopamine hit ensues.

Sapolsky found, however, that the dopamine hit, the sensation of pleasure, is much larger in anticipation of a reward.

Monkey pulls lever, monkey gets majority of the dopamine hit from thinking “I know what this means: if I press the lever then I get food.” The arrival of the banana is almost an afterthought.

Evolutionarily speaking, this makes sense: the dopamine fuels the work needed to get the reward. You need a burst of energy in order to kill the antelope, not after it’s already dead.

This is how postponement of gratification works—we forego the pleasure of partying in order to study, in order to get good grades, in order to get a good job, in order to buy a nice house. Since the dopamine hit comes primarily from the anticipation, there’s not much of a penalty in postponing the reward.

There’s one more twist. Imagine now that the monkey pulls the lever and instead of a banana dropping down with 100% certainty, it drops down with a high probability.

Under conditions of high probability of a reward, but not certainty, there is more dopamine released, and it’s released with even more emphasis on anticipation.

If, under conditions of certainty, your brain releases one unit of dopamine in total, and 70% of it comes in anticipation of, rather than after, the reward, then under conditions of uncertainty your brain would release two units of dopamine, with 90% of it coming in anticipation of the reward.

The ideal project, then, is one which might not work. The element of surprise and lack of control increase the dopamine response.

Psychoanalysis corroborates this conclusion. You never want the thing, you want the wanting of the thing. The dopamine hit comes from the want, not the thing. The solution is to set your sights an uncertain goal and work hard to reach it.

You may not reach it. That’s not just okay, that’s the point.

The War of Art

The notion that we should embrace existential terror by taking on projects which might not work is the thesis of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.

Pressfield gave a name to the modern fear of existential terror: The Resistance.

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance. Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? Have you ever bailed out on a call to embark upon a spiritual practice, dedicate yourself to a humanitarian calling, commit your life to the service of others? Have you ever wanted to be a mother, a doctor, an advocate for the weak and helpless; to run for office, crusade for the planet, campaign for world peace, or to preserve the environment? Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.

The Resistance is a particular type of fear that the writer has before sitting down to write, the salesman has before making a sales call, or the engineer has before shipping a project. It is meant to be embraced, not avoided.

Naming it was Pressfield’s most powerful act. It is hard to fight something that has no name.

And fight it you must. The War of Art uses military metaphors for good reason.

“Henry Fonda was still throwing up before each stage performance, even when he was seventy-five. In other words, fear doesn’t go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.”

Pressfield saw the inversion that has happened as we lived in an increasingly legible society: at the top of Maslow’s pyramid, survival no longer depends on running from existential terror but on seeking it out. Existential terror fuels imagination, a survival trait at the top of trait within Maslow’s hierarchy.

The Resistance, our fear of existential terror, has always been a compass. For most of human history, the correct reaction was to run away from the fear. The unknown rustle in the bushes could be a lion.

Today, the poles have flipped. Wherever the Resistance is, you must go.

The more important a call or action is to your evolution, the more Resistance you’ll feel about it.

The Resistance is a compass—you just have to start walking towards it.

Common Failure Cases

There are many modern ways to avoid the necessary feeling of the Resistance. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Giving in to an impulse: drugs, shopping, TV, gossip, alcohol, or peanut butter.
  • Victimhood and the acquisition of a “condition”—an illness or a cross to bear. People with this pattern go from condition to condition, curing one and having another pop up. They hold others hostage with the threat of another illness/meltdown.
  • Obsessive criticism: the person who is profoundly unhappy because of not confronting their own Resistance, and so who then criticize others. This is a common clueless pattern, as Michael Scott has beautifully illustrated.

These patterns are all accompanied by rationalizations, usually legitimate ones, which is why they are dangerous.

Your department may really be merging and it might very well make sense to put off the dissertation until after the baby is born.

There is never a convenient time to go to war with the Resistance, and so it must be done at an inconvenient time.

Tolstoy had thirteen kids while he wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

The Two Most Subtle Failure Cases: Too Big and Too Small

People can move towards their own Resistance in order to embrace their unlived potential—be it in painting, writing, speaking, or selling—and still manage to avoid it.

The most common cause of failure is simply avoiding or ignoring existential terror, yet it is still possible to fail when moving in the right direction, by designing a project that is too big or too small.

The more common of the two is picking something too small and inconsequential and quickly ending up in bored-as-fuck territory.

This is caused by what’s commonly called imposter syndrome: thinking you are not up to a challenge big enough to create tension.

This too is evolutionary baggage. The risk exposure of trying to kill a wooly mammoth by yourself was concave—if you do then you win temporary glory and the tribe eats for a few days or weeks at best. If you fail, then you die.

That risk exposure flipped when we crossed the flow threshold. For most humans today, that blog/project/venture has a convex risk exposure. If you win, you win big and if you lose you are out not-that-many bucks.

If you are asking yourself, “Am I really a writer? Am I really an entrepreneur?”, then you probably are. The bullshit innovator is usually supremely self-confident. The true innovator is frequently scared to death.

While the problem of too small a project is more common, for some Silicon Valley types, failure can be caused by delusions of grandeur, resulting in projects that are too big.

They identify the problem and then design a solution so large that it simply can’t be implemented.

They then write Medium posts and tweet about how they have the perfect solution but the rest of the world is too selfish and/or stupid to get on board, ignoring the fact that an idea which has no MVP is as good as no idea at all.

The key to learning how to combat the Resistance is captured in two phrases: “Turning Pro” and “Dancing with the Fear”

Turning Pro

When asked if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration, Somerset Maugham replied, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

Maugham was a pro.

A professional understands daemons and the mindful learning curve, and that the job of the professional is to show up everyday and do the work. Sometime the daemons visit and you end up with beautiful prose and sometimes they don’t and you end up with trash.

In Woody Allen’s words, “80 percent of success is showing up.”

This is the basis of writing advice like “200 shitty words a day,” but it could be applied to any venture. “Two shitty sales calls a day” works as well.

A professional is patient: the professional knows they are running a marathon, not a sprint. A professional seeks order in their life, so that they may wrestle with chaos in their work.

A professional acts in spite of the fear. The amateur thinks they must first overcome the fear.

Outside of the clinically sociopathic, there is no such thing as fearlessness. What Henry Fonda did after puking into his dressing room toilet was to walk onstage.

Dance with the Fear

Turning Pro is the external view of what you are seeking: it’s your schedule, your orderly office.

It’s what Flaubert meant when he said: “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work”

The internal sensation you are seeking is what Seth Godin calls “dancing with the fear.” That is, feeling the existential terror and learning to not run, but rather to dance with it.

If modern adults are atrophied children and traditional life accelerates rather than slows this process of atrophy, dancing encourages childish behavior in the best way possible.

If the terror is too small and inconsequential, it’s like dancing with a 10-year-old at a wedding. It’s sort of cute at first but gets old quickly.

If it’s too big, it’s like dancing in the middle of an Ibizan club. You can safely take risks because you are hiding, lost in a meaningless crowd. There’s not tension.

Failure in either is meaningless because there is such a clear mismatch between the difficulty and your skill.

Success, in this view, is to find a fear that is at your level of skill and ambition, something which might not work, and to dance with it.

The biggest danger in the modern world is not failure, it’s boredom.

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Comments

  1. Romeo Stevens says:

    A pernicious coping mechanism is the selection effect on meaning making. If one model of fun is the perception of danger minus actual danger there is an analogous structure with meaning making. Greater meaning is the perception of higher costs minus actual costs. People are injecting in a blog post or for a weekend retreat meaning structures that took hundreds of years to develop and require investment to realize the fruits of. Once they’ve fully inoculated themselves to all the low hanging fruit of possible meaning they wake up to a wasteland. Meditation? Oh yeah I went on a retreat, longer than yours. Marriage? Did you see the facebook album? Definitely better than Linda’s. Becoming a compelling speaker? I attend toastmasters occasionally, they gave me this certificate. Like a replacement of meaning with the symbol of meaning and then maximizing the visible proxy costs of the symbol (time, money, legibility). Skirting around the existential terror lurking at the heart of sincere endeavor.

    • Yea, that’s really true. I am increasingly focused on the dancing with the fear feeling as it is easy to create all the outward signs of sincere endeavor without really engaging in them. I often see this in myself, though unfortunately usually only in retrospect. One person’s Ibiza club dance is another’s legitimate fear and there aren’t many external markers, at least that I’ve found, to tell which is which.

  2. Average Radical says:

    Grammar mistake: “Most people assume was that the majority of dopamine hits come in response to a reward.”

  3. Average Radical says:

    I recently quit my job in search of more meaningful work (about 6 months of cash). Do you have any suggestions on how to define this? I’m looking at things like 80,000 hours, DALYs/QALYs, etc., but it’s a sticky point.

    • I like the question ““What is something I could do now that is both meaningful and enjoyable?”

      I think the tendency is to try and find *the most meaningful* thing to work on when there is no such thing.

      Other helpful, albeit cliche prompts

      What would you do if you couldn’t fail?
      What would you do if you won the lottery tomorrow?

      The answers to these questions aren’t usually *the answer* but they sometimes open up new avenues to explore.

      I also like Marc Andreesen’s no-schedule productivity schedule: http://pmarchive.com/guide_to_personal_productivity.html

      What you work on when you can work on anything is usually a good indicator.

  4. Great article. You are essentially describing ennui – profound, existential boredom. (Or, “bored as fuck.”) It may be the biggest danger in the modern world now, but there is an even bigger existential problem facing us in the future, which we don’t have to deal with yet but which is growing on the horizon. This problem will arise from the continual improvement of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence. Little by little, from one area to the next, software and machinery will outpace us until we reach the point that none of us are smart enough, creative enough, or good enough at *anything*. If the experience becomes pervasive enough, and I think it will, it could trigger a kind of permanent identity crisis. People will feel inferior, obsolete, irrelevant. Sure, you could push yourself — wage Pressfield’s war, get out of your comfort zone, test your limits, etc — but why bother when you can push a button and get the machine to achieve the goal for you ten times faster and with far better results? We could find ourselves being outsmarted in every area of life, leaving us all in a hole, a theme I explored in my novel The Perfect. – Greg Juhn

    • Hence the need for actual dancing with your fear of actual dancing and playing sports. Self improvement can never be accomplished for you by machines. Never , so have no fear, your fear of personal activity will always be there.

  5. I think it’s worth distinguishing between two different possibilities: one, that mild existential terror makes us better off by itself. Two, that mild existential terror doesn’t actually contribute to well-being, but our work to protect against it historically did, and it’s us not needing that work anymore that’s the real culprit.

    To take as an example one important component of well-being: meaningful relationships (not necessarily romantic). Hunting that tiger required working closely together, and being able to trust others in your hunting party – literally trusting them with your life. This facilitated – forced – the creation of very deep and intense bonds.

    In contrast, these days it’s all too easy to drift through life without *needing* to form a close bond with anyone, because there are no existential terrors that we need to protect ourselves against by bonding together. But it’s not the existential terror, by itself, that causes the bonding. Inject some existential terror to the life of someone lonely and all you’ve done is make them even more miserable. Psychological research on people’s well-being finds the number and quality of close relationships to be one of the most important factors in well-being, not the amount of fear in their lives.

    People can form bonds even without that terror, even quickly like with the “fast friends protocol” of just going through a series of increasing personal questions. Arguably the fast friends protocol, too, evokes a *bit* of fear by making people vulnerable to each other. But this is a mild enough fear that I wouldn’t put it in the same category.

    Also, look at children: kids raised in healthy, loving homes, who’ve experienced the least amount of fear in their lives, tend to be pretty happy and content until they start getting thrown in unhealthy social environments (e.g. school) where they start developing worries and reasons for self-censorship and feelings that they’ll need to conform in order to fit in.

    It’s the sudden appearance of existential fear that makes them worse off, not the lack of it.

    When I was the most depressed, the problem was never “boredom”. The problem was feeling like I’d never achieve anything I wanted to, like I’d live in constant financial stress, like I’d never have a place where I’d feel I’d belong, like nobody would want me as a romantic partner. Again it was various kinds of existential fear that were hurting me, not the lack of them.

    As I’ve started to recover, I’ve grown increasingly convinced that “being bored about life” isn’t really about having too few challenges. If you find things interesting, you’ll always discover new fascinating challenges. Rather the problem is in demanding too much of yourself, thinking that you need to self-censor in order to fit in, feeling ashamed about parts of yourself and wanting to suppress them. All things which cause you to (consciously or subconsciously) suppress your natural urges and your natural motivation to do things, and then you end up bored because you are not letting yourself be interested in any of the things that you are actually authentically interested in.

    That, too, comes from a form of mild existential terror, the terror of not belonging unless you fit the mold X.

  6. William A Treseder says:

    Thanks for a great guest post, Cal!

    I struggle with many of the symptoms you described, and the solutions you prescribe. As a new dad, I also wonder what I can effectively impart to my kids. What are 2-3 keystone daily rituals you would make sure to transmit to the next generation?

    • I’m not sure it can be distilled down into daily rituals as it is so highly subjective. What is an appropriately challenging project for one person might be terrifying beyond belief for another and boring to someone else.

      Some of the questions I dropped above about “What would I do if I couldn’t fail?” might be helpful brainstorming activities.

  7. I enjoyed the article and found myself wondering if the fact that existential terror is a part of life in places like Israel and Estonia are the cultural context that enables them to lead the world in start-ups per capita. When you face the threat of suicide bomber/Hamas or Russian invasion on a daily basis, starting a company doesn’t really seem like a big deal.

    • Hmm good point. Maybe those fear Trump should go check out a *more* dangerous country, not Canada

    • Had never framed it in this light, but I think that’s part of the appeal of New York to me. It’s not anywhere on the Israel level, but there’s a visceral sense of friction.

  8. Thanks Taylor for your write up, came here from your newsletter.
    Ennui vs. the need for Existential Terror, I like it a lot. Very true when joining back the corporate fold, where boredom can settle. Taking big enough risks, those that can actually fail, is key to find excitement again, the kind I had when I had my own small company.

  9. Interesting but… I have one question.
    Are you sure you are not considering “childless men” here?

    I am a man, and childless, but I suspect that:
    a) Women, in general, have much higher chances to experience fear, even in modern, civilized countries.
    b) parents, at least for the first few years, have, again, more opportunities to experience fear, even if it may be irrational and caused by inexperience more than anything (i.e. Having another child may be less stressful).

    • Yeah, I think in general writing on this topic has a tendency to ignore the majority of the species that is organized in family units with children in them. It’s almost as though there are two basic species in the world: individual humans, and family units.

    • Great Point.

      Seth Godin has been one of my big influences on this subject and he said raising children was by far the most fear-inducing thing he ever did.

  10. Awesome article.

    On a very basic level, I guess people are looking for that existential fear by doing extreme sports. Boosting up their healthy dosis of fear by jumping out of a plane.

  11. On the top right corner of the graph we find Elon Musk :)

  12. Undecided says:

    This is an interesting essay. I like the way you tie together the Resistance and legibility — concepts that I’ve encountered before, but that I never would have thought to relate.

    But I take issue with its portrayal of mental health. Depression is not a proxy for social dysfunction. Better diagnosis is the most likely explanation for the increases in incidence reported in the 1988 and 2012 studies you mention, though I can’t know without a citation.

    And neither antidepressants nor anxiolytics are categorically “tranquilizing drugs” (though sedation can be a side effect with some, and is a good reason to consider switching medications). If anything, antidepressants and anxiolytics take people in the boredom and terror areas of your graph, respectively, and push them back into flow. The meme that psych meds tranquilize people into conformity is unfounded (or at best outdated), and it probably keeps some people from seeking treatment when they need it.