Humans are relatively adaptable beings which is why we are thriving and not dying out like other species. Horrendous disasters such as the Philippines typhoon, the Boxing Day Tsunami, the nuclear disaster in Japan, the major wars of our time, and horrific famines see great suffering, but these events also inspire survival through adaptation. It turns out we possess a strong survival mechanism in our brains directly linked to our bodies, fight, flight, freeze, flop and friend (fffff).
In fact, the survival part of our brain, which is primitive yet effective, is the first to develop in utero starting at around 7 weeks. It regulates our breathing, digestive system, heart rate and temperature, along with the ‘fffff’ system which operates to preserve our life.
If we have to dodge a falling object, jump out of the path of a speeding car, keep very still to avoid being seen, run for the hills from a predator, or get someone potentially threatening ‘onside’ we need this to happen fast. If a baby is scared, cold, hungry, lonely, or in any way overwhelmed, this triggers their survival system and they cry to bring an adult to them to help them survive.
If a baby is repeatedly scared and emotionally overwhelmed and they do not get their survival brain soothed, so they can cope, they begin to develop a brain and bodily system which is on hyper alert and the World seems to be a scary place. Sadly, this is not something they can ‘just grow out of’. Far from it as what neuroscience is showing us from all the recent findings. An early experience has a profound effect on the way in which a child’s brain forms and operates as the survival brain is on over drive and senses threat everywhere so works too hard, too often, for too long.
Babies and young children systems are flooded with potent stress hormones which help in the event of needing the 5 fffff’s, but they are not good to have at high levels for too long. Imagine the feeling when you truly believe you have lost your wallet with all your cards and money in. You feel a bit faint, your brain is whirring, your heart racing, breathing is shallow, and you may get the urge to empty your bowels or bladder. Hopefully, this may only last for the usual 45 minute cycle for those who are not traumatised.
Then, stress hormone levels drop and you can think more clearly and resume your day fairly unscathed. What if you are 4, 9 or 15 years old? How will you cope if your repetitive early childhood trauma of living with domestic violence, unavailable or rough carers, chaos and unpredictability has left you traumatised?
As I referred to at the start, humans are amazingly adaptable in order to survive, although not necessarily thrive. So a child’s system adapts to get whatever basic needs met it can and to live to the next moment, think the soldier in a war zone kind of survival. In an abusive environment, this will make sense but it is not something a child can just stop doing as their survival brain is in charge and has to do what it has learnt to keep them alive.
The kinds of survival behaviours they commonly develop are:
Presenting as helpless may have made carers frustrated, even angry and rough with them but will mean they sometimes had to touch a child who presented as unable to say get dressed or wipe their bottom or feed themselves – this can look like immaturity and ‘babyish’ behaviour in an 8 year old but it has previously served a purpose
Being held and touched kindly is a basic human need and tragically children in Romanian orphanages who were not, died. Almost ‘pathetically’ children often devise ways which can seem strange, given their age and previous capabilities, to get some physical contact, even if it’s unpleasant
Children often learn to survive by being ‘like a baby’ as they have either learnt how babies get more kindness and attention or have some in-built ‘memory’ of this. However, ‘acting like a baby’ can be negatively viewed as regression, yet it is often an expression of trust in carers as they feel safe enough post abuse to seek out kindness from them. These behaviours need to be handled gently until the child is ready to move on. Imagine you had never experienced physical closeness and gentle touch, but you were driven to seek it out which requires real courage.
When a child is in the ‘I’ve lost my keys’ panic state most of the day, it’s like a pan boiling on the stove and the smallest extra heat causes it to boil over
The survival brain leaps into action at the slightest thing, an accidental shove from another child, a small scratch on the arm, a lost pencil, a ‘look’ from another child and the 5 fffff’s are triggered, for most children that’s flight but if cornered and unable to escape, or previously over used, it will be fight
Children may cry more readily and for much longer and louder as they do not have the ability to self soothe or to be soothed easily as their brain has not been exposed to this and is not wired that way so telling them to ‘calm down’ is of no use
They are feeling things as deeply as they seem to be at this point and are not just ‘attention seeking’
Disassociation or ‘zoning out’ is another way the brain and body cope with high levels of potentially toxic stress hormones for overly long periods. It can also be a learnt survival strategy, submit, switch off and wait for the frightening, painful, incomprehensible act to be over. This ability to switch off can look like defiance or non-compliance as a child may just stare ahead and not respond to requests from adults
Children cannot continuously cope with the muscle tension, nausea, thudding heart, racing thoughts so finding something to fixate on to soothe them can become a great coping strategy and again will look as if they are being non-compliant whereas they are escaping from their trauma the only way they know how.
How long until they do ‘get over it?’
It’s a fair question as to why it’s so hard for traumatised children to trust caring adults. If they were removed from the abuse and trauma as a baby or even directly after birth, surely they should not be having these dramatic reactions?
Going back to our survival part of our brain, this is not designed to be the dominant part of anyone’s brain as we also have an emotional memories part and a thinking, reasoning, socially able cognitive part which should mostly be ‘in charge’. All three areas are interlinked and share info back and forth all the time but mostly we need to think before we act and then we do better. However, if your start in life has made your survival brain ‘hyper alert’ then to manage this is like repeatedly trying to get a squirrel into a matchbox!
Children need us to be calm, kind, to use rhythm, patience and to try to step into their world and emotional state and show empathy. As practitioners, it can be helpful to research ways of supporting traumatised children, pushing for appropriate training and most importantly being very aware of the extra strain that comes with working with and caring for traumatised children. However, with the right long term acceptance, kindness and support children can get a better chance at eventually being able to manage their reactive survival brain which has, after all, got them this far.
The Power of Language & Labels
A while ago I posted a meme which said, “Better to have lost in love than to live with a psycho for the rest of your life.”
I liked it, of course, otherwise, I wouldn’t have posted it. Eleven others did too, some commenting on Facebook, “Amen to that,” and “Definitely!!”
Then this: “Hate it. It’s beat up on people with mental illness time again. Ever had the amazing person you love tell you that they just can’t deal with your mental illness anymore? Our society is totally phobic about people with mental illness having intimate relationships.”
Woah, that came a bit out of the blue. I hadn’t made the link between “person with a mental illness” and “psycho”, otherwise I wouldn’t have posted it. It didn’t say, “Better to have lost in love than to live with a person with a mental illness for the rest of your life.” I had linked “psycho” with the often weird, unspoken assumptions people make when in relationships, which have kept me out of long-term relationships all my life.
It made me think, though. Suppose it had read, “Better to have lost in love than to live with an idiot for the rest of your life.” Would that have been a slight against people experiencing unique learning function?
Probably a more accurate meme would have been, “Better to have lost in love than to live with an arsehole for the rest of your life.” But that’s not what the image said.
For the record, I have had someone I loved tell me he couldn’t cope with my unique physical function anymore. It was hard to hear, but ultimately he was the one who lost out. And I know intuitively many would-be lovers haven’t even gone there — again, their loss and my gain, because why would I want to be with anyone so closed-minded?
The power we let labels have over us can be overwhelming. If I had a dollar for every time a person called someone a “spaz” in my presence, I’d be wealthy. If I got offended because “spaz” is a shortened version of “spastic”, which is one of my diagnoses, and I got another dollar for that, well — I’d be angrily living in the Bahamas.
I think the evolution of language — and the generalization of words like, “gay,” “spaz,” “idiot” and “psycho” — creates the opportunity for them to lose their charge and liberate us from their stigma. By allowing them to continue having power over us, though, we re-traumatize ourselves every time we hear them. Words are symbols and they change meaning over time and in different contexts.
I celebrate that “gay” means “not for me” rather than “fag”; that “spaz” means “over-reacting”, not “crippled”; that “idiot” means “unthinking”, not “retarded”; and that “psycho” means “someone with weird, unspoken assumptions”, not “a crazy person”.
By letting words change meaning for us, we are redefining diversity and creating social change. It’s not a case of, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” It’s recognizing that, unless someone is looking directly at us menacingly, calling us gay, spaz, idiot or psycho, we’re not in their minds — they’ve moved on.
Maybe it’s useful for us to move on with them?
As it turns out, the behaviour of people around us is contagious. This is truer the closer these relationships are – we are much more influenced by the attitudes of friends and family than we are by those of strangers. We often think of peer pressure as a bad thing we should resist, but it can also be a powerful influencer in terms of shifting social attitudes for the better as well.
I recently read an interesting article in Scientific American about the power of social pressure and how it can influence our behaviour. For example, one 2003 study found:
- If a person gains weight, the likelihood their friend would also gain weight is 171%
- When smokers quit, their friends are 36% more likely to also quit
- Having happy friends increased the likelihood of an individual being happy by 8%
It’s also true that fitting in feels good. We all want to feel a sense of connection and belonging and these things are hugely important to our personal wellbeing. The difficulty is, of course, when fitting in means feeling pressured to change parts of ourselves in ways we are not comfortable with. And feeling under pressure to force yourself to be something you’re not can cause a huge amount of psychological distress.
It’s a no-win situation – we either change (or pretend to change) for the sake of fitting into the group – and feel awful and uncomfortable about not being able to be who we really are – or we stay courageous about our convictions, but experience ostracisation and pay another kind of emotional price for that, too.
So what’s the answer? I’m really not sure, to be honest. I know that personally when I was younger I felt huge amounts of pressure to hide my nerdy and academic interests because they didn’t seem to be shared by the people around me. I didn’t talk about my love for sci-fi, comic books, or video games with anyone. Or show that I loved attending classes and soaking up knowledge anywhere I could. I simply never seemed to have any friends who had the same interests.
But through my 20s I became a lot more comfortable in my own skin and more confident that being different in some way was okay. Just the other day a colleague pointed out a nice, but expensive, piece of jewellery online. She asked, “Wouldn’t you like to own that?” I replied, “Actually, I’d rather have a new Xbox!” We laughed about it. I didn’t feel like an outcast. I felt like I was being genuine and appreciated for that.
And maybe this is the key. Sometimes a lot of the pressure to conform is external, but I wonder how much of it is internal as well. I wonder if my friends in my younger years would have accepted me for who I was if I had given them the chance to.
Or maybe my hard-won comfort with who I am helps other people to feel more comfortable being themselves around me, too. We’ve removed that pressure, together.
But I’m curious – how affected (or unaffected) do you feel by social pressure?
Is It More Than Just A Shooting?
Several articles in response to the shootings in Minnesota, New Orleans, and Dallas point fingers at racists, PTSD, and mental illness. Although these issues are valid, there is a multitude of factors making this issue far more complex than a singular culprit like mental illness.
Underneath all these shootings and acts of violence is fear, an emotion we don’t often factor in when discussing shootings. Fear causes fight or flight reactions in humans, a strong, protective instinct which can, at times, cause reactions that aren’t typical of our normal behaviors. When we experience fear, whether real or perceived, our adrenaline increases and as an act of self-preservation. Our reactions to fear may cause us to act in ways our “normal” brain might not have. Unfortunately, it can also cause us to react in a way which can take the life of someone in the name of self-protection or justice.
So, imagine the stress of living in a neighborhood where people are killed, gunshots are heard regularly, and those around you are involved in nefarious activities. Long-term stress can have severe consequences – such as physical health issues and problems with cognitive thinking. For children, toxic stress results in behavioral and development issues. Living in a state of constant fear never allows an individual to care for themselves, always on the alert for potentially dangerous situations. Living in fearful conditions where a community’s needs aren’t met and their safety is questionable, a physically and mentally harmful lifestyle is already enough to deal with. Now, factor in racial profiling, police bias and brutality, and classist targeting.
In low-income neighborhoods, police are not always responsive. The police don’t often know you or your family and tend to approach certain neighborhoods with harmful preconceived ideas. Whether it’s internalized hate, racial profiling and learned bias, classism or just plain ignorance, many police officers are not educated about communities different from their own and only have reference points from television and media, which reinforce harmful stereotypes. If this is the basis from which police are viewing the public, it’s highly likely police will target certain groups out of fear.
It is important as a society, we do not downplay the personal responsibility we have for our actions nor the sheer horror of violence. But we are not born disliking people of color, women, immigrants or cultures different from our own. Through our learned experiences with family, school, media, or religious institutions, we learn to be separate and fear groups who are not like us. We look around and see people who only look like us and learn to live in a comfortableness rather than question the status quo which oppresses certain groups more than others.
So, how do we get past this fear? Education, compassion, and empathy are key. As a community, we need to be more responsible to one another and have difficult conversations about race, gender, and class while challenging our own internalized biases. Speaking to our legislators, media representatives, friends, and family is a power to hold ourselves and others accountable for racial profiling, classism, abuse of power, and internalized fears. We need to put our foot down and refuse to settle for superficial conversations or answers to large, complex problems.
The Surprising Downside to Mental Health Awareness
It’s common knowledge our society isn’t great with mental health. We don’t talk about it enough and invalidate those who are struggling. We often simplify mental health issues as personal weakness while ignoring complex factors which comprise mental well being. By focusing mental health awareness on illness or “weakness,” we are not adhering to scientific research which shows a complicated web of factors comprises mental health.
It’s interesting, then, that many of our mental health “awareness raising” narratives relate to illnesses and chemical imbalances. Awareness raising campaigns often portray mental health as an individual medical problem. However, when we consider this on a societal level, it is hard to justify the idea that nearly everyone develops abnormal brain chemistry. We don’t have a collective wonky wiring making us all depressed or vulnerable to mental health issues.
Our personal challenges might be emotional bruises from our childhood circumstances, for example, poverty, trauma, bullying, instability, or learning difficulties. We may also face more recent challenges such as a lack of fulfilling friendships, stress, alcohol or drug dependency, debt, trauma, or tumultuous relationships. Indeed, some of our challenges might have followed us across the spectrum of life, factors including gender, race, sexuality, (dis)ability, emotional sensitivity levels, etc.
We know those of us who face greater life challenges are more likely to be at the sharp end of distress. To me, that’s not an individual, medical problem, neither on scientific or ethical grounds. Yet, these factors are often a sideline in awareness-raising campaigns.
The common “illness like any other” narrative simplifies a complex issue, suggesting some people are ill and others are simply not. This narrative would be necessary, perhaps, if psychiatric diagnoses were reliable and clearly differentiated people with and without mental “illness.” This narrative might also be necessary if conditions of distress were proven biological illnesses, but they’re not. Mental health diagnostic criteria are subjective and culture-bound, there is no clear line between mentally “ill” and mentally “well.”
Depending on which mental health professional one sees, the kinds of questions which are asked, even factors such as one’s age or gender, one could get a very different diagnosis. For example, Borderline Personality Disorder is characteristically feminine. Many people cycle through a range of professional labels before finding one which fits their personal experience – often, a person adopts several diagnoses before finding their best fit.
Also, note how the presence of a “chemical imbalance” or any other biological test for that matter, is not a criterion for a mental health diagnosis. We cannot detect depression, developmental disorders, eating disorders, or “personality disorders” in a blood test, brain scan, or any other biological test. Indeed, science has not proven there is a chemical imbalance for many mental health diagnoses.
According to the British Psychological society, “Our experiences and distress are likely to arise out of a range of factors. The things that have happened to us, including influences on our development before, during and after birth, childhood and educational experiences, our current circumstances and responses, our brains and bodies, and how we make sense of our lives are all important… there is no firm evidence that mental distress is primarily caused by biochemical imbalances, genes, or something going wrong in the brain (with a few exceptions, such as dementia).”
Of course, we know taking medication can help some people feel better. But by promoting an “illness like any other” way of understanding mental health, we are suggesting distress should largely be treated as a physical illness, i.e. with biological treatments. However, medications have the best results when given to people with severe distress and for the shortest time needed, considering long-term medication often has serious side effects.
Many people find the illness narrative useful and validating. For some, it offers answers or proof their distress is valid and should be taken seriously. But this is up to the individual, who should be able to have a choice as to whether to accept the medical “illness” metaphor of understanding or to seek alternative understandings about their distress.
This article, then, is an evidence-based suggestion that we, as a society, need to be more open to dialogues and alternatives when addressing mental health. We need to consider the full spectrum of understanding mental health and raise awareness of the multiplicity of factors supporting and hindering our well being. Only then can we be truly empowered to take control of our mental health – both as individuals and as a society.
Personality Disorders: How They Affect You
Most people get along with others. There might be the odd bit of friction between a person or two, but for the most part, most people get along.
There is a sub-group of people, however, that doesn’t seem to get along with almost anyone. These persons tend to project blame onto others for their conflict and may also cause others to feel guilty for not meeting expectations in the relationship. Further, some of these people while feigning interest in others, are really only interested in meeting their own needs. These people can be manipulative, self-serving and distressing to others. If they themselves are distressed, it is only due to the reaction of others, or for others not attending to their demands. They tend not to be distressed about their own behaviour. In fact, when confronted on their own behaviour, they are quite unable to see a problem with themselves and treat the confrontation as a serious attack. They are incredibly adept at making excuses which continue to exonerate themselves while making it seem like everyone else is the problem.
If you explore their childhood, one often sees a history of abuse or abandonment. There may have been parental alcohol or drug abuse and violence in the home. These persons may have been subject to many moves in childhood and care by multiple alternate caregivers.
Such persons may have a personality disorder. A personality disorder is a psychiatric diagnosis given to adults whose behaviour brings them into conflict with many persons and society. Their behaviour presents as frequently troublesome, inflexible and persistent. There are many behaviours common to persons with a personality disorder. When clusters of certain behaviours are seen in the same person over time, different types of personality disorders are identified. Hence 10 distinct types of personality disorders are distinguished and there are mixed types. Some persons are loud or dramatic while others cause rifts in relationships between other persons with themselves seeking to be in the middle. Some may flaunt the law, believing it is their right to do so and others make everything seems about themselves. These characteristics relate to the histrionic, borderline, antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders.
Treating Personality Disorders
Personality disorders cannot be treated with medication, although someone with a personality disorder may have another disorder such as depression or anxiety, which can be treated with medication. The personality disorder itself may be treated by psychotherapy; however, many persons with personality disorders are treatment resistant. In other words, the psychotherapy does not work and the personality disorder continues. The reason many are treatment resistant is due to the nature of the personality disorder. Another feature of the disorder is the inability of the person to view themselves realistically. They have tremendous difficulty or may be fully unable to realistically appraise or see their own behaviour as troublesome. Therefore, they are quite unable to accept it is they who have the problem and needs the help.
People who live with someone with a personality disorder may come to believe they have the problem, rather than the person with the disorder. The one with the personality disorder is so good at projecting blame and their version of reality and are so inflexible, that others are drawn into accepting blame and feeling guilty. Hence treatment for the family and friends of the person with the disorder becomes paramount. Treatment or counselling is aimed at educating the family and friends as to the nature of the disorder and at helping these persons form strong boundaries to protect from the intrusions of the one with the disorder. Some family members or friends may also have to distance themselves to be self-protective and others may need coping strategies to manage situations as when they need to be near the person with the disorder.
If you are having difficulty with someone as described above and even if they do get help, get help for yourself. Describe the situation to the therapist and seek education, guidance, and support to manage the relationship and make choices as to how you will cope and decide what is acceptable for you. You are allowed to be independent of the person with the disorder, regardless of the relationship.
4 Calming Techniques to Improve Your Mental Health
If you are like me and the other nearly 325,000,000 trillion people in the U.S., you have experienced stress. From raising kids, dealing with your boss or handling a health issue, you can feel overwhelmed. But there’s good news! Learn how to create peace and take control of your life.
Determining the Type of Stress
Most people do not realize stress, a response to stimuli, comes in two varieties: good stress and bad stress. Bad stress or distress happens when your perception of an event is threatening. According to Stress Management Society, “Through the release of hormones, such as adrenaline, cortisol…the caveman gained a rush of energy…”. This onset of biological and emotional reactions resulted in the need to fight or flight.
Good stress or positive stress is the opposite response. It is marked by feelings of happiness and a sense of confidence. Your thoughts are focused and the energy is motivating.
4 Paths to Calm
Now that you know more about stress, you can start to manage it. Try these tips to make stress ignite your creativity and passion. Make stress work for you.
1. Keep It in Perspective
So, how do you transform your bad stress into good stress? Change your perception. If your job causes you to relocate, consider it a career opportunity. If the throbbing in one of your molars means you need a root canal, don’t panic. Discuss it with an emergency dentist Calgary. Consider it an investment in your health.
2. Calm the Monkey
Your mind races with thousands of thoughts all day. Anxiety builds as you obsess about future concerns. What if this happens, what if that happens? Stop!
Just breathe. As you mindfully count from 1 – 10, inhale and exhale slowly. Feel your heart rate decrease.
The Buddhists used this breathing method for quiet meditation to conquer the Monkey Mind or frenzied mental condition. In Mindfulness: Taming the Monkey Mind by Mitchell Wagner, the author states, “It is not possible for the mind to be open…when it is consumed by anxiety.”
3. Choose the Right Foods
What do yogurt, pistachios, and spinach have to do with relaxation? They contain key ingredients which affect your mood.
Spinach & Avocado
The folate found in this green leafy vegetable produces dopamine, a chemical producing feelings of pleasure. Folic acid improves memory in adults experiencing stress. Avocados are also high in folate and vitamin E.
This comfort-inducing snack is filled with probiotics. It delivers healthful live bacteria in the gut linked to good mental health.
Strawberries, Raspberries, & Blueberries
These fruits are high in vitamin C which helps fight stress.
4. Become a Yogi
Yoga is a tradition dating back 300 years ago. Yoga is low impact and is a synergy of mind, body, and soul.
The International Journal of Yoga published “Exploring the therapeutic effects of Yoga and its ability to increase the quality of life” and found “Yogic practices enhance muscular strength…reduce stress, anxiety…”. Bikram, Hatha, and Kundalini are some of the best forms of yoga for beginners.
Invest in Stress Management
Consult with your doctor. Read books and attend local exercise classes. Stay up-to-date about trends.
Stress is a part of life. Learn stress management. Anticipate the unexpected and choose a strategy challenging you to do your best. Then, sit back and relax.
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