Imagine if you will, a seed It is full of potential. You plant it and it grows – from seed, to sprout, sapling, juvenile tree and then to a full adult.
Eventually it flowers and drops it’s own seeds, which grow and become a forest.
The tree grows old, loses branches, becomes weathered and cracked, but still it nurtures its young, dropping leaves that compost and become fertiliser, draws up water from the depths that its children can drink.
The tree harbours life – insects, mammals and birds, all of which play their part in the ecology. The cracks and crevices provide hiding places for the various animals, which live, pollinate and fertilise the environment.
Eventually the tree dies, falls and becomes yet more places for creatures to live, fertilises the soil and new trees take its place.
My question for you is from seedling to death… when was this plant the real thing? When was it’s best representation of a plant?
Was it the potential in the seed, or the accomplishments of the life of the plant? Was it when it had the most cracks and character such that it could harbour the most life, or before it was weather damaged and looked like an ideal picture?
I contend that the tree was always good, always the real plant. Each day of its life was the best day of its life.
When are you the best you, the true you? Was it at conception? Will it be your dying breath? Will it be when and if you bring life into this world? Or save another’s life? Will it be on your hardest day, or your best day?
I contend that you are the real and best you right now. And now. And also…. Now.
And you will be great tomorrow too. Older, grown and more wise. And wonderful.
We sometimes look back on our lives and think that we walked through failure and that makes us failures now.
But this is wrong.
To become good at anything, first we must start out terrible at it.
We gained cracks, and weathering, and crevices, and this enabled us to harbour the life of others… and this makes us good. These experiences gave us wisdom and experience to learn from, from which we can grow and become mighty.
And they were hard, they were terrible and they hurt.
But we are good. We are wonderful. Right now.
And tomorrow you will grow and be even more amazing..
An introduction to neurodiversity and why this is a better model of mental health than typical/atypical. We will briefly look at two of the aspects of early mental health that led to a this false dichotomy and have a breif look at cognitive biases – common categorisation errors.
Previously [link] we talked about how evolution requires diversity within a species to be strong and robust. We saw that eugenics corrupted this concept of “diversity is good” and changed into “diversity is bad” using the erroneous logic of god’s blueprint, which led to the support of oppression, attrocities and genocide.
In Part 2 [link] we saw how the push back of this idea led to the medical model defining all people as the same, regardless of common clearly different internal biology, such as testes vs ovaries, different blood types and immune systems. We established that it is logical that there is more than one variant of human brain.
Wilhelm Wundt opened the Institute for Experimental Psychology at the University of Leipzig in Germany in 1879 and is often considered the father of modern psychology. However the guiding cornerstone of western psychology is the DSM – the USA The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders . To push psychology from an art into a science required experimenting on humans and other animals, to test hypotheses and rule out ideas that did not actually stand up.
This is a good thing.
The easiest source of human test subjects in the USA at universities are students, which, due to the nature of education decisions in the USA, are mostly “prosperous caucasians males”. These experiments would then be compared to other results from universities using a similar cohort, prosperous caucasian males, which frequently validated the findings.
This was the search for the baseline of “normal”. Once you have a baseline for normal, you can then define abnormal as a deviation from this.
And while their findings for prosperous caucasian males was mostly internally consistent, it is not valid to use that data to define what “not prosperous” or “not caucasian” or “not male” people should be like.
These findings reinforced the idea that money is god’s blessing, white is better and males are superior. The consequence of “prosperous cauasian males” being used as the baseline is that being impoverished, not white or not male makes you … “lesser”. We talked in Part 2 about how scientists are human first and have to work past their own biases. This is an example of that.
To give you an analogy, if I wanted to know what the contents of my fridge are from a random sample only taken from the freezer, I would assume that my fridge only contains frozen potatoes cut up into long rectangles aka chips. While this might be true, it probably isn’t. If the baseline is chips – that is, chips are “normal” or “typical” fridge contents, then other vegetables and soft drinks are anomalous, and are “abnormal” or “atypical”.
Scientifically, normal is just the most common example you find in the place that you are in.
Consider currency. The most common currency I find around me is Australian Dollars. It seems to be everywhere that I look. Each store accepts it and only gives it back. Based on the old psychological way of defining mental health, anywhere I go in the world that doesn’t deal in Australian dollars is irregular, abnormal and atypical.
Clearly this is wrong – each local area, aka country, has their own financial system which is valid for there and me trying to use my Australian Dollars there is me trying to push my assumptions on the local system, and it is wrong to do so.
So while prosperous caucasian males may react, behave and have basic systems that are fairly common amongst prosperous caucasian males, to compare everyone else in the world to them is weird. Yet that is what we do.
Abnormal psychology was based on those people in facilities who were admitted due to being distressed, dangerously dysfunctional or a danger to themselves or others. Our gaols are full of people who would not be there if their mental health was better. Categorising people based on their distress has merit for treating that particular distress, but when the category of distress labels the person as an illness, that is also erroneous.
The World Health Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health. They have been working on turning various health knowledge into a globally applicable format. While the World Health Organization has made some excellent progress with this, they still have a long way to go.
Judy Singer, a fellow Australian, created the counter to neurotypical and neuro-atypical in 1990. She called it neurodiversity. Her goal was to shift the idea of one baseline for how brains work, to recognising that there is a diversity of human brains that are all valid.
Putting this back in the terms of money, recognising that other forms of currency work fine, so long as you know how they work. We can pay with cash, with credit, with debit, with crypto, with barter and so on. It recognises that different countries will have different values and methodologies and that they all work, but that some adjustments need to be made when mixing them. There is no master currency, or “normal” currency – just locally dominant currency.
While Judy Singer identifies as someone on the Autism Spectrum, and the Autism Association was quick to adopt the term, Autism is not the only brain type that is a divergence.
Let us take a brief detour down a common human bias – categorisation. We like things to be in baskets that we can label.
Plato, a Greek Philosopher from around 400 BCE, said that the world was a reflection of forms. Somewhere there is the idea of a perfect chair and that all chairs are imperfect reflections of this, and somewhere there is a perfect table and all tables are imperfect reflections of this. He used it to explain why we could look at a table and just know it was a table, and look at a chair and just know it is a chair. So far, so good.
A foot stool is a strange thing. You put your feet on it when you are in a chair. Yet you can also sit on it, turning it from a stool for your feet into a chair. You could also put objects on it, which turns it from a stool or chair into a table for your stuff. Which of these ideal forms does a foot stool imperfectly reflect? Chair or table?
The problem that Plato was trying to grapple with is the problem of categories. We want categories to have hard boundaries – “This is a chair” and “This is a table”. Categories almost never have hard boundaries – they have soft boundaries. A foot stool is neither a chair nor a table. It turns out that our two hard bounded categories are more of a … spectrum.
We humans love to put everything that we can into categories. It is a useful tool to simplify knowledge. This is a fruit, that is a vegetable. Except that it isn’t.
The tomato is technically a fruit, because it has seeds on the inside. But you don’t put it in your fruit salad. Pumpkin and cucumber are also fruits. Fruit is a classification of vegetables. When we look at things that are “not fruit” we don’t get “vegetable”, because fruits are vegetables.
“Vegetable – a plant or part of a plant used as food”
An item that we often refer to as a vegetable is the potato. While the potato fits in the super category of vegetable, it is in the subcategory of root. If we are going to separate fruit out of vegetables, we should similarly separate roots out of vegetables. Every plant we eat is both a vegetable in the super category, and also in a subcategory like fruit and roots.
This is an example of where things are phrased as opposites, but actually aren’t, they are part of a super category.
By defining what normal looks like, the early scientists accidentally defined everything else as abnormal, rather than a different normal. It is not that the potato is not an abnormal fruit, it is that they are both vegetables.
Someone who does not fit the category of “prosperous caucasian male” is not “abnormal” or “atypical”. They are just human.
While modern mental health has moved away from typical and atypical, practitioners of older ideas of mental health still cling to this idea. To quote Max Plank, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” – that is, science progresses one funeral at a time.
So what is this neurodiversity thing? It is the recognition that there are lots of different ways that people think about ideas and process information that is a basic biological difference that is equally valid to the brains commonly found in prosperous caucasian males.
If you recall that in Part 1 we discussed how evolution loves to have diversity in the species, we can see how diversity of brains allows for humans to survive and manage all kinds of environments and environmental challenges. Most of our more amazing scientific and engineering discoveries began by someone thinking outside of the box of everyone else’s thinking.
The dichotomy of “typical” vs “atypical” based on prosperous caucasiona males is wrong. Nor is it a spectrum from “typical” through “diverse” to “atypical”.
Instead we need to start thinking in a different picture. The “neurotypical brain” is the most common default in your local area. It is going to be based more on traits than skin colour, sexual organs, prosperity or cultural norms. As such, there is going to be quite a bit of diversity just in neurotypical.
We are going to recognise that other clusters of traits exist which we can slap some labels on for simplicity. Such as Autism, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity, or Borderline Personality, or Alternative Cognitive Processing, to name just a few. We are going to have to recognise that these labels don’t lie on a single line from “normal” to “abnormal”, and that these labels are not disorders, and that these labels are not pervasive – they don’t tell you what the individual’s favourite colour is, how tall they are or what they want to achieve in life.
A simple typical or atypical picture of mental health is wrong. A single axis of neurodiversity is wrong. Neurodiversity is more intelligently shown as traits on multiple axes, but even that is simplistic. We need to remember that while labels are convenient for quick evaluation, they can blind us into thinking that everything can be labeled, that nothing exists between those labels, and that things can’t move between labels as they grow.
If all brain types are valid, then what is mental health about then?
This shifts mental health from defining what a “normal brain” and “abnormal brain” is based on an erroneous definition; to instead focus on what is healthy and unhealthy. This shifts the focus from defining the person to defining the trait. It allows for a range of different lifestyles and processes to be included as healthy and defines mental ill health as mental distress, life dysfunction and choices that endanger the self and others.
Each of these can be addressed without invalidating the person.
Previously [link] we talked about how evolution requires diversity within a species to be strong and robust. We saw that eugenics corrupted this concept of “diversity is good” and changed into “diversity is bad” using the erroneous logic of god’s blueprint, which led to the support of oppression, attrocities and genocide.
During the popular time of eugenics – from 1890 to around 1950 – many people, including scientists, medical professionals and politicians, thought that the idea of eugenics was good. To be clear, it was wrong as it goes counter to the evidence.
How could so many people get this wrong?
We have learned a lot since that era about human prejudice and how if information that we are given aligns with our personal or cultural bias, we accept it with less rigorous diligence than if an idea goes against our bias. As eugenics aligned with the general belief at the time that “different races” were “less good” or “less human”, it was an idea that was not examined well for accuracy. It be clear, it was false.
We have to remember that scientists, medical professionals and politicians are humans first, and thus prone to human error. Social sciences such as sociology, psychology and behavioural science have explored, identified and demonstrated a great deal of these biases that blind us. Ignorance of these biases means that you will fall foul of them, and knowledge of them means that you can bias against your own erroneous biases.
As a result of the realisation that eugenics was very, very wrong, we rebounded from the idea that there are better and worse humans into the idea that there is only one type of human. This seems like a good idea on the surface – we are all equal as we are all human.
Unfortunately this idea is also false. The opposite of a bad idea is often another bad idea, but in a new direction. This erroneous idea – that all people are the same – has created some horrible consequences. Last time we spent some time looking at the difference between equality and equity and how that creates problems when we don’t include variation in humans – briefly, if we treat all humans as the same human, then individual needs are not met on an individual basis.
Let us explore this idea a bit.
We can clearly see that some people are tall, some people are short and most people are average in height. [Insert Bell Curve] This same distribution exists for people’s widths and curves. A diverse range of melanin in hair, skin and the iris accounts for a large range of hair colour, skin colour and eye colour. These are mostly cosmetic differences, which only play an important role when trying to find clothing that fits and looks good, or working out how much sun you can withstand or need, and so on.
These can also include some important social differences. Taller people are often asked to get things down. Tall people are more often chosen as leaders and given positions of trust – based purely on their height. If the person is too tall, they run the risk of colliding into low objects placed with “average” in mind, being avoided as “freakishly tall” and stared at.
Anyone on the edge of the distribution curve is in a minority category.
Clearly one size does not fit all.
But again, this is all external stuff, surely it is what is on the inside that matters? Aren’t we all the same inside?
No, we aren’t.
Most people don’t have the same type of blood that I have. Not because I have a rare blood type, but because this is actually true for every human. While it all looks red, there are dozens of different types of human blood divided into roughly 8 groups. We humans cannot simply interchange our organs without the risk of organ rejection which is even more complex than matching blood types. Our DNA and immune differences make us very diverse. While we have come up with some interesting scientific solutions to these diversities, they were required because of our bodies’ diversities.
Sure, though, it is just a matter of scale then? Again, no. For example, half of the population does not have ovaries. Ovaries do not exist on a spectrum, so half of the population has no idea what it is like to have ovaries.
While we have roughly the same kinds of organs in the same locations, they are not the same and not all organs work as efficiently for all purposes. There are populations of humans who live very high up and are able to extract more oxygen from each breath and transport that around their bodies more efficiently. This high altitude tolerance has evolved at least 3 different times in human subgroups in 3 different ways in 3 different areas. This difference is important because it isn’t a recessive trait that became dominant, it is three different variations evolved to manage the same problem, but in different ways. This variability in humans has allowed humans to exist in an extreme that others cannot safely do so.
As stated before, roughly half the population has ovaries, and the other half does not. Most medications are tested on the population that does not have ovaries. There has been some strong criticism in the last few years that the efficacy trials of medications on people with ovaries is insufficient and thus we don’t truly know how or if they work, or what unexpected side effects they may have on these obviously different body types.
Another example is that it is well known that the visible signs of heart attack in the population of people with ovaries is different to the population of humans without. Most education on the signs of heart attack are taught based on the assumption that the patient does not have ovaries, which has led to many misdiagnoses and preventable deaths.
Our general physical shape and colouring varies.
Our internal systems vary.
Our brains vary.
Look around at your friends. Because they are your friends, there will be a certain commonality amongst them compared to everyone else. However even amongst a group of friends, where each friend is also friends with each other, there will be a large range of preferences and behaviours. If we all have the same brain, why is there so much variation in preferences and behaviours?
Because we are all different.
The main error of eugenics was that some humans were defined as better than other humans, and the pushback from that horrible concept is to state that we are all the same. Instead of recognising that different humans are equivalent, we have pushed back and made them all medically equal, despite the clear evidence that this is false. To keep this idea true, we underplay medical and social differences wherever possible.
This “all humans are the same” idea has led to some terrible social policy decisions which keep certain groups in enforced poverty, and is used to ignore the privileges of other groups. For “All lives matter” to work, then all lives have to matter. That is, all lives can’t matter until all lives *do* matter, which requires us to highlight the lives in populations that are not being given equity. To remind certain privileged populations of this, we must highlight that inequity – That is why black lives matter.
This “all humans are the same” idea has led to teaching the medical model of humans based on a sub-group of humans as the “standard” – cis, het, white and male – and either that there is no difference from this “standard” to other humans, or that those differences are irrelevant, or of low importance – which is clearly wrong.
This is not to invalidate all of medical science – this is to highlight that there are some inadequacies in the method and practice of medicine so that we can understand the follow on effect on how we see our mental health. Hopefully it might empower you to ask more questions about your own specific health if you are not cis, het, white and male.
A consequence to applying this one size fits all “normal” model is defining human minds as either normal or atypical – aka “crazy”, when the reality is far more complex.
Next time we are going to look at neurodiversity – a multiple axial spectrum model of human minds.
Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Robert Darwin worked very hard to converge scientific knowledge and their own explorations and data into a Theory called Evolution, published in Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” in 1859. It proposed that over time species would diverge and that the divergence that best suited the environment would potentially become a new species. Diversity is a natural part of species.
Found in every animal species was a variety of that animal or plant, which would collectively be well suited to an environment. If the environment changes, some of that variety of animal or plant would prosper, pushing the direction of the species towards a greater representation of that variety. If there was no variety that could prosper, that species would suffer and potentially die out. This natural push for change was called “natural selection”, that is, the environment would change, so the species would change and the selection for the survivors was natural.
Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, thought this idea was excellent. He wanted to fix humans and manually select the survivors to choose the direction of humanity. This led to an idea he called Eugenics in 1883, which translates to “well born”. On the surface this seems like quite a smart idea, but when we examine the details, it is not.
Galton’s idea has a fundamental flaw that gives rise to two fundamental errors (there are many more, but we’ll focus on the big two for this talk). This fundamental flaw is the “god’s blueprint” idea. This idea stems from the belief that humans are created in god’s image (a mosstly Abrahamic idea), and as god is perfect, then it follows that there must be perfect humans, and perfect humans means that there are also imperfect humans – the devils work.
We need to pause at this point and look at some background politics that were going on at the time. The British Empire was trying to justify their subjugation of other peoples around the world, and with that subjugation many atrocities. There was much rhetoric trying to justify that these subjugated people were not, in fact, people as they failed god’s blueprint.
Wallace and Darwin’s Evolution and natural selection was corrupted into the idea, from Herbert Spencer who simplified the complex ideas of Evolution, into the trite phrase “Survival of the Fittest”. As the British forces were winning the conquests, it made sense that White was Right because they were the fittest.
The first fundamental error is that diversity is a deviation from god’s blueprint and that deviation is bad. This is almost completely the opposite of what Evolution says is a winning strategy. If there is insufficient variety in a species, then a single disease can kill the entire species. Disease resistance actually relies on diversity. In fact, survival of any local condition relies on diversity to adapt that species to those local conditions. Human diversity has allowed humans to live on every continent and even in space.
The next fundamental error is that we can shape humans to be better. This sounds like an innocuous idea at first, perhaps even a good idea. After all, there are some variations that are not fun. If we could get rid of those bits, it would be awesome.
How do we get rid of those bits? The technology of the time of Wallace, Darwin and Galton was with selective breeding. We humans have been doing this for some time with plants and animals. We allow the specimens that we like to breed, and weed out the ones that we don’t. This kind of genetic engineering has existed for about 10,000 or so years which accounts for most of our modern food and farm animals.
In case you missed it, weeding out is a sanitised way of saying killing. It started with forced sterilisations in the late 1800’s of those deemed “too genetically compromised” and ended with genocide. The most famous mass genocidal act of our recent history was during World War 2, sometimes referred to as The Holocaust. Most famous here means you heard about it. Since this so-called war to end all wars, there have been 22 recorded genocides or attempted genocides of humans.
Surely, though, there are some negative genetic traits that we could fix? After all, we can now directly manipulate the genes, can’t we?
Yes, yes and it is complicated.
Yes, we could fix so called negative traits; Yes, we we can do some direct genetic editing; But should we? It’s complicated.
Firstly, we need to be careful to not mistake the negative genetic trait for the person. For example, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, often shortened to ALS, is a motor neurone disease that causes the death of neurons controlling voluntary muscles. If we can find the root cause or genes responsible for this, that would be great and perhaps we could prevent it. It is hard to find a reason why this trait might be good for humans. Our ancestors would probably have removed it from the gene pool by killing the person and defining them as “less than human” to justify this action. The most famous person in my circles with ALS was Stephen Hawking. Delete the negative genetic trait by deleting the person and you’ve made a big mistake because you’ve deleted what they give to humanity.
Secondly, how are defining “negative genetic traits”?
We know that the human condition called Autism is a genetic trait. It is a heritable trait, much like eye colour, or skin colour, or height, or intelligence. You are likely reading or watching this on a screen, powered by computers. Who do you think created and pushed this technology forwards? Delete the trait, you delete what people with the trait have made. Many people who have the autism genes do not think the trait is “negative”, but most would agree that society has made it feel negative.
Our science and medicine had embraced the idea of eugenics in the late 1800s right through to the mid 1950’s. Eugenics scared us as a species and medicine and science had to adapt. We, as humans, had to grow up.
Unfortunately not all of us grew up and some still harbour this ill informed and unscientific idea.
Those who follow the myth of god’s blueprint, that select humans are better or more perfect than others, strive against diversity – which directly contradicts what we need for humans to be robust in a changing world. We need to embrace diversity, not try to delete or undermine it. We need to discard the myth of inferior genetics or superior humans. We are all people first.
One of the fundamental reasons that humans can be found on every continent and even in space is because we are diverse. No one is better or worse by their genetics than any other person. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped policies from being made that disadvantage some groups or advantage others in a very unbalanced way. These policies need to be addressed so that everyone has similar equity.
Equality is a great idea, if all peoples were the same. Give all people the same thing, and everything is fair, right? Not so, because not all peoples have the same needs or have been raised in the same environment.
For example, not everyone has diabetes. Many people do not need insulin from the pharmacist to survive. Only those with diabetes need access to additional insulin. Equity would allow those people to access it to gain an even footing to those who do not have diabetes, while equality would dish out insulin to every person.
Equality thinking can form the basis of the “I’ve not experienced it, so it you can’t experience it” error.
In a similar way, history and terrible government policies have significantly disadvantaged certain populations. Policy needs to change to bring equity and justice to these populations, to balance the evils of the past. On the surface this can look unequal, but closer inspection will show that it is just.
Next time, we will look at how Eugenics has created the myth of “we are all the same” and what that has cost us.
We have previously talked about what can elevate our emotional state and why in some situations that can create problems, and in others be perfect for the situation. When it is not useful, it is important to reclaim a calmer state of mind. We have discussed the theory of how to do so. In the video below, I have given an example of calming down.
Elements to consider in this are breath control to disrupt the sympathetic nervous response that elevates our mood, counting to give our brains a thing to do, and a waterfall as a distraction from our situation.
While I appreciate it is difficult to bring a waterfall with you, there is often something that you can watch or notice to bring your mind back to This present moment, such as a brance dancing in the wind, a cloud whipsing by, the feel of air on your cheek or the texture of the fabric of your clothes between your fingers or forearm.
1) The con – pretending to be what you are looking for using charm, and lies 2) Grooming – teaching you that you aren’t any good and you need them 3) Isolation – cutting you off from anyone who can help and using marriage, a new country or children to bind you to them “their’s no way out” 4) Abuse – the Cycle of Domestic Violence 5) Escape – Getting out completely, or finding ways to manage common unseparatable things such as children 6) Therapy – Finding out what the heck happened, PTSD, anxiety, unlearning the grooming, learning the red and green flags for relationships 7) Moving on to better relationships
In our last artical [link], we covered how we can have an emotional experience of a situation, like fear, and how at low levels, that is useful, informative and often exhilarating – that is, we enjoy it.
At higher levels, the fear can push us to consider only three possibilities – Freeze, Flight and Fight, generally in that order.
In an emergency, those choices could save our life – and that is a good thing.
However the job of fear and our ability to predict the future is to avoid that kind of emergency. This involves having a plan to deal with the expected threat.
We will do another video on threat planning.
The purpose of this video is to look at what happens when our fear system mis-detects a threat – either by over-representing the threat – which could be anxiety or phobia; or when there is no threat present and we have either general anxiety at milder levels, an anxiety attack at middle levels or a full on panic attack.
In the last video we talked about how our ramp up system is a sympathetic nervous system response to fear, and to counter it we need to implement a parasympathetic nervous system mechanism. Manually using this built in ramp down mechanism is a body hack.
There are many methods to implement the parasympathetic body hack, but they rely on some fairly specific components. We are going to look at those in this next section.
In brief, there are 5 main steps:
Assessment – is there really something dangerous here. If not
Disrupt the panic mechanism
Quiet the mind with a distraction
Solve the problem
Learn from the experience
Step 1 Assessment
Imagine that our hind-brains have detected a potential threat. Is it real? The hind-brain doesn’t care, it just hits the panic button, which ramps us up for disaster.
The ramp up process has a whole bunch of things that occur that we have no real conscious control over – redirected blood flow, the size of our pupils, biochemicals in our blood stream, accelerated blood flow and pressure, intestinal disruption and accelerated breathing.
Once our body has reached panic mode, it has some expectations – that we will have to act with strong exertion to overcome an enemy, that we are going to be hurt, that everything will be rushed because the disaster is here.
At 10 out of 10 fear, we are in panic mode, while at around 7 we might just be at highly anxious. Either way, our goal is to drop that by a few points.
Step 1 – Is there actually a disaster here? If there is a strong sign of clear and present danger, then go with your instincts for now, because you don’t have time to solve it if the danger is that big. If it is not that big, then this is a false alarm.
Step 2 Disruption
Once we have worked out that this is a false alarm, we need to disrupt this automatic mechanism. While we don’t have much control over that big list, we do have some control over our breath – so we will start there.
Humans at rest normally breathe an “in and out” cycle between 12 to 20 times each minute. That is a breath every 3 to 5 seconds – a nice average for most people is 4 seconds, so that is the number we will work on in this video. If you find the exercises in this are a bit fast or slow for you, by all means adjust the numbers for your own comfort.
Two main components of disruptive breathing is that we breathe slowly instead of fast, and that when we can, we breathe deeply into our stomachs.
A few quick breath control methods
The four breath cycle
Breathe in slowly for a count of 4 seconds, now hold it for 4 seconds, now slowly breathe out for four seconds, now hold that for four seconds, now repeat – breathe in for four seconds. It is important to count the seconds in our heads, or when safe, out loud.
Sipping cold water
Get a glass or bottle of cool non-alcoholic drink. The point of this is that you can’t swallow liquid and breath air at the same time. Now, slowly sip the liquid until you have a nice mouth full. Slowly swallow a bit. Now another bit. Now another bit. How many swallows can you get to before it is done? Now take a slow breath cycle and sip some more.
Hot drink exercise
Get a cup of hot drink. Take a deep breath and blow across the top to cool it. Take another deep breath and repeat a few more times. Now sip the hot drink and slowly swallow it. Repeat.
Breath control works because it disrupts our sympathetic nervous system response by doing something different, and that something is not a thing we would do if we were under attack. It is a clear signal to our hind-brain that it was wrong.
Step 3 – Quieting the Mind
I’m going to take the time to talk about time for a moment. Either something is clear and present and very “now”, such as a direct physical attack, or it is “soon” in the next few minutes – definitely less than 30 minutes. If the threat is more than half an hour away, in this panic response plan, it should be considered “forever”. Doing a calm down routine only takes minutes. The benefit of being calm when solving the threat is much higher than being panicked – so do the calm down exercises.
There is a risk of re-triggering panic prematurely when you try to solve the unsolvable with inadequate brain cells. We need to claim back a few more of those points out of 10 and lower the threat arousal system. The previous step was disruption, this step is about distraction.
You probably know some of these from social media. Unfortunately they don’t explain when to use them – which is after you’ve taken the edge off panic with breath control.
So here are a few:
Colours – in your mind, remember the sequence of the rainbow – ROY G BIV.
R is red, look for something that is reddish.
O is orange, look for something orange ish.
Y is yellow, look for something yellow ish
G is green, you know what to do
B is blue.
I is indigo – a dark purple
V is violet – a light purple
Senses – in primary school we are taught that we have 5 primary senses. Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching.
Touch – feel the texture of part of your clothes or an object that you can touch that is near you. Look for sharp, blunt, rough and smooth
Taste – what is the taste in your mouth right now? Is it sour, bitter, sweet, salty or umami (greasy)?
Smell – can you smell something? What is it?
Hearing – what is the loudest sound you can hear? What about the softest? The highest pitch? The lowest pitch?
Sight – do the colour exercise we just did, or look for the thing that is furthest away from you and then something close up.
From 30, count backwards in 3’s until you get to 0. 30, 27, 24…
Think of two movies or stories that you really like. Who are the two characters you like the most? Now what if they met each other?
What are you going to eat for your next meal?
What are all the cards in your wallet – can you remember them? Now pull out your wallet and verify them.
There are quite a few other exercises that can be done, but they all have the common features of being able to be done in public without drawing much attention to yourself and each of these distracts you from the potential threat that isn’t here.
Step 4) Solve the Problem
Some threats (including false alarms and retreating threats) can be ignored which means there is nothing to do.
Some need to be monitored calmly to see if they increase, decrease or just stay irritating.
Some need active attention and a management plan. We will cover management plans in another video.
The question to ask yourself is this – which threat is this? And now that you know, what action plan do you pick?
Step 5) Learn from the Experience
Part of the anxiety cycle is not learning from our surviving and facing our fears. We got to the end – we survived! Now, what did we learn?
Sometimes we learn that the alarm was false – either because there was no nothing to fear, or the thing we feared was not accurate. By sticking around and facing the possibility of the threat coming, and it didn’t, we learned that false alarms can’t hurt you, and staying is powerful.
Sometimes we learn that we did need to act, but the action wasn’t panic. It was a calmer response with more thought. It is important to acknowledge that this worked, and that this was better than the panic response.
Sometimes we learn that the threat was real, and that we had a truly close encounter. But we survived, so our response was good enough. Good enough is nice, but what is nicer is a calm review of what actions we could do next time that would give us even better outcomes. These are things to practice.
Sometimes we learn that there is nothing we can do and we are just damn lucky that we survived. It is important to recognise that we survived because of dumb luck, and that no one else could have done better, because we had no part to play in this.
Sometimes we learn that our choices were wrong. How were they wrong? How could they be better? What do we need to practice for next time? Did one of the exercises not work well?
Many people don’t review their experience and learn from it. This is that opportunity.
Many people get stuck on reviewing all of their past mistakes and never implement a change. This is the time to break that cycle – figure out 1 to 3 things to change, to practice and do that. Now stop reviewing this experience because you have learned from it.
This is one of a series of videos of background concepts that are very important to mental health.
Today’s topic is Knowledge.
I am confident that you have probably heard the phrase “Knowledge is Power” – But how?
In Physics, the science of understanding the raw nature of the world, Power is defined as Work over Time.
Don’t worry, we aren’t going to delve too deeply into physics at this point.
Work for humans is Effort – physical, mental, emotional, social and so on – if it takes you effort, you are doing work.
When we know th e outcome we are after, we can make a few choices and pick one that seems like the most efficient method to get the task done. With efficiency, we expend less effort and we are more effective. That is, we gain power through choice. How did we get that choice? Through knowing what our choices are – that is, knowledge.
It is more accurate to say that Knowledge gives you options, options allows for choices, smart choices give you greater efficiency and greater efficiency gives you greater power.
That’s a bit cumbersome though.
Knowledge gives you power, because knowledge gives you better choices.
We often know when we are powerless – we feel like we have failed.
We often don’t recognise when we are powerful – because that is normal.
Experiment time: Look around and notice a small object on a thing. Pick it up…. Did you succeed? If so, did you recognise the application of power? You had a goal, you put in some effort and you got a success.
Now imagine a scenario where you failed. Perhaps the item is glued to the surface, or you have a physical condition where you can’t move. Or someone is stopping you. Perhaps that someone is yourself – depression is not fun.
This failure to do what should be easy prompts you to feel powerless.
It is an odd thing, in humans, that the two outcomes create such different levels of feelings. On the one hand, we barely notice success, on the other hand, we really notice failure.
Back to knowledge – if you know why you failed to do the thing, then you can start to make a plan to succeed where before you failed. That understanding brings knowledge, and knowledge gives options, options gives choice and that brings you back to a position of power – that is, you can get things done.
A good deal of mental health is knowledge.
Thought experiment time.
There is a boulder. You are told by The Boss that it needs to be somewhere else and that you need to move it. So you put work into moving the boulder, which will take time. It’s too heavy to lift, so you roll it some distance away. You have exercised your power. Physics completed.
You are told by The Boss that this is the wrong place, so you need to move it again. The effort you put into moving the boulder has been wasted.
How many times will you move the boulder hoping that it you move it to the right place before The Boss nods approval?
In Mental Health, we often know when something is wrong, but we don’t know what right looks like. We are moving that boulder around randomly, hoping to stumble on success. A more efficient way is to gain a bit of knowledge.
You ask, and The Boss tells you where they want it.
Now you know where to move it.
In this series of videos, we want to cut down the trial and error.
If you understand the nature of the problem, you can start to use an efficient solution.
Back to the boulder.
What is the best way to move the boulder? So far, in this thought experiment we have rolled it. Perhaps with enough people we could lift it. Or if we are going to have to move it many times, it is time to get some tools involved.
There is more than one way to move a boulder, and more than one place to put that boulder.
What I am trying to say here is that there are many ways to get mentally healthy and many ways that mental health can look. One solution doesn’t fit all circumstances.
So while we want to cut down the trial and error of mental health, we need to acknowledge that each situation requires its own good solution.
Knowledge of mental health does not require one outcome, but it can reduce randomly looking for your solution.
Health is one of those vague concepts that is hard to pin down, until you no longer have it. For humans, health comes is several components that work together to create a total picture – a picture of health.
Physical health is defined as how well your body manages day to day tasks, such as eating, sleeping and exercise. You generally don’t notice that your bones are working fine, but you quickly notice when a bone is fractured. The subcategories that we look for in therapy are looking at blood work, diet, exercise, body mass, sleep and medication. When all of these factors are in balance, your physical health is good. If your iron levels are low, you might find yourself not sleeping well, lacking in motivation and becoming tired quickly. No amount of talking therapy is going to fix a low blood iron level or diabetes – this needs to be treated by a medical doctor.
The biological aspect of people’s health is where medical doctors excel. For some things a general practitioner will refer to a specialist.
It is not uncommon for me to suggest lines of investigation for a GP or a specialist.
Social and Cultural Health
Humans are social animals. Our beginning definition of self begins by defining ourselves as part of our group. If your group is abusive, you will either become abusive, or be abused. Abused people often become introverted, defensive, over pleasing, reactionary or aggressive.
If your group inspires you, you become more extroverted, more exploratory, and grow to fill that inspiration.
People who have come from abuse may find it hard to build trust in others, or change their habits from self sabotage to growth.
It is not uncommon that the people who have come to see me for therapy match the category of “surrounded by assholes”. That is, it often isn’t an intrinsic “mental health” issue of theirs, it is their reaction to bad people.
An important aspect of health is to feel wanted by others, to feel that we have a positive effect on the world and that our life matters. While some of that can be addressed at the social level, most of this is a statement of how you feel about your position and purpose in the world. What are you here for? Does your existence matter? How are you connected to people and the world?
Each person will find a variant of this that works for them.
Humans have a baseline of needs that need to be met, such as food, shelter and safety.
If your income does not match your expenses, then you will become very stressed and potentially homeless. It is hard to feel safe and secure if you are homeless.
Many people who come to see me have income problems, or are at risk of homelessness if they seek safety, which can seem less safe than staying in abuse. Our Australian government can impose costs to getting basic economic health. A great deal of our sense of identity is made up of our paid employment, which is frequently seen as our contribution to society.
Frequently chronic health conditions are accompanied by poverty. If you didn’t start in poverty, the odds are you will find yourself there. While we have an excellent health system here in Australia, that system only works well for you if your ill health is brief. Ongoing health will lead to unemployment, which often means you can no longer meet your cost of living.
Losing your job can be a method of damaging your identity health. Another is to have society condemn your inherent nature, such as sexual preference, gender identity, chronic health conditions, cultural identity, ethnicity, religious views and so on.
Society is ironically becoming far more tolerant of difference, such as our recent passing of “Same sex marriage”, while at the same time becoming more marginalising due to recent politics. If you are in a category that is being, or has been, marginalised, the very nature of you is being attacked.
Society has a bad way of trying to categorise everything, and idealising each of those categories as binary rather than recognising both spectrums of identity, and when people do not fit the spectrum.
The irony of creating these categories of health does not escape me.
We are our brains. While I may miss that bit of finger I lost, or the appendix that stopped working properly, I have not really changed – I am still me. When we lose a part of our brain, we change. There are a number of ways that our brain can be damaged, which can interfere with how our cognition works and how we feel we are, or how those who love us perceive us when we can’t see it ourselves.
Significant trauma, either brief or ongoing, can also radically change us. Many spouses commented that the person who came back from war is not the person they married; people who have a near death experience can radically change their outlook on life; and people who have been raised in abuse can experience the world quite differently to other people.
The way we think, the way we react, the things we perceive, the things we value and the way we behave is all the basis for our mental health. It is a complex interaction of unconscious perception, subconscious thought and conscious decision making that help us navigate the objective world we live in through a perception that we construct. There are many factors that can lead to a faulty construction of the world within our minds, that will then lead to poor interactions with the objective world.
I have separated health here into a number of categories to help highlight some of the less considered sources of ill health. It is important to note that they all affect our overall health and interact with each other. For example, poor social health can lead to poor identity health, which can lead to poor mental health, which can lead to poor physical health… and so on. Often the challenge is to work out what the priority aspect to triage is, and then find the underlying cause or causes once the person is roughly stable.
This is not an exhaustive list of causes. It is just a place to start the search. We know when people are healthy because things are working out well. When things stop working, or become difficult, this list helps to narrow down what may have occurred that has affected you, which begins the journey to addressing them.
We humans have a number of moods that are snapshots of the world, priming us for action on a reaction basis. To manually process the world and make moment by moment decisions takes far too long, so our emotion driven reaction system is an automated shortcut. When it works, it is great, when it fails, it can give us all of the wrong signals and responses.
Below it the video version of this post.
One of our moods is Fear.
Fear is not necessarily a bad thing. It is what enables us to cross the road safely, use dangerous tools like fire, helps us cut up food and so on. We even frequently seek out fear for fun activities, such as rollercoasters, driving fast, parasailing, going on holiday and so forth. Anything that is new or risky is triggering our fear response – but often in a good way.
We evolved fear as biological organisms primarily to stay safe from physical threats. This could be a predator that might attack you, an obstacle such as a cliff that could hurt you, or a non-animal threat such as fire. When our ancestors started working in groups we added social fear to the list, as sometimes that predator was not an animal out there, it was another one of us from outside our tribe, or sometimes that predator was someone in our tribe. A threat to our social status can really get our attention.
We continued to evolve our fear as we became more thinking creatures. There are ideas of self, of future and complex constructed fears, such as financial harm, spiritual harm and existential harm that affect us.
With all of these threats, it would be easy to assume that we would develop multiple threat response systems. However evolution is quite lazy and will coopt an existing system, adapting it to a new but related use. Thus our fear response to a predator is the same fear response we have to heights, to social embarrassment, financial harm and existential threat.
At mild levels fear will ramp us up a bit to deal with a likely threat, while keeping our minds quite clear and helping us to focus on the threat. This can feel exhilarating and we often seek this kind of feeling. However prolonged exposure to a mild threat, or series of threats, can exhaust us. We don’t want to stay ramped up for too long. We are more evolved for a series of fear sprints with cool down periods between the threats, than we are for a fear marathon of continual grueling pressure.
The higher our assessment of fear is, the more our bodies ramp up. There is a threshold where our minds stop focusing on the problem with clarity, and shift to focusing on the problem with 1 of 3 panic solutions – freeze, flight and fight.
Freeze is all about hoping not to be noticed by the predator. Running could draw the attention of the predator and there is no point fighting if the predator just goes away. We have coopted this response for some other problem management, which is part of what drives denial and bargaining for loss and change; passive and passive aggressive for anger. Our bodies get ready for freeze to fail, so our bodies ramp up ready for either flight or fight. Freeze should be the first response to a tangible immediate threat, but sometimes we skip it.
Flight is the desire to get out of here, even before the threat shows up. The biological logic of this is that if you aren’t there, then the threat can’t kill or harm you. Avoiding a problem is a survival strategy, but it doesn’t always promote good outcomes, just good enough ones. Anxiety coopts this response for running away from unknown threats, which has the consequence of not allowing you to challenge your fear. We also frequently avoid our responsibilities in the false belief that if we don’t try, then we can’t fail – but failing to act is still failing.
Fight is a head on direct confrontation of the problem. Often this is an aggressive act and taps into the anger response system. However our fight might be a desperate act with little aggression. A fight doesn’t have to be physical, it could be verbal, social and cognitive attacks. Aggressive fights are about doing the most damage to win, often escalating to dangerous levels, and as such we accept harm to ourselves in order to survive or win. Defensive fights are about creating an opportunity to flee. While this should be the last measure against a threat, if we have been in continual violent situations, including non physical violence, this frequently becomes our first port of call and we are frequently told we have anger management issues.
Those are our fear responses – freeze, flight and fight. When push comes to shove, one of these three should keep us alive. They aren’t necessarily the best choices though – they are our default get out of trouble last ditch effort solutions. Which means while we should survive the encounter, it is likely to be sub-optimal. What I’m trying to say here is, if you’ve got to these three choices, you are in trouble. The goal of fear management is to find a viable path out of danger before having to rely on these emergency biological responses.
While the three actions are different, the body’s preparation for freeze, flight and fight is the same.
Our hind-brain will hit the panic button and induce a number of body system changes. Our pupils will shrink in daylight to give us better focus so we can see the threat better, or at night they will dilate to drink in the light – it is better to see a blurry enemy than not see them at all. Our blood will leave our outer skin and gather into our muscles and organs – which decreases incidental bleeding and maximises energy to our muscles and organs. This will often leave us looking pale. Chemicals will be dumped into our bloodstream which will make us both more sensitive to physical stimuli such as touch, sound and smell, while at the same time dampening our pain sensitivity, so we can work through the injuries to get to a “safe” place to heal. Our heart rate will increase to get these vital chemicals and energy around our body. Our system will want to void our stomachs, bladder and bowel so that we are both lighter and smell awful – not as appetising to our predators. This is why you always need to go to the toilet before you go on stage, or feel light headed when you are nervous. We will breathe faster, but to avoid annoying our digestive tract it will generally be shallow chest breaths, aka panting. We will also start to sweat in anticipation of strong physical exertion and in response to the excess heat our now stressed bodies are creating.
This is a sympathetic nervous system response. That is the automatic system that hypes us up for maximum effort and minimum thoughts. It is hard to choose what to do when you feel like this, because all decisions are reduced to the concepts of freeze, flight or fight.
To get our sympathetic nervous system panic response under control, we need to trigger a parasympathetic nervous system mechanism – a calm down effect.