*Editor’s Note: Elephant is not your doctor or hospital. Our lawyers would say “this web site is not designed to, and should not be construed to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, or treatment to you or any other individual, and is not intended as a substitute for medical or professional care and treatment. Always consult a health professional before trying out new home therapies or changing your diet.” But we can’t afford lawyers, and you knew all that. ~ Ed.
Get ready and hold onto your seat for a startling fact.
Actual biochemical mental illness is not as common as you might think.
With internet advancements, any google-able question is instantly accessible at the tip of our fingertips; we are more informed than ever but also more misinformed.
There is some excellent information online. Unfortunately, there is also some bunk information online. It can be confusing to wade through all of it and find our truth. Which narrative is true?
Mental health is a complex topic that cannot be explained by an internet search, nor can we be diagnosed by a wellness blog. Our minds are incredibly complex, complicated machines that are impacted and swayed by many factors. A checklist of symptoms measures most psychiatric disorders and this leaves much room for subjective and objective error. Unfortunately, no MRI can find depression and anxiety in the brain or body, like we can find a broken kneecap through X-ray imaging technology.
By this point, most of society knows what depression and anxiety are. Still, less is understood about why specifically it occurs. Advancements in mental health care have made it safe to discuss our feelings and psychological pains. In past generations, they were skeletons to be hidden in closets. Great! Progress is a good thing.
However, to be human is to experience suffering. Life is not always going to be easy. All of us will go through our traumas, our tribulations, and our trials to overcome. If there is anything I know, life can be very hard and “bad” things do happen to good people. When you encounter adversity, it is part of life. However, we will also have our joys, our successes, and our reasons to celebrate because that is what life is: balance.
One of the greatest misnomers I have to address in therapy is the “why” behind depression and anxiety. In my experience, 90 percent of the time, depression and anxiety are circumstantial. Typically, people have a legitimate reason for feeling so sad and facing excessive fear in their minds and bodies. But, more often than not, if we dig deep enough and develop a strong enough rapport for the deep secrets to emerge, there is a good reason the person feels the way they do.
Take, for instance, an unhealthy, toxic, unbalanced, or even abusive romantic relationship. Anyone living in that dynamic and feeling powerless to get out will feel trapped and therefore anxious. Suppose you are afraid of your partner’s emotions. In that case, you will feel hypervigilant, fearful, and on edge a lot of the time. The thought of facing life on your own with many unknowns is going to be anxiety-provoking.
When being treated unfairly or poorly by someone you love, a healthy response to the damage and injustice is to feel sad. No person on this planet will feel happiness and joy when treated badly. This does not mean the person is depressed, anxious, and therefore, mentally ill; it means they are in a bad dynamic affecting their emotional health.
Suppose we diagnose ourselves or others as being mentally ill, when in fact, what we are feeling is the healthiest possible response to the environmental dysfunction. In that case, we are doing a disservice in assigning a pathology or emotional deficit to the person being taken advantage of. Why medicate ourselves with a substance to cope with a situation when it is the body telling us to remove ourselves from the situation before further damage is acquired?
Pain is a messenger. It tells us we need to stop and take heed of our environment and evaluate what’s happening before we cause more harm to ourselves. This is the reason it hurts so bad when we break our knees. The brain is trying to tell the body something is seriously wrong and to seek help. Emotional pain functions the same way that physical pain does.
If the circumstances of your life are causing you emotional pain, something is wrong, and your brain is trying to get your attention. Feelings are messengers; feelings are not always dysfunctional pathologies that mean we are mentally ill.
By diagnosing ourselves with a mental illness when faced with troublesome life circumstances, we give away our power by saying there is something wrong with us for feeling the way we do, rather than seeing there is something wrong with the situation. As a result, we need to do something about the sadness or fear the situation causes. The situation can be the causal agent, rather than the person.
Our thinking style, or culturally sanctioned brainwashing through media and social circles, also contributes to this phenomenon. The beautiful part about thoughts is that we can change them!
Sometimes, we only believe things are true because we were told they were true; these thoughts did not originate within us. Thoughts are not facts. They are just thoughts. If we think false beliefs and have negative automatic thoughts that we have accumulated from our personal environments, they will make us feel sick if they are poisonous. Again, this problem originates outside the person, rather than within the person.
Imagine a frog in a pond. If the frog has friends, love, connection, sunshine, nutrients, and a healthy pond to swim and leap around in, the frog will be happy. If the frog is alone in a harsh environment with stormy weather, inadequate nutrition, past unhealed injuries that cause pain, a hostile, unsafe environment, and is swimming in poisonous sludge, the frog is going to have all the negative feels and will feel unwell. In neither instance, the frog is the causal agent for how it feels.
You are that frog. Which pond are you swimming in?
Rarely do I see an individual who has meaningful connections, love, and support, eats nutritionally, gets nature time, and has incorporated exercise and relaxation into their life tell me they are depressed or suffering from severe anxiety. In those instances, medication profoundly affects their mood as the impairments they face are not environmentally or circumstantially caused.
So, before you diagnose yourself with a mental illness, consider the following questions:
>> Growth. Am I bored and stagnating?
>> Grief. Have I recently lost a loved one, pet, or gone through a breakup?
>> Actions. Are my behaviours, habits, nutrition, exercise, and daily routines unhealthy for me or considered unhealthy by others?
>> Relationships. Am I in an abusive relationship with a lover, friend, or family member? Am I being bullied by anyone?
>> Career. Is my workplace toxic or does it have threatening dynamics?
>> Family and friends. Do I have inadequate support? Am I lonely?
>> Trauma. Are the skeletons of my past haunting me or do I have past traumas I cannot overcome?
If you answered yes to one or more of the above, you might not be mentally ill. You are, however, likely dealing with the feelings we call negative, due to the circumstances of your life that are causing you pain. If you answered yes to multiple questions, you might be swimming in a toxic pond.
You are not broken for feeling the way you do; life is trying to show you that you need to address the things making you feel so bad. Your body is trying to get your attention to do something about the way you feel.
Maybe you are not mentally ill.
Maybe you are in a situation affecting how you feel.
Maybe you should talk about it.
Therapists are trained to listen, think, understand, communicate, educate, and treat with compassion and unconditional positive regard. By caring about how you feel and addressing the disturbances knocking you out of balance, you might finally find the path you seek and find a road much easier to walk.
And that is something we definitely all deserve.