Let’s Change The Way We Think About Psychological Illness
I like watching mystery diagnosis shows. It’s really interesting to see what unusual conditions others are living with and the conclusions they come to. Unfortunately they don’t always manage to find the answers they seek, either because what they have isn’t curable or just that no doctor seems to be able to give a satisfactory answer despite running test after test. I saw one recently in which the doctors kept ruling out physical explanations in favour of a psychological one. On hearing this suggestion they were instantly dismayed and shut themselves off to anything else the doctor had to say. To them the problems they are dealing with feel very real and so there had to be something physically wrong with them. I’ve seen this type of reaction before, where as soon as a psychological cause is suggested they feel like they’re being told that it’s all in their head and so therefore they are to blame for their condition. In some cases they might even feel like they’re being accused of putting it on for attention. It might be that they’re right in wanting to continue pursuing further explanations. Doctors can get it wrong, or sometimes it feels like they throw the psychological explanation at you as an easy option when they’re not sure what else to consider. It’s therefore important to take your own health into your hands and push for answers if you deem it necessary. Try not to close off any potential options just in case.
The psychological explanation could be correct however, and denying this possibility could prevent us from doing what we need to recover; All the while forever searching for the preferable answer that doesn’t exist. I believe that the mind has a stronger influence on our well being than we give it credit for. When I’m stressed about something it can give me physical symptoms, such as an upset tummy or dizziness. If I’m walking home at night and imagine that somebody is following me the hairs will stand up on my arms and my pace quickens even though the threat isn’t real. Another example is the placebo effect, causing us to feel better for doing what we feel will help us. The reverse of this is the nocebo effect that can leave people feeling unwell if they believe something to be harmful (see ‘This Video Will Hurt‘ by CGP Grey and ‘Placebos & Nocebos: How Your Brain Heals and Hurts You‘ by SciShow.) In the book ‘Make Your Brain Work‘ by Amy Brann it claims that just thinking about doing exercise can strengthen your muscles (See ‘How to Grow Stronger Without Lifting Weights‘ on Scientific American – this idea is also mentioned in Big Bang Theory, episode 5 season 9.) The book ‘Mindfulness For Everyday Living‘ by Christopher Titmuss suggests that we don’t focus enough on mental well being during a lengthy hospital stay, instead only considering what can be done to heal people physically. Patients could be told to meditate to help them to cope with recovery. I also like to believe that a positive mindset can make a big difference to recovery.
When a person suffers from a panic attack the symptoms are real and incredibly scary despite the fact that they are psychological in origin. I saw one case where a woman was struggling to breathe, and it was the fear itself that was aggravating the problem. I went through a phase while growing up where my body over-reacted to the sight of blood and caused me to go faint. This has left me with a fear of fainting and whenever I’m in a situation that could set it off I feel myself going into a panic. The difficulty with this is that if I’m actually going faint I need to put my head down, clench my fists and wriggle my toes to recover, but the panic can leave me with the same symptoms for which such precautions will actually make it worse. I’m not acting this way on purpose as it’s incredibly unpleasant and leaves me feeling self-concious and vulnerable, but my mind has learnt to associate certain things with making me feel that way. Our minds remember the things that harm us so that they can keep us safe the next time we come across the source of the pain, but unfortunately it’s not always helpful. Some people are unlucky and struggle with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD,) but we wouldn’t expect them to deal with this without being offered support nor would we make them feel ashamed as if they’re to blame for it.
It seems bizarre to me that we put so much emphasize on taking care of ourselves physically, but not on taking care of our minds – even though this is a large part of who we are. Just because a condition is psychological it doesn’t mean that it’s in our control. It can cause very real physical symptoms too and that’s nothing to be ashamed about. I consider my own mental well being to be just as important as my physical well being.