There is an upward trend in this country. More and more people are diagnosed with a mental disorder of one kind or another. Increasing numbers of kids are medicated for ADD/ADHD. Ever more adults are diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Autism is on the rise. Why?
It’s not necessarily what you think. It might be that we are poisoning ourselves with crappy food in this country (because we are). It could be that the media encourages short-attention spans and selfish thinking (it does). It could even be that our modern lifestyle is just not healthy (it’s not). But none of those are the real reason for the rise.
The rise is largely caused by increasing awareness. The stigma of going to a counselor is slowly diminishing. More and more people realize that there is great value in having a trained professional to talk to. And that’s great! But it also means that as more and more people go in for help, more and more people are diagnosed.
The Dark Side of Diagnosis
It is well-known that when a doctor tells a patient that they are going to die, most people just accept it. There are exceptions. But an amazing number of people only live as long as the doctor said, down to the day. And that’s not because doctors are great prognosticators. It’s because a person’s beliefs shape their experiences.
Now apply that to a “mental disorder.” Imagine going to a professional, and being told “you are bi-polar.”
It sounds so final, doesn’t it? It becomes your identity. Your destiny. An inescapable reality. The best that can be done is to medicate in hopes of controlling the symptoms. End result, once bi-polar, ALWAYS bi-polar.
Now compare that to “What you are experiencing is called ‘bi-polar’ and is a result of the kinds of thinking strategies that you use.” Totally different. It says “I’m EXPERIENCING bi-polar” instead of “I AM bi-polar.” It says that I’m experiencing this for a reason, and if I can just addressed the reason, I might be able to do something about it! And if you believe that you CAN do something to correct it, you are far more likely to DO something about it!
So which is it?
Is the person bi-polar, or are they just experiencing it as a result of poor choices?
The correct answer is BOTH.
You see, every experience leaves an imprint on the brain. If you choose to resist an impulse, that response gets hard-wired into your brain, and it gets easier to resist in the future. Contrariwise, If you choose to give in to an impulse, it gets easier to be impulse driven. It literally gets harder and harder to resist those impulses over time.
Your brain actually re-wires itself, a little at a time, with every experience. Over time, the habits of your choices can shape your brain the same way the winds can deform a tree. If you have ever been to the coast, or the mountains, where trees are subject to strong prevailing winds, those trees tend to grow in an unbalanced way, bent, and misshapen by their environment. This happens to our brains, too. And the more your brain leans in one direction or the other, the harder it gets to go the other way. Or so it seems.
But the brain is amazingly resilient, and can change in a heartbeat. And when a person learns HOW the brain works, WHY it does what it does, and how to MAKE it do what you want it to do, it is very liberating!
I have interacted with a number of people (both as clients and in my personal life) diagnosed with one mental disorder or another. And so far in every case, what we consider “abnormal” is really just the result of taking normal behavior, even GOOD behavior, and taking it to the extreme.
Let’s take the example of bi-polar disorder. Suppose you had the habit of being “in the now.” Whatever you feel, here and now, that’s what you feel. Now add to that the very noble trait of being the kind of person that throws yourself fully into whatever you do. Like the saying goes, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well! So if you feel good, you might as well feel REALLY good, right? And that is a good thing! But what happens when you take it in the other direction? When you feel bad, you feel REALLY bad. So what starts out as a noble trait, when taken to the extreme, becomes a problem.
In working with attention deficit, I find a similar noble trait behind it. We all naturally filter out irrelevant information, especially unchanging stimulus. That is why we tend to become immune to the odors in the room after a while. But sudden movement attracts our attention. This can save our lives. What is different about the “attention deficit” person is not that they can’t focus, because they can . . . when they want to. It’s just that they are less tolerant of unchanging circumstances. In some situations, this trait is a huge win! In others, it feels like life imprisonment.
We all spend time in a hypnotic state, each and every day. It’s normal, natural, and even beneficial. Everything with a brain does it, regardless of the species. That is when we learn, grow, and adapt. Without it, we would be no smarter than the average tree.
When we go there while we are awake, we call it daydreaming. But imagine going there and not realizing it, effectively dreaming with your eyes open. We call this a hallucination. It’s normal, natural, and everybody does it, if only a little. But most of the time when it happens, we don’t even notice it. For example, catching movement out of the corner of your eye, or hearing a noise that no one else heard.
Now consider the autistic. They go into that same beneficial state of mind. They just go there quicker, easier, deeper, and more often. And the transition is so seamless, they have no idea that it has happened. And so when their mind creates a sensation that is not really there, they have NO IDEA that it isn’t real! So, like all of us, they react to it as if it was.
I’ve noticed the same thing with cutters, people with eating disorders, and addictions of all kinds. They all do what we ALL do, they just do more of it, and push it farther, because they don’t have a better alternative. And they feel trapped, because they have wired themselves that way over time.
So if these “disorders” are really just the product of taking a noble tendency and pushing it to the extreme, that suggests that there is hope! Hope that they will not be on medications for the rest of their life. Hope that with time, and training, they can adjust their brain to do things in better way. Hope that by changing their thinking, they can change their life!
Now, a disclaimer is in order: I’m not a psychologist. I’m not trained or licensed to diagnose mental disorders of any kind. Nor am I legally able to treat them.
But I don’t diagnose disorders. People come to me, already diagnosed. But even if I were able to diagnose, I wouldn’t. As I mentioned, giving a condition a label has the unintended side-effect of making it feel “permanent” in the minds of the client. That does them no good.
And people don’t come to me to cure the disorders, they come to me for help with the symptoms. If somebody did come to me and said “Help me cure my bi-polar disorder” I would have to say to them, I’m not legally allowed to treat for bi-polar disorder. Moreover, that’s not what I do.
Can those changes result in a cure for the disorder? Maybe. But if you could cure it, would you really want to?
Like I said, there is usually a very noble origin behind it. Would you really want to give up the best parts? Or would you just learn to control the down side? I know what I would do, if it were me.
If you have been diagnosed with a mental disorder of one form or another, my advice to you is: relax! If you spend an hour talking to a psychologist, they can find something to diagnose you with. Because EVERYBODY goes to extremes in one part of our lives or another! But know that it is not WHO YOU ARE. It’s just WHAT YOU DO. And you can change what you do, if you really want to.
I’m sharing this with you because, if you are on the receiving end of a diagnosis, I want you to have HOPE. A hope that is strong enough to motivate you to ACTION. Or if you know someone who has such a diagnosis, it is my hope that you will have understanding, which leads to COMPASSION.
Either way, remember: a diagnosis doesn’t make one “broken.” It just means that your strategies in life are less than ideal. And strategies are what you do, they are not who you are. So change them!
And if you need help, I’m here for you.