When we hear the term mental illness, we are used to thinking of depression, anxiety and other disorders, as the illness. But increasing areas of study are understanding that these symptoms may actually be indicators that something else is occurring within the individual. There may, in fact, be more to it than the simple diagnosis of mental illness.
When I was first studying psychology, the predominant belief was that depression was the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain and would require lifelong medication and/or therapy to manage the illness. My, we have learnt so much more since then!! And thank goodness we have!
Pioneering Functional Psychiatrist, Kelly Brogan in her book ‘A Mind of Your Own’, writes how many of our most common psychiatric illnesses can be influenced by nutritional deficiencies. This was not something I learnt in my psychology degree. This has opened up a new frontier of mental health treatment within the world of integrative medicine, naturopathy, and functional psychiatry.
Meanwhile, in the world of psychology, our understanding and therapeutic approaches have expanded way beyond the previous options. We understand now that it is not just about changing your conscious thoughts. It’s about working with the body, working with the nervous system, working with the accumulated stores of stress and trauma in the nervous system.
Peter Levine, a pioneering trauma therapist, in his book ‘Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma’ speaks about working directly with the fight, flight, freeze responses in the nervous system as a way of moving the client out of anxious and depressive states.
Dr Stephen Porges, creator of the Polyvagal Theory, also refers to psychiatric conditions occurring in the context of state regulation disturbances. For example, underlying blunt affect (reduced capacity for emotional response) and low mood is an autonomic state of shutdown that may have occurred as part of a nervous system survival response.
This idea changes the lens through which mental illness is viewed. Dr Porges’ view implies that depression is the result of a nervous system stuck in a freeze response from a previous traumatic or stressful event. Peter Levine, a long-time friend and colleague of Porges, explains that emerging from the freeze response requires a shudder or shake to discharge the suspended fight or flight energy. In this context, the therapeutic experience is looking very different to previous approaches that revolved predominantly around exploring thoughts and beliefs. Whilst exploring thoughts and beliefs is an essential part of growth and change, we are now understanding that working with the felt sense, the body, and the nervous system is equally as important.
My advice to anyone experiencing mental health challenges is to remain hopeful. If you have tried one approach and not felt any benefit, do not give up. There are so many pathways to feeling more ease in your experience of life. Try a practitioner that incorporates the body. Somatic Experiencing is one of many effective body-orientated therapies.
My favourite resources to direct clients to are the books by Peter Levine and Stephen Porges to start learning about the body, about the nervous system, and how these aspects of our physiology are affecting our mental health.