Thursday, September 22, 2016

Conflict Revolution: Getting Beyond Shutting Each Other Up and Shouting Each Other Down

My entire blog for this topic boils down to three lines:  

I'm not sure how to do this. 
But I think we need to.  
Who has ideas? 

To talk about this more...

Alternative Conversations

Join us for a free online series of conversations to explore and envision alternatives to the medical model and conventional mental health responses.

Monday 7-9 PM ESTConscience, Not Coercion - Respecting self-determination when needs conflict and discomfort rises.  

Tuesday 7-9 PM ESTFacing Life Instead of 'Treating' It - The high cost of psychiatry on our collective social development

Wednesday 7-9 PM ESTAdaptive vs. Broken Biology - How the human survival response explains away 'mental illness'

Thursday 7-9 PM ESTIn Our Deepest Darkest Hours - Why authentic relationship must become part of the solution

Friday 7-9 PM ESTConflict Revolution:  Getting beyond shutting each other up and shouting each other down

To join the call: 

By phone: (1)331-205-7196 (dial *67 for added privacy)
Toll-free if you need it: (1)855-661-1243

International: Local access numbers available at

For more about the sponsor:

In Our Deepest Darkest Hours ... How Relationships Drive Behavioral Health

What far too many of us learn in our deepest darkest hours – our times of greatest need – is that we truly are alone.  There really is no one there for us.  We learn that in the face of unbearable pain we are better off not asking for help.  We are better off trying to figure it out on our own.

It is not only that others can't fix the problem.  While that would be nice, for so many of us the social landscape gets far bleaker than this.  What we realize is that, in our known world of human beings, there is no one who sees the world the way we do.  Perhaps even more painful, there may be no one who seems to notice or even care why we have come to see the world the way that we do.

If you want to understand behavioral health - and what is going on with far too many people - this is a really important point to get.  The fact of the matter is that the four demographics that society loves to hate - 'mental illness', 'addictions', 'criminals' and 'the homeless' - all have one thing in common.  An estimated ninety (90!) percent of us are survivors of childhood traumas.

Here's some sources if you're having trouble believing that and want to check it out:

For much in life that is traumatic, relationships are a known protective factor.  Johanne Hari, The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think  But what if such protection is missing...? Even worse, what if human relationships are a big part of the part the problem - as seems to be the case for far too many of us...?

Diagnosis:  Widespread Relational Impoverishment

Here's how the relational impoverishment of modern society plays out to produce the 'behavioral health' movie the industry theatre currently is featuring:

Imagine being a kid - maybe you're a toddler, preschooler, grade school age or even a teen.  Something happens.  You feel bad.  You go to someone in your life for help.  But instead of making it better, they make it worse.  They laugh or make fun of you.  They ignore you or tell you they're too busy.  They get mad or irritated that you bothered them.  They jump into hyper-drive and fix things in ways that leave you out of your own life.  They miss the point, send you in the wrong direction, impose solutions you didn't want.  They cause more distress not less.  Maybe they actually hurt you or take away stuff you needed.  Maybe they expect you to be grateful when you actually feel even more miserable.

(Graphic adapted from Shery Mead
 Intentional Peer Support)
Essentially, you end up with two problems instead of one. You still have the problem you started out with.  But you also have the new, added and equally insoluble problem: Now, there's a relationship with an important person in your life that isn't working.

Maybe it is not with every life issue. Maybe it is not with every person.  But it happens enough of the time with enough people that you begin to draw this conclusion:  

When you go to human beings for help it gets worse instead of better. 

When human beings fail other human beings in times of great need, the options become very stark.  We cope on our own, with what we have.  We fight, flight, or freeze with whatever resources or personal strengths are at our disposal.  Many of us check out emotionally, and some of us never come back.  A lot of us use drugs or alcohol, sex, diversion, pleasure of any kind to distract or kill the unrelenting pain.

A lot of us conclude that life is all about – perhaps only about – looking out for #1.  After all, we’re actively teaching people that when you really need help, other human beings are basically worthless.  The option is to look out for number one – and hope you don’t get caught.  Here you can see the origins of what we call ‘psychopathy’ plain as day embedded in modern social relations as usual.

If you want a better model of behavioral health than psychiatry is giving us, think about what this means at different life stages:

If we're really little (infants, preschool, grade school) when this kind of thing starts to happen, we probably don't have much to work with. When feelings get intense and others don't help, the choices are pretty much fantasy, emotions or activity.   We withdraw into our own minds and develop our own worlds, losing touch with much that's happening around us.  We cry a lot, rage a lot or flip it over into a game where everything is funny.  We engage intensely, motor around, get wrapped up in our surroundings, or glued to favorite activities.

A lot of time this is the kind of stuff that gets labeled dissociative, ADHD or oppositional-defiant. A lot of it also goes unnoticed and just looks like regular living.  The important shift here, though, is in our relationships.  More and more, we're turning inward.  More and more, we're relying on stuff instead of people to make our world work.

Think about the impact of this if you're really young.   You barely know anything about life, yet there is no one you truly trust to ask about the life questions that trouble you the most.  Instead of having centuries of passed-down family and community knowledge to draw on, you're trying to figure it out on your own with the limited life experience and developing  brain of small child.  It's hardly surprising that a lot of us miss the social cues. We didn't 'get the memo' because we never knew to even look.

Now fast forward a few years and get to adolescence.  You're carrying around a lot of questions and pain that you've mostly been handling on your own.  If you're like a lot of us, the way you learned to cope set you apart from you're peer group.  So now you've got a decade of marginalization under your belt to compound the initial isolation.

Enter alcohol, drugs, sex, cars, money, mobility, freedom.  In effect, access to a whole new realm of potential 'pain-killers' has just opened up.  And with all that stuff going on inside, we're primed and ready to go.  Experience has taught us that there's no human relief in sight, so the moment the doors open we're off and running without a look back.  This is where a lot of us get labeled with conduct and substance use disorders.

(Graphic adapted from Shery Mead
 Intentional Peer Support)

This is also where a lot of us learn that the socially designated helpers make things worse rather than better.  All too often, these systems reinforce our views of human relationships as unresponsive, callous, burdensome. ineffective and out of touch with the reality of our minds and lives.  The policies and protocols of health and welfare offices all too often replicate the social dynamics that injured us in the first place.  It's not very long before we cross the provider industry off the list as well:

Even the 'expert' helpers can't, don't or won't help.  So much for expertise.  We're definitely on our own.

(Graphic adapted from Shery Mead
 Intentional Peer Support)

Fast forward again to early adulthood.  Now we're old enough to have enough freedom to really do some damage.  We've already been labeled and identified as outsiders.  We already respond and relate to the world in socially-denigrated 'outsider' ways.

As a consequence, we have little felt connection with - and therefore little loyalty to - the rest of humankind.  We may even have tried peer support and found it wanting.  For us, it may just have seemed like more of the same.

Suffice it to say, at this point, a lot of us have become thoroughly convinced that no one has your back when you really need it and human society is basically worthless.  It's a dog eat dog world.  So, if you're going to get what you need to survive, you'd better look out for number one.  

Some of us do that 'lawfully'.  Others of us don't.  Again, it's a matter of survival.

People Who Need People

If the problem is relational, then the solution is relational too.  Huge numbers of us feel disconnected and cut off from the rest of humanity.  We would give our eye teeth for a principled way back.  We don't know how to create it.  Moreover, we've been disappointed or betrayed so many times that we don't know whether to trust it if it's offered.

Nevertheless, in our heart of hearts, this is what a lot of us want.  (That is not to discredit those who have given up on society altogether and simply want to be left alone. This is a valid - even rational - perspective given what society has been offering and what so many of us have experienced.)

What does real help look like?

Real help starts dignity, respect, regard for our potential.  Real help treats us as members of a human family.   Real help acknowledges that we are where we are for good reason. Real [ractices what it preaches and offers what it hopes to receive.  Real help risks taking the first step, making the first move.  Real help honestly attempts to grapple with the harms the dominant culture has perpetrated.  It refuses to blame victims and works to repair the damage created.  Real help looks for ways to restore trust on both sides of the locks.  It levels playing fields, flattens hierarchies and corrects unbalanced privilege and power.  Real help not only opens up opportunities but actually cares that they are meaninful and accessible.

A lot of real help is free.  It's a matter of intention, not funding.  It's about attitudes and values and belief in people as people -- as opposed to goals, objectives and performance monitoring to measure, once again, if someone has met or failed the grade.

(Graphic adapted from Shery Mead
 Intentional Peer Support)

We have to start offering each other this kind of real help.  Our lives, literally, are the ones on the line, no one else's.  No one cares about these issues as much as we do. No one has as much to gain or lose as we do.

We have to start figuring out, together, how to make things better rather than worse in our darkest hours. The moment we do that - the moment we reliably are able to do that - the mental health system as we know it - will begin to end.

On some basic level I suspect the thing keeping the mental health system going is not the dominant culture, it's not Pharma, it's not the healthcare industry....

What keeps the mental health system going is that, by and large, our relationships with each other are still making things worse instead of better.  As human beings and a movement, we still need to figure out how to make our relationships work. And not just in the good times when we all agree. We have to learn how to do this when the stakes are really high and the going is really rough.  We have to learn how to make things better rather than worse when our needs conflict and everyone involved feels uncomfortable and scared.

Until then, we don't have a meaningful answer to what troubles a lot of our people and much of the world.

Once we have that, potentially, we have it all.

Want to talk about this more...?

Alternative Conversations

Join us for a free online series of conversations to explore and envision alternatives to the medical model and conventional mental health responses.

Monday 7-9 PM EST: Conscience, Not Coercion - Respecting self-determination when needs conflict and discomfort rises.

Tuesday 7-9 PM EST: Facing Life Instead of 'Treating' It - The high cost of psychiatry on our collective social development

Wednesday 7-9 PM EST: Adaptive vs. Broken Biology - How the human survival response explains away 'mental illness'

Thursday 7-9 PM EST: In Our Deepest Darkest Hours - Why authentic relationship must become part of the solution

Friday 7-9 PM EST: Conflict Revolution: Getting beyond shutting each other up and shouting each other down

To join the call:

By phone: (1)331-205-7196 (dial *67 for added privacy)

Toll-free if you need it: (1)855-661-1243

By internet:

International: Local access numbers available at

For more about the sponsor:

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

High-Stakes Biology and the Catch 22 of 'Mental Illness'

Years ago as a doctoral candidate for a mental health degree, I asked my then-psychiatrist what I
thought was an important question. In class, we’d been studying the biology of trauma and learning about the fight-flight-freeze response.

I had writer's block at the time and was tremendously anxious about the papers that were required for my coursework.  I noticed that every time I had a paper due, I got ‘manic’.  I became obsessed with how I was going to get it done.  I found myself hyper-focused and way way way geared up in both my mind and my body.  I was restless, jittery, constantly on the move.  I couldn’t stop thinking or worrying about it.  I had tremendous difficulty getting started at all.  But once started, it was like a switch flipped and I'd work on the paper nonstop until it was done.  Often I barely ate or slept for days.  I got irritated if anything interrupted me.

In the early stages, when the task seemed insurmountable, I was practically despondent about the prospect of finishing.  But later on, as the ideas started flowing, my thinking would get more grandiose. I’d start feeling like I was making new discoveries and saying something really important. Heck, who knew, potentially these connections might even change the world.  

Another thing I noticed was even more striking.  The moment I finished the paper - the moment it was safely off to school and handed in, the entire 'geared up' phenomenon went away.  The huge intensity and associated 'symptoms' that had been so real while the paper was in progress either evaporated into thin air or progressively continued to fade.

Something in me relaxed.  The next thing I knew, I was sleeping, then eating.  I was able to slow down, get comfortable, take a look around me and appreciate what was happening in the world.  Not long after, I’d re-read my paper and realize that it wasn’t nearly as brilliant as I thought.  Just another paper by another college student for another class. Maybe a few good insights.  But, hey, a lot of people have said it brighter and better.

To me this seemed like a perfect example of the fight-flight-freeze survival response.  You face a high-stakes situation.  Your body gears up.  You activate to meet the challenge.  You stay activated and intensely focused on the challenge at hand until the threat goes away.  Once the challenge is overcome and you feel safe again, however, the fight-flight-freeze system turns off.  The threat has passed, the system is no longer needed, so you can go back to the normal routine and take life as it comes.

My psychiatrist didn’t buy it.  He said something like:

Well, the fight-flight-freeze system is involved in PTSD, but you don’t have PTSD.  You are bipolar spectrum, so that system doesn’t apply to you.  Just take your meds.

I think he was wrong.  Here is why:

The Activation Has to Come from Somewhere

Even if bipolar is a genetic illness, it still has to express itself in some way.  The only way for that to happen is by using the existing biological systems of the human body.  In other words, to do so-called bipolar things, my body actually has to physically create the sensations and action tendencies that cause me to gear up, get moving, keep moving, talk fast, hyper-focus on some goals to the exclusion of others, interrupt people who are trying to say something, impulsively go after things I want without thinking of the consequences, etc.  These same phenomena also make it difficult to stop moving, slow down, control my attention, relax, look around me, get perspective, hear what other people are saying, eat nutritious food, get restorative sleep and, in general pay attention to the basic needs that are essential to rational thinking, good judgement and optimal brain functioning.

This is exactly what the High Stakes (sympathetic) nervous system does. If fact, in no small part, these very responses are built into it by design.

Here is how it works:

The Human Survival Response in a Nutshell

The human survival response is nature’s answer to the challenging facts of life.  This response helps us gear up mentally and physically to meet the obstacles presented.

This response short-circuits much of our normal bodily functioning.  It produces measurable physical and mental changes. It also changes how we perceive and respond to our surroundings.

The human survival response is perfectly ‘normal’ given the threat or challenge we perceive. However, in any given situation, a particular survival response may look strange to outsiders who are not aware of the threat or challenges a given person is facing.   The appearance of strangeness to outside observers (who do not see what is happening inside us) is what gets us labelled 'mentally ill.'

How It Works: The Two Basic Nervous Systems

Human beings have two basic nervous systems:

1. All-Is-Well (parasympathetic nervous system)

The ‘all-is-well’ nervous system is for everyday routines. It happens naturally when we feel safe, secure and like there are no big deals we need to attend to.  The All-Is-Well system is ideal for things like digesting food, sleeping, relaxing, hanging out, having sex, small talk, hobbies, tinkering around...

2. ‘High-stakes’ (sympathetic nervous system/ ‘survival response’/ fight-flight-freeze).  

The high-stakes nervous system is for responding when the stakes are high.  It is designed to wake us up, get us moving, prepared us for action and spur us to take it.  Essentially, this is the ‘get your butt in gear’ reaction that takes over when anything feels like a big deal.

The high-stakes system is involved in all kinds of stuff.  This includes both threats and opportunities. The critical factor is that – from your point of view - the stakes are high.

Sometimes, the high stakes are obvious.  You’re homeless, hungry, broke, sick, cold, miserable, getting beaten up, raped or robbed. At other times, the feeling of 'high stakes' is a really personal matter.  It depends on what you have lived or come to know.  Thus, one person's 'high stakes' might not even register on another's radar.

Gearing Up for Survival

The Three Basic Responses

When the stakes seem high, human beings are wired to respond in one of three ways:  fight, flight or freeze.

1. Fight. 

The 'fight' response goes after threats and opportunities.  It takes them on or brings them down.  The hope here is to act in ways that make the world safe and get us what we want.

2. Flight

The 'flight' response avoids threats and opportunities.  It gets away (runs, hides) as fast as possible.  The hope here is that someone else will fix things or the problem will take care of itself.

3. Freeze

The 'freeze' response hides in plain sight.  It shows no apparent reaction (de facto disappears), giving others nothing to notice or chase.  Sometimes, the hope is to not be noticed by others.  Other times, the hope, at least for me, is to not notice what is going on inside me or around me.  It’s all too overwhelming and I simply don’t know how to handle it.

Escaping Predators, Catching Prey

Biologically, the High Stakes response was designed to help us do 2 things:

(1) to escape predators so that we don’t become food; and

(2) to be effective predators so that we have food to eat.

You hear a lot of about the first thing one (escaping 'predators'). It’s really important in understanding anxiety and ‘depression.’ For me, anxiety is what gears me up to try to address something I think is going to go bad. (Metaphorically, I feel like prey trying to escape a predator). The High Stakes system helps me do this.

The difference for me with 'depression' is that I've usually given up hope. The situation just seems too big and overwhelming. I still feel lousy because the High Stakes response is still there telling me that All Is NOT Well. But, in effect, a part of me has decided to stop wasting my energy trying to fix it.

The second function of High-Stakes responding is less well-known. This is where I go after something I want. (Metaphorically, I become the hunter hot in pursuit of a tasty meal). The High-Stakes system helps me mobilize the resources I need to do this. The intense activation of the High-Stakes system - including it's single minded focus and the 'thrill of the chase' - for me, explains a lot of what gets diagnosed as 'bipolar', as well as a lot of aggressive behavior and so-called ‘addiction.’

What Bodies Do When the Stakes Are HIgh

As a matter of evolution, the High-Stakes system thinks we are facing a physical threat.  It rapidly deploys our energy and resources to the physical systems that can respond to this.  These include:

  1. Blood and energy gets shifted from the brain to the muscles, heart and lungs.  
  2. Digestion shut downs in order to conserve energy.
  3. Focus narrows to the source of the threat or opportunity.
  4. Attention stays riveted there until the situation resolves.

How this Explains So-Called ‘Mental Illness’

1.  Under-resourced brains

In High-Stakes situations, our brains don’t have much to work with.  Our bodily resources are being directed away from the brain to the physical response systems.

  • This explains why so many of us go mentally blank, miss things, can only focus on a few narrow things, can’t take in new information, and have trouble with remembering what happened. 
  • The lack of mental resources also explains so-called poor judgment and impulsivity.  Our focus is narrowed due to the threat, so it’s hard to see the big picture.  Also, our brains don’t have what they need for higher order thinking. 
  • The general dearth of mental resources may also explain why many of us experience altered perceptions.  Again our brains don’t have that much to work with – so it’s hard to accurately read the information that come in from outside.

2. Activated bodies

The High Stakes system explains why we feel so jittery and activated.  Under the influence of High-Stakes, our muscles, heart and lungs are getting boatloads of input.  As a result, we breath fast (hyperventilate, get short of breath) and our hearts pound.  We feel sped up and tense inside.  Even if, objectively, we are doing very little, these parts of our body are literally being pumped up and primed for action.  Seen in this context, it is hardly surprising that some of us find it difficult to hold ourselves back, to manage our 'triggers' or to keep from ourselves from reacting in really big ways (“over-reacting”) under the influence of the High-Stakes system.

3.  Systems maintenance is out of service

The purpose of the high-stakes system is to maintain high alert until the situation resolves. This ensures that we won’t let in a dangerous threat or miss an important opportunity. To accomplish this, the High-Stakes system intentionally limits the resources allowed for restorative processes like sleep and digestion. A lot of times this means we barely eat or sleep at all under the influence of High-Stakes. The situation just feels, well…, too high-stakes.

On the other hand, sometimes we can’t seem to get enough food or sleep when the stakes are high. We eat tons of food and never feel nourished. Or, we sleep all the time and never feel rested. What is going on here?

Well, remember what happens in High Stakes...? All the energy and resources that normally would be going to the brain are getting redirected to physical response systems. As a result, our brains are not getting the benefit of the rest or nourishment that we do take in. So, from our brain’s perspective, the food or sleep we are getting is never enough.

A lot of modern mental health professionals are take appetite and sleep as core indicators of 'mental illness.' I suspect a lot of us are just experiencing 'High-Stakes.' The High-Stakes system explains why we might not eat or sleep much. It also explains why we might not feel very nourished or rested even if we eat a lot or sleep a lot

4. Why it Keeps Getting Worse

High-Stakes activation explains, in part, why our 'mental illness' is considered 'progressive' and a lot of us seem to get worse and worse over time.  (Another likely reason is actual harm from conventional treatment.  This has been talked about in other blogs at Peerly Human). Getting stuck in a High-Stakes response takes a tremendous toll on human minds and bodies. We don't sleep or process nutrition effectively so our brains are unable to perform routine maintenance or make needed repairs. Our muscles are tense all the time and therefore burning needed resources (oxygen, nutrients) that should be going to our brains.

Imagine your car needing an oil change. Now imagine continuing to drive it like that for weeks, months or years. Imagine driving your car with little or no oil for a life time - as is the case with profound kind of trauma that some of us have had. You know if you've had that kind of trauma because you've never, ever really felt safe. This is your brain in the High-Stakes system.

What is more, just like your car, the general rule is this: The longer the needs go unmet or the more intensely they are neglected, the more extreme are the issues that will arise and the harder it will be to fix them.

There is nothing inherently defective about our brains of bodies. We've just faced a lot of challenges, and we haven't had what we needed in order to repair.

This potentially explains a lot of other symptoms of so-called ‘mental illness’ – including so-called 'psychosis', 'delusions', 'perceptual disturbance' and 'irrational thinking'. The fact of the matter is that, in High Stakes circumstances, human brains don’t get what they need to reliably function. They don’t get the energy or resources needed to pay attention to the ‘big picture’ environment. They don’t get what they need to effectively process information.

The longer and longer this goes on, the worse and worse it gets. This explains why a lot of us have broken down progressively under the impact of a stressful life.

It explains why many of us:

  • Feel exhausted, depleted and unmotivated
  • Have trouble with memory and keeping track of things
  • Are concerned we are missing something and not thinking well
  • Have trouble making decisions or setting priorities
  • Experience ourselves seeing/ hearing things that others don’t seem to 
  • Feel totally out of touch with the outside world (our brains can barely pay attention to the inside one)
  • Experience the world as playing tricks on us or out to get us (something sure is!)

This also explains a lot of the so-called social and employment effects of ‘mental illness.’ A lot of us don’t feel capable of going out or navigating the world in this frame of mind. Applying for work or trying to make friends when it's gotten this bad is a recipe for disaster. All too often we end up being judged or rejected as a result of the difficulties we experience under the influence of prolonged High-Stakes activation.

5.  The Incredible Diversity of High-Stakes responses

We are adaptive beings. The purpose of High-Stakes is to maximize that.  It wants us to live as long as possible and as well as possible, given our options.  As a result, even though evolution started us off with mostly physical responses, human beings actually fight, flight and freeze in countless ways. Here are just a few examples:


Maybe we’re not so good at fighting physically, but we’re really smart. So we fight intellectually- we argue and argue until we get the last word in.  Or we fight emotionally or verbally by getting angry, resentful or yelling.  Socially, we might envy others, compete with others, or try to 'win' friends.  Or maybe we fight spiritually by becoming spiritual 'high achievers' or prayer warriors.


Maybe literally running away is not an option because we’re not very fast on our feet.  No worries, we can run emotionally or with our imagination.  We can mentally change the subject or the picture in our mind.  We can also run socially, for example, by backing down or apologizing profusely.  Or maybe we run from awareness or feelings, using work, politics, tv, sex, video games, the internet, drugs or self-injury as distractions.


Even with freeze, there are a variety of options.  We might actually be driving a car, but so lost in thought that we are not even aware of the road. In a school or at a party, we might keep talking, but go numb inside.

In other words, we don’t just fight-flight-freeze physically, but across many life dimensions. This wide variability of high stakes responses is a tremendous asset to our species.  It ensures that people will respond in numerous rich and creative ways.  When an entire community is facing a threat, this promotes resilience and survival overall. If we all responded the same way to danger or opportunity, a single threat (predator, disease, disaster) could wipe us out. We need the extremes that people tend to under stress to safeguard group survival.

On the other hand, when the stakes are seemingly individual, the virtue of diversity can get obscured. Since only one person is reacting, this can look rather odd to everyone else.  As we mentioned above, this has led to a lot of us getting labeled 'mentally ill' when, really, we were just experiencing High-Stakes responses.

6. Turning the High-Stakes System Off

The beautiful thing about the High-Stakes response is that there is a simple effective way to turn it off.  High stakes is turned on when things feel insecure.  (We're either feeling threatened or we're afraid we'll lose an important opportunity.)

So, the way to turn it off is to make things feel more secure.  Once the high-stakes system is satisfied that 'all-is-well', it shuts down.  There's no more need for the intense activation.  So High-Stakes lets go of the reigns.  The moment that happens, routine functioning begins to resume and healing and restoration can begin.

In other words, the key to addressing High-Stakes responses, is to figure out what is driving the system: What turned High Stakes on? What is the underlying need?

Then, find a way to make whatever it feel more safe, secure - or at least more tolerable or manageable - in the moment.

It's that simple.

The implications of this for mental well-being are astounding.  It means that if we want to maximize mental health and well-being, we don't need to start with all the complicated medical or psychological theories of human development.   Those things might be helpful or enriching at some point.  But, to get started, this is the core of it:

We need to listen to each other and start to address our real life concerns. 

As the identified concerns are addressed or mitigated, the High-Stakes system will turn itself off. This, in turn, will result in more and more resources being available for healing.  Such resources are needed to support recovery from the high mental and physical toll of prolonged High-Stakes activation.

Equally important, we need to seriously reconsider conventional treatments - like  drugs and shock - that get in the way of this process.  Interventions like drugs and shock actually reduce a lot of our capacity to stay clear-headed and figure out what is going on with us.  All too often, such medical interventions wipe out the very clues to the understanding the real sources of distress that are driving the High-Stakes system.

For many of us, drugs and shock were like having our hand on a burning stove.  When we complained about the pain and the smell of flesh, our doctors gave us pills so that we could no longer perceive the warnings or feel the damage.  Such medical approaches did nothing to address the reality of our lives:  In actually, we were living in circumstances that are dangerous to human health and well being.

7. Why “Mental Illness’ is a Vicious Cycle and a Catch-22.

Think about it. The High-Stakes response is activated when, in real life, the stakes are high. That means those of us who grow up with a lot of really difficult life circumstances will be in “High-Stakes” responses a lot of the time. Unfortunately, there is a high degree of overlap between so-called mental disorders and the effects of the High-Stakes system. Accordingly, we should predict a lot of ‘mental illness’ being diagnosed among people who have had a rough time of it.

That is in fact exactly what is happening.  As it turns out, a whopping ninety (90!) percent of us in the public mental health system are 'trauma survivors.'  We have grown up without reliable access to basic human needs.  Things like:

  • nutritious food, habitable shelter
  • safety of person and property
  • dignity, respect and fair treatment
  • meaningful participation and voice
  • support for our families to stay together and make a living
  • opportunities to develop ourselves across major life domains
  • freedom to make sense of experience in our own way

These things are not optional.  They are essentials of life that every human being needs in order to live and be well.  This is not just an individual issue.  Far too many of our families are living withouth secure access to these things either.  Yet, without such access, neither individuals nor the human family as a whole, can be well.

Moreover, once in the system, there is virtually no way out.  In behavioral health populations, “High Stakes” is the norm.  We are broke, unemployed, barely housed, victims of crime, targets of discrimination.  When we speak up about this, it is treated as a symptom of our ‘illness.’

The stakes for us are literally 'High' all the time.  This is the real biology behind what currently is getting diagnosed and treated as ‘mental illness.’  The source is not broken brains or individual genetics.  Our brains and bodies were working fine.  They did their job and informed us of thevery real, very threatening life circumstances we were facing.

There is nothing abnormal about this. To the contrary, our collective distress is a call to action. Our biology is telling the truth about the desperate circumstances of our lives.

So what will it be: Will we continue to let others define our experience? Will we continue to ignore our own truth - to submit, comply, back down (essentially, to flight and freeze) - in the face of powerful social others?

Or will we, together, claim the truth of our experience, recognize ourselves as valid, and stand up (– fight –) for the dignity, respect and social justice we deserve…?

Want to talk about this more...?

Alternative Conversations

Join us for a free online series of conversations to explore and envision alternatives to the medical model and conventional mental health responses.

Monday 7-9 PM ESTConscience, Not Coercion - Respecting self-determination when needs conflict and discomfort rises.  

Tuesday 7-9 PM ESTFacing Life Instead of 'Treating' It - The high cost of psychiatry on our collective social development

Wednesday 7-9 PM ESTAdaptive vs. Broken Biology - How the human survival response explains away 'mental illness'

Thursday 7-9 PM ESTIn Our Deepest Darkest Hours - Why authentic relationship must become part of the solution

Friday 7-9 PM ESTConflict Revolution:  Getting beyond shutting each other up and shouting each other down

To join the call: 

By phone: (1)331-205-7196 (dial *67 for added privacy)
Toll-free if you need it: (1)855-661-1243

International: Local access numbers available at

For more about the sponsor:

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Facing the Facts of Life: How Lived Experience Affects Well-Being

The fact is, life is challenging - and that explains a lot. Yeah, I know. We've been told we have brain diseases, chemical imbalances and that our problems are biomedical. But what about our lives, experiences, and stories...? Where do they come in...? And what about the stress of living? How do you tell a hard life from a disordered one...

Here is where the rubber meets the road. While we don't talk about it much, on some level we all know that life is precious and fragile. To create a single human life, nature arranges for nine months of specialty-design, comfort-padded, round-the-clock guarded, protected and optimally-adjusted physical space. Once out of the womb, there are several years more of intensive care and nurturing that new arrivals ideally get in order to ensure optimum development. The refuge required is not only physical, but also economic, emotional, intellectional, social, cultural and spiritual.

In other words, it's complicated, labor intensive and a lot can go wrong. There is no way around it. We are all vulnerable. If any of us lives long enough, there will surely be setbacks and losses. Even worse, the one clear certainty, at the moment of our birth, is that someday we will die. It's only a matter of time.

Add to that the kicker that no one actually has 'the answers' - real answers - to the problems that have plagued human beings since time began. Yeah, there are a lot of theories and philosophies that help people cope with death and loss. There is a lot of religious and social wisdom about how to avoid, escape or transcend the material realities. 
No doubt, some approaches hold more promise than others. At the same time, on the tangible, visible planetary level, no one really knows. Everyone has done their level best. Countless, scientists, academics, philosophers and saints have devoted their lives to the search for this holy grail.

Yet, no one has succeeded. As a whole, for the human race, we still have more questions than answers. This is especially true when it comes to the really hard questions - the one's that really matter:

  • Why is there suffering? 
  • Why do bad things happen to good people? 
  • What happens when we die? 
  • What happens our relationships with the people, animals, beings we love? 

In the final analysis, there are no experts. We all end up the same. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Despite its current popularity, all of this is a bit of humble pie for the modern mental health system. At best, the medical model is a partial answer to the questions that have troubled human kind the most. It basically says:

The reason you suffer is because your biology is bad. The reason bad things happen to you is because you are acting out your biological destiny. The cure for that is to take a pill. If that doesn't work, we have electroshock as a back up. We're also making tremendous gains in psychosurgery so you should see a comeback in better lobotomies any day now. We don't have an opinion on death or what happens after it - that's not scientific. But, we can give you a pill if you're anxious. At least, you will get a good night sleep, and it won't trouble you as much.

In short, they have not begun to scratch the surface of the questions that really matter. And a lot of us don't find the answers they do offer very satisfying. For that reason, some of us are beginning to take back our own lives. We are beginning to ask our own question and find our own answers.

If you'd like more rewarding answers than simply medicating away the most important questions of human existence, we invite you to join us.

The following survey was developed by people who have been diagnosed and labeled. Our lives weren't working and we wanted to know how we got here. We wanted to find more meaningful answers than the mental health system was offering. The following are some of the questions we asked ourselves and some of the answers we found:

Lived Experience Survey

A Survey To Assess the Impact of Real Life Issues on Mental/ Behavioral Health

[If you want to take this survey online go to: 

This survey was developed to help you assess the impact of real life issues - like trauma, human needs, social relationships and community responses - on your personal well-being. No matter what difficulties you are having, there is a good chance that factors like these are affecting you in some way. Trauma, human needs and how those around us respond are closely related to both mental and behavioral health. Nobody feels or does well when their human needs are at risk, ignored or actually violated. Nobody feels or does well when those around them disregard, dismiss or actually blame them for the important concerns they are trying to raise.

That is the essence of the personal and social trauma that causes or worsens the mental and behavioral health challenges that so many of us in modern society are facing. All too often, however, the systems we turn to fail to connect the dots. If those who are supposed to help us fail to make these connections, we may not either. Even worse, we may abandon the truth of our experience and our own knowing.

In this survey, we try to change that. We ask about many different kinds of experiences that can profoundly affect our sense of well-being. We also ask about many different areas of well-being - including mental, physical, social, educational, vocational and spiritual.

We are very interested in your responses. We are trying to understand the connection between real life issues and human well-being. We are also trying to raise awareness at state, national and international levels about these issues. Your honest responses can help us do that.

However, you have no obligation to submit this survey. You can just use it for your own awareness, if that is what feels right to you.

If you do choose to submit this survey, we will not disclose any identifying information you write out unless you give us express permission (see question #14).

1. Human Needs That We All Have 
Here are some common human needs. These needs are so important that many nations around the world have concluded they are human 'rights'. With respect to your life, do all of these needs feel safe and secure? Have they always felt that way? (Check any that don't or didn't.)

Autonomy/ self-determination - others respect our choices even if they disagree

Beliefs/ opinions/ ideas - to have them and share them with others

Clean air, water, environment

Communication - interact meaningfully with others

Dignity and respect

Education - to learn and develop our potential

Employment - to meaningful work and a livable wage

Family - to form relationships and have them honored

Food - healthy, nutritious, affordable

Healthcare - competent, affordable, accessible

Housing - clean, safe, affordable, available, allows family, pets

Justice / fair treatment - by the community, law enforcement, court system

Leisure/ recreation - to have time for and access to enjoyable activites

Liberty/ freedom - make choices about our lives & how we live them

Life  - be able to access the protection and resources we need to stay alive.

Movement - go where we want to go, travel, change where we live

Participation - in activities, community, culture, government,

Political views, expression and participation

Privacy - to control personal information & to be left alone

Property - to own, access, enjoy and dispose of personal possessions

Religion & Spirituality - have a belief system, practice it & share it with others

Safety - protection from violence, abuse, unwanted physical contact, & exposure


2. Discrimination/ Bias/ Prejudice

All too often other people make things worse instead of better. They may highlight our vulnerabilities or even intentionally prey on them. They may judge or exclude us to advance their interests or agendas. Below are some ways this can happen. Which ones have you experienced?

Abilities - physical, emotional, cognitive diversity

Age - too young/ too old

Beliefs - our views & experiences of reality

Behaviors - personal actions or mannerisms that others may not understand

Cognition - our way of seeing, understanding & making sense of things

Communication style - how we express ourselves or receive information from others

Criminal justice involvement -history, arrest, conviction, etc.

Education - how little (or much) we have of it

Family background

Gender identity (male, female, queer, other)

Homelessness/ housing status

Medical condition

Mental health history, diagnosis or label

Political views

National origin

Physical appearance, including weight

Poverty/ Income status


Religious or spiritual views

Sexual orientation

Social class


3. Extent of social betrayal

The amount of harm we experience comes from more than just what happened. It also comes from how those around us respond (or fail to). Who actively participated? Who looked the other way? Who blamed instead of helped us? (check all that apply)




Jail or Prison

Law Enforcement

Hospital or Healthcare setting


Agency or Organization

Service Provider



Private citizen

Person in the community

Family member




4. What harms or losses resulted?

When human needs are disrespected, violated or insecure, all sorts of harms can result. These are not illnesses. They are injuries. We should not be 'treated' as if we are the 'problem.' We deserve support to repair the damage and recover what we have lost. Properly speaking this should involve community support, validation, restitution and reparations, not medical providers 'diagnosing' and 'treating' us as if we are 'ill'.

Behavioral distortions - impulses, urges, addiction, compulsions (e.g., to express pain &/ or cope with other harms or losses)

Chronic Pain - physical, emotional, existential

Cognition - ability to think, reason, concentrate, perceive, understand, reason, learn

Community - sense of belonging, respect, trust/ respect of neighbors

Cultural - opportunities and experiences available to others

Educational - access to learning & training to develop our potential

Emotional -feelings, mood, sense of security, enjoyment, life satisfaction

Existential - wellbeing, peace of mind, trust in the universe, relationship with self/ others/ life/ god

Family - discord, separation, lessened quality of relationships, death

Financial - new expenses, lost income/ savings

Material - housing, property, possessions, ability to make a living

Motivation - attitude, sense of purpose and direction, energy for living

Physical - major or minor injuries, health consequences

Relational - ability to trust, connect or communication with others

Societal - social status, position in society, meaningful voice & participation

Traumatic implantation - intrusive voices, visions, flashbacks, thoughts, memories

Violation of personhood - physical, emotional, mental, spiritual

Vocational- loss of skills, opportunities, reputation, income


5. Duration of Injury

When did this first start? How long has it been going on? As a general rule, our injuries are more severe the longer we have suffered without meaningful redress.

Your answer
6. What was this like for you?

Please tell us, in your own words, anything else you would like us to know about how your life was impacted.

Your answer
7.What traditional mental health services have you tried (or been forced to try)?

Please check all that apply

Outpatient therapy/ counseling

Case management

Medications/ medication management

Private mental health providers

Public mental health system (Medicaid)

Court-ordered (involuntary) services

Addictions / Behavioral Health Services

Inpatient Psychiatry Treatment (hospital)

Corrections / Criminal Justice System

Residential Treatment (long-term)

Electroconvulsive therapy (shock, ECT)

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)

Psychosurgery (lobotomy, etc)

None of the above


8. What Other Things Have You Tried?

Please check all that apply

Alternatives to Suicide Groups

Art, Creativity, Writing 

Avoiding or reducing conventional mental health treatment

Body Work (massage, rolfing, cranial sacral, etc.)

Coming off or reducing psychiatric medications

Depression-Bi-Polar Support Alliance

Eastern Medicine (acupuncture, herbs, et al)

Exercise, Gym Memberships

Hearing Voices Network

Icarus Project

Intentional Peer Support

Meditation/ Mindfulness


NAMI / Peer-to-Peer     

Nutritional approaches

Online support groups (facebook, google plus)

Peer Respite

Peer Support- Drop in Center

Peer Support - Crisis Lines or Warm Lines


Support Animals

Twelve Step Groups

Wellness Recovery Action Planning

Writing - Journaling, Blogging, Poetry

Yoga, Xi Gong, Tai Chi, etc

None of the above


9. Learning From What Worked

What, if anything, did anyone (including you) do that was helpful? What seemed to make things better or stop them from getting worse?

Your answer

10. Constructive Criticism

What could/ should those responsible have done differently? What actions on their part could have prevented or lessened the harms to you?

Your answer
11. Big Picture Recommendations:

How does society need to change to prevent the harms that happened to you? How can we change the way things operate in order to bring out the best in people instead of the worst?

Your answer

12. Other Comments/ Suggestions:

Is there anything we missed or could do better? Anything else you would like to add?

Your answer

13. What U.S. State or Nation are you from?

(This helps with advocacy and social change)

Your answer
14. How do you feel about us sharing your information for advocacy and social change purposes?

Just include the boxes I checked

Don't share anything anyone could possibly associate with me

Contact me first - my contact info is below

Use it if you think it will be helpful


15. Contact Info (if you want us to try to reach you)

(Give preferred contact details here. E.g., name, phone, email, address, skype, facebook, google hangout, best days/ times)

Your answer

Where to send the survey:

c/o Sarah Knutson/ Peerly Human
147 N. Seminary ST, Apt 3
Barre, VT 05641

Tel. 802-279-3876

Want to talk about these issues more?  Join our free tele-conference series:

Alternative Conversations

Join us for a free online series of conversations to explore and envision alternatives to the medical model and conventional mental health responses.

Monday 7-9 PM ESTConscience, Not Coercion - Respecting self-determination when needs conflict and discomfort rises.  

Tuesday 7-9 PM ESTFacing Life Instead of 'Treating' It - The high cost of psychiatry on our collective social development

Wednesday 7-9 PM ESTAdaptive vs. Broken Biology - How the human survival response explains away 'mental illness'

Thursday 7-9 PM ESTIn Our Deepest Darkest Hours - Why authentic relationship must become part of the solution

Friday 7-9 PM ESTConflict Revolution:  Getting beyond shutting each other up and shouting each other down

To join the call: 

By phone: (1)331-205-7196 (dial *67 for added privacy)
Toll-free if you need it: (1)855-661-1243

International: Local access numbers available at

For more about the sponsor: