Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Chapter 4-3. Why ‘Normal’ Reactions So Often Look ‘Crazy’

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.

The survival 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 given survival strategy may look strange to outsiders who are not aware of the threat or challenges someone 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.'

Here is a modern-day example:

Since the election of President Trump, I’ve heard a surprising number of people say they wish he’d get impeached or assassinated.  These are upstanding citizens who, under normal circumstances, would never wish ill on anyone.  They in fact pride themselves on being non-judgmental and giving everyone a chance.  Most likely no one is going to arrest them or call 911 on the grounds that they present a danger to self or others.  Regardless of political view, people get that these are uncertain times and that a lot of people are afraid.

However, if I start talking this way about the well-liked neighbor next door, the outcome is entirely different.  Others express concern and probably report me to police.  The next thing you know, I am on my way to the ER for a ruling on whether I constitute a danger to myself or others.

Yet, both I and the Trump-conflicted citizenry might feel very much the same inside.  We might both feel like it’s impossible to live with this new person in our lives and very afraid for what a future of having to relate to them might entail. We might also feel trapped in situation we don’t know how to get out of and see ourselves as having few realistic options.  Thus, we may both be hoping circumstances will rescue us from a seemingly untenable situation.  We might both also be feeling very alone and helpless.  In all likelihood, our intention in voicing our concerns is not because we plan to act out our wishes, but rather in hopes of finding some social support that will make our misery more tolerable.

So what makes one response ‘normal’ and the other ‘crazy’?
Arguably, it has a lot to do with whether the response seems understandable to others.  The thoughts about the new President – despite their public aggressive content - are seen as relatively common in the current social context.  However, thoughts about my neighbor aren’t.  So, widespread animosity toward the President – despite the arguable national importance - slips through the radar as ‘normal.’ On the other hand, my private interpersonal animosity – with marginal local significance - arouses widespread community concern as ‘crazy.’

I know it seems hard to believe, given all that we've been told about chemical imbalances and disordered brains.  But, in reality, a lot of what gets labeled 'mental illness' boils down to something as simple as these two questions:


  1. Is your the threat you're experiencing also being experienced by others?
  2. Is your response to the threat you feel understandable and acceptable to those around you?

Answer 'no' to either of those questions, and it's very likely a mental health label is coming your way - if it hasn't already. 

Next, we'll talk about basic physiology of the survival response and how you can recognize it in yourself and others.

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