May is Mental Health Awareness Month!
We hear a lot about mental health these days, especially around the impact of COVID and social distancing. The fact is, it’s been rough for many people for a while. COVID has made is harder.
At Avalon, we feel hopeful. We know that research has opened many new, effective pathways for healing mental health challenges over the past twenty years. We know more about human development and the impact of trauma, as well as how to treat it. Effective therapies continue to evolve and real healing is possible.
A New Model
We are moving from a pathology-based medical model of mental illness to a developmental trauma-based model of mental health care. This means that we asking, “what happened to you?” rather than “what’s wrong with you?”
This shift in understanding means that mental health professionals are listening for the things that happened to people that shouldn’t have. We listen for the things that should have happened, but didn’t. We know that many mental health challenges develop from these experiences. Often, the concerns that bring people to therapy are rooted in coping mechanisms that served them at the time, but are no longer useful. Now, these mechanisms get in the way.
Therapies that are trauma-based, such as Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Internal Family Systems, Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, and several others, work with the brain’s organic healing processes to repair unmet needs and increase mental flexibility and resilience in very real, felt ways for clients.
Many practitioners are excited about the promising research being done today that explores therapies using psychedelics. Medications such as MDMD (Ecstacy) and Psilocybin (Mushrooms) show real promise in the treatment of trauma. It is believed that when these medicines are used as therapy tools by trained professionals, they quiet the Default Neural Network in the brain which allows the client and therapist to quickly facilitate the healing processes of the brain. When followed up with integrative therapy, these treatments are showing real promise to relieve pain and suffering.
Not Me. Us.
This new, developmental framework for understanding mental illness and therapy requires that we recognize how interconnected we are with each other. There are many systems that impact our lives. The mental health impact of oppressive systems on women, children, BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color), LGBTQIA+ Folx, Disabled Folx, Fat Folx, and the many who identify with multiple oppressed identities, cannot be ignored. We belong to each other. It’s not “my mental health.” It’s “our mental health.”
This “we and us” not “me and my” perspective on mental health speaks to a fundamental truth of our human experience: we need each other. Just like all other mammals, we need safe, secure connection to each other in order to have good mental health. As Brene Brown, PhD says, “we are wired for connection.” Our problems lie in our disconnection from ourselves and each other. Experiences that reconnect us, internally and with other people, is a primary source of our healing.
If there’s one thing I could tell you, it’s that the answer to healing our mind is in our body.
Imagine going to the movies. Overpriced popcorn. Gallon of soda. Sticky floor. Surround sound. America’s favorite pastime. The theater goes dark and we are quickly immersed in the world on the screen. A world made up of intentional visual content and dialogue that tell a particular story. Yet, often the most powerful aspect of storytelling is the least recognized: sound. In film and television, sound effects and musical score are critical to creating the emotional experience of the film for the viewer. The music tells us when to be scared. The music tells us when to cry. The music tells us when to feel happy or hopeful.
Imagine being in a pool right now. Now imagine someone starts playing the theme from Jaws. I bet you’d get out.
At every moment we experiencing our world in our thoughts, emotions, five senses, and our embodied, or “felt sense” experience. Our “felt sense” is the physical response that our bodies experience when we experience emotion. Some people are very tuned into this sense, others feel less aware of it. But for all of us, it functions much the way a music score does for a scene in a film. Emotional content that is not or cannot be conveyed with words stirs and pours through us. And, just like the music in a movie scene, if you change the felt sense, you change the emotional reality of the moment.
A lovely example of the power of music in film is the movie, Dunkirk. The filmmakers deliberately chose to tell the story through the music rather than the plot (there’s a way in which not a lot actually happens – very little character development, but not an action movie either). Yet, viewers feel like something intense and dramatic is happening because of the score in every scene.
What does this have to do with therapy and mental health? Everything. Depression, anxiety, grief, insecurity, addiction, all of it includes, and if often fundamentally located, in sensations in the body and these sensations form the emotional foundation for the stories we believe about ourselves, our lives, and what’s happening right now. Remember, you know there’s no shark in that pool, but it is your body that insists that you get out when that music starts playing.
I often see clients who experience anxiety (which is a thought word for the emotion of fear or scared). For anyone with anxiety, when you think about it, the distress is not about the thoughts. It’s the physical sensations of rapid heart-rate, tightening chest, electricity in the chest and arms, agitation (feeling the need to move), and heat that make it so uncomfortable. If it was just the thoughts, we’d simply think something else and all would be fine. We can, in fact, change our thoughts, but if our body doesn’t come with us, if the music doesn’t change, we are all but powerless to change it.
Body-centered therapies offer ways to learn to change the music. By slowing down our noticing and working mindfully in real time in a session, we can shift from focusing on thoughts to working with what is arising in the body right now. We often find that the body is carrying old hurts and protective-yet-harmful beliefs about ourselves that are longing to be acknowledged and healed. We find that when we do so, it isn’t that we let go of them, but they let go of us.
Next time you are watching a film, notice the music. Is there an invitation to hear the music playing in your own being?
Karen J. Helfrich, LCSW-C
Avalon Psychotherapy Associates, LLC