After my perfect storm, (a term that neural retrainers use to describe the situations that led to chronic issues becoming unmanageable), I wanted to believe that maybe all my problems, all the emotional dysregulation I had faced through life, had been the result of some physical issue that I was being diagnosed with such as lyme disease, mast cell activation syndrome, chronic inflammatory response syndrome, etc. In fact, two of my doctors had suggested it. They assured me that all my years suffering (inconsistently) wasn’t really the result of something going wrong with my mind, but the result of a chronic infection that had triggered my nervous system and/or environmental triggers that set off an inflammatory reaction in the nervous system. Good news, I wasn’t really “crazy”, I was just sick.
However, as I continued down the path of healing , it became clear to me that this was incorrect, it was not the body affecting the mind as the root cause of my suffering, but the mind affecting the body and then, external triggers exacerbating this. In my understanding, mental illness is a dysregulation of the nervous system, an “injury”, causing disruption in the normal functioning of the brain in different ways. This dysregulation came about through stressful events and strategies to cope with the external. This is how I witnessed and experienced it. As I experienced these “traumas” throughout life my amygdala learned to be reactive to the external based on things I said and felt. For example, I often felt unsafe in homes as a child , so it made sense that I found myself reactive to environmental “toxins” and homes became very physically unsafe for me. Other triggers such as benzodiazepines led to a greater activation of the autonomic nervous system even further to manifest in physical symptoms and greatly exacerbate mental ones.
Bessel Van Der Kolk talks about this idea in “The Body Keeps The Score.” He says, “trauma fosters the development of a hyperactive alarm system and molds a body that gets stuck in fight/flight, and freeze. Trauma interferes with the brain circuits that involve focusing, flexibility, and being able to stay in emotional control. A constant sense of danger and helplessness promotes the continuous secretion of stress hormones, which wreaks havoc with the immune system and the functioning of the body’s organs.” As it happened to me, mental illness , caused by long standing trauma will eventually lead to physical illness.
He also talks about the complex relationship between psychiatry and trauma. Psychiatrists, as he says, seem to ignore chronic trauma creating diagnosis such as PTSD, personality disorders, bipolar disorder , but instead focus on drugging people who come looking for relief from these issues. And in my twenties I experiences exactly the same. I had been put on dozens of medications (most of which I never stayed on for very long term except Benzodiazepines), throughout my life to try to calm what was happening in my mind, to try to change the chemical result of an injury to my nervous system, and found myself a perpetual patient of both psychiatry and primary care, later when it began to manifest in my body.
The primary diagnosis’ (mental), I had received could have been changed at 16, when I first called a therapist seeking help for anxiety. I often think of that time and change the script to one of this therapist listening to me and giving me the skills to change the way I was thinking. Unfortunately, she didn’t. She suggested “something to calm down.” I refused for three years, and when she finally gave me an ultimatum – “If you do not take something, I cannot see you anymore”, I gave in. I remember a few sessions where she hinted at EMDR, but never followed through on this. It was new then, and I don’t think she realized that it was exactly what could have helped me.
I wrote this article after witnessing people in neural retraining groups avoiding the idea of mental illness. People with very bizarre reactions to different triggers, constantly fatigued and/or experiencing dozens of other challenges are comfortable saying they have a limbic system injury but not a mental illness. I am not suggestion that all had a long standing mental illness that would have been classified as a pathology, but I do believe there is more of this scenario than is talked about.
The truth is chronic illness and mental illness are from the same root cause, a hyperactive limbic system .I suppose the stigma comes due to a poor definition of mental illness as created by psychiatry surrounding the idea of the mind being sick.