Solve for Stuck: Myth busters (mental health edition)
In a world where mental health information is sourced from TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter, it can be helpful to pause and sort fact from fiction (though to be fair, social media often provides more accurate information than many licensed professionals). In honor of Mental Health Awareness, here are my top five mental health myths—and what you can do about them.
Myth 1: Trauma is only when something really bad happens to you
Many people hear the word “trauma” and assume that means someone was in a war, assaulted, or survived a natural disaster. Since it is a commonly believed myth that trauma = something really bad happened, many people walk around with traumatic injuries not knowing that those injuries “count” as trauma. Trauma is not defined by external events (though we can all agree that some events are inherently traumatic). Trauma is an internal process. Trauma is what happens when—for whatever reason—your brain cannot metabolize an experience. You can think of trauma as the digestion process. While some foods are almost guaranteed to make you sick, indigestion is part of life and happens occasionally to everyone. Not everyone experiences the same amount of trauma, and not everyone is walking around “traumatized,” but everyone—including you—will experience “brain indigestion” to some degree at some point.
What you can do: Validate your experience. Our brains sometimes undergo trauma from events that we don’t think of as traumatic, and our brains can sometimes walk away unscathed from events that we definitely think of as traumatic. Don’t argue with yourself. In a fight between your best logic and your brain’s interpretation of events, your brain will win every time.
Myth 2: Time heals all wounds
Time is a construct invented to help humans cope with the overwhelming bigness of existence. Some physicists argue that time is not even real. Wherever you land on the “what is time” spectrum, it is important to know that time does not magically heal all wounds. With enough time and distance from a painful event, you may be able to dodge your feelings more artfully, but unfelt feelings tend to show up sideways as problematic relationships with people, chemicals, or behaviors.
What you can do: Once again, validate your experience. Then, remind yourself that time is not a magic elixir for pain. The healing process (by whatever definition you choose) is what heals pain, not the passage of time.
Myth 3: Anxiety is a disease
Anxiety is awful, uncomfortable, terrifying—and necessary. Anxiety is the check-engine light of the mind’s dashboard. Anxiety is the smoke alarm of the internal system. If you didn’t have things like check-engine lights and smoke detectors, you’d never know if you were in danger. We often get so caught up in the discomfort of anxiety that we forget that anxiety is a messenger—not a disorder.
As Thomas Szasz put it, “Insanity is the only sane reaction to an insane society.” Once we know how to decode its messages, anxiety points toward untended injuries from the past, destructive relationships, or circumstances in the present and helps us to avoid unwanted things in the future.
What you can do: Validate, validate, validate. Stay away from thoughts like, “What’s wrong with me,” “I’m overreacting,” and, “It’s stupid to feel this way.” Remind yourself that your brain is on your side, and your feelings of anxiety are a sign that your brain feels scared. Don’t ask, “Why is my brain scared?” Ask, “What are three people, places, or things that can help me feel a little bit safer right now?”
Myth 4: You have an addictive personality
We often focus so intensely on the behaviors we want to change that we forget all behavior is functional. In other words, there’s a reason it seems like everything from sugar to sex to whiskey creates an addictive spiral for you. Is it really that you have an addictive personality, or is it possible that you have emotional injuries, unaddressed traumas, or turbulent relationships that create comfort-seeking behaviors? When you say, “I have an addictive personality,” it places the problem as an internal one rather than recognizing the complex interplay of internal and environmental stressors.
What you can do: Instead of thinking, “I have an addictive personality. This is who I am,” ask yourself, “Is there anything about myself or my life that I am afraid to address?”
As addiction expert Gabor Mate put it, “…the first question is not why the addiction; it’s why the pain?”
Then, ask yourself what supportive resources are in your life that can help make it less overwhelming so you can have support when you confront the monsters under your bed.
Myth 5: Mental health is about mindset—all you need to do is think positive
The biggest myth about mental health is that mental health is a mental process. If you’ve ever tried to think your way out of anxiety, talk yourself out of an addiction, or “affirmation” your way out of depression, you know that none of those things work very well. Are you the problem? Or is it possible that the problem is not in your mind but in your body? If you broke your leg, you wouldn’t be able to positively think your way back into walking. A physical problem needs a physical solution. Often, what we call “mental” health issues are the result of our central nervous system doing what it’s designed to do: alert us when there’s a problem. Mental health is not a mental process—it’s a physiological process.
What you can do: Learning to speak the language of the nervous system goes beyond the scope of this article, but you can remind yourself that “mind work” doesn’t usually work as a first-line intervention because the problem is physiological. When you know just a little bit about your brain, the capacity for choice is restored (to whatever degree you have safety and access to resources), and you can return to the driver’s seat of your life. If you’re asking Dr. Google for help with your mental health, try a search for “somatic tools for mental health” and “how can I help regulate my nervous system.”
Follow along with Psychotherapist and author of The Science of Stuck Britt Frank [MSW, LSCSW, SEP] on Instagram (@brittfrank). To ask a question about recovering from the last few years, or anything else regarding mental health, reach out to email@example.com
Disclaimer: This article is for entertainment purposes only and is not to be taken as official mental health treatment or professional medical advice.