One of the infuriating things about cracking open most authorised textbooks on psychology is that they are preoccupied with defining abnormal psychology: narcissism, sociopathy, depression, anxiety, borderline, bi-polar, dissociative personality disorder, and so on. An endless litany of things that could be wrong with someone. Curiously they don’t often, if ever, make positive claims as to what mental health is. What is a mentally healthy person? How does a mentally healthy person behave? The reasons for this are fun to speculate: maybe they don’t know, or maybe the mental health profession is full of narcissistic, autistic, and other abnormal people and so they can’t describe mental health themselves, or maybe human nature is so varied there isn’t truly a healthy condition, just lots of shades of mental grey?
So, I’m going to make sure to write about the few things which I’m confident fall in the category of mentally healthy processes and behaviours. Today, I want to write about trust, and hopefully illustrate why being able to trust is an essential component of overall mental health.
Trust is a complex subject because it isn’t only a philosophical concept, it is actually also a feeling mediated by the neurotransmitter oxytocin. Because of this trust is not a simple concept to nail down, but for this article let’s keep it simple: trustworthiness is the quality of a person/animal/thing to display consistently beneficial behaviours, and therefore “to trust” refers the capacity to bond with a trustworthy person/animal/thing. Johnathon is trustworthy when it comes to turning up to work on time, being non-violent, and moderating his alcohol consumption, but don’t leave money lying about in view because Johnathon is notorious for pinching every unattended penny he lays eyes on. Mary is trustworthy when it comes to money, but is almost never at work on time, and should not be trusted when drinking with young men. Johnathon trusts Mary with his wallet and is not disappointed, but when Mary trusts Johnathon with her purse, she’s a few dollars less wealthy than before.
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Last night I was chatting to a friend about depression. As someone who is still recovering from depression she kept referring to it as “her weakness” which bothered me a little. This lead to her sharing with me a perspective on depression she had encountered recently: that depression was a method by which nature would rid a tribe of weaker members. Presumably it worked something like this: a person who couldn’t meet the expectations placed on them by their tribe would develop depression and end their own life so that only the strong members would survive. Thus it is a form of eugenics programmed into our psyche to effectively off ourselves for the benefit of the rest of the tribe. Now, I am trained as a biologist and such a genetic trait is unlikely to be passed on via natural selection because it actually lowers the probability of an individual passing on their genetics. Such genes usually die out quickly. However, this got me thinking about something: if so many people have the potential to get depression – why would such a trait be preserved by natural selection? What survival advantage does a propensity for depression actually have? Here is my case on why depression is helpful rather than harmful.
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A common question people ask is where their problems come from. Why do they have sudden panic attacks at work? Why do they yell at their spouse when they don’t want to? Why do they lie when they mean to be honest? Why do they tell people get lost when they really want them to stay? Why do they choose to spend so much time with people who cannot help them to be happy? Why do they not have the motivation to get up in the morning to deal with their problems? The root of all these problems lies in childhood.
This answer appears surprising to many people, though. Most people tend to assume the reason why they feel uncontrollably sad, angry, or guilty is because of the situation or person immediately facing them. In fact, they often think it is all to do with the person or problem facing them and not anything to do with their childhood at all. The other person or the situation is making them feel sad, making them feel angry, and making them feel guilty (See “Who Makes You Feel?”). They are helpless puppets responding to the behaviour of people and situations around them. The idea that their now long distant childhood had something to do with it is actually far from their minds, if it is even something they are aware of as being a factor in their present unhappiness.
How do events that happened to them so long ago continue to affect them? Continue reading →