Today, I am going to explore my model of how functional psychological trauma leads to mental illness.
Briefly, my model treats functional psychological trauma as analogous to physical trauma, and posits that the psyche reacts to traumatic events by producing a kind of numbing effect that suppresses the pain of the trauma much like an anesthetic. In the case of relatively minor traumas, the numbing effect fades as the injury is healed and eventually the psyche returns to normal functioning, leaving behind nothing but a little bit of psychic scar tissue.
But with major traumas, the mind cannot heal itself on its own. Left untreated, the psychological injury continues to produce the numbing effect, and severely dulls the injured person’s ability to feel emotional input from the world, and thus numbness makes the injured person numb, clumsy, and out of sync with the world. This can and often does lead to more psychological trauma as the person finds themselves unable to cope with the world without understanding why.
In that way, it is analogous to a person with paralyzed legs who can’t figure out why they have so much trouble walking, and blames it on their own personal inadequacies instead of simply being injured.
The numbing effect also leaves the person emotionally isolated. Regardless of how much love and support there might be in their environment, they can’t feel it, and therefore they, perhaps erroneously,conclude that it must not be there. That those who claim to love them are not sincere, that people who say they will be there for them won’t be, and that people in general view them with contempt.
After all, if people truly loved them and respected them, they would feel it, right?
Alas, no. The numbing effect is blocking those signals. And it is the nature of the human mind to deny the truth of that which does not feel true, regardless of evidence, even in the highly intelligent.
For an extreme case of this phenomenon, I refer the reader to Capras syndrome, a condition in which the part of the brain that associates emotions with individuals is not working, forcing the individual to conclude that everyone they know, from the mailman to their closest loves ones, has been replaced with an exact replica.
That’s the only way their lack of emotional response to their loved ones can make sense to them. The truth, that these are the same people as always and the lack of emotional response to them is on the part of the Capgras patient, is simply too big and too painful for the individual to bear.
But I digress.
Over time, the emotional isolation caused by the numbing effect of the untreated and unhealable trauma causes a kind of emotional starvation to set in. The human mind requires a great deal of emotional input from others in order to remain healthy and functional, and the wounded person is receiving far too little.
This further damages the wounded psyche, and over time, it makes the wounded individual less and less functional, and the feeling of emptiness caused by the emotional starvation grows more and more intense.
This manifests itself in many different ways. In one person, it might express itself as depression, as the emotionally isolated mind turns inwards. In another, it might express itself as anxiety, as the wounded mind recognizes on some level that during an adrenal response from anxiety, the pain of its wounded state temporarily abates. Similarly, another person might seek that same adrenal response from anger. In still another person, it may be the self-soothing capacities of repetitive behaviours that lead to obsessive compulsions that soothes the wound.
But in all cases, the cause is the same : a wound the mind cannot heal on its own causing the mind to produce a numbing effect that never ends.
The most important effect of this is anhedonia. This lack of pleasure translates into a lack of activation in the reward center of the brain, and the reward center of the brain is the root source of all motivation. In the end, all we do in life is seek to activate our reward centers. When that is not happening often enough, the brain goes into reward starvation mode, and the person becomes extremely conservative about what they choose to do. Only the activities with the highest reward for the least effort – in other words, the most reward-efficient – will be done because the demand for reward is so high and hard to meet that the individual is unwilling to take any risk, however remote, that an effort might not receive sufficient reward. To this individual, that would be unthinkable.
Someone who is starving will choose burgers now over steak later every single time.
Thus, all these wounded minds will self-medicate along the lines of whatever provides the person the most efficient and reliable source of reward. And once the pattern of reward is established, it is very hard for any other pattern to established itself, no matter how superior that pattern may be in the long run.
So whether it’s overeating, alcoholism, compulsive behaviours, or just plain being mad all the time, the individual will stick to that pattern until the source of the problem is dealt with.
Currently, we favor a combination of drugs to deal with the symptoms and therapy to deal with the root causes in the modern world. And that is effective in the long term. But due to the problems described above, long term solutions will not be as efficacious as more immediate measures.
Ideally, future drug therapies will focus in directly on the problem of the numbing effect, as that will provide the most effective relief of symptoms. In a sense, it could render the person biochemically sane, which is not exactly a cure (the wound persists) but would surely allow the healing process to proceed at maximum speed, and with the least suffering for the patient.
Thus ends today’s exploration of my theory of functional (as opposed to structural) mental illness.
I will talk to you nice people again tomorrow.