Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

Don't Medicalize the Ups and Downs of Being Alive

Emotional distress is part of the human experience, but today's culture suggests that "the system" should relieve your distress for you. It's not surprising that so many people are expecting something they're not getting. That is not a crisis. People have been responsible for their emotional self-management since the beginning of time. Read More

A picture that explains the

I was going to make a

I was going to make a spirited counter-argument to OP's points, but screw it, that illustration is enough.

Great graphic

Yes, movies build unrealistic expectations. So what's the action item? Get mad at movies? Get mad at life? Call it a crisis? Take a pill?
No, it's taking charge of one's own expectations and developing them by choosing alternative inputs. I do this by reading/watching a lot of biography. It shows me how hard life is and has always been, even for people we think of as accomplished or famous.

The unrealistic expectations

The unrealistic expectations we have are pretty standard outside of movies too. Namely we assume our lives will get better with time, that we will live better than our parents, we will overcome any adversity that crops up, we will die after a long life fully-lived, etc. The reality is, of course, our lives are mostly just a bunch of random stuff that happens. The greater reality is there no guarantees to the point that our lives won't necessarily get better with time, that Baby Boomers were probably the luckiest generation, some adversity will crop up that will ruin our lives, and we will die scratching our head wondering what the whole point of life was anyway.

Unclear about your claims

Hi Loretta,
Thanks for responding to my post, but I am not certain if I get the point of your blog. In regards to my article, are you challenging the claim that the mental health of college students has deteriorated? If you doubt the data I presented, then by all means spell out why. I am happy to add a caveat that some people think the whole idea that depression/anxiety/stress are increasing is wrong. There is so much data suggesting it, I would be very curious if some one could develop a cogent article debunking it. I am open to that, but did not see that at all in your post. So do you agree or not agree with all the data suggesting increases in stress/depression/anxiety?
I did see a point in your post suggesting that I was "medicalizing" the issue. I don't know what that means (it can mean lots of different things) and would like to get clear about it. The way I would mean it is that the CSMHC is a significant social health issue. If you don't agree with that, then please say why.
You do make the point that in some ways we are better off. Life is more safe, we have more stuff. Definitely some truth to that. Which to me is all the more reason to wonder why we are increasingly stressed/unhappy. Do you agree with that?
You also seem to say that I thought people should be happy all the time and if people aren't happy, then the system should fix it. Did I read that correctly? If so, I think you should go back and read my article. I did not say anything of the sort. And, for the record, I don't think that "the system" should relieve people's distress. In the article I identified the disease/pill model of mental illness and over-indulgent parenting as likely being part of the cause. When we get into a post on solutions, I will comment how many believe it is up to people to understand their character, understand what threats are real and what threats of phantom and learn how to cope effectively (i.e., develop resiliency skills). I, for one, am not advocating "therapy for all". Bottom line is I don't know what you are claiming regarding my article.

One last point. I am not a huge fan of telling people that it is "their brain" that wants things or that it causes them to do things. When you say that, what mind/brain philosophy are you operating from? If my "brain always wants more", does that mean I always want more, or is there a different part of my mind that should be aware that my brain always wants more? If, so, isn't that my brain deciding that my brain always wants more? So, sometimes your brain knows your brain always wants more? That starts making very little sense. Bottom line is I think you have a reductionistic problem in your mind/brain philosophy.


brief thoughts

Hi Gregg,
You are clearly a person of good will trying to help, and I have no intention at all of criticizing you. I'm questioning the presuppositions behind your "data."
1. If everyone gets the idea that they should feel good all the time, they may feel they are falling short. If you count the number of people who feel this way, you can construct a crisis.
2. If more young people report distress, you presume it's because life is harder. You overlook the way an easier life can be the cause. In the past, children were raised with extremely strict discipline. It was unpleasant, but it prepared people to survive. Today, children are taught that they should only do what feels good. Nothing feels good all the time, so they do nothing. In the past, you couldn't get sex unless you made something of yourself. It got people off the couch. Now you get it so easily that you don't build the habit of focus in your earlier years. In the past you would be homeless if you didn't take care of business. Now you can stay with your parents until you get your "big break." If you don't get it, you may perceive it as a crisis, but that doesn't mean there really is a crisis.
3. Mirror neurons multiply depressive behavior. For example, suicides can't be reported because a rush of suicides result. You would think suicides must have a very good reason rather than mirroring someone else, but mirror neurons have great power in how we express the frustration of being alive.
4. Depression gets rewarded. There are social rewards to identifying as depressed, and there are social rewards for professionals who define problems as depression.

A person in the "helping" professions is not really free to question the shared assumptions. You would be condemned as "unprofessional." So I am not expecting to debate you in a right/wrong fashion. I honor the fact that you are contributing in your way and I am doing what seems true to me.

Still confused

Hi Loretta,
I am not interested in a right/wrong debate, but I will share that I remain confused by your arguments. Sometimes you seem to be saying that the crisis is not real, that mental health professionals are creating the illusion of a crisis, and that in “reality” everything is fine. Then you seem to be saying that people are much more miserable than they ought to be given their situation, and that their misery is caused by their faulty perceptions (e.g., they should be happy all the time), and the ease with which life’s resources are handed them (i.e., rewards with no effort).
These two positions are very different and have very different implications. To make the first argument, one would need to show that there is serious measurement flaws associated with the many indicators of deteriorating mental health. That is, you would need to show that even though folks are scoring in the elevated range on anxiety and depression, that is not really representative of how they feel or how they actually are functioning. In actual fact, they are happy and have high levels of well-being, but simply are responding to the stimulus questions in a way that is different that the intent of the instrument—and may be different than the way people responded in the past. Indeed, you could start to make this case by looking at the well-being literature…interestingly, people’s well-being/life satisfaction score have NOT changed all that much over the same time period. In short, we could call this the “mental illness measurement error argument”, which is the argument that the all the trend lines are not pointing to something that is real, but is an unfortunate artifact of other forces.
The second argument is a completely different argument. It says that many people are indeed not doing well emotionally. The reason for this is that they are neurotic. Neurotic is when people have irrational/maladaptive reactions to the actual situation, which results in problematic cycles—the consequence is that they are suffering excessively. This perspective is that people SHOULD be doing well emotionally, given all the stuff they have and how easy they have it. (A traditional cognitive therapy view basically makes this case). When you are making this argument, you seem to be saying that people are suffering and it is because people don’t understand their emotional natures and naively believe they should be happy all the time and they don’t learn effective coping strategies. This is ‘the situation is fine but many people are emotionally neurotic argument’.
I actually think there is some validity to both of these positions, although they are very different in nature. My problem with your blog and reply is I think there is a lack of distinction between these two very different positions and I think that creates some confusion in the exchange.
I definitely am not a big fan of the disease model of mental illness. See my blogs on this topic (here is just one:

My final point is that I feel very free as a mental health professional to question assumptions and wonder about all these issues. Indeed, I feel a professional obligation to do just that.

quantifying human emotions

The two options you pose are not separate insofar as statisticians and individuals interpret the inevitable frustrations of being a mortal in the same way. My explanation grew too long for a comment, so I decided to post it as a blog, here:

Sigmund Shrugged

Freud (“Studies on Hysteria”) famously told a patient that much was to be gained by converting “misery into common unhappiness.” Among his many currently unfashionable statements, it is one of the more sensible. His own cleverness probably made him happy -- for a while.


" People have taken responsiblity for managing their emotional experience throughout human history. People built skills for emotional self-management, and institutions that encourage those skills."

Indeed. I have seen quite a few of these skills at work in my family:
- sexual abuse of children
- psychological abuse of everyone
- denial that anything anywhere is wrong
- substance abuse
- etc...

My family and the culture it originates from, are absolutely nothing out of the ordinary: farmers in small villages in rural areas. The "emotional management skills" they've developed are also absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Abuse between adults, abuse heaped on children by adults, children growing up to repeat the cycle of abuse on their own children, miserable depression and suicides: this has been the way people have been living forever.

Some people have come forward in the last few decades, and said, "Uh, this stuff ain't okay. We gotta learn to do better than that."

And then you come around, and argue that we've always managed just fine.

This would be hilarious if it weren't about something so tragic.

my roots are distressed as well

I'm not saying people did just fine; I'm saying
1. things are not worse today, they're better
2. people kept functioning despite their distress - we don't help people by suggesting their distress entitles them to opt out of the stresses of life.
I agree that we're doing a good thing by saying "We gotta learn to do better." My concern is that we're saying "you have a disease; you can't do better."

Sweeping statements.

"1. things are not worse today, they're better"

No, they aren't. Some things are much better, but some other things are much worse, such as:
- pollution of everything in the environment (air, water, etc...) with the inevitable consequences this has on physical and mental health
- unnatural foods leading to all kinds of metabolic disorders
- too many people in too little place
- having a job has become a privilege instead of the normal way of life
- having an entire career in a single job area is becoming exceptional, with all the psychological stress that such an instability provides
- loss of group support (family, extended family, village, religious congreagation) as people move hundreds or thousands of miles away to find a job
- and so forth and so on.

Overall, I'd argue that no, we're not doing any better. We've only exchanged our previous problems for new ones.

"2. people kept functioning despite their distress"

No, they didn't. By definition, someone who turns to dysfunctional coping mechanisms such as abusing people or substances is NOT functional.

"we don't help people by suggesting their distress entitles them to opt out of the stresses of life."

The only way to do that would be suicide. I highly doubt anyone has suggested distressed people just commit suicide. So what are you talking about exactly?

"My concern is that we're saying "you have a disease; you can't do better.""

Sometimes this IS the right message, and it IS a relief to hear it. Being told that my depressed brain was simply malfunctioning just like my diabetic father-in-law's pancreas was, and that I didn't have to make myself feel better through personal willpower any more than my father-in-law was expected to regulate his blood sugar levels through willpower, was RIGHT and GOOD. Yes, I was told I had a disease, and that I couldn't do any better on my own. But it was TRUE, so what's the problem with saying it? And most importantly, it directly led to a tremendous bettering of my life, after I failed to lift myself out of my misery on my own for nearly 20 years. So yeah, I WAS sick, and it was good when I finally got treated for it.

Sounds like....

This article and the one it references are really not taking into account that technology and fast paced learning are stressing out the multiple generations that are using it in areas that we used to be manual. Our nervous systems are on overload. We don't get enough downtime to recover, especially for those deeply affected by the ec onomic recovery and are working ot.Stress nation is an actual place now. We are forced to compete in so may areas off our lives, even now in what should be private like our own happiness or being contented. Just looks like you want to "blame/shame" others into your version of happiness to sell your professional value, like so many haphazard life coaches. Solve the problems and the symptoms disappear.

I agree with this point.

The influence of technology has brought a lot of unhappiness with it. People are so wired now, and it's only been for the last twenty or so years of human existence. We haven't had anywhere near the amount of time it takes to catch up with it, yet people are surrounded and absorbed by technology up to 10 or 12 hours per day. I see a way out, that worked for me and my wife. We have no smart phone. Not even a cell phone. And we disconnected our TV 3 years ago. It has been wonderful for both of us. We are so free to do more relaxing things. She (my wife) is a writer, and I am a big reader. We also did invest in the technology of really upgrading our stereo component system. We listen to a lot of music. But I can't tell you how great it has been to be free of that big viewing machine in the middle of the family room. Glenn

We are spoiled

At least in America and many other developed nations. The spoiled baby boom generation created a culture of whiners. They didn't have to work hard or struggle and they experienced more available recreational time, good health and education than ever before throughout history. Yet they complain that things aren't fair, and that their "pains", that they now have way too much time to focus on and explore and blow out of proportion, must be acknowledged, accepted and given deference by society. The saddest part is how much influence people today allow these distresses to have in their lives. Toughen up America!

Baby Boomers

Baby Boomers in Europe had it HARD. They were born to and raised by parents traumatised by the War. They were born and had to grow up during times of food rationing. They had to grow up in ravaged countries rebuilding themselves. They grew up under the constant fear of a nuclear attack (and their American counterparts perhaps even more so). None of this spells "spoiled" to me.

My apologies

I didn't even realize the generation after WWII in Europe was in fact referred to commonly as baby boomers. Thanks for the info. Interesting.

Still, if you take note, I said that developed countries have it easy. I then went on to talk about baby boomers specifically and end with addressing America, which I believe should make it clear that my commentary about baby boomers was in reference to Americans. I didn't say toughen up baby boomers or Europeans. But if it was unclear, I apologize.

Admittedly, more times than not, I don't take the time to carefully express my opinions on blogs. It is more of a relaxing pastime for me and I don't take the care perhaps that I should.

But I digress. Post war economic recovery in Europe, thanks in part to the billions of $ injected by Americans, was actually quite fast. The economy of Europe in the 1950s was pretty strong in many countries, including France, Italy and West Germany.

I am not discounting their suffering. Still, they had better living conditions in Europe 60 years ago than much of the world has even still today. Over the last 60 years or so in fact, Western Europe in general has been a fairly comfortable place to reside, no?

While watching the Olympics I found myself thinking often of the people of North Korea. Can you imagine the sufferings of those people? Now that is emotional distress that has to be self managed. Ours pale in comparison.

It's okay.

The Post-WWII Baby Boom was an international event. It happened in many countries, though not exactly at the same time nor for the same length of time everywhere. Everyone who was born during their country's respective Baby Boom is technically a Baby Boomer (which apparently means that both my mother and myself - but not my sister - are Baby Boomers :P )

"they had better living conditions in Europe 60 years ago than much of the world has even still today. Over the last 60 years or so in fact, Western Europe in general has been a fairly comfortable place to reside, no? "

I'm not disputing this. I was disputing the idea that all Baby Boomers had been "spoiled". Early Baby Boomers in France grew up in the best time ever to live in France (it's not called the "Glorious 30" for nothing :P ), but as I said, they still experienced food restriction as children, they were raised by traumatised parents, and they witnessed the remnants of the war devastation all around them. These experiences have stayed with many of them. To this day, many of them can still recount how their parents had to fight to get enough milk for the new baby, or how their mothers would trade everything they could to get some extra meat for their factory-working husband. These people lived through an unparalleled time of economic expansion, yes, but they never forgot the Hell-hole they had been born into. This doesn't fit the definition of "spoiled", to me.

"While watching the Olympics I found myself thinking often of the people of North Korea. Can you imagine the sufferings of those people? Now that is emotional distress that has to be self managed. Ours pale in comparison."

Things don't work that way. This is like saying that the child next door shouldn't complain because she's only getting beaten once a week, when there's another kid next street who gets raped twice a week. When someone is truly not mentally well, it only makes things worse to point out that someone else has it worse, because now not only do they still feel bad (since their issue hasn't been solved), but they also feel guilty for feeling bad on top of it!

Are there people who are just over-dramatising their perfectly normal feelings? Yeah, sure. But there are also people who truly don't feel well, and telling them to toughen up is only going to make things worse. Help them to heal first, and then they'll be strong enough to go help North Korea.

I know

But things can work that way. That is the point. I grew up in a terribly abusive situation. My "father" thought it was gaming to play catch his son and burn him with cigarettes. That is just a small part of my experience. But I am happy it happened here in a western country, where I could take the bull of life by the horns and change my circumstances, even though I grew up "poor", at least what is considered as poor in America, and uneducated. Doing that in a lot of other places is a lot less likely.

Everyone has troubles. People need to stop focusing on their own troubles. Yes, I didn't have it very good from some perspectives, but it could have been worse. I guess I try to look at the good I have in my life rather than focus on the not so good.

People in America gripe about the most inane stuff. I am not saying there isn't legitimate true suffering. Of course there is. But in the western world, the pendulum has swung so far to the side of a "woe is me" mentality, we have become victims of of our own self pity. We make excuse after excuse about why we aren't happy. How to be happy has become an entire industry worth billions. In modern America, really? That is sad.

If you live in a Western culture today, you are for the most part free, you live with some relative comfort and have opportunity to better your life and if you can't be happy with that, which is a whole hell of a lot in comparison to many alive today in the world and to most from the past, well then I guess go join the prozac and/or xanax line. But that is crazy talk. There won't be a line. Big pharma and the psychiatry industry have made sure of that.

Yes and no.

"People need to stop focusing on their own troubles."

Yes and no. It entirely depends on what the troubles are. Telling someone who has a blister on their foot that they can keep walking the few hundreds meters it takes to go home is fine. Telling someone who has a broken leg that they are fine and can keep going on like that, is not.

"I guess I try to look at the good I have in my life rather than focus on the not so good. "

Do you think I didn't try that too? I did, throughout the 20 years I spent being deeply suicidal (starting at 13). I kept telling myself it wasn't so bad, that others had it worse, and so on. Did it make me any less suicidal? Nope. Did it make things worse? Oh yeah! As I kept ignoring the things which had broken my mind in the first place, and which were still beating my psyche down every single day, the stress on my body and mind just kept growing, until my body turned on itself with multiple cases of auto-immune disorders. So now, on top of still having a broken brain, I also have a broken body.

In short: when something is broken, there's no point denying it and pretending it's fine. It's much more productive to fix it.

"But in the western world, the pendulum has swung so far to the side of a "woe is me" mentality, we have become victims of of our own self pity. We make excuse after excuse about why we aren't happy. How to be happy has become an entire industry worth billions. In modern America, really? That is sad. "

The problem is not so much that people are not happy. The problem is that we've been taught that we SHOULD be happy. There it is, that thing which distinguishes the modern Western world from the rest of the world and every culture in the past: the belief that people should be happy as a normal state of being. Every culture everywhere has always known that "Life sucks and then you die", that life was mostly about enduring all the bad stuff and rejoicing in the episodic good stuff. But now, in our modern Western world, we've got this idea that the episodic good stuff should happen all the time, and that the bad stuff should become episodic. I don't know how this happened, but it's only logical that as a consequence, people feel frustrated because they are still, as human beings have always been, mostly unhappy.

"I guess go join the prozac and/or xanax line"

Already done, except it's Effexor instead of Prozac. And no, they don't make me happy; they just stop my broken brain from going all suicidal on me again.

Yes and no, but of course, specifically

If I offended you that was not my intention. You seem to me at least to be making what I am saying as a general observation as to our culture overall personally.

And I never said people shouldn't address real troubles. It seems that yours are such and you should get help. Thanks god you live where you have access to such, since it could be much worse. if you had lived in North Korea you would probably be dead, or in some concentration camp being tortured daily for your troubles. Rejoice!

I don't think you are understanding what I am opining about. I am referring to the culture as a whole that makes everything a problem. Are you going to argue that it doesn't? You can't deny it is everywhere. Unhappy in your job, take a pill, unhappy with your spouse, take a pill, unhappy with the fact mommy (who you had) didn't hug you enough, take a pill, boss is a jerk (again meaning you have a job), take some more pills. I think the vast majority of people, that psychiatrists are making a mint on shoving prescriptions on them they don't need, thanks to the culture the baby boomers had a large part in creating - that everyone should have everything everyone else has - need to realize that the word "fair" is overused in our culture.

The natural world is not fair. They need to realize this, ignore the utopia bs propaganda promulgated by a large portion of the boomers (now don't blow this out of proportion too - I didn't say all or even half - but undeniably, if you are honest, indeed many - are guilty of such), and focus on that which they do have. They are here, they have life, at a time in history when there has more opportunity and reason to be happy and to enjoy life more than ever before.

Anyway, I have much work to attend to, so I bid you adieu. To your happy life, n'est-ce pas?

Why Not Both?

What about a view that reconciles Loretta and Gregg's viewpoints? I agree with Gregg that students today are a lot more stressed in every facet of their lives, and that some dysfunctional aspects of North American society (rising economic inequality, less stable employment, distrust of institutions etc.) are contributing to that. However, I also agree with Loretta's view that emotional distress is part of life and that we can't expect society to solve all our problems (or to treat every negative emotion as though it's a "disease").

Why not recognize that some aspects of today's society are dysfunctional and that they induce increased stress, and that there needs to be a balance between trying to change society and managing one's own emotions to cope with that stress? Sometimes emotional stress arises just because those are normal ups and downs of life, sometimes it's an indication of a more systematic trend, and sometimes it's a little of both.

Both actions (recognizing societal dysfunction and taking responsibility for oneself) are necessary if people want to develop their own emotional regulation abilities and if we collectively want to address some of the aspects of today's society that systematically increase stress.

The way I see it, today's society is dysfunctional but that's not an excuse for me to blame that any time I feel overwhelmed and then demand reparation from society. It's just another factor that I have to account for in how I plan my life and view the world, and then hopefully contribute to changing some of that dysfunction in an informed manner.

If you invest your energy

If you invest your energy into finding fault with society, you focus your attention on seeing the bad in the world. Then you feel bad. You believe that bad was imposed on you and don't see how you created it and you made a choice. The reason you focus on the bad is because your college professors say this is the way to be a good person. So you are doing it for yourself, for a sense of intelligence and social acceptance. It's useful to become aware of the choices you make to meet the expectations of others. College professors believe their expectations are for the greater good, and overlook the choices they are making to promote their careers.

You probably didn't mean it that way...

... but this makes it sound like you're suggesting we simply ignore the bad in the world in order to make ourselves feel good O.o

I'm with Anony-mouse: we should look at both sides of the issue, in order to help both ourselves and society get better.

but are you focusing on the bad in the world to make yourself feel good?

Do you know what I mean?
Let's say you're a kid and your brother steals a cookie. You can focus on that, and it may make you feel important. But you can inadvertently build the habit of needing to find fault with your brother in order to feel good about yourself.

Here's another example. Your co-workers get together and talk about the news and get irate about what "those evil politicians" are doing. You know they expect you to agree with them and you want to be accepted and it feels sort of good to find fault with people you perceive as more powerful. So you get angry at the politicians too. Fast forward 30 years, these people will still be grousing about politicians. Is that where you want to be?

If you see something wrong with the world that you can do something about, do it. But often when you try to do something you realize that the problem was more complex than you thought. All this irate criticizing of the world pretends to be concern for others but it's often just venting fear and a quest for personal security. You are constantly deciding where to focus. You don't have to focus on "being outraged" just because your teachers promote that as the respectable thing.

I really don't understand how you think.

"Let's say you're a kid and your brother steals a cookie. You can focus on that, and it may make you feel important."

How is that supposed to work, exactly? If my brother steals a cookie, it doesn't say anything about me. Now, if my brother systematically gets away with it when he steals a cookie, then it starts saying something about my parents. And if I on the other hand systematically get punished when I steal a cookie, then it most definitely says something about my place in the family dynamics. It still doesn't say anything about me personally, but there are a few lessons about survival for me to be learned in all this.

"Your co-workers get together and talk about the news and get irate about what "those evil politicians" are doing. You know they expect you to agree with them and you want to be accepted and it feels sort of good to find fault with people you perceive as more powerful. So you get angry at the politicians too."

Er, no? I'll get angry if I agree that whatever the politicians did this time is indeed evil. If I disagree with that opinion, then I won't get angry just to get along with whoever. I might also point out that while we are all conveniently focusing on that one "evil" thing the politicians did, we are missing that other and much more problematic thing they are trying to do behind our backs while we're not looking. And so on.

"But often when you try to do something you realize that the problem was more complex than you thought."

So? Just because it's complex doesn't mean I can't get angry at it. By being angry at a complex problem, I can make tiny changes here and there: I can join a local association working on it locally, or I can interrupt a few interactions around me which are based on this problem and encourage people to find better ways, or even I can just vote for people who offer to take a small step to help solve that problem locally. Just because it's a big and complex problem doesn't mean there's absolutely nothing I can do about it.

"All this irate criticizing of the world pretends to be concern for others but it's often just venting fear and a quest for personal security."

Why should it have to be either/or? It can easily be both. I can be concerned for the fate of a category of people I belong to in other places, while also looking for more security for myself here.
Also: I can be concerned about the fate of people I share nothing with, just because they are people in suffering and so I have compassion for them. Being concerned won't make me any safer because I'm not in the kind of danger they face in the first place, yet I can certainly feel concern for them!

"You don't have to focus on "being outraged" just because your teachers promote that as the respectable thing."

In my experience with college students, they are actually LESS likely to embrace a cause if their teachers tell them they should. Teachers are typically viewed by their young adult students as old, corrupt, hopeless selfish, and out of touch with "what's really important" (whether it be the environment, the suffering of various categories of people in various places of the world, or whatever else).

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Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is the author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute.


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