Mental struggles: Very Human Stuff

What if anticipating mental hiccups could help us move forward?

De-stigmatizing mental health issues is an incredible, worthy goal, and this post is absolutely far from the first to address this. In practice, it can be helpful to remind ourselves that tending and taking care of our mental health can really feel no different than making sure we’ve had enough water or figuring out a way to ensure we’re getting the appropriate amount of physical movement throughout the day.

Yet — for many, and in spite of calls to normalize discussing our individual struggles with mental health, openness and acceptance of our trickier psychological characteristics seems elusive. Instagram tells us that we may benefit from sharing our struggles and our friends might talk openly about theirs, but there exists another option, exercised by many, many well-meaning folks: pretending we’re fine (really!).

If you’re not swayed by the cultural push for openness, or it feels like it would be incredibly difficult to reach out and let someone know you’re struggling because You Are Not Supposed to Struggle, this post is for you, and its thesis is this: Many psychological difficulties or struggles are nothing more — or less — than somewhat predictable, unintended, and uncomfortable outcomes of regular, everyday human psychological processes.

This is admittedly a mixed bag of news, though. On the one hand, it might feel helpful to realize that sorting out many of our mental struggles may be a matter of finding systems or processes whose outcomes aren’t working to our benefit any longer and gently guiding them back into places that feel more workable. On the other hand, normalizing mental struggles in light of their remarkably human origins suggests that Nobody Escapes Mental Struggles (or, at the very least, nobody escapes the underlying processes that contribute to them). Basically, if you’ve got a brain, you can be sure that it’ll give you a bit of trouble. This can feel a bit off-putting, at first, but it needn’t stay that way for long.

If you’re struggling, there is good reason to embrace the fact that nothing is terribly wrong with you as a Real Human Person. There isn’t anything to be cut away or exorcized, nothing dark and deep and terribly unhuman to remove or disown or hide away. If we think of our brain and our psychological processes in this light, we can draw a fair comparison to other body parts we treat with traditional medicine, as many other authors have done. Almost nobody cuts their arm off when their joints get a little achy, and nobody stops to pause before telling a friend that their joints ache, pretending instead that this weren’t the simple nature of joints from time to time. Mental health issues — and many of the struggles we each face — might not be that different, really.

Take an analogical look at this through cars, for example. What we call a “car” is a collection of parts and systems and characteristics that work together in specific, specialized, and somewhat unique ways to produce the anticipated and presumably desired outcome: effective performance. However, anyone who’s owned a car can attest to the fact that cars don’t always produce this outcome, and most of us readily accept — tacitly, perhaps, in the way we do with more mundane yet annoying truths — that the cars we rely on will develop small issues throughout the time we have them.

Yet, we don’t stop buying cars. We don’t send our cars to the junkyard when the window squeaks from time to time, and we certainly don’t hide them away from others on account of the odd noise emanating from the engine on startup. We simply accept, peacefully, that cars will give us some hiccups down the road. When they do, most of us don’t throw them away; we (or someone who has more experience with cars) dig around their parts, singling out the ones whose patterns or functions have shifted off course from where they’d most ideally be. Then, we act to bring those parts back to where they might need to be for us to get back to the serious business of “keeping up with traffic.”

Yeah, I know. It’s not that easy to fix a car. The purists will insist that this car is different from that car and so on and so forth, and they’re not wrong — there are surely differences between cars, just as there are unique differences between people and the way they think, feel, and act. From a distant view, though, aren’t these differences fairly minor? This car’s tires might be different from that car’s tires in so many small ways and yet both cars run on tires, and tires share many of same potential strengths and weaknesses. All cars pretty much have windows, seats, and a motor of some kind, built from many parts specific to the car but sharing basic functions regardless of the brand or model. An Audi’s electronics system may be different from the electronics in a Honda, for sure — but they both make use of electricity and involve wires and circuit boards and fuses and…you get the picture.

And yet we don’t often approach our individual psychology like we would our Toyota Tacoma. Maybe a great deal of the resistance we encounter in facing our own struggles head-on arrives as a result of this disconnect. Here it might make sense to ask ourselves: What would happen if we were to accept that human psychology is a little bit like a car in this way?

A wide swath of the humanities and psychological science backs the suggestion that most humans want, on some level, something from our lives — and under ideal conditions we’re generally expending energy towards securing whatever that is. This is our ideal outcome — effective performance (whatever that means for us, individually). In order to do this, we need our psychology to function in ways that support our efforts towards this end — and, really what we’re asking is that all of the little parts and systems in the brain work together to allow us to live our human lives in the particular ways we each want to live them. We make the same request of the parts of our vehicles — but unlike the latitude we afford our timing belts and volume knobs, we expect our brain to never fail, or wear down, or develop glitches, or give us trouble. This is to our detriment.

Not sold? I get it — metaphors only get us so far, after all. Let’s dive into a very common, very understandable hiccup that our brains can throw our way: the experience of anxiety. When I work with clients who feel anxious, I often hear a wish to “get rid of anxiety,” with bonus points if I can make sure this Never Shows Up Again. But, here’s the thing: I probably can’t do this — and I’m not sure we’d want to.

Anxiety, as an emotionally functional process, exists to alert us to dangers in our environments and prepare us to act in response to that danger. If I wake up at night, and there is a cheetah roaming my kitchen, I want to feel anxious there. I want my muscles to prime themselves for quick movement, I want my heart rate to increase so that I can feed those muscles, and I want my breathing to speed up so that I can properly oxygenate my blood in preparation for me to find a way to protect myself, and my family, from becoming the midnight snack of this large cat’s dreams. Feeling this anxiety, and the corresponding attentional and physiological changes associated with it, literally keeps me alive. Without it, I might approach this large cat like I would my own, smaller cat — ready to feel its soft fur, delight in its large paws, and kiss its nose. Without anxiety alerting me that This Large Cat is not likely to enjoy my companionship as much as The Smaller Cat, I’m suddenly the main player in an absolute catastrophe. Pun intended.

This is not to say that anxiety is comfortable, and it is not to say that this normative human process only functions in ways that benefit us. This system, for all sorts of different reasons, can wear down, or rev higher than we’re comfortable with. A great deal of anxiety present when our lives are not threatened can interrupt our ability to socialize, complete our work, get out of bed, and so on. An absolute lack of anxiety can likewise be a problem, given the well-documented phenomenon in which mental performance tends to increase alongside anxiety up to a certain point (check out the Yerkes-Dodson Law!). Basically, if the ways we experience the feeling of anxiety are giving us trouble in either direction, our capacity to perform effectively can be reduced.

Despite the ways in which anxiety can certainly give us trouble, let’s not throw it away, or feel awful for having it in the first place. It’s a part of us — just like any other part of us, or any part of a car — that can change in ways we’d prefer it not to, and derail our best laid plans. Just like our cars, we can learn to expect that the psychological systems that make us human will come with their understandable hiccups and that this is simply part of the nature of being human in the same way that hiccups over time are just part of the nature of the cars we drive. There’s little shame in taking your car to a mechanic, and we don’t anticipate that the mechanic will see the struggle and claim that this vehicle is somehow less a vehicle for having that specific problem. Therapists operate in much the same way, if you’re open to metaphorically bringing your car in when it gives you trouble.

So, yes — let’s destigmatize the entire concept of psychological struggle. Let’s keep talking about it, and let’s keep encouraging others to do so as well. Let’s also, if it feels right to you, consider for a moment how absolutely and inherently human it is to experience psychological trickiness as we go about our lives, just as it’s absolutely and inherently normal for the parts of our cars to give us a bit of trouble from time to time.

These hiccups might just represent a part of us — a normal, natural, human part of us — that needs some attention, or some work, or some input, so that the part can once again contribute to the whole of our endeavors in ways more likely to help us perform effectively. We don’t get back to where we’d like to be by removing the parts or ignoring their rumblings completely — and we’re not doing ourselves any favors by treating our struggles as some sort of alien invader (though they can certainly feel that way).

We get back to effective performance much more quickly by seeing our struggles for what they are: wear and tear inherent to the parts from which every single human being on earth is built, nearly impossible to avoid completely, and not at all indicative that the sum of the parts is completely broken and not worthy of further attention.

If you’re finding it hard to accept your struggles, that makes total sense — nobody plans on things going awry, and living in fear of this eventuality just adds another layer of difficulty. When you are struggling, though, it may be helpful to remind yourself that this is Purely Human Stuff — we’re all built similarly, and we all share the capacity for struggle.

It’s for this exact reason that therapists are here, for you, when you’re ready to figure it out together and get back on the road. As fellow humans, we’ve been expecting you because — after all — this is all to be expected.

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David Kyle Bond, PhD

David Kyle Bond, PhD

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Licensed psychologist with a background in positive developmental psychology, working to de-mystify the trickier aspects of our thoughts and feelings.