If I don’t 'have' depression or 'suffer from' anxiety, what is going on in my brain?
Updated: Jul 18
Our brains are awesome. They create things and help us be serious and funny and flirty and sad. We’ve all got one, and it wants to look after us. But so often we fight with them and resent them like an annoying sibling. We starve them of what they need and ignore the messages they leave for us, until they Just. Can’t. Take It. Any. Longer.
It’s all in your head
Most brains function within a range of pretty good to really good. Some don’t. But before you tell yourself that your brain doesn’t, hear me out.*
The core function of the brain is to help us survive. To do this, it takes in information and experiences, and makes sense of these by creating patterns and expectations. The information it receives shapes the brain. The wiring connections within the brain generally grow based on what is stimulated and what is ignored.
A simple illustration of this is something we’ve all experienced after playing a computer game for too long. When we shut it off, our brain continues to play the videos of it and solve imaginary problems in our head. It is expecting that activity to continue so much that it creates it on its own.
Feed me, Seymour
When we are nourished through early experiences of safety, love and consistency, our brain is able to relax and let maximum growth happen. This allows the more complex areas where higher functioning occurs to flourish. If, on the other hand, we have experiences of danger, disregard and inconsistency - particularly from our parents and protectors - our brain learns that the world is unsafe and spends most of its energy trying to keep us safe. It may not have the opportunity to build the higher functions at the usual developmental stages.
These past experiences affect the way we engage with the world today. If we experience early on that we are unloveable, then we sometimes go into relationships with caution or distrust, or maybe even the subconscious goal of proving we are unloveable, by sabotaging ourselves. We often choose partners who recreate familiar experiences; and for some of us, those familiar experiences are of being treated badly.
What is exciting about this, is that our brains are “plastic”. This means that they continue to regenerate and repair across our whole lives, based on our experiences. We may need help to do it, but we can change what the brain is expecting. In doing so, we can change its wiring and the way we experience the world.
To have or not to have?
Many people who have been to a mental health professional have received some diagnosis. But, the function of labels and diagnoses seems to be broadly misunderstood. A mental health label (as our contact point of a diagnosis) is a description of symptoms or behaviours or common responses. It does not indicate a failure of mind or body. A diagnosis may be linked to some biological deficit such as gut microbiome, but in itself, generally does not allude to a biological malfunction. (Exceptions exist, such as dementia). In contrast to this, physical health conditions are diagnosed where there are biological changes that indicate ‘having’ an illness or injury.
Labels of mental health disorders can help us understand how our brain is making sense of the world. For example, those of us labelled with Borderline Personality Disorder might recognise how we crave connection but pull away because we have been hurt in the past. For some of us labelled with schizophrenia, we might recognise how our past experiences have been so difficult that our brain now takes drastic steps to try to protect us. These steps may be to keep everyone at a distance by seeing them as a threat, or it may disorganise our thoughts or distort our realities in other ways.
These labels help us understand our patterns of responses. To oversimplify it, we are not afraid of people and have disorganised thoughts because we have schizophrenia. We may be given the label of schizophrenia (in part) because we are afraid of people and have disorganised thoughts.
The name’s, Adaptive. Mal Adaptive.
If we put our brain’s responses in the context of our early experiences, it often makes sense that they are ‘disorder(ed)’. Our brain responds to the information it has been given. It is adapting, or maladapting to shitty information.
Besides helping us to understand why our brain has adapted in these ways, a diagnosis can also help mental health professionals explore and understand other related adaptations and responses. They might check for self-harming behaviours or recognise that some compulsions are related to other feelings. A diagnosis can help clients understand their potential recovery journey, and the most effective treatment options.
Feel the power
But, the burden of having a diagnosis of a disorder can outweigh the potential benefits. Instead of empowering us to actively participate in our mental healthcare, current practices often disempower us.
Many mental health professionals use a separate lingo to how we speak in our everyday lives. They rarely explain what is happening in our brain, or why these maladaptations may have happened. Instead of being relieved of the burden of our ‘disorders’ by understanding things, we are often piled with diagnoses of multiple co-existing (or co-morbid) ‘disorders’. (And, then we are medicated).
These disorders often become who we are, and not what they can be - recognition of a difficult past and a message that something needs to be addressed in our lives, a message that our brain wants us to work on something so we can feel happier.
Instead of thinking in terms of ‘having’ or ‘suffering from’ mental ‘disorders’, we can tweak our language to ‘feeling’ anxious or depressed, or ‘experiencing’ some depression or anxiety, or just… ‘feeling terrible for way too long’. We can still get the help we need; and hopefully, play a more active role in our own recovery.
These small changes to our language matter, because they remove the burden of having a broken brain. They loosen the grip that our current mental health language has over how we see ourselves. They leave space for these experiences to pass, like emotional experiences do. They prevent us from being defined or worse, defining ourselves by these diagnoses and disorders. These little changes free our future to be whatever we work to create.
For many of us, psychological difficulties aren’t necessarily a sign that our brain isn’t working properly. They may be the opposite. Perhaps, they are our brain yelling at us that something is wrong in our life and needs our attention to make it better. Our brains may be working as they are supposed to - by making sense of our experiences and helping us survive the world. It’s okay that they need help sometimes.
*Mental health is far more complex than this article or our current approach suggests. This article seeks to broaden the discussion and empower those living it.
Dave Anthony is a Registered Music Therapist with almost 20 years of professional experience. He spent 12 years working in intergenerational trauma and currently works in an acute adolescent mental health unit, and for recreativ mind:health.