Tim is a Biologist, working in a clinical setting, who understands how body-brain-mind interactions affect our feelings and behaviors.
Part I - The Unnecessary Stain of Stigma
Certain health disorders manifest through behavior, and those conditions can have a physical cause. In that case, the behaviors associated with them aren’t choices or subject to willpower. Those conditions include anxiety, depression, CFS, obesity and addiction. We should thus reduce the shame and stigma associated with those disorders by changing how we think and talk about them…
The Effects of Stigma and Why It’s So Common
Conditions that manifest through behaviors, such as anxiety, depression, CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome), obesity and addiction, are all laden with stigma. People challenged by those all-too-common disorders are often viewed with contempt and shunned, even by healthcare professionals. Stigma adds to the burden of those disorders and can cause victims to withdraw in shame. Our sociocultural view of ourselves and the medical paradigm arising from that view engenders such reactions and precludes comprehensively addressing emotional and behavioral disorders.
Despite that apparent shortcoming, Western medicine manages physical disorder using specialty fields to treat different organ systems separately. If you have heart-disease, you see a Cardiologist; for lung diseases you see a Pulmonologist; for gut disease, a Gastroenterologist and so on. Western medicine deconstructs people into hierarchically arranged modules that require specialists to manage. It also imposes a top-down, mind-over-matter, psychosomatic orientation on human structure and function.
That deconstruction also separates the body and mind; a conceptual detachment spawned by Cartesian Dualism (Rene Descartes 1596 – 1650), which posits that our minds are immaterial substances distinct from our bodies. The purported immaterial nature of mind has allowed sociocultural influences to establish psychic qualities like reason, choice, and willpower as the primary engines of our thoughts and behaviors.
But those sociocultural influences are also the main source of hurtful stigma. Our society and culture teaches we should use reason to make the right choices and willpower to behave according to the choices we make. Anxiety, depression, obesity, and addictions are thus equated with personal weakness. People challenged by such conditions may be considered cowardly, lazy, impulsive, or hedonistic. They are often disparaged for lacking the “will” to behave appropriately. That disparagement and stigmatization, combined with physical illness and the distress of being sick, can have a devastating impact on a person’s psyche. And that can lead to feelings of failure, self-blame, shame, and hopelessness…
The Reason We Stigmatize People is Wrong
Recent research informs us that Cartesian Dualism’s separation of body and mind is just wrong. That research is based on a more integrated view of human structure and function. It reminds us we have a mind because we have a brain, and the brain is a physical organ connected to every other organ in our bodies by our nervous, circulatory, and immune systems. It further reveals those connections provide for bidirectional communication between our brains and the rest of our bodies, and between the rest of our bodies and our minds!
That research also delineates mechanisms through which disorder in our viscera can transmit subliminal signals to our brains and impose distress and alarm on our minds. Those distressing signals can negatively affect how we perceive and react to our environment; they can also negatively impact how we feel and think about ourselves. Those signals are conveyed through nerves that extend between the brain and organs such as the heart, stomach, and intestines; they’re also conveyed through immune cells that circulate in our blood. Those immune cells are activated by infections, injury, or disorder in the body.
It's Not An “Attitude”: Physical Causes of Negative Feelings Are Possible
Activated immune cells can cause system wide inflammation, which can then induce what’s called a “sickness response.” That response involves several mental and behavioral changes such fever, malaise, brain fog, angst, depressed mood, and social withdrawal. The purpose of those feelings and behaviors is to fight infection and conserve energy for healing. They also drive us away from threats and towards more protective environments.
But if we don’t heal, chronic inflammation and internal disorder can induce an enduring sickness response, which can cause irritability, anxiety, chronic brain fog, depression, and persistent social withdrawal. Unfortunately, many healthcare providers are disinclined to consider physical causes of such ongoing mental and behavioral disturbances.
But common physical disorders such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, and irritable bowel are often associated with increased incidences of anxiety and depression. And the increase in those negative feelings doesn’t always occur because a person is worried over or sad about having an illness. There’s evidence that the immune system activity and increased inflammation associated with those conditions contributes to negative feeling states. And most people don’t realize a physical disorder could be contributing to their negative feelings and behaviors. Our society leads us to believe we should be able to control our feelings, and that leads to frustration and hopelessness when people realize they can’t “will” away negative background feelings.
The purported causes of the aforementioned feeling and behavioral disorders are varied. They are nonetheless localized in the brain and the brain’s mind by our society and by modern medicine. Anxiety and depression are considered disorders of mental health, while addiction is considered a brain disease by some, aberrant psychology by others. Obesity is considered a disease brought about by laziness and greed, even by healthcare professionals. And chronic fatigue is a mysterious condition which lay people and healthcare professionals often attribute to psychological causes. Because those conditions manifest through behaviors, many believe they all involve defects in a person’s “character.” Physical disorder is rarely considered in their etiologies…
Coming Up -
Part II - The involvement of physical disorder in the development of anxiety, depression, addiction, and obesity.