Here is a quick summary of a number of the key ideas in this piece:
Many forms of mental illness are caused by behavior, such as what people
eat, how much exercise they get and the legal drugs they take, all of which
can influence the biochemistry of the brain. But many people can't get
better because an unconscious fear of psychological health causes them to
engage in destructive behaviors that damage their biochemistry. In fact,
many people are caught in a vicious cycle: their dysfunctional biochemistry
begets a fear of psychological health, which results in self-destructive
behaviors, which further disrupts their biochemistry, thereby maintaining
and enhancing their fear of health.
The deck is also stacked against
them because we live in a society in which big profits are made addicting
people to destructive habits.
But if people can find a way to break the vicious cycle and adopt healthier lifestyles, many will enjoy
a greater effectiveness in pursuing goals, better relationships, and a new
richness of experience. Many will also find that they are no longer
vulnerable to acting out psychological issues from their childhood. And some may even experience the kind of
extraordinary states of mind that have been reported by mystics throughout
The Next Step After Freud: The Truth About Why So
Many People Suffer from
by Ken Sanes
When people suffer from psychological problems, a common way they deal with
it is by seeking help from a psychotherapist. The psychotherapist will then often use cognitive-behavioral techniques to help them overcome the
irrational thoughts and destructive behaviors that are apparently at the
center of their problems.
For example, the psychotherapist might offer an insight into the way these
people routinely assume that situations will turn out badly. Or the therapist
get them to agree to do something they have been avoiding, such as
talking to strangers at a party or standing up to intrusive relatives.
In theory, techniques like these should help. And they do help some people
-- to a limited degree. But most people who seek out this kind of treatment
(and other similar treatments) discover that they are stuck
with the same deep-seated psychological problems when it is over.
So why does psychotherapy fail so many people? The answer is that it
routinely misses something essential: many of its clients experience
psychological suffering because their own behaviors are interfering with the functioning of
neurotransmitters and hormones in their bodies.
That means a wide range of issues -- such as anxiety,
out-of-control anger, feelings of hopelessness and irrational fears, to name
just a few – really can be fixed in many people. But to do so,
people will have to change the way they live.
In other instances, it isn't people's behavior that is disrupting their
hormones and neurotransmitters, but something else in their environment that
may still be under the control of society.
So what are the behaviors and other influences on mind and body that can have
this effect? Here is a list of many of the most likely causes of psychological
* addiction to sugar, artificial sweeteners, junk food and simple
* the reverse problem of not eating enough carbohydrates;
* consuming other injurious foods, including foods that we don’t yet know
* consuming (or over-consuming) some prescription, over-the-counter and
recreational drugs, including alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes;
* not getting enough restful sleep;
* not getting enough exercise or, in some cases, getting too much exercise;
* being subjected to disturbing and traumatic situations and relationships;
* suffering from apparently unrelated diseases and medical conditions;
* being exposed to environmental toxins;
* having too much visceral body fat, which is beneath the layer of visible
fat, especially around the belly;
* being addicted to electronic screens;
* suffering from deficiencies in certain nutrients.
Of the various behaviors listed above, addiction to sugar and junk food is a
particular problem for many people. It seems that over-consuming these foods
can stimulate appetite, result in the release of stress hormones and damage
the functioning of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, so that people
become psychologically dysfunctional. In addition, some people suffer from
both an extreme craving for sugar and an oversensitivity to its effects, or
to sugar withdrawal.
This means that many people can fix the way their mind works by
throwing away the giant bag of potato chips and bowl of ice cream, instead
of talking to a psychotherapist, at least in the way this is often done. Of
course, psychotherapists do help people with these kinds of issues now, to a limited degree,
for example by working with clients to overcome specific addictions that
damage their biochemistry. But most psychotherapy doesn't get at the true
(and often multiple) causes of the client's damaged psychology, and most
psychotherapists don't they have a
systematic understanding of the problem.
This is not to say that the workings of the mind that therapists delve into
are unreal. In fact, many of the characteristics of the mind described by
Freud and his followers really do exist. Psychological defense mechanisms,
overly punitive super-egos and unconscious motivations influenced by the
events of childhood may all contribute to some forms of mental illness. The
irrational thought processes highlighted by cognitive behavioral therapy
play a role, as well. But the fact that people produce all of
this psychological material in psychotherapy doesn’t mean it is the primary
cause of the problem. And since all of this is really activated by the
dysfunctional state of neurotransmitters and hormones (and undoubtedly by
other aspects of biochemistry, as well), the first approach should be to try
to help people change the things that are damaging their biochemistry. When
they do, many people will discover that they are no longer vulnerable to
acting out issues that go back to their childhood.
Unfortunately, our understanding of how all of this works is rudimentary at
best. But it may be that people have predispositions to suffer certain kinds
of psychological problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety or
depression. These psychological problems are then activated when
neurotransmitters, hormones, and other aspects of biochemistry are damaged.
Or else, damaged biochemistry then makes people more vulnerable to traumatic
and disturbing experiences, including experiences from childhood.
Since we are still in the dark about most of this, we need science to do a
lot more research. When it does, it will discover patterns that we aren't
currently aware of, and it should be able to help people get well.
But for right now, many people will have to act like scientists and study
themselves if they want to get better. To accomplish this, they can
eliminate potentially injurious foods from their diet, start an exercise
program, lose weight and make other changes, recording in a journal whether
their problems get better or worse. Adopting a diet that minimizes the
impact of sugar and other carbohydrates will be particularly important for
Unfortunately, this sounds a lot easier than it is because there are all
kinds of things that keep people from getting better. So here is another
list -- of some of the things that hold people back:
* Many institutions in society profit from making people physically and
psychologically sick, such as companies that sell addictive junk foods.
* Many people are biologically predisposed to addictions.
* People often don’t know what is making them sick.
* In many places people don't have access to adequate nutrition, health care
and health information.
* It is difficult for both individuals and science to identify what is
damaging people's psychology because so many things can influence the body
and mind at any one time.
But getting better can also be difficult because many people fear being
psychologically healthy. As a result, they sabotage themselves, consuming
too much sugar or alcohol, or putting themselves in abusive situations, to
induce psychological suffering and hold themselves back. In effect, people
become addicted to being in a state of psychological dysfunction, and they
unconsciously find it reassuring. In addition, many people become addicted
to the regressive and dependent state of addiction itself, which may feel
safer than being healthy and unencumbered.
In fact, as many treatment centers know all too well, if one form of addiction is taken away, it is common for people to
migrate to another addiction.
And most of this goes on outside of awareness, so people don’t fully realize
that they are sabotaging their own psychological health. They may
consciously deny that junk food is making them anxious and emotionally
vulnerable, for example, while they dimly realize that it really is – and
consume it to get just this result.
Putting this in a more complete way, we can say that at the heart of our
nature is a yearning to be healthy in body and mind, and a fear of being
healthy. As a result, we engage in complex and even contradictory behaviors
in which we self-enhance and self-interfere, making ourselves both well and
And it is common for people to be caught in a vicious cycle: their
dysfunctional biochemistry begets a fear of health and a need to regress,
which results in self-destructive behaviors, which further disrupts their
biochemistry, thereby maintaining and enhancing their fears.
All of this gets its start early on since children learn how
to make themselves sick (and healthy) as they grow up. Parents, other
adults, and peers induct them into a lifestyle based on eating unhealthy
foods, turning to a drug when they feel bad and becoming addicted to
electronic screens, to use a few examples.
In fact, it seems likely that adults, who are stuck in the same vicious
cycle, help plant the fear of health in children through covert messages,
without consciously realizing they are doing so. For example, they may
communicate to children that being in a state of psychological health can
evoke disturbing feelings or unacceptable acts of assertiveness and
independence. Ultimately, they may communicate to children that
psychological health will evoke some combination of retaliation and damage people they love.
When children grow up, some will be more prone to self-interfere than
others, as a result of predisposition and upbringing. In some instances, it
will ruin lives. For other people, self-interference will be a minor
problem, although these individuals may still be damaged by threats to their
biochemistry that they aren’t intentionally exposing themselves to.
Given these problems, there is a place for an enlightened field of
psychotherapy -- or what might be better referred to with the more neutral
term, counseling -- which can help people in two essential ways.
First, counselors can work to help free their clients from whatever is
damaging them, including the fears and self-destructive behaviors that trap
them in the vicious cycle of self-interference. For example, they can help
clients stay on the right eating plan or avoid alcohol and drugs, while
encouraging clients to resist the regressive urge to take that first bite of
cake or that half a sip of beer or just one more pill to get some sleep
tonight. Counselors can also offer insights into the rationalizations their
clients use to convince themselves that just one bite of cake won’t lead to
more binge eating or that it is safe to see an abusive lover just one more
To accomplish these goals, counselors may need to become part of virtual
teams, working in tandem with a client’s nutritionist, physician, exercise
specialist, and other health professionals. Support groups, peer counseling,
and informal networks of friends and relatives can similarly help people
achieve these goals, in person and on the Internet. There are already
existing forms of therapy that can be used as partial models for this
approach, including the one developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. But the
ultimate goal will be to maximize physical and psychological health by
eliminating as many destructive impacts as possible, and replacing them with
healthy influences, as improvements in behavior and health, and
psychological insights, reinforce each other.
Unfortunately, there are also a lot of people who can’t be helped by a
change in behavior or environment. Or else, they can be helped, but only to
a limited degree. To look at some of the reasons for this, here is one more
list of reasons many people can’t be helped by this approach:
* Whatever is wrong with their brain and body, it isn’t something that is
being activated by behaviors or environmental factors such as unhealthy food
or addiction to alcohol.
* The problem is being activated by behaviors or environmental
factors, but we can’t yet identify what they are.
* Many people have psychological problems that are so entrenched, they can’t
bring themselves to make the behavior changes that are necessary to get
* Many people are trapped in situations they can’t control.
* Many people can be helped, but they are still be in the process of
changing the way they live.
For all of these groups, traditional forms of psychotherapy, as well as
psychiatric drugs, may assist them in managing their problems, but only to a
limited degree. And side effects from the drugs can also become part of the
Fortunately, the kind of changes described here have the potential to give
millions of people robustly healthy states of mind, including a richness and
clarity of experience, greater emotional intelligence, a sense of wholeness
and a new calm.
But what many people will also discover when they become healthy are
exceptional states of mind in which experience seems to flow and has a new
resonance, along with states of awe, compassion and bliss. For some people, it is
even possible that there will be extraordinary mystical states in which they
feel a sense of selflessness or oneness with everything or seem to be
perceiving the spiritual essence of reality. Combining these changes with
forms of meditation may deepen these states of mind.
This same biochemistry is also a key to understanding the history of the
arts and literature. Our capacity to have primal perceptions of life --
embodied in comedy, tragedy, romance, realism, and irony, as well as in
apocalyptic, idealized and absurdist visions – is built into our brains. In
addition, artists and writers undoubtedly have a predisposition to create
works in a certain style that communicate a particular vision of life. But
the way all of this is manifested in the work of artists and writers is
strongly influenced by the state of their biochemistry, which is influenced
by their behaviors and the things they are exposed to.
What is being described here is also a key to understanding society because
institutions are organized to make people whole and broken in complex ways.
In fact, society is controlled by elites who maintain their wealth and power
partly by helping people achieve psychological health and by making them
For a vivid example, we only have to look at the way some companies in
America make big profits by addicting people to synthetic foods that induce
mental illness. For example, they create addictive foods full of sugar, fat
and salt, and endlessly replay mouth watering television commercials, while
grocery stories pack the area around the checkout line with sweets and junk
food. These companies aren’t only luring consumers into satisfying addictive
pleasures; they are also playing to the unconscious desire in many people to
be in a state of addiction and limit themselves.
In place of institutions like this that make people sick, we need humane
institutions that help people achieve autonomy and health. Collectively and
individually, people need to challenge the forces that are holding them
back, including their own psychological fears and the economy of addictive
eating, along with many kinds of exploitive institutions.
What many people will discover on the far side of health is a new
fulfillment and a life that is rich with the qualities of embodied spirit.
What humanity will ultimately find, if it is ever able to go this route, is
that it has the capacity to fill the world with good.
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An earlier version of this essay was titled "Ten Propositions About Food &
Psychology That Could Change Your Life."
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The purpose of this essay is to provide information and help point to a new
direction for medicine, psychotherapy, and our understanding of mind and
body. This essay doesn’t provide medical advice, diagnosis or
treatment, nor does it substitute for help from qualified doctors and other
health care professionals. The writer isn't a health care professional
or psychotherapist of any kind. If you need professional attention, or if
your health or safety may be in danger, you should contact the appropriate
professionals without delay. You should also consult health care providers
and other appropriate professionals before taking a course of action that
could affect your health, and be aware that actions affecting health can
have unforeseen and undesirable consequences.