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The Book That Changed the Way I Saw My Mental Health

I have long been fascinated and moved by the beauty and complexity of biology. All through school, I lapped up popular science books and TV documentaries like a starved cat confronted with a bowl of cream. I studied it at university; I loved it so much I did a PhD. And once I had recovered from the PhD, I went back to loving it again. For most of my life, the most emotional you would actually see me in public (most of the time) was when listening to science seminars — anything from quantum physics, molecules, natural history to astronomy. I’d get shivers down my spine and tears — actual tears — of awe.

Although I stopped wanting to do the routine science stuff that fits pieces into that picture, I have never stopped looking adoringly at it. So, when I’ve thought about my mental, psychological or emotional health in the past, I’ve very much focused on the biological explanations. I knew there were limitations, social aspects to consider, and that the brain is so complex we may never understand it fully. But it was always my focus. It felt comfortable, interesting and right. I think this was only partly because of my love of science. I think it was also because it made it easier to keep the focus mainly on me — my response to events, my faulty thinking, my difficulties coping and my personal vulnerabilities. This focus made things easier to manage and felt familiar — a kind of self-blame I was used to.

Over the years, I alternated between feeling like the most accomplished Vulcan in the universe who was fully disconnected from emotions, to experiencing utterly uncontrollable, overwhelming feelings that came from nowhere. And at both ends of the spectrum, it felt like my brain was somehow not like other people’s. Either people didn’t get the hurricane in my head or they seemed so vulnerable and needy compared to my ability to not let things faze me.

The disconnection was with myself, but with everyone else too. All around, counselors, psychologists and other people (especially other girls and women) seemed to speak a language I could understand but not speak. They talked of “processing,” “needing to express,” “bottling up or pushing down” feelings. They often wanted to talk about their feelings, even when there were no solutions to be gained or any new information to add by doing so. I always tried to listen when people needed me to, and hoped it helped, but I never fully understood what they were getting from it.

So, a biochemical explanation felt so right intuitively to me. It’s exactly how everything felt — like random wonky wrong chemistry. And then something changed for me. I read “The Compassionate Mind,” a book by Professor Paul Gilbert. It changed me by letting me start somewhere familiar. It started from what was a deceptively biological perspective – evolution. We are born more vulnerable and stay more vulnerable longer than most other mammals. Then follows a no-nonsense explanation of how the human brain works because of this vulnerability. It creates a physiological need for safeness, bonding and compassion that is firmly and biochemically embedded in our bodies and our minds and is as vital for survival as food, shelter or water.

I should confess, I bawled my eyes out through the whole book, and I got through it faster than any book I’ve ever read before. I think my brain had been lulled into feeling like it was on comfortable ground and then it got smacked in its little brain-face with something earth-shatteringly different. And something it couldn’t find a defense against. Suddenly, I didn’t have to understand the language of emotions to get it. I didn’t need “touchy-feely language” or to connect with the spiritual or the intangible in order to get what everyone else what talking about.

Not only did the book explain the need for tapping into our soothing system and the role of compassion for yourself and others; it was the first book I’d encountered that explained why I didn’t want to. In great detail, it explores the barriers people hold towards being compassionate towards themselves and helps them work through these (with a therapist if needed). It acknowledges the very real link some people develop between their soothing system and their threat system, usually through trauma caused by other people.

It explains why self-soothing becomes intricately tied to also feeling unsafe. Suddenly it made sense that some people develop self-harm or self-destruction as the only coping strategies they use for difficult feelings.

This book not only explains why this happens, but it helps us to learn what we can do to slowly shift this. In this regard, to me, the book was totally remarkable and life-changing. It gave me the understanding to commit to a very different therapeutic relationship and approach, which has been transformational for me.

Through this lens, my past approaches to therapy suddenly became really obviously deficient. I had continued to avoid my emotions by talking and engaging with an illness. This had given me validation for my pain, access to support and a level of understanding from others, but one which didn’t necessarily require me or anyone else having to stay present with my actual emotional needs. I talked about irrational thoughts and about symptoms and “doing something nice for myself.” I spent years trying to prop up my brain with drugs, challenging my inaccurate thoughts and trying to change my behaviors. It helped to some extent, but my brain hadn’t actually been experiencing anything physiologically different, despite all this.

None of these things were interacting with that soothing, bonding, safeness and contentment system I’d been reading about. I realized I needed an intervention my brain would understand and experience at a biochemical and physiological level that was fine-tuned to the systems evolution had created — ones created precisely to down-regulate the brain’s “things are going wrong” system. Pills thought to increase neurotransmitters throughout the brain (and body) or to reduce the activity of neurons may help (and may even be lifesaving) – but they did not, by themselves, give my brain anything new to work with.

What I had discovered was compassion focused therapy and its practices. No therapy has been able to change the way I feel like this has. And within the context of a safe, long-term therapeutic relationship, it has been more helpful to me than any other therapy I have tried over many years. It may even become the safe base I can use to access other more well-known therapies, but it was the missing piece in my puzzle — the part that explained why no matter how much cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or talking I did, I had never felt any different or related to myself differently.

This was the first step on a long journey of change, recovery, compassion and indeed more biology. But a very different kind of biology — one so intimately linked with the biology of my fellow human beings, one which is more about things we usually describe with the language of politics, sociology, injustice, trauma, crime and even spirituality, but is nonetheless a vital part of our human biology.

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Thinkstock photo via sodapix