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Living in the Solution

“A lot of things that mental health professionals try to exterminate and fix have their origins as solutions to very complex problems.” ~ Bessel van der Kolk By the time most people ask for psychiatric help, they will have spent a good deal of time already struggling with whatever mental health condition they require assistance […]

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“A lot of things that mental health professionals try to exterminate and fix have their origins as solutions to very complex problems.” ~ Bessel van der Kolk

By the time most people ask for psychiatric help, they will have spent a good deal of time already struggling with whatever mental health condition they require assistance with. Many psychologists assess and treat patients in the way that other specialists might treat a broken bone or a bacterial infection, by treating just the symptoms as presented. 

However, this approach leads many people to continue battling with disordered behaviors, as their symptoms are treated instead of the deeper-rooted problem that caused these coping mechanisms to emerge.  This blog will investigate why we develop these disordered behaviors and mental health issues in order to protect ourselves and how best to treat their origins.

The Human Issue

Homeostasis derives from the Greek word for “steady,” and it refers to any process that living organisms use to maintain stable conditions necessary for survival and evolutionary processes. The term homeostasis was first used in 1930 by the physician Walter Cannon in his journal The Wisdom of the Body. Walter Canon was the first to analyze and describe how living beings actively manage steady levels of temperature and other vital elements such as the water and oxygen contents of the blood. He went on to explain how these processes are similar to those within the Earth’s environment.[1]

Of course, much exploration into homeostasis has since been undertaken in the last 80 years, and homeostasis is now used widely in the social sciences. Psychologists now also use the term to refer to how a person who is under stress, in pain, or experiencing difficulty can maintain a stable psychological condition. This form of homeostasis is as important to the organization of mind and behavior as physiological homeostasis is to bodily systems.[2]

It has been noted that those living in environments, either physiological, social, economic or psychological, that cause undue stress see disruptions in drive states that have evolved to maintain homeostasis.[3] It has been evidenced that distressing emotional states can create unconscious and compulsive “emotional addictions” that provide biochemical rewards within the brain. The systemic imbalances within a person’s homeostasis can result in a variety of psychological dysfunctions.[4]

The Dangers of a Dysregulated Nervous System

Neurological and psychiatric conditions are intrinsically connected to the dysfunction of the central nervous system (CNS), and experts are now beginning to understand how the internal physiological state of the body affects cognitive and motivational processes.[5] 

Chronic stress or traumatic events are thought to be the primary causes of a dysregulated nervous system. Patients can present with a variety of unexplained physical symptoms such as insomnia, memory problems, digestive issues, and somatic complaints such as headache and muscle pains alongside their core psychological concern.[6] 

Through his work within treatment and neuroscience, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk is renowned for his in-depth analysis on those suffering from trauma and chronic stress. Van der Kolk has extensively evaluated the complex interrelationships among the psychological, psychiatric, biological, and neuroanatomical components of disorders.[7] This in turn has created a new wave of understanding, new therapeutic perspectives, and new methods of treatment for not only survivors of trauma but also for those struggling with disordered behaviors stemming from physiological imbalances.

Bessel Van der Kolk, explains how trauma changes the brain on three levels below the cognitive “thinking” level:[8]

  1. Perception – Trauma and chronic stresses cause people to incorrectly perceive threat. Where someone who has a steady homeostasis will see an ordinary, manageable situation, a trauma survivor will instead see something overwhelming.
  2. Reaction –  This misperception can make it difficult for sufferers to know how to react, so they may respond to ordinary situations with an exaggerated and disproportionate reaction.  
  3. Self – Your sense of self can become dampened, meaning that a sufferer may struggle to feel pleasure or connection to others. This is a natural defense mechanism of the body. However, this can persist chronically when one has a dysregulated nervous system.

Dr. Van der Kolk has explored the way in which those with a dysregulated nervous system often seek out substances and other coping mechanisms to deal with the loss of self, their distorted perception of reality, their painful emotions, and physiological states.[9]

Trauma, particularly childhood trauma including abuse and neglect, is noted as one of America’s most important public health challenges.[10] In his study, “Child Abuse & Victimization,” Van der Kolk states that, “trauma sets the stage for unfocused responses to subsequent stress, leading to dramatic increases in the use of medical, correctional, social, and mental health services.”[11]

This is a profound and powerful statement, especially as this challenge can be resolved with appropriate prevention, intervention, and treatment.

Disordered Behavior as a Coping Mechanism

Disordered behavior encompasses a broad spectrum of mental health disorders that stem from  an unresolved emotional issue that results in compulsive and escapist tendencies. These behaviors help a person cope with challenging experiences, painful memories, and difficult emotions.

In a sense, these disorders act as self-medication because the systemic functions of our homeostasis and CNS systems create a pattern of neurological reward that fulfills a genuine purpose. This can make disorders exceptionally difficult to treat because the person suffering from the disorder will be unwilling to relinquish these coping mechanisms.

Examples of disordered coping mechanisms are:

  • Substance use, including drugs and alcohol
  • Disordered eating, including food addiction, anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating
  • Addictions such as shopping and gambling
  • Attachment issues and co-dependent tendencies
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Self-harm

All of the above disorders are widely recognized as mental health conditions that occur due to a person’s difficulty coping with their day-to-day life and as a means to escape painful emotions. However, these issues are most commonly treated as primary disorders, the symptoms of which are treated through rehabilitation, detox, cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure and response prevention, and even inpatient care. 

Of course, leading psychologists and treatment centers will have the experience and knowledge to explore and evaluate a patient’s past conditioning, family, childhood, romantic relationships, etc. to assess why a person may have developed these disorders.

However, it remains rare within the general health system to approach these issues as coping mechanisms and to instead treat the underlying physiological trauma that caused them. However, a holistic approach is often beneficial to people’s recovery from many of the conditions listed above. If we take this view and treat the entire individual’s deeper-rooted problems rather than the more visible coping strategies that are often symptoms of the larger problem, we improve their chances of a successful outcome and lasting recovery.

Originally published at heatherhayes.com 


[1] Cannon, W.B. (1939). The wisdom of the body (2nd ed.). Norton & Co..

[2] Marks, David F. “I Am Conscious, Therefore, I Am: Imagery, Affect, Action, And A General Theory Of Behavior”. Brain Sciences, vol 9, no. 5, 2019, p. 107. MDPI AG, doi:10.3390/brainsci9050107. Accessed 26 Jan 2021.

[3] Damasio, Antonio, and Hanna Damasio. “Exploring The Concept Of Homeostasis And Considering Its Implications For Economics”. Journal Of Economic Behavior & Organization, vol 126, 2016, pp. 125-129. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2015.12.003. Accessed 26 Jan 2021.

[4] Montgomery, John. “Evolutionary Mismatch, Emotional Homeostasis, And “Emotional Addiction”: A Unifying Model Of Psychological Dysfunction”. Evolutionary Psychological Science, vol 4, no. 4, 2018, pp. 428-442. Springer Science And Business Media LLC, doi:10.1007/s40806-018-0153-9. Accessed 26 Jan 2021.

[5] Alvares, Gail A. et al. “Autonomic Nervous System Dysfunction In Psychiatric Disorders And The Impact Of Psychotropic Medications: A Systematic Review And Meta-Analysis”. Journal Of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, vol 41, no. 2, 2016, pp. 89-104. Joule Inc., doi:10.1503/jpn.140217. Accessed 26 Jan 2021.

[6] Elbers, Jorina. “Nervous System Dysregulation And Its Association With Traumatic Events”. American Academy Of Pediatrics, 2018, Accessed 26 Jan 2021.

[7] “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder And The Nature Of Trauma”. Vol 2, no. 1, 2000, pp. 7-22. Servier International, doi:10.31887/dcns.2000.2.1/bvdkolk. Accessed 26 Jan 2021.

[8] CE/CMEs, Earn et al. “Three Ways Trauma Changes The Brain – NICABM”. NICABM, 2019, https://www.nicabm.com/trauma-three-ways-trauma-changes-the-brain/.

[9] Synovec, Caitlin E. “The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, And Body In The Healing Of Trauma (Reprint Edition)”. Occupational Therapy In Mental Health, vol 36, no. 4, 2020, pp. 411-414. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/0164212x.2020.1839623. Accessed 26 Jan 2021.

[10] van der Kolk, Bessel A. “This Issue: Child Abuse & Victimization”. Psychiatric Annals, vol 35, no. 5, 2005, pp. 374-378. SLACK, Inc., doi:10.3928/00485713-20050501-02. Accessed 26 Jan 2021.

[11] van der Kolk, Bessel A. “This Issue: Child Abuse & Victimization”. Psychiatric Annals, vol 35, no. 5, 2005, pp. 374-378. SLACK, Inc., doi:10.3928/00485713-20050501-02. Accessed 26 Jan 2021.

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