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 history.


The Next Step After Freud: The Truth About Why So
Many People Suffer from Psychological Problems

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 might 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 problems:

* addiction to sugar, artificial sweeteners, junk food and simple carbohydrates;
* the reverse problem of not eating enough carbohydrates;
* consuming other injurious foods, including foods that we don’t yet know are harmful;
* 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 many people.

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 ill.

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 time.

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 better.
* 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 problem.

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 sick.

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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Here is an earlier and longer essay on this subject:
The Truth About Mental Illness:How Knowing About the Hidden Connection Between Food and the Unconscious Could Set You Free 

And here is another version of the first two sections of that longer essay:
Sugar, Junk Food and Mental Illness: How What We Eat Is Changing Who We Are

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.