The Chemical Imbalance Myth
Today it has become commonplace to say that some people have chemical imbalances in their brain, most notably a disruption in the proper production of dopamine for “diseases” like ADHD and serotonin for “diseases” like depression. These people, it is argued, need drugs to “cure” these chemical imbalances, hence the terms “antipsychotics” or “antidepressants”.
But are chemical imbalances real? What is the relationship between chemical imbalances and mental ill-health?
The brain is neuroplastic, which means it can change. What we say, think, and do changes the structure of the brain, including the flow of neurochemicals. Toxic stress, for example, changes the brain, flooding it with an unhealthy imbalance of neurochemicals like cortisol, which, in turn, impacts both our mental and physical health. We do not live in a vacuum. Our environments even change the expression of our genes! It is important to remember the mind – what we think, feel and choose - changes the brain, and the brain responds to the mind.
When it comes to mental health, however, many professionals focus solely on an individual’s biology, not their life story, notwithstanding the fact that our experiences can change our biology. The chemical imbalance theory of mental health is derived from this biomedical model of illness. Allopathic medical doctors are trained to diagnose pathology, or disease. They are trained, in other words, to look for what is wrong. This viewpoint is useful in a great number of contexts (e.g. physical trauma or diabetes), but not so helpful in mental health. Indeed, we are only beginning to understand how the mind and brain function—this is one the greatest and most exciting frontiers in science today. Many psychiatrists, however, diagnose mental illnesses according to the “psychiatric bible”: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). The DSM content is produced by a committee, and is influenced by drug companies, who use the DSM to construct diseases that will be “cured” by their drugs, thereby exponentially increasing their profits while controlling “problematic social behavior”. From the 1970s drug companies have largely marketed their products as anti-psychotic, anti-depressive, or anxiolytic (anti-anxiety)—cures combating a particular disease, notwithstanding the lack of evidence for chemical imbalances or other pathologies related to mental illness. What these drugs predominantly do is disable the brain, mask symptoms and produce altered mental states, similar to tranquilizers that temporarily numb normal biological functions. These drugs can actually create chemical imbalances!
While the biomedical model is very effective in treating illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and so on, it is unhelpful and even damaging in matters to do with consciousness and the mind, such as depression or anxiety. The “treatment” of these so-called diseases is predominated by psychotropic drugs, ECT and TMS, which have been shown to be ineffective and even damaging in the long term, destructive, disempowering, and stigmatizing. Calling for a bigger budget for drug-oriented psychiatry “medicalizes misery” and dehumanizes people, ignoring the context surrounding why a person choose to act or speak in a certain way. As psychologist Noel Hunter notes, “telling a person they are “ill” for suffering or being sad serves to further alienate the individual. It often results in the person feeling defective, and puts the problem inside the individual instead of recognizing that cultural and circumstantial factors are a problem. Studies have demonstrated over and over again that a biological illness perspective on human suffering leads to decreased empathy, increased desire for social distance, and increased prejudice and discrimination.”
If the overly simplistic explanation of chemical imbalances in the brain is an insufficient explanation for mental illness, why did many people come to see these drugs as “cures”? And why do people still see these drugs as correcting an underlying chemical imbalance? There are a number of social and political factors involved in the rise of this theory (remember: medicine does not occur in a vacuum). First, in the second part of the 20th century psychiatry was under heavy criticism. To justify and defend the profession, psychiatrists promoted a medical/disease model of mental health, which is most notably seen at the time in the publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III, which marked a definitive shift away from psychoanalysis and talk therapy. By creating lists of disorders (again, based off no conclusive scientific evidence on the possible biological mechanisms underlying these so-called disorders), which appeared to be simple, objective ways of recognizing mental illness (somewhat like identifying a tumor), psychiatry created a self-made marketing weapon against its attackers. From now on, institutions like the American Psychiatric Association and the DSM would define what is normal, in turn telling us what it means to suffer and, essentially, what it means to be human.
Subsequently, it was widely, yet incorrectly, assumed that these drugs were “curing” the supposed “disease” and not just tranquilizing the disturbed individual. As a result, forced drug treatments, institutionalization and lack of consent merely became “cures”. Today it is acceptable and commonplace practice to imprison mentally ill persons, drug them and lock them in solitary confinement, compelling them to live their days marinating in their own excrement. It is therefore no surprise that mental health advocate, psychiatrist, former director of the DSM and professor at Duke University Allen Frances declares that “there has never been a worse time or a worse place to have a mental illness than in the US today.”
The situation is critical. Psychotropic drugs can directly affect our health, with side effects such as an increased risk of suicide, loss of sexual ability, potential brain shrinkage, agitation, insomnia, weight gain and obesity-related diseases like diabetes, lethargy, mental fog, emotional apathy, homicide, to name just a few, and taking them can turn into a matter of life and death, particularly for the elderly and children. Even if someone feels that these psychoactive substances do help them, they are not correcting an underlying chemical imbalance in their brain, and potentially creating neurological imbalances that were not there to begin with. These drugs start changing our neurochemistry within the first dose—they begin creating chemical imbalances as soon as we start taking them.
Thankfully, in the fields of psychology and psychiatry there has been serious push-back against the disease model. One recent example is the BBC Stress test, one of the largest studies of mental health to date, which saw the biggest predictor of mental health problems as “rumination”: the tendency to dwell on negative events for too long. Rumination is clearly a mental process—it is concerned with thinking. The antidote to a negative mental process therefore should be a positive mental process, not a physical one such as medication. Dr. Peter Kinderman, a professor at Liverpool University, a prominent clinical psychologist and the primary investigator in this study has expressed the urgent need to “abandon the disease-model of mental health care.” Kinderman’s concerns were recently echoed by a group of prominent British psychiatrists, led by Pat Bracken, who published an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry arguing “that psychiatry needs to move beyond the dominance of the current, technological paradigm.”
Following a similar research path, I have also demonstrated, using my research on the power of mind-action in changing the brain, that mental disorders are primarily based in the mind. Since the early 1980s (when the DSM-3, the first diagnostic manual to promote the diseased model of metal health, was in use), I have researched the effectiveness of mind action techniques (which are thought-based) in overcoming the negative effects of neurological issues such as TBI, dementias, movement disorders, autism, aphasia, and learning disabilities, emotional trauma as well as various cognitive, emotional and mental health issues. I developed the Switch On Your Brain with the 5-step Learning Process from over three decades of study, clinical practice and research. My Geodesic Learning Theory has been shown not only to be effective in mental health care, but also treating physical damage to the brain that occurs in Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), learning disabilities and to improve learning techniques in both schools and the corporate world.
Over the years, I have worked with many individuals confined and boxed in by supposedly scientific labels: ADD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, autism, and so on. Disillusioned with the lack of conclusive research behind the ADHD and other so-called psychiatric disorders and the chemical imbalance theory, the predominantly biological focus of our current system of mental health and the overuse of psychotropic drugs, my research and experience indicated that many of these conditions were influenced by, or originated in, a disorder of the mind that was either caused by a trauma or negative thinking patterns.In other words, mental ill-health is a thought disorder based in the mind, which changes the brain physiologically and is a response to the complex and multifaceted challenges of life. Using the principles of my Switch On Your Brain with the 5-step Learning Process (based on my Geodesic Learning Theory) I helped my patients understand that their brains can change if they chooseto develop healthy, focused thinking and learning habits, and that it was never too late to heal, and change the brain with their mind—so many of them went on to lead successful, purpose-driven lives.
So what can we do?
We cannot survive without love. Love thrives in a community. Humanity is wired to work and thrive in community. In quantum physics, “entanglement” is one of the most important laws—it is often referred to as the law of relationships. We are entangled humans living in an entangled universe; we need each other.
It is important that we create safe spaces in our community where people suffering from the vagaries of life can come and speak about what they going through with someone they trust, creating communities where people feel that they belong. In fact, engaging positively with people in our social support network correlates with a number of desirable physical and mental outcomes. Community involvement has been associated with mental health and cognitive resilience, reduction of chronic pain, lower blood pressure, and improved cardiovascular health! When we help other people, we heal ourselves.
What does community look like?
- It is so important for parents or guardians to constantly tell and show their children that they are loved. Hug them, tell them they are needed and wanted, and tell them they are special. Parents or guardians also need to create a safe space for their children and show them that they will not be judged or condemned. Many of the patterns for mental ill-health begin during childhood, which is why it is so important to teach children to express their feelings in a healthy and safe environment.
- When you feel burdened with work, emotionally challenged, or are going through something, for instance, try stopping for a moment and helping someone else, even if it is just to listen, hug, or encourage them. Send an email or text to someone, telling them you are thinking of them, or invite someone to dinner instead of eating alone.
- Volunteer! Serving others is a wonderful way to become part of a meaningful community, improving both your health and the health of your community.
- Think about what you could do to get out of the house and foster community in your area. Perhaps start a book club or community garden, or arrange dinner parties and invite someone new each time. Get to know your neighbors and invite them for a walk or for coffee, or join a local community or spiritual center.
- Listen to others in a nonjudgmental, loving, and supportive way as often as you can. In fact, make this your modus operandi and watch your problems turn around. So: look at the person, and just listen and breathe until they finish, then ask, “How can I help you? What do you need?”
We all need to recognize that our thoughts, words and actions are powerful; we create realties with our minds. We should never let thoughts just wonder through our minds. We need to constantly renew the way we think and take negative thoughts captive, making sure that we create realities of love and not of hatred, which allow us to not only help ourselves but to also help others. When we are surrounded by our own problems we often don’t see when we can, and that we need to, help someone in need.
How can you learn to control your thinking?
- Never let thoughts just wander through your mind unchecked. Focus on the now moment and observe your thoughts and feelings, perhaps writing down what you think and feel in a journal.
- Reconceptualize (redesign) thoughts that are holding you back by deciding what thought you would rather have and then work toward eliminating the toxic thought and building something better. Here is an example: Start with acknowledging and articulating thoughts weighing you down—ones that don’t serve any useful purpose beyond keeping you stuck. Now ask yourself questions rather than issuing commands to yourself—this is a much more effective way to reconceptualize because it opens up exploration, creates possibility, and distances you from what you are thinking, giving you a safe space for change. You can also label your emotions in a nonjudgmental way to give yourself some distance from them in order to deal with them.
- I have created a simple, easy to use app called SWITCH that can help individuals learn to control their thinking and build positive, life-giving memories that can transform their lives and communities for the better, which is based on the principles of my Switch On Your Brain with the 5-step Learning Process (centered on my Geodesic Learning Theory). It takes just 7-12 minutes a day and helps create and solidify long-term, healthy thinking habits. For more information see the SWITCH app website. I also discuss renewing the mind and controlling toxic thinking patterns in my books Switch on Your Brainand Think, Learn, Succeed, which are available on our online store.
For more information on psychotropic drugs and mental ill-health, listen to my podcast with Harvard-trained psychiatrist and mental health advocate Dr. Peter Breggin.
**This is informative and NOT individual medical advice.
**DRUG WITHDRAWAL should ALWAYS be done under the supervision of a qualified professional. These drugs alter your brain chemistry, and withdrawal can be a difficult process. There are thousands of patient-run sites on withdrawal from psychoactive substances on the Internet, and many books available in stores and online. We suggest you begin looking at the resources page on Mad in America. Dr. Peter Breggin also has a brilliant book on withdrawal: Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal: A Guide for Prescribers, Therapists, Patients, and Their Families.
**For renewing your mind and dealing with toxic thoughts and emotions please visit our online store: https://store.drleaf.com/
**For general information on the current state of psychiatry please visit http://www.madinamerica.com.
**To report any adverse psychotropic drug effects you have experienced, and for more detailed individual drug information, please visit https://rxisk.org/