Chemical Imbalance- A Bass-Akwards Paradigm

In this post I challenge the standing concept of chemical imbalance as well as making the direct assertion that the neural changes referred to as chemical imbalance can and should be used to help direct us towards positive changes. It is important to note right away that this post is not meant to challenge the use of psychotropic medications, per se, but the paradigm that ultimately governs and propels their use. Furthermore, if you are currently on medication do not make changes in your regime without the help of your prescribing doctor. The current paradigm that governs the diagnosis and treatment of unwanted emotional states supposes that a contented person is contented because they have a brain chemistry that is balanced. When, then, a person becomes depressed, anxious, or otherwise off kilter to such a degree or for such duration that they warrant diagnosis, it is because they are experiencing a chemical imbalance. That somewhere in their brain function exists too much or too little of some neurotransmitter, hormone, or other physiological influence of subjective emotional experience. It is further supposed that if said neurotransmitter or hormone were altered to a level of balance, that person would be able to enjoy the contentedness that comes of a balanced brain. I want to tweak this view to suggest that it is a balanced brain that changes it’s chemical expression when the person who possesses the brain is living a life that is not naturally resulting in feelings of fulfillment, gratification, and emotional well-being.

To illustrate this point, lets first look at the physical body. If, for instance, a person experiences regular heartburn, it wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) suggest that this person is suffering from an antacid deficiency. While there may be genetic predisposition playing a part, and while sometimes heartburn could result from something more serious, heartburn is ultimately caused by overindulgence in particular foods (or overeating in general) overpowering a valve in the digestive system (esophageal sphincter) which then allows stomach acid to rise back into the esophagus. The heartburn, then, comes as a natural result of the combination of the person’s body and of what they are using to feed themselves. To feel better, they could take an antacid to counteract the natural consequences of their chosen diet, but to get better they would need only to figure out what nutritional changes would create balance within their body and would naturally and simply not result in heartburn. The discomfort of heartburn, then, could be seen as a natural indicator of physiological distress. The disharmony is not the negative symptom experienced as heartburn but the improper combination of body and food. Heartburn’s psychological equivalent would be the distress experienced as depression, anxiety, general unrest, etc.

Bringing the discussion back to psychological experience, then, a balanced brain naturally changes it’s neural synthesis as a result of a lifestyle that doesn’t satisfy. If, for instance, a person comes in to see me who has spent the last ten years in an abusive relationship, she (or he) will probably present as depressed. She should be depressed. Depression (or anxiety, stress, unhappiness, etc.) would be the natural consequence of living in an emotional environment that supports abuse. While medications may be useful at times, true change will need to come through the creation of a life experience that will naturally create feelings of safety, nurture, and support. Furthermore, a person who finds himself in an abusive relationship will often have experienced many relationships throughout life that have also supported similar experiences and realities so the problem is compounded. The example of abuse is an obvious one. More often, it is a little trickier to discover the route or reason for the distress, but in my experience, it is always there.

The problem with this paradigm (other than the fact that it doesn’t put pharmaceuticals and the profit they represent to the forefront of therapeutic approach) is that it puts the responsibility and focus of change on lifestyle and life path. This can be a problem because it means there must often be much more of a commitment to feeling better on the part of the person feeling the feelings. It supposes that there are rarely quick fixes to problems and that feelings are always natural extensions of how the life we are living feeds the self at the deepest level. That feelings (the ones we like as well as the ones we don’t) are guideposts answering the question–whether we are consciously asking it or not–of whether the life we are deciding to live truly agrees with us and supports us at the deepest level. It means that if we are not happy then we, ourselves, are ultimately the ones responsible to make changes if we want to feel better. This process can be made much easier if we use a therapist to aid in the exploration, and medications can also be used during stages of change, but ultimately it will be living in and experiencing the changed life that will end up changing the brain chemistry. The brain is not simply an organ with a mechanisms that are regularly faulty and in need of tuning.The unsated person’s brain will change its chemistry as a cry for help not because it is imbalanced. Feelings of pain are a siren, a warning call beckoning the conscious self to find alignment with the unfulfilled deeper self, not a request to find the correct medication. The brain is just the physical extension of our emotional reality projecting the level of fulfillment that our life experiences and decisions have created up to this point. Once the idea of chemical “imbalance” is seen as natural, so too can the path to chemical “balance.”