Mental health slips out of the closet and into a book near you

Rita McInnes, psychologist, responds to Natasha Mitchell’s article, The forces that control, in the Age, 22nd March 2014, on books by Scott Stossel and David Adam.

You get anxious, I get anxious, everybrain gets anxious.

Anxiety is a normal part of our biology and evolution. Until recently it has been the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, now in its fifth edition) and psychologists that made the decision about what is in the normal range of anxiety, based on a certain bell curve, and what is disordered.

But as our private and public lives merge and splash over the waves of cyberspace via Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and our Twitter-feed for all the other fishies in the C (for Cyberspace) to see, our once private anxieties and neuroses can be witnessed by all. This opens the cupboard door to a different view that can potentially change how we define the fine grey line between normal and disordered.

It turns out that what psychologists have known for a long time, that it’s not the experience of anxiety, or any other experience, but how you respond to the experience that is at the heart of the issue. And the difference between whether anxiety stays in the normal range or becomes debilitating and disordered depends on integration, or more specifically brain integration.

I’ve been tracking brain integration in my own brain and in my psychology practice with hundreds of brains for more than ten years now. Dan Siegel agrees that all mental health conditions in the DSM-V are based on some kind of non integration of the brain. What does that mean? Well for the full story you can read my book i-brainmap, freeing your brain for happiness, but for now I’ll outline, very briefly, the principles of brain integration, and non integration.

The brain-body-mind is a bottom up system

In brain-body-mind states of non integration, it is only by changing the body that we can change the brain, and then the mind. I won’t go into the whole evolution of the brain or the brain’s development here, except to say they are bottom up systems, that is, they start with the body and the most primitive parts of the brain, overriding everything else when those functions (such as in the amygdala) are activated.

Instead of all that theory I invite you to step into your own brain lab right now, the one between your ears that runs down to your toes. So, let’s do a little experiment. Think or something that frightens you, perhaps snakes (that’s mine), heights (yep), small dark places (oh that’s mine too), public speaking (oh me too). Ok so I might be a bit of an outlier on the bell curve, but let’s not get distracted from the experiment. Have you got something?

Now, let yourself get into the experience, perhaps remembering a time when you faced that fear, or at least stand on the edge and lean into the memory, perhaps diving in alone isn’t a good idea …………… As you get in touch with the memory of that experience notice what’s happening in your body …. heart pounding? sweaty palms? jaw tightening? breath shallow… rapid? …… It’s the body that remembers.

We don’t feel fear, or anything else for that matter, without a body reaction. Yes, sure your mind might be going off but the mind is the servant not the master when survival (or lower) brain kicks in. Call it anxiety, fear, fight-flight, or some other fancy name, but when the lower brain is activated the mind is no longer in charge.

We have names for mind spinning too, such as OCD and rumination, as the mind tries to make sense of what’s happening in the body. But the body and the mind are not integrated when the lower brain is activated (I explain this in detail in the book and it’s at the heart of the i-brainmap model).

In other words the body and the mind aren’t communicating when fear, or survival brain, is running the show. Survival brain overrides the mind to allow for a rapid response. But because of our overreliance on the mind and thinking, and our belief that the mind is boss, or at least can work everything out, we try harder and harder to think our way out, or try to make sense of the stuff going on in the body. But this overthinking doesn’t change anything.

Over time this can become disordered or hooked up with non-rational or some might say bizarre ritual, to change or manage the distress, then we call it a disorder. Or you might develop avoid-escape strategies such as alcohol and drug use. And so you go around and around and around feeling more and more out of control.

Can you change this? Yes, from bottom up, body-up brain change.

How do I know this? Because my brain has been misbehaving for years and I’ve worked with hundreds of misbehaving brains in my practice using i-brainmap to integrate and change the brain-body-mind.

Why does the brain get Stuck on Stress, anxiety, fear, or SoS brain? It happens when you have an overwhelming experience that the brain can’t integrate because you don’t have adequate psychological resources. Then the experience lives on in the body as a frozen memory map that can open and erupt in your body, heart pounding, muscles contract, breathless and so on, pouring into your life in a flash, like the war veteran dropping to floor at the sound of a car backfiring.

Childhood is full of experiences that can overwhelm the system because our resources are limited until our brain is fully developed. But overwhelm can happen any time in life, in fact modern life may have become an overwhelming experience that the brain-body-mind can’t integrate, but that would be another story or perhaps a book.

Just remember this, if your brain is stuck, the body is the lock and mindfulness is the key you can use to orient to the here and now through the senses. For sustainable brain change you need to give your brain the message that it’s using the wrong map. You are not in Vietnam or fighting off your sister’s bullying friends or cringing with shame at your teacher’s, or boss’ words, you are an adult with many resources, but you need to tell the body-brain that, using the body’s own language not the language of the mind.

The brain can change itself, on that we are all agreed. The brain is amazing beyond our comprehension, but occasionally it gets stuck. Knowing why it gets stuck and how to create the optimal conditions for it change itself to integrate old memory maps are essential brain basics for everybrain.

Leaning in close to experience

One of the most devastating things about anxiety and other experiences that disorder people’s lives is the loneliness and the terror of feeling out of control and not understanding why it is happening. This combination can make anyone feel not normal. Unfortunately instead of having brain change as their foundation most of our systems perpetuate the idea of abnormal.

One thing that can help to normalize instead of pathologize is to step in closer to the experience rather than avoiding or running away (easier said than done when you are in the grip of lower brain activation, aka fear), unless there really is a raging bull on your heels and then you need to be in flight mode. For some, leaning in close happens in therapy, for some it is writing, while for others it is reading another’s “viscerally honest” experience.

When we are invited to enter the intimate geography of another’s brain-body-mind through hearing their private stories we see that everybrain is very similar from the inside. Sure, their fears may be different, or the intensity more extreme, but we all fear and tremble, and to hear another’s story is to feel less alone and less afraid, more normal.


For more on body-up brain change you can check out the work of Dan Siegel, Antonio Damasio, Peter Levine, Bessel van der Kolk, Babette Rothshild, Gene Gendlin, and Ron Kurtz.

Rita McInnes’ first book, i-brainmap, freeing your brain for happiness was launched last week by Dr Craig Hassed, from Monash University.



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