by Lindsey Abston Painter  |  18 March 2022  |

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones. Proverbs 17:22.

I quoted the King James Version of this verse because that’s how I learned it as a child. It suggests (and I have heard people use it in this way) that all it takes to change your feelings is to “think positive.”

Being positive is, of course, a good thing. We like being around happy, optimistic people. We have in our brains’ “mirror neurons” that notice the behavior of the people around us and mirror those behaviors. That’s why being around someone who is cheerful and encouraging can be contagious.

And sometimes, it is true, we let ourselves dwell too much on the negative. Have you ever indulged in the self-satisfaction of feeling grumpy about something, or feeling sorry for yourself? Some people do choose to be negative or hateful or self-pitying, when they could just as easily choose a more salubrious thinking pattern.

Yet I’ve also seen Christians use this verse to downplay, or outright deny, serious mental health problems. “You know what your problem is? You just don’t think positive! Buck up! You’re as happy as you decide to be, so choose to be happy!” But to tell someone to “just think positive!” when they are clinically depressed isn’t helpful. Positivity only works when we aren’t dealing with trauma, or serious mental health problems.

That is where this text doesn’t apply. Some people can’t simply will themselves to be happy when they’re in a dark place. (The same is true of counseling very depressed or grieving people to just pray their bad feelings away—but that is for another discussion.)

Chemicals and trauma

The brain is a thinking machine, but it is also a biological organ. Sometimes, for various reasons, our brains don’t produce the right balance of chemicals, or something else goes wrong that doesn’t allow us to feel happy. If my brain doesn’t produce enough of a chemical or produces too much of another one, I need help, not shame. If my leg were broken, nobody would tell me “just think positive!”

Our society has this weird notion that our brains and bodies function separately. You have a problem with your body? Go see a medical doctor. You have a problem with your emotions? Go see a therapist. But more and more, science is showing us that our brains and bodies function together. What happens in my body affects my emotions, and what happens in my emotions affects my body.

Both mental health and physical health problems can happen when a person has experienced trauma. Trauma changes the way our brains and bodies function. When we experience trauma it lives inside our bodies. (See The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk). No amount of “mental strength” will protect us from its effects.

James Bond and other action movie heroes have advanced the misconception that people just roll through traumatic events and move on. In these movies the hero experiences unspeakable violence and trauma. Usually the movie makes us feel it by killing off someone the hero loves. For James Bond, his wife; for John Wick, his dog. The hero might show a single tear, or occasionally he might really cry, to show us how truly traumatic this situation is. And then, he has his revenge. At the end of the movie he has come through the ordeal unscathed, except perhaps for occasional bouts of staring off into the middle distance.

But a real life James Bond or John Wick or any of these other action heroes would likely develop PTSD or other trauma responses. They would have insomnia, paranoia, flashbacks, reenactment of their trauma, severe anxiety or depression, bouts of rage or violence, and difficulty managing the normal aspects of civilian life. In real life, Rambo would need psychiatric treatment, including medication and inpatient therapy.

Trauma is negative stress that exceeds our emotional capacity to handle it—and it doesn’t just happen to soldiers in combat. Trauma is more widespread than we think. According to The National Council for Behavioral Health, 70% of adults in the United States have experienced at least one traumatic event in the course of their lives. Where I live in Northern California, people have trauma related to the fires that rampage every fall, destroying people’s homes and even killing people. People experience trauma from sexual or physical assault. From dog bites and car accidents. From the death of a loved one. From divorce. From a toxic workplace, home, or church. From emotional pain such as being told that you are worthless by someone you love or admire.

These are things that happen to real people, some of whom you know. Statistically speaking, most of the people reading this article have experienced trauma—including me.

Fight or flight

Our bodies have a “fight or flight” response when we sense a threat. The fight/flight response is automatic, and it makes changes to our body so that we can either fight off an enemy or run away.

But our bodies were only designed to be in fight/flight mode for a few minutes at a time. When we have trauma or long-term stress, sometimes we get “stuck” in fight/flight mode. The following chart outlines some of the things that happen.

Fight/Flight Response What happens when we stay in fight/flight long term:
Our body is flooded with adrenaline to prepare us to fight or flee The constant rush of adrenaline makes us unable to sleep or relax, and causes extreme fatigue.
Blood rushes to our muscles, and our muscles tense in preparation to fight or flee The muscle tension causes fatigue and knots in our back, neck, and shoulders
Our body suppresses functions it does not think will be helpful in a survival situation (such as digestion and reproduction) in order to prioritize other more critical functions. Continually suppressed certain functions can cause a host of stomach problems, difficulty eating or overeating, difficulty digesting, reduced fertility and sexual drive.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for critical thinking and rational decision making. But it is too slow to manage the reflexes in a survival situation, so it turns off and turns responses over to brain functions closer to the brainstem, those driven by fear and emotion. Long-term inability to access the prefrontal cortex can cause learning difficulties, brain fog, inability to relate to others, feeling “out of step” with others. We become emotionally reactive, which can lead to rage, anxiety, depression, and substance use.
Blood pressure and heart rate increase to flood the muscles with blood to fight or flee. Chronic heart problems and high blood pressure can be the result of long-term fight/flight.

 

In brief: being in fight/flight mode long-term causes damage to us, both mentally and physically.

Don’t blame the victim

Knowing all that, doesn’t it seem silly when someone sees a person in a dark mental health place—stuck, perhaps, in some phase of that fight/flight response—and says, “You just need to think positive!” Thinking positive, without acknowledging the seriousness of the crisis, is invalidating. It places the blame for the mental health problem on the shoulders of the victim. It suggests they could fix it if they really wanted to.

This will almost certainly make their situation worse instead of better. Toxic positivity hurts people. So what can we do instead of exhorting people to think positively?

First, let’s take their mental health struggles seriously. Validate that what they are feeling is real. Affirm that they are a good person who needs help. Second, see if they are willing to get help. Help can come in many forms. The best kind of help comes from mental health or medical professionals. Third, destigmatize mental health, and mental health medications. Mental health medications save people’s lives. They help people feel “normal” again after a crisis.

I don’t mind sharing here that I take a regular low-dose anxiety medication. Before my medication I worried all the time. I fought with my kids, my coworkers, and my friends because I took everything personally, and my anxiety made me perseverate about small things, making mountains out of molehills. I would have evenings where I couldn’t sleep because my brain was lying to me about my life, offering me worst-case-scenario futures for myself and my kids.

My anxiety medication makes me function better. It helps me see the truth about my life, not just my fears.

I think we need a bit more transparency about these things. When we hide our medication use, our trips to the therapist, our mental health struggles, it makes them seem shameful. I was afraid to take my anxiety medication for a long time. And when I finally decided to do it, I thought, “Why didn’t I do this for myself years ago?” Now, I want others to be helped as I was. I don’t keep it a secret, because I’m not ashamed of getting help.

There is no need to suffer alone in silence. And if you know someone who is suffering, show them empathy, not toxic positivity. Instead of “Just think positive!” say, “I care about you, and I see you suffering. How can I help?”


Lindsey Abston Painter is a mental health trainer living in Northern California. She is passionate about feminism, social justice, and sci-fi. She is a proud parent, and has way too many cats and one goofy dog.

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