The Definition of Insanity: Time for Change

I am a huge history buff and I consume ridiculous amounts of historical fiction. When reading, I often find myself wondering why people living in various historical times could not see what was happening right before their eyes! I mean…come on… even I can clearly see that the answer is right there!  I guess that is where the famous quote “Hindsight is 20/20” comes in to play.

Well, a few years ago I had a rude awakening on how the best solution can literally be right under your nose and you still miss it! The daily stresses of life and the white noise monotony of the same old routine can trick our brain.

At the time of this revelation, our oldest daughter was five and attended kindergarten every day. In addition, we had a three year old daughter and a two year old son (that insanity is for a different day!) Let’s just say that running on auto pilot and being bombarded with high levels of stress was the “new normal”.

What I did not know at the time was that experiencing stress at this level too frequently causes our body to run constantly in “flight or fight” mode. Not good considering this mode was only created for emergency situations. To add more concern, in this state our brain believes that there is only one way to do certain tasks. The proverbial tunnel vision.

Every parent can relate to the wickedness that is herding multiple young children into car seats. You must buckle the harnesses that require the same NASA training astronauts receive to secure themselves into a rocket ship. Then there is the forgetting of nearly every object that a small child can possess. Remember, we need ALL of them because we are traveling an entire five miles from home!

By the time I rolled up to the school drop off line each morning…with all three children successfully dressed, secured safely in their NASA approved seats, and on time…. HELLO… where is the parade for me people! Not to mention that I may have managed to line both of my eyes that day…just another epic Mom win.

The school they attended at the time had a wonderful tradition of the eighth grade students opening the car doors, greeting everyone with pleasantries, and escorting the young children inside. Inevitably, every morning with -out fail, the disembarkment from the Harrell bus went something like this.

The excited five year old would unbuckle from the back of the van. Meantime, my two year old son would proceed to throw his legs up to create the London Bridge barricade. This would of course prevent his sister from exiting the vehicle. The boy was giggling hysterically while the five year old was screaming all parents favorite rap song, “Stop it! Stop It!”.  If I am really truthful, I don’t even know what my three year old daughter was doing at that time. Meanwhile the carpool line is backing up.

Feeling stressed yet?

I am now forced to exit my vehicle, wave at people to let them know that I have this situation under control. At this moment I am thrilled not to have “I am a family therapist” tattooed on my head because seriously… I knew this was not going to end well.

In case you are wondering how to handle this situation from a professional therapist the answer is…”I don’t know”. However, Mama Bear pressed down on the boy’s legs in that loving forceful way that only a mother can do in order to free the princess! Crisis averted…well more accurately just deferred to the next day.

One morning an eighth grade carpool helper who had witnessed this baffling event week after week looks at me and very respectfully says, “Ummm…have you ever considered moving him to the other side?” Silence…Still nothing…. then it registers what he just said! Nope…not going to lie… I had never once thought to do that. Brilliant! I felt like this kid should be the next Rhodes scholar!

After several weeks of this well played drama, I discovered that despite all my education and positive feelings about myself, I am in fact NOT smarter than an eighth grader. Well, at least for that moment it was true. While I want to blame the lowered IQ on the loss of brain cells from each epidural received during childbirth (TOTALLY worth it!), there is actually some great science to explain my temporary loss of common sense.

This story, while good for a chuckle, is intended to illustrate how all of us can become locked into thinking patterns that are no longer effective. Sometimes, through no fault of our own, we get ‘stuck’ in vicious thinking cycles. The things we repeatedly attempt to do to solve a problem can inadvertently keep the problem going.

Since infancy, my son had always been in that spot, so I could see him and reach him if necessary. Initially, it was the best place and was a great solution. However, as time progressed the once perfect solution no longer worked.

My overstressed brain was so locked in on the original concept, that it could no longer think beyond this one idea. What most of us jokingly refer to as “running on auto pilot”, is no laughing matter at all.  When we become overstressed, it impairs the prefrontal cortex area of our brain which makes decisions, plans, and regulates emotional responses. WHOA…wait… that sounds kind of important!

The prefrontal cortex is extremely important to mental wellness and can also be impacted by stress in the form of learned helplessness. As proven in research with animals on learned helplessness, initially an animal will attempt to free themselves from negative situations. However, when they are repeatedly unsuccessful, they no longer attempt to escape even after the barriers to escape are removed.

Whether a mom in the carpool line or a policy maker on Capitol hill we are all susceptible to running on auto pilot and learned helplessness. Today in so many of our systems we see the pervasive attitudes of “well that is just the way it is” or “this is how we have always done it”.  How often are we willing, like the brave eighth grader in my story, to speak up and explore if these current methods are still the best solution.

We could all use a little challenge to our thought patterns from time to time. For me that means challenging how we view and treat mental health in our society. If we want to make true strides in improving mental health on an individual, family, and community level we must shift our paradigm of thinking.

We can no longer use the disease model of treatment which requires us to wait until we have a crisis to seek treatment. True change in the mental health system is going to come when we seek first to fund and use prevention and early intervention to avoid reaching crisis level problems.

In the coming weeks I will share with you strategies for starting mental wellness education at conception and building throughout your lifespan. My hope is that no one will read a history book and wonder WHY we didn’t see that the answer was right in front of us all along.

As always, until next time may you be well, may you be loved, and may you know true peace.

Read more about Melissa C. Harrell and her work. Like Resiliency Counseling and Consulting, PLLC

The purpose of this blog is to offer educational information related to mental wellness. Resiliency Counseling & Consulting, PLLC and Melissa Harrell do not offer diagnosis or treatment through this medium. If you feel that you or a family member needs to access mental health services, first contact your primary care physician for assessment and direction in your area. If you need immediate help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255