It’s a pretty recent development in human history that we have medical classifications for things like anxiety, depressions, and other concerns. We spend a lot of money researching and treating these issues and a lot more more developing medicines that can be used to help people feel better. The reasoning goes something like this: since these issues can be traced to chemical process in people’s brains, if we can adjust those chemical levels, we can eliminate the concerns.
Before we get too far, let me say that I’m not here to make an argument against medication. As a therapist, I fully affirm that medications are an important part of treating many of the concerns that people have. Medications are a tool and they have a role in a larger ecosystem of treatments to help people feel better.
We also have to understand that we live in a culture where we want our hamburgers in sixty seconds and we get annoyed when Netflix starts to buffer in the middle of a good binge. These ideas impact who we are and how we think about the world. It makes sense that we also want quick fixes for the things that are bothering us.
I don’t have time to be depressed.
When my anxiety keeps me up at night, sometimes I have to load up on caffeine the next day.
We don’t want to be held back or slowed down. In a world like that, medications can become the primary means for eliminating symptoms. But they don’t always fix the problem. It’s only part of the story.
I believe that true healing – not just symptom reduction – involves healthy, safe, and responsive relationships.
We know that drugs regulate the chemical levels in a person’s brain. There’s a lot more that we know about the brain too. We know that it’s impacted by the relationships we have with others. When we feel safe – not judged – and validated by another human, the parts of our brain that respond to threats and dangers and amp up our anxiety levels start to relax and free up resources for other parts. In the closest relationships, we have research that shows us that parts of our right hemispheres begin to synchronize. This is most prominent in babies who we believe use their caretaker’s sense of calmness to begin to regulate their own emotions. This circuitry never leaves us, so when we’re connecting with a friend over coffee or a partner over a romantic dinner we feel safe and calm and connected in a way that goes beyond anything we could consciously describe.
It feels like there is something electric between you because there is.
This is the foundation of empathy. Dr. Sue Johnson, a renowned couples researcher talks about how empathy helps at the most basic level by letting us know that our story and our emotions make sense to another human being.
Understanding and empathy are the keys to healing and growth. If you’ve been told for your entire life that you’re not good enough, having a relationship with someone who provides you with support can be a healing and restorative experience. If that person gets frustrated with your low self-esteem or your hesitancy to connect with others, it’s an indication that empathy isn’t really present.
Empathy is so important because, in part, it provides a person with an opportunity to feel like they are safe and understood. It allows the parts of our brain that are focused on survival to relax and the parts of our brain that make sense of the world to take the lead. In fact, I would argue that safe, empathic relational experiences are the natural way that humans experience healing and growth. These relationships quite literally begin to rewire our brains. They provide conditions for our dysregulated brains to readjust. They allow our inborn tendencies for resilience and growth to come to the surface.
Sadly, like home cooked meals and vacations, relationships often become a casualty to our fast-paced lifestyles. We come home from work or carting the kids around and we are mentally spent. It’s easier to connect to the TV than to connect with our partner about how their day went.
Incidentally, these ideas are the same concepts that makes therapy effective for helping people experience a greater sense of well being. Yes, therapists are highly trained in specific techniques and these are important. None of this would be effective, though, without an ability to create a safe, open, empathic environment. Therapy harnesses the power of empathy to mobilize the resources that are already inside you. In fact, when we have people that truly understand us, the effects are undeniable. Our relationships have the power to literally reshape our brain and transform who we are. They have the power to help us see the world in an entirely new way.
They have the power to heal.
Desmond Smith is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist Associate. He and his wife, Kristy Yetman, run Yetman Counseling Services and provide therapy for individuals, couples, and families.