By Ron Unger
Excerpt: When people are convinced their problems are biochemical, they are also less likely to explore the problem with others or with a therapist. And when a therapist is convinced that his or her client’s problem is “biochemical” then that therapist is likely to focus on sending the client in for a “medication check” rather than looking deeper into what may be going on. (“Biochemcal imbalance” theories are also great for explaining away any failures of understanding on the part of therapists!)
If people are going to understand themselves and work through emotional problems, it is essential that they get curious about their experiences and reflect on what might be triggering them. Sometimes such curiosity or reflection results in getting valuable messages from those experiences, or at other times, it involves identifying a mistake that triggered the emotional experience, which then allows for resolution. To use the simple example of the threat perceived from the firearm, one might either take quick action to avoid being shot, or in another situation perhaps observe more carefully and notice a movie is being filmed and that the firearm being pointed is just a prop.
Of course, experiences like anxiety and depression often have their sources in much more complex experiences, and so more complex reflection is necessary to sort out what actions to take or what interpretations to revise. We live though in a society that does not like complexities or deep reflection, so we already have a bias toward thinking that disturbing emotions that don’t quickly make sense must just be something wrong with us. This bias makes us think we “shouldn’t have” disturbing emotional states, so we tend to push them away or dissociate from them, which just makes it more difficult for us ever to understand their sources and decide what to do about them.
Those who market psychiatric drugs take advantage of this cultural bias to offer a seductive pseudo explanation, which is that unwanted emotional states that aren’t easily resolved must be the result of a “biochemical imbalance” or some other biological problem. Our culture has become heavily influenced by this viewpoint, to the point where it seems the majority believe that seriously disturbing emotional states lacking easy explanations must be caused by a fault in biochemistry, rather than being something that can be potentially understood and resolved.
The sad result of this marketing effort has been to dramatically aggravate a cultural tendency to avoid deeply listening to each other, or even to ourselves. Any mental or emotional problem which does not rapidly resolve must be “biochemical” and not worth even trying to understand; instead we should be trying to drug it away.