Return of The Neglected Gnome

How acknowleding our survival instinct can help solve the mental health crisis

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Photo by Bruno Kelzer on Unsplash

Her Words, Not Mine

She had seemed such a nice, friendly woman, my last psychotherapist.

Her methods had appealed to me, and I had truly believed that after 14 failed attempts, I had finally found someone who might help me sort the chronic depression and anxiety disorder that kept pushing me to breaking point. I went to every session with hope I hadn’t felt in years.

It didn’t last.

“Don’t pay it too much attention,” she said with a shrug and a warm smile.

I did a double-take. For the first time in my life, I felt safe enough to talk about the primal, existential fears that had driven me to multiple suicide attempts, and I… “Sorry, what?”

“It’s just your reptilian brain acting out,” she explained. “You know, like a little gnome at the base of your brainstem? It’s seeing dangers, but it’s too stupid to see the dangers aren’t real. Just ignore it, the little c*nt is only an evolutionary leftover, really.”

Her expletive, not mine. I was dumbstruck. Coarse language doesn’t offend me, but the casual dismissal of my deepest fears was jarring.

“If it really bothers you,” she continued, “there are some physical movements you can make to trick the little blighter into thinking you’re fighting or fleeing. That will shut it up.”

Too astonished to do anything else, I tried the exercises and sat through several more sessions, hoping for improvement at her end or mine. There was none. A month later, I chalked up the experience as yet another failed therapy.

The Elephant in the Room

When I tell this story, I often get the response: “That’s awful! Why didn’t you up and leave right away?” Because at the time, I believed I was the problem.

Like many people who grew up with what they later discovered was a narcissistic parent, I had learned from a young age to put others’ needs before my own. As a result, it had become second nature to me to suppress primal needs (like food and a bathroom) as well as primal emotions like anger and fear. I suppressed them so well that I barely knew how to recognize these emotions. I only knew what I felt wasn’t allowed to exist.

So whenever the latest therapist dismissed my emotions as ‘untrue and therefore irrelevant’, that didn’t strike me as strange.

In hindsight, I know my fears seemed irrational to them and they had no idea how to help me deal with such overwhelming emotions. In the moment itself, the therapist simply confirmed what I had known since early childhood: my emotions didn’t matter.

A warped view, I knew that. Which was exactly why I sought psychological help! However, over the course of 20 years, 15 different therapists failed to recognize the signs that my anxiety, depression and frequent suicidal episodes were not the illness, but symptoms of an underlying condition: C-PTSD.

Over a dozen trained professionals had treated me, but each one of them had missed the hallmarks of emotional neglect. All because they had ignored the elephant in the room. I had to devise my own psychological model to discover this. Had any of the psychologists I trusted to help me given serious attention to that ‘irrelevant evolutionary leftover’ that is my reptilian brain, I might have recovered years sooner!

Yes, I’m angry. Absolutely livid. Believe me, ‘years’ is a very long time when you are actively suicidal.

Widespread (Dis)Belief

Initially I simply considered myself merely unlucky to not have encountered more observant therapists. However, once I started training others to use my method, almost every one of my trainees had a similar story, as do new arrivals.

They tell of therapists who focus on cognitive solutions, but downplay, discount or completely ignore the long-term influence of instinctive emotions. There are those who do acknowledge the reptilian brain, but more often than not they still consider our instinct to be an unchangeable thing, and therefore of no more consequence to psychotherapy than a patient’s arms and legs.

The reptilian brain is regarded as an inferior mental aspect that, while it has an unmistakable but unpredictable and undesirable influence on our behaviour, ideally should be suppressed entirely. Of course, instinct is useful when it takes over control to save our life when we are in danger, but otherwise, we don’t want to have anything to do with it.

I am shocked by how widespread these beliefs still are among practicing psychologists and therapists in this day and age. With our current scientific understanding and advanced research options, how can it be that trained professionals still trivialise the extent and nature of the role of the reptilian brain in emotional trauma?

Muzzling The Crocodile

In modern society, we expect people to be rational and social beings above all. Our own behaviour and that of others should reflect rational and social norms, as is necessary to keep the equilibrium within the group when that group is large and lives close together, as humans do. The expectations that keep this equilibrium leave little room for the self-centred and erratic behaviours that result from our instinctive responses.

The reptilian brain is not alone in our cranium. It is said that a human being is ‘a man riding a dog riding a crocodile’. The man is the rational brain, the neocortex that enable abstract thinking. The dog (or horse) is the animal brain that enables complex emotions and social behaviour. And then there is the crocodile, the primal reptilian brain first developed hundreds of millions of years ago, and has changed very little since.

Our reptilian brain strikes out of the blue and can overwhelm the other brains. And it must: our survival instinct doesn’t work if it cannot override the rest of our brain functions. If you stop to admire the beautiful paint job of that oncoming car, it will run you over before you remember to leap out of the way.

But the decisive strength that saves us from imminent danger also upsets the balance of socially acceptable behaviour. So the crocodile scares us, and we teach our children young to suppress and control their inner crocodile.

In very young children, behaviour is governed by the reptilian brain. They are impulsive, uncontrolled and self-centred. However, as the child grows up and their social and rational brain become more active, these new functions and skills only augment the reptilian brain. These other brains cannot, in any way, replace the functions of the reptilian brain.

Yet society expects that we behave as if our social and rational skills have replaced our survival instincts. When a dog is frightened or hurting, it will snap. We accept that as normal behaviour in a dog, but when a person is frightened or hurting, we expect them to suppress their instincts and show self-control and politeness. Even though that instinctive response to lash out, verbally or physically, is part and parcel to preserving our continued existence: our life!

Self-Preservation Is The Basis of Identity

Science serves society, so it reflects the prevalent norms of society. In this light, it is not surprising that the field of psychology, and in particular psychotherapy, focuses so strongly on cognitive treatments and solutions. The rational brain is the scientific brain, after all, so it speaks the language of science: numbers, schematics, models, etc.

However, that is not the language of the other two brains. The animal brain is more susceptible to emotional experience rather than words and planning. The reptilian brain, in turn, is non-verbal, comprehends only the here and now, and relies on straightforward sensory input for communication.

So it is understandable that a brilliant, rational scientist regards the reptilian brain as crude and simplistic. A stupid, unpredictable gnome that cannot be reasoned with, cannot change, and is therefore irrelevant. Harsh words, but this is the bias that so many people seeking treatment for mental illness encounter: their primal instincts are at best left unaddressed, and at worst outright ignored.

This bias is far more harmful that it may appear at first glance.

The reptilian brain is not just our survival instinct. It encompasses all of our self-defence systems. This means that it is that part of us that guards our physical and mental boundaries, and act out when those boundaries are violated.

This function is vital to our self-awareness, because setting and protecting these boundaries determines our identity as a person. This identity and the intrinsic protection thereof form the basis of our self-esteem, self-confidence, self-worth: all traits that psychologists and society alike expect to see in a mentally healthy human being.

Acknowledge, Not Ignore

Most of my trainees are survivors of extensive, long-lasting emotional abuse. For many of them, their mental health problems are rooted at the level of their reptilian brain. Not, as many of their previous therapists believed, because the reptilian brain is inherently unchangeable and a hindrance to ‘normal’ behaviour, but because this essential part of them has been systematically neglected and suppressed.

The reptilian brain is the very core that supports our identity as a person. To discount this vital part of them as irrelevant is to strip a person of their ability to determine and protect who they are. They are, in the most literal sense, left with nothing. Speaking from personal experience as well, this is the most visceral emotional damage one human being can inflict on another.

Is it really surprising that so many people today are struggling with mental health issues, when the doctors and therapists that they look to for help are the very people who dismiss their most basic, existential emotions as ‘irrelevant’ or worse?

How can patients learn to cope with a chronic illness or recover where possible, when the ones who should be helping them get back on their feet club them in the emotional kneecaps at every turn?

I refuse to believe that this blatant breach of the patient’s trust is intentional. Practicing psychotherapists are, first and foremost, healers. Therefore, I firmly believe that it is every honest therapist’s intention to help their patients to the best of their ability.

However, good intentions do not undo the damage done by casually referring to the core of their identity as “a stupid c*nt” that should be ignored…

We may be smart humans, but we cannot deny that at our core, we are also still crocodiles that will fight for their right to exist. That is the right of every living being. It is high time that our metal health care system honoured that right.

Not as an abstract concept, but here and now, in the face of every patient whose neglected little brain gnome asks for nothing more than to be acknowledged.

Because to be acknowledged is the much-needed confirmation that you exist.

Mental health trainer & creator of Ship Psychology, the fun and effective method to look inside your head and mend the damage done by anxiety, depression & more

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