The Good News about New Brain Disorders

So do you ever wonder if our fast-paced, hyper-connected, screen-loving, image-flooded society is taking a toll on us? It sure is, and not just in the most obvious ways like increasing stress, sleeplessness, and injuries like “gamer’s thumb.” The digital age is requiring our brains to make new and rapid adaptations, and some of these adjustments can interfere with our ability to function well.

This recent article in The Week features five new brain disorders, all products of our adaptations to new technology. Disorders like Nomophobia (also known as No-Mobile Phobia, or the fear of being without your phone), Truman Show Delusion (the belief that a person is being watched and broadcast, as in the 1998 movie), and Cyberchondria (a more frantic and Internet-based version of Hypochondria, in which a person can’t stop researching, and freaking out over, medical symptoms) are reflections of life in the twenty-first century. They probably aren’t truly brand-new forms of disorder, but new expressions of disordered anxiety, delusion, and other common elemental causes. But like all disorders, they impair a person’s ability to function normally and well.

These newer disorders aren’t the only ones triggered by adaptations to new realities. Some common and long-known types of disorder can also be rooted in adaptation, efforts to cope, overactive mental processes, or responses to new stimuli–problems like post-traumatic stress disorder, other anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and addictions. Even depression can be triggered by attempts to adapt or adjust through stressful circumstances. These kinds of brain dysfunction are not as mysterious as we sometimes believe–they don’t strike from outside us, as contagious diseases do, and they can come upon us gradually. Unlike disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other disorders that are always heavily based in brain chemistry malfunctions, they can rise from our own God-given internal processes. And they are evidence that our brains are continuously responding to our experiences, with or without conscious thought.

This doesn’t mean adaptive disorders are anyone’s fault; each person is wonderfully unique, and a mental response that helps one person can turn against another. Many of the circumstances that give rise to disorders are entirely outside our control. Such a disorder can even be rooted in a very healthy process–such as the fight-or-flight response that helps us deal with danger.

Most of us aren’t in the habit of thinking about, let alone intentionally caring for, the health of our brains. Those who are in such habits are likely to be people who study brains for a living (people like neurologists and psychiatrists, not zombies) or people who have had something go seriously wrong with their brains, to the point where it interfered with their ability to function. Their experience has convinced them their brains are worth nurturing deliberately.

The rest of us have the luxury of seeing our brain functions as automatic, mysterious, and outside our control. Or we just never giving them any thought. As we learn more and more about how our brains work, and what they need, we may begin to think differently about taking them for granted.

But I didn’t start writing this to issue a warning; I wanted to share hope. There is good news here, in the changeability (plasticity) of our brains. Just as our environment and experiences can have a detrimental effect on our brains, they can have a healing effect. We can make choices that promote health in our brains–even when our brains are already disordered. In fact, that’s one of the reasons good therapists can be so helpful–they help us find new ways of thinking and adapting to our realities. As a coach, I know my work can have this effect too, even though it is not designed to heal or treat mental health problems. Our brains really can learn to be healthier as we treat them well.

So if you are tempted to believe you’re stuck as you are, or someone you love is doomed to a broken brain, take heart. The same flexibility that makes our brains susceptible to malfunction can make them dexterous, resilient, and ripe for healthy new growth.

5 Comments
  1. Pat Franklin says:

    Are you familiar with Curt Thompson’s book “The Anatomy of the Soul”? He is a Christian psychiatrist who integrates new discoveries from neurobiology with healthy, spiritually integrated living. Dr. Thompson also stresses that we can change. With God’s help and understanding how the brain works, we don’t need, as you said, to stay stuck!

  2. Pat Franklin says:

    Amy, it was listed as a notable book by a reputable review (can’t remember which one). I have marked it and also used his second book, “The Soul of Shame,” to go through chapter by chapter with a friend. I think you’d find them worthwhile to look at. Thompson has a website called “Being Known”.

© 2017 Amy Simpson.