In Untangling the Mind: Why We Behave the Way We Do, D. Theodore George, M.D., a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health, describes a new model for understanding America’s surge in emotional and behavioral disorders. Earlier this year, a report by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies found that comparing a peer group of 17 wealthy countries, Americans under 50 now have the lowest life expectancy and fall at the bottom (i.e. were the worst) of nearly every morbidity category from deaths by substance abuse, sexual-related diseases, infant mortality, violence and sedentary lifestyles that contribute to diabetes and cardiovascular problems. The report points out that in the years following World War II, America was near or at the top of the peer group. It rightly concludes that something clearly is wrong but, unfortunately, fails to provide a satisfactory explanation. The problem has become so acute that earlier this month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released figures that show suicide rates haven sharply increased so that more Americans now die from suicide than from motor vehicle accidents.
Fortunately, Dr. George’s book helps us understand what’s going wrong. In his view, traumas experienced by 75 percent of the population result in faulty brain wiring that makes people vulnerable to the stressors, threats and fears we experience in modern life, including the chronic stress many people experience in today’s workplace. The faulty wiring misinterprets threats and fears by blowing them way out of proportion. This results in emotional and behavioral disorders. When people don’t feel well emotionally – i.e. they are angry, anxious, withdrawn, bored, depressed, etc. – they frequently cope in ways that result in addiction (e.g. substance abuse, promiscuity, porn addiction, eating disorders, cutting). Although these addictive behaviors provide temporary relief, they hijack the brain’s reward system and eventually kick in the anti-reward system so that people need a fix of the coping behavior to feel better from the unpleasant sensations of withdrawal.