In the pursuit of mental health, the most recent post featuring Dr. Christopher Walling outlined the importance of getting into therapy: “There really isn’t an alternative to that #1 thing that people need to do in order to get access to really good mental healthcare–which is find a good therapist.”
However, there is more that you can do on your own (and with groups) to support your mental health. The final installment of my interview with Dr. Walling will feature ways that you can personally, and in community, make choices to enhance mental health in yourself and those around you.
The 1, 2, 3’s of Mental Health
Ariel Kiley [AK]: Beyond working with a solid therapist, which is #1, what else can we do, as individuals, for our “mental hygiene? What’s #2?”
Dr. Christopher Walling [CW]: #2 is anything that supports greater self-regulation.
When I say “self-regulation” I mean mindfulness exercises, yoga, massage therapy, exercise, eating well, so-called “lifestyle medicine”… all of these things in some way are supporting a greater capacity to regulate one’s own state. They improve your distress tolerance, improve your performance and as a result are all yummy good things that everyone’s looking for in their lives.
But that’s not enough.
We don’t just self-regulate so that we can live on a mountain by ourselves. There’s a rule I use in my individual work as well as my work with couples, which is, we self-regulate in order to co-regulate. Meaning, beyond finding a therapist [#1] and learning lifestyle interventions to support your self-regulation [#2], step three is all about finding meaningful relationships so that self-regulation supports greater co-regulation.
When we look at the literature on longevity (and I’m also chair of education and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation, so longevity literature is one of my pet hobbies), the one common factor that often determines lifespan, across all causes of mortality, is the quality of our relationships. So really, what I’m listing as number three, is number one: Improve your relationships.
AK: When you refer to relationships, do you mean all kinds–from family to friends, mentors, kids, it doesn’t have to be a romantic relationship?
CW: Totally. I mean anything that falls under the domain of a relational exchange between two beings. It could be your relationship with your barista. It could be your relationship with your bus driver. That’s a relationship. Even though it’s transactional, it’s still a relationship.
How Community Relates to Mental Health
AK: Are the different ways people create community also part of mental health in addition to one-on-one relationships?
CW: Yes, when I’m talking about relationships I’m talking about group relationships as much as one-to-one relationships. Group dynamics are no different than a two-person psychology, they’re just a multi-person psychology.
Groups tend to have their own kind of group unconscious, group norms, group identity, group conflict. In some ways, they can tend to replicate the same dynamics we see, for example, in family systems. Oftentimes what people will end up doing is they’ll be reticent to engage in community or group dynamics for fear that there will be some repetition compulsion to their family system dynamic.
This might have a lot to do with why I say #1 is find a good therapist because they’re going to help you navigate some of those unconscious dynamics so that you have a right-sizing of what group dynamics are about.
Someone like myself who is very service oriented–I sit on all these boards, I’m constantly involved in some kind of service project–I can be so focused on the group sometimes that I need to go back to principle #2: What am I doing for my own self-regulation?
But I want to encourage people to disrupt this overused idea of self-care. Self-care is insufficient. If I’m only taking care of myself, then I’m essentially trying to fill my cup up when there’s a hole in it. We need others in order to take better care of ourselves. We were not designed to take care of only ourselves.
Exploring the Space Between Stimulus and Response
AK: As people remove whatever negative thing is self-soothing for them; addiction, alcohol, workaholic tendencies, excessive shopping, etc. and want to replace those with more positive self-care choices… this might be a weird question… but do we want to spend time in that gap between the negative and positive? Before we do the thing that will help comfort or regulate us?
CW: Totally. This is why it’s basic design to the stages that when we’re treating a particular trauma or recovering from a particular addiction, phase one is about bottom up stabilization. Which is to support a greater sense of capacity building.
So that you can go into stage two, [which is] top down decision-making and identifying new resources.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. That’s a space you want to spend some time in. There’s this notion that I often bring to my patients which is, what is at the heart of what impedes healing?
Sometimes you need someone to be there with you in that space. It’s like that Lady Gaga quote: “If you’re gonna go deep into your head you should take someone with you.”
That space is critical, because that’s where we’re in uncertainty. That’s when we’re dealing with paradoxical aspects of our own nature and our lives. Which are really impossible quandaries that we are meant to solve collectively and relationally and we are not meant to figure out on our own.
You’ll notice there’s a big throughline that I’ve got through a lot of your questions, which is connection.
That substitution principle–it’s brilliant. You must replace self-defeating unhealthy habits with healthier ones. But that’s got a very external orientation to it, [assuming] that all my problems need to be fixed. That reduces our identity to being a human doing; only being behaviorally focused.
In that space between the stimulus and the response, that’s where your sense of self emerges. Which is that mind we talked about at the beginning of this conversation. That flexible, adaptive, coherent, energizing, stable being comes into play. So I hope that answers your question.
AK: Yeah I love that. Also, a lot of times when people are in that space, that gap between the negative behavior and making the new “positive” choice, that’s when you get an influx of other people’s ideas and opinions of what you “should” do. But it’s actually a really fertile moment for you to find out “what is it that serves MY nature?” Which might be different than what a self-help guru says…
CW: Totally. Because there are emergent properties that are innately within you that will inherently, once they are given permission to show up and integrate, help you self-organize a sensibility of your own mind far differently than what you’ve ever known before.
This is the nature of what trauma recovery creates. This is the nature of what sobriety long-term creates. It creates this dynamism that is emboldened and impassioned and alive and filled with life force. But it’s contained and embodied and stable and organized… and that is like, man, that’s the yummy place.
That’s where creativity happens. Flow happens. Beautiful things occur. Where being human really comes into BEING and we get to experience and expand upon that. That’s joy. That’s what life’s all about.
AK: When the organism then finds its own way, that’s what people often call “grace.” They didn’t have the answer, they didn’t read or think up the answer, but they paused long enough for grace to show up. There is a breathtaking quality to those moments when they happen.
CW: That is where I hope to land. When people come to me and say, “Alright Dr. Walling, I need some advice…” I will often say, “Well, you’re in the wrong place.” That’s how you know that you’re dealing with a decent therapist–they interrupt your propensity to think that you don’t somehow have within you your own self-healing, self-corrective mechanisms.
[The self-healing, self-corrective mechanisms] are there. They are hardwired into your biology. We are the product of millions of years of evolutionary adaptive potentiation. That has a deep intrinsic intelligence to it.
This is the reason that we rely upon the body so much in body psychotherapy. Because it is the representation of the dynamic unconscious that Freud wrote about. The body IS the unconscious. And within it has access to so much wisdom that we can only put our pinky toe of our conscious mind into.
AK: Yeah the court reporter just can’t keep up!
CW: No! It’s not designed to. That cortex is so new–that cortex is a baby evolutionarily speaking. It has just shown up on the scene in really recent years, evolutionarily speaking. So we can’t expect the baby to know how to navigate this car that has nuclear power to it.
AK: You could put it in the passenger seat and give it one of those fake steering wheels and be like, “you’re driving! You’re doing a great job!”
CW: That’s right!
AK: Dr. Chris this so amazing, thank you so much.
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