Sigmund Freud’s influence on Western cultures is profound. Many of us were introduced to Freudian concepts in a Psychology 101 course freshman year of college. His work was brilliant and most of it worthwhile, but even Freud couldn’t foresee the developments of modern medicine and neuroplasticity.

The id, the ego, and the superego. Dream analysis. The Oedipus complex. The concept of the unconscious mind always working through conflicts that trace back to childhood. So many contributions to our understanding of the mind and mental health.

He was the father of psychotherapy and that may be where he has had the greatest impact on modern society. It is unquestioned now that people are better off talking about their problems. Get it out. Don’t keep it all bottled up inside. Repressed emotions will give you cancer.

There is a gender dynamic at work as well. Women are better at expressing themselves and venting their frustrations. Men keep their problems in potentially associating complaining as a sign of weakness. Mars and Venus.

There was a study done where they gave a group of men and a group of women the same stressful situation. For men, a marker of anxiety and stress (IL-6 or interleukin-6) went up in the blood for less than an hour before returning to baseline. For women, the IL-6 level went up and up and up over more than 8 hours reaching much higher levels before coming down.

Women assume men would be better off if they shared their feelings. Men don’t really think about it all that much. We’re good, thanks.

Turns out, the issue is not that straightforward. There are many situations where traditional talk therapy is the best approach to help a person work through difficult times. But there are other scenarios where psychotherapy can be one of the worst things a person could do.

How can this be?

How can such a fundamental concept of mental health be wrong?

We have a better understanding now of how the brain works in terms of connections. The more you do something (like tie your shoe) or think something (like work sucks), the more connections you establish in your brain. We each create our own truth. The realities we live are partially of our own devising.

Every time a Democrat hears that a person has hard times through no fault of their own, it reinforces the idea that the government should be providing services for those less fortunate. Every time a report comes out that people are faking a disability claim, a Republican feels justified in thinking the government is a nanny state and the country has lost its way.

Over time, the more we think a certain thing, the more it is reinforced through more and more synaptic connections. The less we think of something, the less those neural connections are reinforced.

Many with chronic illnesses that affect their daily quality of life understandably have elements of frustration, anxiety, anger and other intense emotions relative to their situation. This is exacerbated if they see medical practitioners who are challenged to help them. Each negative thought by the person reinforces the idea that they are sick and that becomes their story.

The hypothalamus is an area of the brain that is particularly affected by chronic stress in just about any form including head injuries, emotional struggles, physical abuse, social isolation, pain, infections, toxins, inflammation, and others. The hypothalamus is the control center at the confluence of the limbic (emotional) system, hormonal system, and the nervous system.

If I see a patient with intractable health problems that is stuck despite the efforts of a variety of practitioners, I wonder about what Annie Hopper calls “limbic system dysfunction.”  One of the hallmarks of a person with this condition is that they often have extreme sensitivities to emotions, smells, light, sound, etc. They are often stuck in a “fight or flight” mode with rashes, flushing, irritability, personality changes, and variability of vital signs like pulse and blood pressure.

Annie Hopper, Ashok Gupta, Norman Doidge, and others have been working in this area for many years. The good news is that they all have websites (click on their names or see their website links below) and books describing these deep sources of chronic, stubborn health problems. The good news is there are programs and protocols like Annie Hopper’s Dynamic Neural Retraining System (DNRS) that can gradually rewire the brain to a healthier state.

This is not hocus-pocus. These programs work. I have seen dramatic shifts toward wellness for the group of my patients thus far who have done the programs.

Do some research and figure out if this is relevant to you or someone you care about. A good place to start would be Annie Hopper’s book Wired for Healing. Being well may be more in your control than you realize.

Andrew Lenhardt, MD