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“Doc Is This Normal?”

“Doc, Is this Normal?”

I get asked that question a lot because I’m a psychiatrist.  Frankly, I’m not a fan of the word  “normal. “ It’s a heavy-weight, absolute term that can lead to misunderstanding.  When the answer is “yes,” the person who asks may feel foolish for even wondering.  That’s unfortunate.  We need to wonder about ourselves to become competent in navigating our lives.  The “no” response can set off the fear-sirens and shut down further talk.  That’s also regrettable, and for the same reason. When it comes to your mental health, if you are wondering, you need to ask.  You also need more than a simple “yes” or “no.”

Unlike the human body, there are unimaginable varieties of normal or functional personalities, behaviors, and beliefs. Part of growing or evolving in your own emotional health is getting to know who you are.  You may know what your physical stamina is for sprinting or long distance running because you know your constitution. What do you know, or any of us know about emotional stamina? We  can’t locate it in a brain structure, but we know it exists. For example, today I was reading how professionals who treat veterans are now asking how many deployments can a military recruit endure before a breakdown? What’s beyond someone’s emotional stamina?

These are the tougher questions in mental health. We cannot touch, see or measure the personality (or psyche) like the body.  These ambiguities lead some to confuse mind with psyche and soul and even dismiss the validity of mental health.  Others debate about whether the mind and body are “connected,” separate or one.  Others point to the Diagnostic Manuel of Mental Disorders as the scientific basis of mental health.  The numerous limitations of this new religion we call “science” has been written about by brilliant authors and politely ignored. Many opinions mean few absolutes, including what I write here.

What anyone struggles with is probably a unique combination and consequence of personality, genetics, brain chemistry, etc.   While we barely grasp our own complexity, we can still work with what we do know. We know the psyche (which is far more than our conscious “rational” self) can get sick just like the body, that it has the ability to heal itself, just like the body, and that sometimes it needs more help.

Good mental health begins with common sense.

Most readers are likely to sense when something isn’t working right, even if they don’t know how to describe it. Sometimes people just feel “different” or “not good.” Others can point to particular changes that signal they are having to work harder to maintain their lives. Examples are waking up sad, loosing a sense of purpose about life, no longer being able to concentrate and recall what’s read, seeking out unhealthy releases , such as binge drinking. There is more to recognizing emotional trouble in your own backyard than  looking with the “normal/not normal” lens.

We all are potentially the best judge of what is “normal” for ourselves.   But we usually aren’t the best judge of when we’re getting “off track.”  Most people try not to see that in themselves.  Here are some signs:

  1. Has there been a subtle shift in your baseline attitude about life? Do you wake up excited about the day?  Or do you feel like you are trudging? Each day is tedious and routine?
  2. Do you go to sleep satisfied, feeling your life is opening up to wider horizons?  Or do you feel it’s shutting down and you are squeezing yourself to maintain what others expect from you?
  3. Can you enjoy where you are at that moment or are you mostly preoccupied?
  4. Do you find it difficult to let go of what bothers you?

Ultimately we all our the guardians of our mental health. When life isn’t working, the question usually isn’t about what’s normal but what’s changed one’s feelings about  one’s quality of life. The  question usually isn’t  about what’s “normal” according to a professional criteria but what is most satisfying to your experience of life.