Britt Frank is a licensed psychotherapist, trauma specialist, educator and former addict. She is an award-winning adjunct professor for her time teaching at the University of Kansas. She also speaks and writes extensively about achieving and maintaining emotional well-being.
Below, Frank shares five key insights from her new book, The Science of Stuck: Breaking Through Inertia to Find Your Path Forward. Listen to the audio version – read by Frank himself – in the Next Big Idea app.
1. We need fear.
People often go to therapy with severe symptoms, thinking that all they need is to get rid of their anxiety. While anxiety can be debilitating and in some cases requires medical treatment before other interventions can be used, trying to get rid of anxiety is just as futile as trying to turn off the smoke detector in your home.
When your smoke alarm starts beeping, the sound is uncomfortable and inconvenient, but the alarm doesn’t attack the house; the sound is a sign that something needs attention. Likewise, fear isn’t a character flaw or a disease — it’s the ‘check engine’ light on our brain’s dashboard. If we turn off or mute our fear indicators, we won’t know where the problem is. Fear is a roadmap that points us to a real or imagined threat, past pain, or something in the present that needs our attention. Fear can lead us out of our chaos. In short, we need it.
2. Motivation is not a matter of mindset.
We like to work with the logical, analytical thinking part of our brain, which is why we love working our way through problems, devising strategies and making action plans. Thoughts shape behavior and thus reality; however, you can’t simply think of “being stuck”. Motivation is largely a physiological issue, not a mindset.
There are mechanisms in our nervous system that are responsible for survival physiology, otherwise known as the “fight, flight or freeze” responses. If you are shut down (freezing), or if you are stuck in a fight or flight (sympathetic overreaction, such as panic or racing thoughts), you are unable to think your way out because that is a physiological state. Just as you can’t figure out how to get out of indigestion or run a car when it’s out of gas, you can’t think happy thoughts and expect to act.
Turning off the amygdala response is key to motivation. The amygdala is the panic button in our brain that sounds the alarm that something is wrong. Even if, logically, you don’t think you should be stuck in the survival brain, this is an automatic process. Our brains are wired to recognize danger and seek safety. This means that if your brain, consciously or unconsciously, thinks you are in danger, it will create a survival response. When your brain senses a threat, it will put your system into a state of hyperarousal or shutdown, and we call that procrastination and lack of motivation.
There is no such thing as a true ‘lack of motivation’. Our brains are either motivated to mobilize in the direction of our choice or to mobilize in the direction of safety.
3. Mental health is a physical process.
Language is important. “Mental” health has little to do with our mind. A nervous system stuck in a fight, flight or freeze state will exhibit exactly the same symptoms as clinical depression or pathological anxiety. But a nervous system response is not a disease or condition.
Our survival physiological responses are often misdiagnosed and mislabeled as mental illness. The pain of our symptoms is real, and it’s important to note that depression can be life-threatening and incredibly debilitating, but it’s equally important to know that many of the things we call “diseases” are often our brains do what the brain is designed to do.
There is no shame in having a disease or illness – that is part of the human experience. But it’s important to note that 40 million Americans are diagnosed with mental illness each year, while illness appears to be an outlier. It should not be labeled as the norm. Most therapists are not trained in the physiology of mental health and do not know how to assess these body responses. If we shift our language from mental health, which is discussed as a mental process, to mental health as a physical process, we have a greater chance of finding our way to tools that can untie ourselves.
A brain stuck in fight, flight or freeze is not sick or disordered – it is not well attuned to safety and danger in the environment. A brain that feels safe will rarely cause symptoms. This doesn’t mean we don’t need therapy or drugs, but it does mean that the framework we’ve used in the past to view our most disturbing feelings and thoughts needs to be changed into one that’s also more biologically accurate. as empowerment.
4. There is no such thing as ‘self-sabotage’.
We all make choices that interrupt our lives, but the phrase “self-sabotage” is a misnomer because the actions that disrupt our plans, destroy our relationships, and destroy our sanity are not meant to sabotage. On the contrary, this self-sabotage behavior is a sub-optimal attempt at self-protection.
Even if you logically think you don’t need protection, unconscious emotions and automatic physiological processes are at play. What we call “self-sabotage” often happens because when you achieve a goal, things have to change. And all change—even positive change—brings some measure of loss and grief. We are committed to repetition, pattern seeking and habit formation, so any changes in our status quo can trigger a threat response from our amygdala.
Knowing that self-sabotage is a sub-optimal attempt at self-protection doesn’t excuse sub-optimal behavior, but it does explain that often mind-boggling behaviors — and behavioral understanding is required for behavior change. Achieving a goal requires emotional risks, new boundaries in relationships, financial resources, and other risks.
5. All behavior is functional.
Our habits and compulsions hinder our ability to live our best, most productive lives. Not all behavior is acceptable, but all behavior is functional – otherwise the behavior would not exist. For example, the functionality of a sub-optimal behavior can be image preservation: if you don’t make changes, you don’t have to change the status quo. Any change brings a certain amount of sadness, but as modern western people in a “just think positive, live your best life” kind of environment, the idea that we should name the things we fear most and share having to integrate ourselves those we don’t like, all as antecedents of change, is a really hard sell.
Addiction is an example of highly toxic, yet functional, behavior. If I’m addicted to a substance, behavior, person, or way of thinking, I’m not dealing with what’s waiting for me on the other side. While the disease model of addiction is still prevalent, there is just as much research indicating that addiction is not always a disease. As a former addict and as a therapist who has worked in a clinical rehab, I have yet to meet someone who struggles with addiction and who also doesn’t have an underlying pain point trying to ease the addiction. When you get to the bottom of even the most extreme behaviors, you will almost always find untreated trauma or unresolved grief.
While “explanation” isn’t synonymous with “excuse,” it’s incredibly important to know that focusing on behavior change at the expense of behavior understanding almost always makes us inert. Not identifying the function of a behavior forces us to repeat the behavior. In reality, it takes a lot more work to avoid the work than to actually do the work. You don’t have to make huge behavioral changes to get loose — to get loose requires small micro-shifts, and those shifts are getting bigger quickly. Before you know it you are on the move. Once you get started, all that wonderful cognitive work suddenly becomes powerful.
This article originally appeared in Next Big Idea Club magazine and is reprinted with permission.
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