The secret for mental health is perception

Perception is key to mental health

Almost 25 years ago, when I was training to become an art psychotherapist, I hypothesized that there must exist a balance between perception and projection in order to be able to enjoy optimal mental health. Imagine a continuum where at one end we see people displaying resilience and turning crisis into opportunity; people  keeping their peace of mind in the midst of turbulent times.  At the other end of the continuum, people who seemingly have lost all sense of reality, and in between, different degrees of relational conflict, mental disorders or dysfunctions.

As you may know, one of the characteristics of people with psychotic disorders is that they have grown a mysterious inner – and usually scary – world populated with perceptions nobody else shares with them. They see unique things and hear alien voices or sounds, phenomena that we call hallucinations. They generate beliefs and thoughts that are not founded on the reality others perceive and we call these experiences, delusional. Their cognition, thought process, mood and speech become disturbed as a consequence of  distorted perception.

At the in between positions in the continuum, we find “neurotics” (a definition we no longer use in the mental field – exception made for psychoanalysts, of course) who might experience being victimized, tormented or oppressed by people who somehow resemble (or without resembling, elicit a memory of) their childhood caregivers. They could become extremely sensitive and any level of stress throw them out of balance. Their perception is affected by the projection of their personal inner world onto others. We call this phenomenon transference.

“Healthy people” at the other end of the continuum (and Freud would probably not accept this term since all of us go through neurotic episodes at some point) tend to have a more accurate rendition of their reality. Let’s say that their day is not so easily spoiled. They are calmer and less reactive; they think before they act; they accept responsibility for the consequences of their words and actions without feeling “sorry,” and they certainly have the capacity to see opportunities where others see disasters or dangers.  This is because they know that as adults you can’t place the blame on others for the way they feel. They choose the impact the other person or the circumstances will pose on them.

After these many years working as a psychotherapist, I think my hypothesis might be right… People who learn and practice mindfulness, people who meditate, who make sure they are well rested and nourished, seem to have a brain (and guts) with the perfect amount of endorphins and other neurotransmitters. They seem to become better listeners and instead of becoming bitter or reacting harshly to another human being, they are capable of stepping back, looking at a given situation from a calm perspective, feeling empathy for the other and responding not from the ego but from the heart.

“The essence of love is perception,” said Marc Gafni, “Therefore the essence of self love is self perception. You can only fall in love with someone you can see clearly – including yourself. To love is to have eyes to see. It is only when you see yourself clearly that you can begin to love yourself.”

I say, the key to mental health is solving the pending business of the past so that they don’t interfere with the capacity to perceive what is really going on.


Everything is so aseptic

The first time I had a notion that this country had an obsession with hygiene and asepsis (the absence of bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms) came when, many years ago, I heard of a girl who visited my country of origin, contracted hand washinghepatitis A and died from it.

I’d seen many of my friends becoming a little yellowish, nauseous and feverish for a few days and then getting better after just resting, following a low-fat diet that consisted mostly of sweets (“melado”) and fat-free cheese. How could it be then, I asked myself, that somebody would die of that kind of very benign hepatitis? My mother said that it was because the “Americans” were so much into disinfecting everything, that they didn’t have a very strong immune system. And maybe she was right.

After living in the U.S. for about 15 years, I have seen people wiping their hands with sanitizer (washing hands is better!) after and before  they walk into the supermarket, after somebody sneezes or after they have visited a friend at the hospital.  New moms won’t allow anybody to touch their babies. There are warning signs everywhere recommending not to sneeze into your hands but on your arm instead, etc. People in the U.S. have grown fond of  chlorine and disinfectants. Just visit any supermarket and see all the different brands that offer sanitation, disinfection and germ-free options. Hand-sanitizer breaks have become a routing in schools, and children are taught to cough or sneeze into their elbow, God forbid! not into their hands. It’s illegal to serve uncooked meats at a restaurant or to sell raw milk.

Another consequence of the germophobia is excessive vaccination (which has turned out as a wonderful business for Big Pharma). The U.S. children are among the most vaccinated children in the world. While in 1953, the CDC recommended 16 doses of 4 vaccines (smallpox, DPT) between two months and age six, presently it recommends 49 doses of 14 vaccines between day of birth and age six and 69 doses of 16 vaccines between birth and age 18.

And other businesses also profit from the germophobia: disposable hospital stuff, napkins, forks, plates and cups… We’re turning the whole planet into a dump because of this disposing mania.

I am not of course discussing the benefits of cleanliness or prevention of infectious diseases. Hygiene is very important. I am aware of stories such as that of Typhoid Mary, who in the 19th century was identified as an asymptomatic carrier of Salmonella (bacteria that causes the potentially lethal Thyphoid fever) and presumably infected 50 people during her many years as a cook. Thus, yes, I want at least the cooks and other people to manipulate my food to wash their hands after they go to the bathroom.

However, it puzzles me that while a person might wipe her hands once and again with sanitizer – to the point of absorbing enough alcohol that I bet you they would get a “legally intoxicated” reading in the breathalizer – this person might not be inclined to keep a neat living space… I’ve seen their undone laundry piling up and their kitchens brooding roaches, ants and rodents.

Now, people have extended their obsession with asepsia to their mental and spiritual dimensions of their beings, but that would be the subject of another piece.