My journey from crises to a career in medicine and mental health began early in life.
Growing up in the rural countryside, I loved to run and play, in the open fields and woods, with my friends and dog. I became good at swimming and other sports. Even though polio was in the news with pictures of children paralyzed from the untreatable illness — there was no effective treatment or vaccine. I felt invincible and in robust health. But with a turn of fate, the virus found me one summer day.
The high fever, headaches, and stiff neck grabbed ahold of me and worsened instead of passing like most illnesses in the past. It wasn’t the measles, whooping cough, or chickenpox that I had suffered with for a week. My parents became increasingly concerned after what seemed an eternity for me — probably a little more than a week. They drove me into the city to see a pediatrician that I had seen and well knew as he had chased me around the room so many times and set on me to give me painful shots of penicillin — a popular thing for doctors to do in those days.
The doctor saw me and with the high temperatures and stiff neck. As there was a polio epidemic going on at the time — there would be no penicillin shot or a lollypop for me, but straight to the children’s hospital in the city. I was numb from hearing the words that I might have polio and remember getting angry at my older brother when he reminded me of what the doctor had said. The experience in the hospital for a young child, never far away from home before, was terrifying and right down scary. It was survival of the fittest, especially when that doctor and nurse came at me with the longest needle I had ever seen to do a spinal tap. I recovered slowly over a month with hot pack treatment and physical therapy in a heated pool — the treatments favored then. I was one of the fortunate ones, as I only had the meningitis form of the illness and not the paralytic type. It was a life-changing experience for me. The kind doctors and nurses who cared for me significantly influenced me to seek a career to emulate their kindness and service.
My work in medicine and psychiatry has often seen the impact of traumatic events and crises in peoples’ lives.
I have also lived through several natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, witnessing the effect on people, including my family. Mental illness and disabling conditions occur with a dramatic increase during times of heightened stress and disruption — as in the current COVID-19 pandemic. I took the challenge of taking some older articles published by myself in the past and adding new material to write a book. It gave me the chance to revisit my traumatic experience of my illness during a time of a pandemic. I tied my writing in with my years of observation and involvement in peoples’ lives who did their best to survive the difficulties of illness, loss, and sometimes death. I wanted to draw a link to the deeper source of healing found in my searching and transformative experience in holistic medicine. I discovered the collective power of bringing mind, body, and spirituality into a healing formula — for better health, wellness, and wellbeing, even in the direst circumstances. My book COVID-19/Mental Health Crises focuses on the frequently experienced mental health challenges.
We often associate these challenges with times of significant stress or crises — as with the current pandemic or other major stressful events, tragedy, or significant life disruption. It is essential to identify early signs of emotional and psychological dysfunction or impending breakdown. The book presents succinctly important preventative and intervention tips for information, help, insight, or inspiration. The educative and guidance content stresses the value of holistic awareness and actions — preparedness for when mental health difficulties occur in times of heightened demands and unexpected challenges.
Labeling what is normal, dysfunctional, or disease can be problematic.
The label becomes a barrier for the person in need of care and the healthcare provider doing the care, intervention, or treatment. From a holistic orientation, it is crucial to consider healing as a movement toward optimal functioning, becoming whole again, and regaining integrity. Focusing on a specific label for an occurring mental health challenge may be limiting, especially if remediation, restoration, or improvement is the goal. It is best practice to use terms, labels, classifications, and common descriptors for mental health or medical issues — as a reference or starting point toward a broader holistic discussion, understanding, and actions.
An integrative health care assessment actively identifies all internal and external components affecting the individual seeking help. As much as possible, all the components need attention: whether it is the interior aspects of an individual, as genetics and organ functioning, or the external influence as the environment and family. All relative factors need consideration to see what needs attention, support, enhancement, or reduction in an integrative assessment and treatment program.
The term disease or illness suggests an irregularity or deviation from expectations. It is important to consider our definitions for normalcy, healthy function, and what makes up dysfunction or abnormality. In a holistic sense, we might consider it normal when all components or elements in an individual, community, and environment exist in a way that sustains and perpetuates healthy coexistence. Another way to define normalcy would be the occurrence of optimal health and wellbeing — with the integrity of functioning of all internal and external components of a person’s complex system.
In terms of mental or emotional health vs. dysfunction or illness, key considerations would be:
- Degree of an individual acceptance or rejection of their life circumstance
- Independence vs. dependence on others
- Ability to be self-sufficient, flexible, and adaptable
- Ability to operate safely and productively in a social or community setting.
Flexibility and adaptability to change are critical factors in maintaining both physical and mental health. A person, for example, with a prior history of significant trauma would be very prone to considerable stress, anxiety, and ill health if they had a ridged way of interpreting and interacting with their environment. Flexibility and adaptability are like water flowing in a river — sagely Zen teaching. The water would be very fluid; flow around obstacles; and avoid the damage that might occur to solid, inflexible objects. There would be a proneness to injury or ill health when inflexibility exists in a person’s case. Being stuck in an inflexible state of mind contributes to more distress and predisposes a person to mental ill-health, especially with the unavoidable changes and unpredictability that can occur in relationships and the world in which we live.
The key is to maintain or regain flexibility and fluidity in mental and emotional endeavors. To develop a higher degree of awareness and mindfulness — to avoid a precarious, rigid, and less adaptable mindset — education, training, and therapeutic help are a consideration. The priority in avoiding illness or accidents would be to recognize when you’re becoming ensnared in vulnerability. There would be a greater chance of survival in a crisis when success depends on fluidity and adaptability. There is the opportunity to realize self-entrapment and inflexibility and move towards greater freedom of mind and spirit — a guiding principle in the practice of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.
Health or normalcy reflects an optimal state of open-mindedness and awareness.
Mental and physical health calls for expanding our awareness and consciousness beyond the usual over-focus on personal experience and functioning — to the realization of our connectedness, interdependence, and coexistence in the world and universe around us. The idea and expression of the spiritual aspects of mental health are often difficult to understand, express, or put into action when one is struggling with difficulties. If there is an openness to adding a spiritual dimension to your healing program, it may be time to get some holistic guidance, help, and education about other positive choices to reach your goal — choices other than those you have unsuccessfully followed.
Normalcy and health reflect a sturdy foundation and a flexible, resilient constitution — like a well-constructed building that could withstand earthquakes, storms, or attacks. A person with these positive traits is better equipped and fortified to withstand a pandemic or severe illness. Choices are possible with a flexible mind and awareness, allowing the pliancy as that of a supple tree to bend with a strong wind. Rigidness creates the proneness to break with stressful experiences or crises. Awareness itself opens the possibility of being more adaptable to change.
Interestingly, a recent advertisement on TV was about a meditation program to help “control” anxiety. This seems counter-intuitive, as what would be helpful would be to give up excessive control. It would be more helpful to learn to be comfortable having more acceptance and straining less for control. To give up being over defensive or controlling helps lessen the stifling, inflexible, and protective layers that develop. The result of too much defensiveness and control can increase vulnerability and maladaptation to life’s changes, vicissitudes, and demands. One needs to achieve the integrity of the spirit with the mundane aspects of life — the acceptance of the limited functional being, that we are, in our day-to-day existence. It is the union of the larger spiritual perspective of life with our awareness of our mutual coexistence with others and nature — which supports health and wellbeing.
Individuals or groups often tightly embrace a point of view or an ideology.
When the focus of ideas discriminates or rejects others. The outcome is a conflict and harm to all involved. It begins with judgments of who does or doesn’t fit a certain expectation or criteria. This leads to tighter boundaries of what is acceptable or not. Eventually, there is fear, anger, or hatred toward what is unacceptable; in the individual’s case, the more domination by prejudicial beliefs and ideas, the more there is proneness, inflexibility, maladaptation, distress, and illness. Strife, conflict, or dysfunction of the larger group or the society is the progression and outcome. The destructive seeds are the disharmonious, narrow-minded attitudes and beliefs fostered to individuals by the group influence — often driven by self-serving motives for power, domination, or economic advantage.
People generally gather or live in groups, from a couple to a family, to larger configurations as a community, a military group, or an army. Each has its own internal culture from childhood after membership or induction occurs into the group, or after identification with a group. Propaganda, the media, or an idealized charismatic figure influences group membership.
Recently, there has been an interest in “herd mentality” and “herd immunity.”
Questioning the cause of individuals’ conformity to their identified group’s beliefs and attitudes leads to a conversation about the group or the herd nature of people. That people are a herd or group animal developed from scientists observing humans and other animal species that lived in herds, groups, or tribes. There are often similar characteristics within groups because of common origins, genetic traits, or geographic boundaries. Individuals would live in collective groupings for survival reasons and other mutual advantages — as tribes, clans, communities, states, or countries.
The challenge was to conform to other’s expectations and what the group culture taught and encouraged. Conformity develops from the teachings and influence taken on by living in a particular group, place, or society — to be accepted, not cast out, or rejected. In pre-historic times, living in a wild environment, when cast out or expelled from the herd, would mean death by being devoured by wild animals or starving to death without the hunters’ benefits in the group.
They spared and accepted those that had some unique difference that would benefit or meet a need of the tribe or collective. This was true even if they were different in appearance, like being larger and stronger, or had superior intellectual ability to be more inventive with creative ideas. Instead of being expelled from the group, individuals with some unique genetic qualities (neurodiversity) and differences might become the tribe leader, a scientist to develop new technologies, a shaman, healer, medicine man, or priest. If the individual is too much at odds or different from the more typical group member, there would be the risk of being ostracized from the group. This could lead to being bullied, tortured into submission, or forced conformity. In the extreme, the person would become marginalized to the point of losing help and all benefits of the group or collective. The worst would be death or put out to perish in the wilds as occurred in pre-historic times.
Herd immunity, to stop COVID-19 spread, is very difficult to reach.
Gaining herd immunity has been challenging because of the counter-influence of an opposing herd mentality. The operation of herd mentality happens when a significant part of the population follows their chosen groups’ rhetoric and persuasion — perpetuating biased ideas. Such ideas that prevail are: COVID-19 is not a significant threat; the viral pandemic will pass without the need to follow public health measures; social distancing, getting vaccinated, and wearing masks is not essential. There is also the idea that conforming to the larger community’s vital needs in the time of a pandemic, and scientific recommendations would infringe on one’s personal freedoms. The acceptance of the pervasive attitudes and contrary logic is characteristic of the downside of herd mentality.
The need to feel a part of and accepted by the particular group and its ideology has today contributed to:
- Science ignoring economic or personal concerns over public health issues — favoring opening rather than restraining commerce at the expense of not following public health sensibilities during the time of a pandemic
- Adopting behaviors and attitudes that interfere with control of virus spread by interfering with people getting vaccinated and the reaching of herd immunity
What one feels to be essential and permanent may or may not have value in helping with daily life function, health, or wellbeing. We can reflect on the impermanence of all things, including the ideas, labels, and formulations in our minds. Over attachment to beliefs and memories can lock us into ill health, inflexible thinking, defensiveness, and fear — eventually leading to pain, suffering, and the avoidance of life’s gifts, abundance, and relationships. Spiritual awareness can help to restore freedom from being stuck and overly attached to limiting ideas and beliefs — which often lead to ill health and difficulties.
Spiritual awareness is about being open to our existence in the larger context — frame of reference.
The reality of having limited beliefs or tightly held ideologies is like a character on a movie screen with a set of ideas and beliefs. The appearing story character appears as a solid unchangeable presence until the movie ends. The image and story would remain on the film until viewed again — the memory of the film would remain stored in our brain — which, like the film, would eventually turn to dust and disappear in the layers of time.
So, get unstuck, let go of limiting ideas and beliefs.
Be aware of becoming caught or stuck in an unhealthy place or state of mind. Recognize early warning signs, talk about them, and find help. An animal caught in quicksand will struggle to break free, bellow out for help, and perish if it keeps trashing away in its customary ways that it had depended on in the past. Recognize the positive side of human nature — and the amount of available help if you open yourself to it — and have an open hand to reach for it or receive it when offered. Also, there needs to be the discernment to look in the right places and find legitimate and trustworthy sources when getting help. There are still unscrupulous profit-makers who may sell you false remedies and not what you actually need.
My new book explores many mental health issues that may affect you or loved ones in times of high stress or crisis — with insight, guidance, and holistic-oriented solutions.
Ron Parks, MD.
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