So we’ve had another reminder this week that our culture divides mental and physical health, to the detriment of those suffering with the former. George Freeman, head of policy for the government, stated in a Radio 5 Live interview that disability benefits should go to ‘really disabled people’ rather than people ‘taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety’. Freeman has apologised, (of course he has – his comments have been met with a flood of complaints and Teresa May in non too pleased with him), but the words have been said and they reveal much about Freeman’s attitude to mental health.
As a Psychotherapist you’d expect me to take issue with Mr Freeman’s words and I certainly do and will. This incident has elicited many responses already and the advocacy it has generated for people experiencing anxiety has been heartening. For me, the aspect of this situation that I find most striking is the total ignorance of the opinion Mr Freeman expressed, by which I mean the complete lack of understanding he has of what it is like to experience acute anxiety or an anxiety related condition. And I don’t mean the lack of empathic understanding – I mean the lack of knowledge. Having witnessed the impact that anxiety has on my clients over the years, I find it ridiculous that we keep talking about mental health as if it is different to physical health. Physiologically, the sensations of anxiety are created by our fight or flight system, located our amygdala. This almond shaped part of our brain releases adrenalin and cortisol as a response to threat, to prepare us to fight the threat or run away from it. Those hormones are real and measurable in the body. They are not ‘all in the mind’ as in ‘made up’. They are ‘all in the mind’ as in ‘produced by the brain’. The physical impact in someone with acute anxiety is visceral; heart pounding, nauseating, gut-wrenching, head spinning, terror based, life limiting, debilitating anxiety.
Dr John E. Sarno writes extensively on the psychosomatic basis of physical pain. In The Divided Mind he explains how the brain limits the oxygen supply to parts of the body, creating pain, as a form of distraction from unconscious emotional distress. Here we have a medical doctor explaining physical pain as a mind generated problem, turning Freeman’s premise totally on its head. People claiming disability allowances for a back condition, those ‘really disabled people’ that Freeman refers to, may well have a ‘mental’ condition and people with acute anxiety have demonstrable physical symptoms. It really is time for a more sophisticated understanding of the mind body connection to be more generally understood, particularly for people like Mr Freeman who are in that most dangerous position of having the power to impose an opinion based on no knowledge.
Julie Sale is LCC’s Director and aﾠ UKCP ﾠRegistered Psychotherapist,ﾠCOSRTﾠ Accredited Psychosexual/Relationship Psychotherapist, Supervisor, EFT Trainer, Master NLP Practitioner and Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.