by Barbara Berkeley, MD
When I recently had the sobering task of visiting a friend in the midst of her severe clinical depression I was struck by one thing. My friend was visibly ill, not just mentally, but physically. Even before medications were started, her skin was sallow, her weight had ballooned up and she looked like someone with a devastating bodily problem.
In western medicine, we are taught to view the body as distinct from the mind. Psychological illness is the territory of psychiatrists who do not venture into the treatment of below-the-head problems like diabetes and hypertension. While general doctors sometimes dabble with the prescription of antidepressants, the psyche is generally left to the treatment of others.
My friend's illness forcefully brought home the fact that the body and mind are a continuum. If one suffers, so does the other. They are in instant, inseparable communication.
This made me reflect further on a thought that had been swimming around in my head. If the physical body of society is getting increasingly sick, might the mind of society be suffering as well?
Recent events in the United States and elsewhere might lead reasonable people to wonder if we are in the grip of some kind of systemic cultural illness. The leaders of our country have been behaving more like tantruming children than like the responsible, thoughtful figures we elected them to be. Daily eruptions of senseless violence seem to consume our headlines. And a notable lack of outrage...an almost narcotized sense of acceptance of the inevitable...is in the air.
At the same time, the majority of Americans are overweight and a high percentage is ill. The prevalence of metabolic syndrome (some combination of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar and obesity) in our population above age 60 is greater than 40%. Over 1 in 3 young people who are 20 years old or older have pre-diabetes and half of all people over 60 are pre-diabetic. I could go on.
So here is the question. Does our bodily deterioration correlate with a change in behavior? Is our cultural "body" of one piece with our cultural "brain"? I would suggest that the answer is yes, but not because our bodily problems are directly affecting our mentation.
I think one might make the case that the elements of our world that are making us physically ill are the same ones that are disturbing our behavior. The rapid acceleration of technologies in the past 20 years has assuredly changed some things for the better, but in a very real way it has also created a new human direction...one that we seem to be ill prepared to face.
Why are we getting fat and sick? If we leave out all the physiologic explanations, we are left with what seems to me to be an underlying truth. It's happening because there is a glut of easily available, addictive foods within our reach at all times. And when are we most liable to turn to addictive substances? When we are anxious, uncertain about life, and stressed.
Many of the basic rules for living, the things that have kept us anchored and on course for generations, have been swept away with the flood of modernization and technology. The basis for relationships has changed and we have far lower expectations for lengthy marriage, once a mainstay of stable life. Some modern friendships are based more on texting than on discourse. The generations have separated so that retired people find themselves living in communities of people the same age. This deprives the rest of us of their wisdoms and of the opportunity to see the full spectrum of life. Technologies are changing the way we work and the jobs that are available. If doctors can be replaced by the Watson computer in the next twenty years or so, what's the point of going to medical school today? The rapid shifts in our world cannot be predicted. We feel like we are standing on shifting sands. Addictive experiences are all around us and are as near to us as our smart phone. Whether it's gaming, TV, movies, surfing the web, online shopping,or pornography, there is plenty to shut off the mind and allow us to disconnect. And we are doing so in record numbers. If you don't believe me, just look at what's going on in the line at Starbucks when you wait for your morning latte.
I believe that the angst of living in the 21st century is expressed through an increase in behaviors that either soothe us and remove us from anxiety, or make us behave more like children who need pacifying than the adults we once sought to become. But I think it is possible to step back and separate oneself to some degree. As I've suggested in these pages previously, I believe we can heal by returning to some of the basic rules that have always worked: seeking meaning in our endeavors, forming true and lasting relationships, spending time in the natural world, eating foods that were meant to be consumed by human beings, sleeping in rythm with the day and night, and finding a source of spiritual consolation..whatever that may mean in your world view.