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Community Revisited

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My suggestion is that the rise in diagnosis of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder that we are currently seeing in the United States, relates to our lack of connectedness and community, because we need others to emotionally regulate us. At a recent Behavioral Health meeting in Seattle, I heard Dan Siegel speak and later had dinner with him. We discussed our common idea that human beings are designed to be emotionally regulated by other people. Our brains are caught in social networks that regulate our affect. Without these bonds of social connectedness, we become dysregulated. We are not designed to self-regulate entirely.

Each of us is a neuron in a social brain. This social brain regulates us and keeps our mood stable. Our emotions arise in response to our interactions with each other. Stories serve as the neurotransmitters for this social brain. The stories teach us how to behave toward and with each other. They teach us how to perceive and interpret each other to regulate our moods and emotions.

My son understood this. Recently he was talking to a psychiatric colleague who was espousing the standard, "only you are responsible for how you feel" line. She went on to say, "I can't make you feel anything. Your feelings are all yours."

"No," he said. "My feelings arise in response to you and are not controllable. My behavior is controllable, but not my feelings. Feelings are part of an early warning system that alert us to danger. Without relationships, I wouldn't have most of my feelings."

He captured the ideas about emotions that most indigenous people share. Certainly I have heard it well articulated in Lakota circles. Feelings arise from social relationships and community is necessary for social relationships. Without community, we would have no feelings, for we would be alone.

At dinner, Dan Siegel spoke more about our colleaagues who refuse to believe that parents have anything to do with their children's mental health.f They believe mental health is entirely the result of genes. I don't have to relate to these colleagues as often as he does, but it's amazing in these days of epigenetics, that anyone could dismiss the social environment as a contributor to mood regulation.

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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)
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