By Morton M. Hunt
DURING World War ll, I was an Eighth Air Force pilot, flying lonely reconnaissance missions deep into Germany week after week. Under this stress I became strange and alien to myself: my handwriting became crabbed and illegible, I drank and gabled night after night I could read nothing more substantial than the scandal sheets and music , one of my chief joys, became boring and meaningless. One night, on my way to the briefing room, I even seriously considered trying to break my ankle-to avoid being sent out on another flight.
I was on the verge of a breakdown when the fighting ended. Then for weeks I slept, daydreamed and drifted through my duties. Meanwhile, deep inside where the wellsprings of joy and health reside, a healing and a re-growth must have been taking place. For gradually I began to read books again, my handwriting ceased to look like that of a crippled old man, and one day, hearing a familiar Mozart aria on a nearby radio, I suddenly felt a flood of good feeling wash through e. I had the eerie sensation that all at once I was in the presence of a long-lost friend-myself. “It’s me!” I thought in joyful amazement. “I’m back!” Spontaneous recoveries from emotional ailments are vastly more common than most of us realize. What does it? The mind itself.
A few decades ago many psychiatrists thought that an ill mind had little chance to cure itself; their thinking was still focused on the mind’s frailties. Today that’s changing. Many psychiatrists now stress that the human mind, like the body, has a whole battery of weapons to heal its own ills. Without denying the value of psychiatry for the severely disturbed, the new viewpoint suggests that millions of people with emotional problems have the resources to heal themselves.
The Balance Restorers. The mind’s self-healing mechanisms are surprisingly parallel to those of the rest of the body. Take one of the body’s basic principles, “homeostasis,” or maintenance of equilibrium between its organ systems: when we get too hot for example, we sweat in order to keep our temperature constant. In a comparable way, the mind tries to restore emotional balance when it is upset. People plagued by feelings of unworthiness, guilt or inadequacy often unconsciously turn to an occupation which offsets these feelings-a mental device known as “compensation.” An excellent illustration of this is Glenn Cunningham, who, having been burned as a child and told he would never walk again, not only walked but became one of the world’s greatest milers.
A parallel also exists between the body’s ability to wall off an invading foreign object within a cyst and the mental-balance restorer called “rationalization.” When we talk ourselves into thinking an agreeable thought about a disagreeable fact, we are encysting the thing that hurts us. A friend of mine, for example, lost money in a foolish investment, and now cheerfully says of the experience, “It was an expensive lesson-but it was worth it.”
In the past, many psychiatrists thought of rationalization, compensation and the other mental defenses as unhealthy. Today, some boldly state that although exaggerated defense reactions can be harmful-like fevers that run too high-more often mental defenses are curative balance restorers. In the American Handbook of Psychiatry, Dr. Melita Schmideberg expressed the current view: The mental defenses are as essential as any vital organ of the body.
No End to Emotional Growth. The new viewpoint is changing another pessimistic notion: the theory held by some psychoanalysts that we stop growing emotionally after adolescence, that the flaws built into a person’s character in the early years can be removed only by intensive therapy. The latest data indicate that the personality is often quite capable of straightening itself out during maturity.
Many a college student who drops out is diagnosed as having a “character disorder”-as being impulsive, willful, irresponsible, lacking in conscience. Folk wisdom has been optimistic about the wild one, however. “He’ll settle down.” It says. Pollyanna-ish? No; researchers at Yale surveyed a number of men who had dropped out because of emotional problems, found that many of them had gone back to college and finished well, and that most of the group had done well in later life.
Why? Because emotional growth never stops. It often takes only the sunshine and rain of love, work, parenthood to make the bent plant straighten up.
The Healing of Love. Freud said that each love we experience, whether for parent, beloved or friend, leaves a deposit in the self, enlarging and maturing it. When we fall in love, we gain a sudden new perspective on ourselves: we know how we want the loved one to see us, and we try to transform ourselves to match that image. Moreover, love is a completion, a satisfying of deep needs; most of us fall in love with someone whose personality is the complement of our own (the strong, driving person with the frail, timid one, for instance) and through whom we can try to fulfill ourselves.
A few decades ago, the Dallas Child Guidance Clinic studied 34 adults who had been uncommonly shy and withdrawn children. Most of them, it was revealed, had turned out quite well-and, significantly, three quarters of these had married extroverts, who completed their personalities and healed their old hurts.
The Challenge of work. Thomas Carlyle once wrote, “work is the grand cure for all the maladies and miseries that ever beset mankind.” Neuroses are, in a sense, childish things, and some persons are fortunate enough to find challenges so serious and adult that they are able to put away childish things. Many years ago, a young Midwestern lawyer suffered such depressions that his friends thought it wise to keep knives and razors out of his reach. He wrote: “I am now the most miserable man living. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not.”
He was wrong. The challenges that life offered him brought him a health and a strength that saved him and his country from dissolution. His name was Abraham Lincoln.
Forgetting and Reconditioning. One of the most important self-curing agencies is our human propensity to forget unpleasant things. Psychological researchers have given subjects tasks and puzzles to do, arranging them in such a way that not all could be completed. Afterward, when the subjects were asked to recall which tasks they had finished and which they had not, those with shaky self-esteem tended to remember only the tasks they had managed to complete. As someone has said, “Remembrances embellish life; forgetfulness alone makes it endurable.”
More demanding than forgetting is a laborious process we might call “reconditioning”- a kind of rewiring of the brain in which our reactions are changed, one by one. We do it, for example when we grieve for a dead person. The very process of going over the fond thoughts again and again gradually conditions us to our new status. The healthy mind slowly arrives at the point where it can look back with a loving smile instead of tears.
Psychological Antibodies. Just as a cured infection leaves antibodies behind, a hurt, once healed, may leave us with a net gain-greater self-awareness, increased maturity. An event that shocks can set off a process of reorganization and growth in the whole personality. Many a playboy has grown up only after his parents died. Going off to military services has transformed more than one disturbed young man. “The loss of supportive persons,” wrote Dr. Ian Stevenson in the American Journal of Psychiatry, “seems often to contribute to recovery from the psychoneuroses.”
Even a severe ,mental illness can sometimes leave a person who recovers from it healthier than he was, thanks to deeper self-understanding, according to famed late psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger. Thus, many famous writers-including John Stuart Mill and William James-did their best work after severe depressions or nervous breakdowns.
Self-Acceptance. The most valuable and pervasive of all the mind’s defenses is belief in self and in life. Psychologists refer to it as “self-acceptance,” the power that enables us to see ourselves realistically and to concentrate on our assets so that we come to like what we see. William James spoke of this power as the “religion of healthy-mindedness.” Dr. Menninger called it an “inner strength,” which he feels all people have in varying degrees.
None of this means that we can always sit back and complacently assume that all will go well. Though it is true that the mind has remarkable self-restorative powers, it is sometimes necessary to give those powers help. A person with a serious emotional problem should seek professional counsel.
Yet, having looked closely at the self-healing powers of the human mind, I am encouraged to think that our natural and unconscious inclination is to mend ourselves rather than to destroy ourselves. Though a thousand wise and gloomy philosophers have called man a frail, wretched and miserable creature, I prefer to side with the Psalmist, who sang, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
By Morton M. Hunt