From Possession by Demons to Possession by Illness

Mental health is on everyone’s lips. Every news presenter, politician, and commentator mentions it.  Even our neighbours, and the guy who delivers our parcels and the weekly shop has something to say. Why is this? If it’s become so important to talk about it, perhaps it’s even more important to ask questions about what is said. After all ideas about mental health have changed over the years and may hopefully change again.

Two or three hundred years ago if you were psychologically distressed, it was time to call in the priest to exorcise your demons.  In the 19th century the idea of mental illness gained ground. In effect Possession by demons was replaced by possession by illness.

Nowadays, when we feel anything we judge as unusual, unwanted or worrying our first thought might be “What is wrong with me? Am I ill or have I got a condition or disorder?”

If you feel low or anxious and go to your GP, you will probably be told you have depression or an anxiety disorder. You may well be encouraged to take an antidepressant or tranquiliser or be referred for psychological help. 6.5 million Britons are now using antidepressants. This is up by a million over the last five years. This is not a small number and it shows no sign of slowing down.

You go home and search the Internet. You read your sensations and feelings are listed as symptoms of various disorders. You read that the cause of these disorders is not totally known. You read ‘they could happen to anyone’. If these things ‘happen to anyone’ it seems there’s nothing you can do except follow the recommended treatment.

You may or may not feel reassured. Somewhere in the back of your mind you may feel uneasy, as if something is missing. No one seems to have really listened to you. They have only asked how you felt and seen these as symptoms of some illness or disorder; an illness or disorder that has, in effect, possessed you through no fault of your own.   

To discover what might be missing let’s think about what it is to be human. Take a very ordinary everyday situation. When you get up in the morning what are your first thoughts? Are you planning, anticipating, predicting, wanting, hoping, dreading? Are you wondering how you feel and what sort of the day you’ll have? Are you actively trying to work out how things will be for you and anyone you care about? Do you ever stop doing this sort of thinking? To misquote Descartes “I am therefore I think”. Surely this is the essence of being human.  

You may not pay much attention to what you’re thinking. There’s no reason why you should. Nowadays, almost nothing and no one tells us it’s important. But it matters. How you think makes a difference. It determines how you feel and what you do next.

For example, if you have ever felt anxious it is because you are predicting that something you don’t want might happen. These are things we do in the privacy of our own thoughts. They are us doing something; thinking as a form of action. We should not ignore them and how they change our feelings and subsequent behaviour. They change our world. If we take them seriously as something we are actively doing, we can see we are no longer simply possessed by some illness or condition.

If it is our thoughts that make us anxious, to feel better we have to change our thinking. Of course, at some level we know this already. It is hard to stay anxious all the time. Every time our feelings of anxiety have passed it can only be because we have stopped predicting something or decided it doesn’t matter as much as we had thought.

Admittedly it is not easy to change our thinking especially when we feel anxious or depressed. But understanding that it is our thinking that is the problem is a start.

It’s true we live in a complex world. If anyone told you life would be easy, they were lying or trying to sell you something. We can’t ignore all the many things we have to deal with. How we think about these things matters.

2000 years ago Seneca advised that “for as long as you live, keep learning how to live”. To do this well we have to recognise we are first and foremost thinkers. Living well relies on the hopes we have, the enthusiasms we nurture; it relies on appreciation, our sense of awe, on openness, on tolerance and kindness to ourselves and others.

To understand our mental health better we need to see our thinking as front and centre of the way we feel. We need to deepen our understanding of the ordinary psychology behind our feelings and distress. This is the aim of Here you’ll find a way of thinking about anxiety (Two people on a plane), an alternative that puts you back in control.  Another example, (The Decorated Room) describes three things we do in our thinking that create our feelings and moods. People usually find these very helpful and easy to remember. also offers ways of understanding various diagnoses in terms of the ordinary psychology behind them. If you would like to see a particular diagnosis covered (or any other topic), get in touch. There is much more. We hope you find something useful.

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