…With “It’s All Psychological”

blue soapbox  Eleven years ago, I hesitated when given the option of accompanying my son Reuben at the piano for his first violin performance.  My part would be fairly simple, but I was rusty on the keys; additionally, I’d always struggled with stage fright.  But walking away from such a joyous opportunity didn’t feel right, either.  I could get over myself for my kid, couldn’t I?  So I said yes.

When it was Reuben’s turn to play, I sat down at the keyboard and noticed to my surprise that I was completely relaxed.  I played just fine (so did Reuben).  Afterward, I celebrated not just Reuben’s success, but my personal progress.  For the sake of my child, I had overcome a lifelong obstacle.

The very next day, I happened to overhear someone referring to “that medicine people take for stage fright.  You know, Inderal.”  My jaw dropped.  For one thing, I’d never heard of a drug used by musicians and other performers to ward off anxiety.  But more significantly, for the past month, I’d been taking an Inderal-like medication every day for chronic migraines!

So much for self-congratulation.

I’m all for personal growth, for facing our demons—and for cutting out unnecessary prescriptions.  I’m all for cultivating a positive attitude, meditating, getting regular exercise, and eating sensibly, thereby enhancing our natural capacity to heal.  But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking we have more power over our bodies and our psyches than we really do.

Take compulsive gambling, for instance.  A psychological condition, right?  Go cold turkey, attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings, and work the twelve steps?  Well, it turns out some Parkinson’s Disease patients develop pathological gambling habits following dopamine agonist therapy, a regimen that helps control Parkinson’s symptoms.  Apparently, in improving the brain chemical signaling system that’s dependent on dopamine, the treatment can also inspire a love of the slots.  Seriously, who knew?

Recently, my 87-year-old mother was acting more wacky and agitated than usual.  Her confusion was worse, and she was lashing out at her caregivers.  When a friend suggested we rule out a urinary tract infection, I scoffed; it made no sense to me that a UTI would have any bearing on cognitive impairment or bad behavior.  But evidently in the elderly, there’s a strong correlation, and sure enough, my mom’s lab results revealed a bacterial infection.  After a course of antibiotics, Mom was back to… well, cursing and blaming at a more manageable level.  Hey, maybe that’s biochemical, too.

There’s a lot we have yet to understand about the connection between mind and body.  One thing that seems clear is that we can’t completely control our health.  We should not presume to judge those with “psychological” conditions, such as anxiety disorders, addiction and obesity, as simply not trying hard enough.

And we shouldn’t presume to judge ourselves if we don’t measure up to an ideal standard of self-empowerment.

Published in Piedmont Post September 23, 2009


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