Mental health is less complicated than you think—and it’s all about energy
Warning: This is a long post.
Stick with it, though, and you’ll know more about the REAL science of mental health than most therapists.
(Unfortunately, the most popular ideas out there are folk psychology.)
To begin, this story starts in the brain. Like all your organs, your brain has a specific role to play in your body. Thanks to the work of Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, we can think of the brain as a conductor—kind of like the conductor of a symphony.
The symphony your brain is conducting is your body’s overall energy budget.
Energy budgeting is the process of controlling and coordinating the levels and movements of glucose, oxygen, salt, water, and many other things. (Like neurotransmitters, hormones, inflammatory molecules, etc.)
In other words, your brain runs your body’s energy budget. That’s its main job. Full stop.
How does the body budget work?
24 hours a day and 7 days a week, the brain is taking in information from your body (called interoception). It uses this information to produce an ongoing and ever-changing basic summary of how you feel.
That summary (of how you feel) is known to psychologists as “core affect.” Whenever you reference your current mood, what you’re actually talking about is this constantly-updating summary.
Take a second right now to pay attention to the way your body feels. Get really granular.
How much energy do you have?
How pleasant (or unpleasant) do you feel?
Do things feel overall neutral, or intense?
The answers to these questions will form your core affective state, aka your mood.
Combine the information from inside your body with the the information arriving from the world around you (a process called exteroception), and make sense of it with conceptual categorization (we’ll get into that later) and your brain has completed it’s process of guessing in advance of when you need it, your energy for the next moment.
Long story short, the brain’s energy budgeting is the ongoing process of deciding how much energy you’ll need in the next moment.
Before you get to the next moment.
Why does your brain decide how much energy you need in the next moment before you get there?
A species that budgets its energy efficiently is usually also a species that lasts the test of time.
Call it “survival of the most efficient” !
According to scientists, it’s most efficient for a brain to predict the energy the body will need before it needs it.
What does that have to do with my mental health?
Short answer: Your mind—and therefore your mental health—is a reflection of how well your brain’s energy-management process is going.
If your energy budget is out of whack, that imbalance will be reflected as a preponderance of unpleasant moods, sensations, emotions, and thoughts. You’ll be either too energized or not energized enough to optimally manage the situations you’re in every day.
Core affect/mood isn’t the only thing your brain produces to help balance your body’s energy budget. Your brain also produces thoughts, memories, perceptions, attention, and various other cognitions (emotions included) as energy-budget guideposts.
That’s right: Cognitions and emotions actually exist for the purpose of helping you manage your body’s energy budget.
This may seem hard to believe, because it’s in complete contrast to our traditional way of thinking about cognitions and emotions.
You see, for millennia, we’ve thought of emotions as being completely different and separate from thoughts. The latest data in brain science tells us that’s not actually true.
Emotions are simply one part of the information soup generated by your brain to help you make sense of (and manage) your energy budget.
What does energy budgeting look like in real life?
A minor, and momentary, example of an imbalance in your body’s energy budget could happen, for instance, when you’ve heard someone say something that you didn’t expect.
The first thing that happens is that your brain corrects its miscalculation (which is also known as a prediction error). That correction requires energy, so the brain redistributes some of the body’s energy in order that you can register the difference between what you expected to hear and what was actually said.
That correction process is called encoding prediction error. And it’s also known as learning, in normal-people speak.
If there’s a BIG difference between what you expected to hear (or see, etc.) and what was actually said (or saw, etc.), there might even be a noticeable physical sensation associated with the error. The intensity of that sensation will be determined by what’s going on around you and your particular past experience. (All of it. Like, your entire life history’s worth)
So depending on circumstances, the same set of ingredients could end up feeling like what you’d call humor. It could end up feeling like what you’d call insult. Or it could even end up feeling like some other emotional experience entirely. (This gets complicated, so I’m leaving it simple and slightly vague for now.)
Bottom line is, the better your brain is at predicting what’s going to happen in the next moment, the more efficiently you’ll use the energy resources available in your body—and the better you’ll feel.
Now, here’s what that has to do with your mental health.
Energy budgeting and mental function
How well or poorly you feel mentally in any given moment is a reflection of both the state of your body’s energy budget in specific moments, and how healthy your brain is, which will be reflected by how well or poorly it does its overall job of running your body’s energy budget.
If you have a chronically malfunctioning energy budget, as opposed to a relatively minor or momentary imbalance in the budget, you are going to have symptoms that are usually:
- Hard to diagnose
- Harder to fix
You can think of a malfunctioning energy budgeting process like a disrupted flow of traffic through a city. (For this image, I’m indebted to ideas from Dr. Christopher M. Palmer’s book Brain Energy.) Maybe the cars (your cells) don’t have enough gas, or are running on low-quality gas. Maybe the driver (your mitochondria) is impaired.
If there are fundamental problems with the flow of traffic (energy) in your “city”, that is always caused by cellular and mitochondrial dysfunction—which will look on the outside like intermittent or ongoing physical and mental problems.
On the extreme end that will be things like…
- Treatment-resistant depression
- Bipolar disorder
- Substance-use disorders
On the less extreme end things like…
- Anger problems
- Dysthymia (aka persistent depressive disorder)
The body budget and the 5 pillars of your mental health
Over the years, the fields of therapy, religion, philosophy, and neuroscience have made mental health out to be an overly complicated matter requiring convoluted concepts to explain and understand.
What I like to say instead is that mental health is simply a reflection of energy functions.
If we give the body what it needs, it’ll get the system back in working order. All we have to do is stop spending energy on anything and everything that isn’t helping us return to balance.
In order to do that, the first thing you need is to understand the 5 pillars of mental health.
You can also think of these as levers which represent all of the inputs that will send you to a positive or negative place, mentally speaking.
- Food is anything you put in or on your body. Literal food, vitamins, supplements, water, lotions, oxygen, sunshine, mold, allergens, chemicals, poisons, et cetera.
- Any activity that puts your body into (or out of) a restorative state. Literal sleep, meditation, getting “grounded,” non-sleep restorative practices, aligning your circadian rhythms, staying up all night, blue light after sunset, et cetera.
- Any movement or experience that makes you move (or not) on a large or small scale. Exercise, breathing, the vibrations of music, cellular detoxification, living a sedentary lifestyle, repetitive movement patterns, stretching. Basically, anything that alters the “electromagnetics” of the system.
- The relationships we have with groups and individuals. Every engagement we have with other people either gives us energy or saps us of our energy. Understanding how this truth plays out in your daily life can become your superpower—if you let it.
- The words, ideas, and cognitive representations that we use to make sense of the world around us and of ourselves.
Concepts and their relationship to mental health
Let’s hone in on that last pillar for a moment, concepts.
Concepts are mental representations that allow us to communicate a vast amount of information in one word.
And as I alluded to before, emotions are concepts.
Yes, emotions are mental representations of a specific body state in a particular context or environment.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Emotions are not a facial expression, or even one particular brain firing pattern.
They are not something that “happens” to you or springs from some emotional center in your brain.
They are a mental representation of a LOT of information being conveyed for some purpose.
There is always a goal associated with an emotion.
For instance, when we say we’re frustrated or heartbroken or delighted, we’re communicating a ton of information about ourselves to ourselves.
We’re making sense of what’s happening in our bodies in a particular context, preparing our bodies energetically for the next moment, and prescribing what action to take next.
And, because we’re social creatures, we can also use one word to communicate a ton of information to other people.
By telling them about ourselves with that one word—or about what we think is going on with them—we can alter their bodies’ energy budgets as well.
Remember efficiency? That’s in play here.
It’s way more efficient to communicate with one word that represents a lot of information than to try and convey meaning by explaining all the pieces of information that make up the concept.
For example, rather than calling some place to order a piece of dough, rolled into a circle about two-hands-width diameter, covered with tomato sauce, cheese, mushrooms, and sliced rounds of spicy ground pork, then cooked in a very hot oven, I just order a pizza (medium, with mushroom and pepperoni).
The same goes for emotions–so long as we come from the same culture. For instance, if your version of anger isn’t the same idea as my version of anger, or sadness, or disgust, or if the instances when, where or why you apply those concepts isn’t the same as mine, we’ve got communication problems.
And that’s not efficient.
Simple Energy Function: The Secret to Mental Health Freedom
Now, as I just mentioned, there are some downsides to these incredibly useful concepts. Because there’s nothing fundamentally real about concepts, except as they are useful for energy management in a particular time and place…They’re culturally true and useful, not fundamentally so.
…for instance, we can easily be convinced that a particular set of concepts is the right set of concepts to navigate life with. And that’s just simply not true.
And unfortunately, for the most part, therapy modalities are built on complex, detailed, and sometimes outdated concepts about what mental dysfunction is, and how to fix it.
Some of those theories are pretty interesting. Some have genuinely helped people manage or overcome their mental-health struggles.
And hey, if a theory helps you understand your experience such that you don’t feel like a failure or a bad person, that’s a win…right?
I’m sorry to say. Actually, no.
Because most therapy methods will, at some point, leave you feeling like a failure or a bad person if you’re bad-off enough, mentally or emotionally.
That’s because their concepts are mostly based on the idea that there are some “essential” things in you that aren’t working right or need to be altered, and if you get right down to the core, when those essential things aren’t changing, YOU are the reason why.
Most therapy methods don’t examine thoughts and behaviors from the most fundamentally objective perspective available.
The simple energy function perspective–the metabolic perspective.
The metabolic perspective on mental health is THE objective perspective on mental health.
The ONLY one.
And it’s going to free you.
Deconstructing Emotion by Understanding Simple Energy Functions
Reader, there’s no such thing as an “emotional” versus “rational” part of your brain.
You’re not going to fix your problems by thinking about the “default mode network” or the “executive functioning” part of your brain.
“Trauma-informed therapy” means nothing more than that the therapist has been taught to involve the body when mitigating symptoms of distress.
When all is said and done, science isn’t necessarily what makes therapy work.
Therapy is effective when the stories you learn to tell yourself (in other words, the concepts you’re using to understand what’s going on in your body) help reduce the unpleasant symptoms you experience.
Therapists call this all kinds of fancy names, but in its essence, it’s conceptual recategorization, and it’s a truly powerful tool.
Take thunder as an example.
When humans learned what thunder is and why it was happening, that surprised feeling we got upon hearing it became a pleasant thrill.
No longer did we fear that something bad was about to happen because we were (mistakenly) perceiving thunder as the wrath of angry gods.
Therapy doesn’t have to be overcomplicated, convoluted, or based on inaccurate and confusing stories.
You don’t need to know about dopamine hits and serotonin. You don’t need to be able to tell the difference between System 1 and System 2, or your primitive brain versus your logical brain.
By all means learn about these things if you really want to. If such theoretical models reduce your negative symptoms, go ahead and engage with them.
Just be aware that there’s nothing fundamentally or objectively true about the ways you’re hearing they are related to your mental health—and that understanding them won’t necessarily improve your mental health for the long term.
Here’s a better question to ask yourself:
Is the energy level I’m experiencing most of the time in alignment with the amount of energy I need for the moments I’m in?
If not, start by taking a look at the 5 pillars to see if adjusting one or more levers (other than concepts) will solve your problems. If those efforts fail, then you might want to search for some therapy concepts to help you out.
Let’s say the problems you want to solve include hitting the snooze button for hours every morning, using nicotine to perk up, and overdoing it on cannabis to chill out.
Start by getting more sleep. The desire for nicotine’s stimulation and cannabis’ sedation will naturally fade once you begin getting enough high-quality sleep.
How do I find a therapist to help me from the simple energy perspective of mental health?
If you find that you aren’t able or willing to adjust your sleep habits, you might want to dig into the conceptual or “mindset” side of things with a good therapist.
It will undoubtedly benefit you to uncover what beliefs are driving your behaviors and preventing real change.
When you really dig deep, you can bet that those beliefs will circle back around to simple energy functions every single time.
And to avoid overly complicated therapy based on outdated pseudoscience, look for therapists whose practices are built on the theory of constructed emotion or on a metabolic perspective of mental health.
They won’t be talking about trauma triggers, emotional reactions, or the rational, emotional, and survival brains in your brain. They won’t be talking about a social engagement system or telling you that humans are born constantly scanning for danger. They won’t tell you about the limbic system as the home of your emotions, or that the control network in your neocortex needs strengthening.
They won’t talk about dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin as if they are especially related to mental health. Because they’re not. They’re first and foremost metabolic regulators, which is the only reason they’re relevant to mental health.
All those words and phrases are your signals that those people are working from old science, and folk psychology. So, caveat emptor.
Therapists working from a simple energy functions perspective will drive relentlessly into whether the choices you make, the actions you take, and the concepts you use to navigate life are serving your body’s energy budget—and therefore your mental health—or not.
They’ll also help you determine if you’re under the spell of any erroneous concepts.
This is a very common problem, which boils down to mistakenly believing that what you’re thinking and doing today will serve your energy budget in future.
With this updated understanding of mental health—one that’s based on actual brain function, rather than a fairy tale about how the brain functions—you’ll never end up in a pretzel of conflicting concepts.
You’ll always have the power to immediately make changes, because it’ll be obvious to you which choices are serving your energy budget and your mental health. Simple energy function, no judgment.
I’m not going to BS you: Therapists who work from this perspective are hard to find right now. That’s because the old guard has been marketing emotional/rational-reactive brain therapies for a lot longer. (Full disclosure: I only extracted myself from that whole way of thinking in 2020.) We’re out there, but you might have to look a little harder.
If you don’t want to turn over every stone, contact me at leahbensontherapy.com.
We’ll cut through the noise and get you on the right track.