Rates of mental illness are rapidly increasing in the Western world. Depression and anxiety have become common place, and they're just the tip of the iceberg compared to more severe mental illnesses such as bipolar, schizophrenia and so-called personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder.

Our intellectually dominant society is a breeding ground for mental illness.

So why has mental illness become such a problem in a society which offers more opportunity, longer life expectancies and greater possibility than ever before? What causes mental illness, and how can it be cured?

I'm not a psychiatrist or doctor so don't take what I say as medical advice, but my opinion is that virtually all mental illness is caused by a build-up of psychological pressure in the primitive emotional centres of our brains. The cure is to learn how to release this pressure in a safe environment with empathy from another human being.

Think of your brain as a pressure cooker of emotion. During our lives, events happen that cause us to feel emotions. These emotions range from pleasant to unpleasant, and their intensity from mild to overwhelming. Under normal circumstances we naturally release these feelings in the present moment as the event occur. As a child we cry freely when we are sad, we smile when we are happy, we rage when we are angry, and we shake when we are frightened. It's as if the vents of the pressure cooker are open, the feelings flow freely and we move on without even remembering most events.

If the emotion we experience is overwhelming, we may be left traumatised and it may take some time and/or require empathy from someone else in order to recover. But for the most part, our brains are wired to heal most emotional wounds automatically through the natural expression of our feelings.

However, most of us weren't brought up under circumstances that allowed us to freely express our feelings. Often our parents were triggered by our distressing emotions and sought to shut us down in order to relieve their own discomfort. In social situations such as kindergarten, we learned that teachers and other students didn't necessarily appreciate our free expression of emotion. We may have even been taught by religious teachers that some emotions were bad or wrong. Adults who were uncomfortable with their natural feelings taught us to hide our own. When we saw other people's emotions such as anger expressed in ways that clearly hurt us and other people, we bought into the idea that certain emotions were evil.

We first learned how to handle emotions from the people around us when we were very young; particularly our parents. They're also our primary potential source of both the secure attachment we need to feel safe in the world, and the empathy we need to heal inevitable emotional wounds as they occur. Having too many emotional wounds left unhealed is traumatic. I've met a lot of people with mental illnesses, and I'm yet to find a single one who had two emotionally available parents present to provide this crucial empathic bond during their formative years.

A lack of secure attachment in an infant leads to a lifetime of anxiety because the world feels like an unsafe place. You can't get a secure attachment to a parent who isn't emotionally available, no matter how much that parent may love and cherish you deep down. Love is an emotion: If your parents felt uncomfortable feeling love in their heart and showing love in their eyes when you were an infant, you'll learn to suppress your love too. This is particularly important in the mother/son relationship.

I don't believe in the simplistic notion of a genetic predisposition to a "chemical imbalance in the brain" that can only be rectified with medication. Sure, genetics play a role and there's plenty of evidence that mental illness is hereditary. But something has to happen to cause the chemical imbalance. That something is a lifetime of suppressing your emotions. Emotionally inexpressive parents have emotionally inexpressive children because children don't feel safe freely expressing their feelings around adults who also aren't freely and safely expressing theirs. I believe this is the primary mechanism by which mental illness is passed down in families, not via genes.

To compound this problem, we live in an emotionally repressive society that treats feelings as second class compared to thoughts. Compare the income of the average artist to the average engineer, and you'll immediately notice that analytical thinking is valued more highly in our society than emotional expression.

Yet something is amiss: 9 of the top 10 most popular YouTube clips are music videos. Why? Because music bypasses our analytical brains and allows us to feel something. We crave this kind of connection both with ourselves and other people. We may have been taught to disconnect from our feelings, but the most primitive core of our brains is still wired to feel. Analytical thinking is a relatively late evolutionary development in our brains: Thinking can suppress our feelings for a short period of time, but eventually our emotions will always win.

Suppress your feelings long enough, and they scream louder and louder in order to get your attention in the form of a mental illness. To see how this happens, let's go back to the pressure cooker analogy.

Each event we experience is remembered along with the emotion that was present at the time. The more emotion, the stronger the memory. This is why you can remember exactly where you were when you heard about the terrorist attacks on September 11, but you probably can't remember what you did on August 11; because it has no emotional significance for you. The unpleasant emotions associated with traumatic events form a kind of psychological pressure inside the primitive subconscious part of your brain. The more emotions you have unexpressed, the more pressure you will experience.

Even just a single sufficiently traumatic event can cause enough overwhelming emotion can leave you emotionally scarred with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But the effect of emotional stress can also build up over time.

If your ability to express yourself has been suppressed, it's like blocking the vents on the pressure cooker. As more and more difficult life events create more and more unpleasant emotions, the pressure builds up and up. You get mood swings as the emotions in your subconscious try desperately to alert you to the problem. But your conscious mind doesn't recognise what's going on, because you've never been taught how to handle your emotions.

Your subconscious can only communicate with you via your feelings and you've been trained at school to ignore them and just keep pushing on with life regardless. Along the way you become a lawyer or an engineer, or some other profession when analytical thinking rules and feelings don't get a look in. Anxiety and depression start taking a hold as your subconscious continues to try desperately to get your attention; but you keep doing what you've been taught by society: ignore how you feel, and just get on with things.

Eventually the pressure cooker explodes in the form of a full-blown diagnosable mental illness. Of course pressure cookers don't explode neatly; they all look different when they finally rupture. This is why your psychiatrist has a diagnostic manual full of different categories to label you with when you finally present to them because you can't work out why you can't get out of bed any more.

But the categories are largely a distraction because the treatment for all mental illness is the same. In fact, the categories get in the way of the psychiatrist seeing you as a vulnerable human being overwhelmed with feelings that need validating. Instead, he gives you a label and a prescription to ease your pain. But that's not a cure.

The good news is that you can learn how to cure your own mental illness. To do this you need a large dose of two things:

  1. To express how you truly feel in each moment
  2. Empathy from another human being

Learning to express how you feel is not as easy as it might first appear. After years of emotional suppression, we lose the ability to even identify how we feel. The most important feelings to express will be the ones you are least comfortable with, and most likely feel ashamed of. Like anger, or sadness, or fear. It probably won't even feel safe expressing these at first, because it didn't feel safe when you did it originally as a young child.

Expressing how you feel in the present moment releases the valves on the pressure cooker so that no further pressure builds up. All those suppressed feelings about the emotionally charged events of the past can then start percolating to the surface of your subconscious mind where you will feel them again. You're likely to feel worse before you feel better. You may feel feelings you haven't felt in a long time, and given that you suppressed them because they felt overwhelming back then, they may feel overwhelming again now. This requires a safe place with people who you trust, and plenty of time so you can go slow to avoid being traumatised by your own buried emotions.

The second ingredient you need to accelerate the process is empathy from another human being. Our brains are wired for emotional connection and having a empathy from an emotionally available person is key to unlocking and healing the emotional wounds beneath mental illness.

Most psychiatrists are not well placed to provide empathy. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialise in diseases of the mind. Doctors are traditionally trained to be emotionally detached from their patients; this is really important if you are a surgeon, but it's the exact opposite of what you need in order to provide empathy to a client with a mental health issue. Medical training also doesn’t deal with the painful emotional charges the doctor is still carrying in their own subconscious, which you're likely to trigger when you express how you feel. So psychiatrists are much more comfortable giving you a diagnosis and associated medication to suppress your psychological pain than they are giving you the degree of empathy you really need.

And besides, it's unlikely you'd be able to afford the number of visits necessary to get the level of empathy you require even from an empathic psychiatrist.

A truly empathic therapist will have their own latent emotional charges triggered by you when you begin sharing your true feelings. Psychology has traditionally taught that therapists should maintain a certain emotional detachment from their clients too. Many psychologists lack the ability to be really present emphatically as it isn't part of their academic training: most psychologists are trained in academic institutions like universities set up to teach people how to think, not how to feel. This is why Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is so popular: it's comfortable for the psychologist, because it doesn't cause them to delve deeply into their feelings; but it won't allow you to go very deeply into yours either.

Medication can help relieve the symptoms of psychological pain in order to reduce it to a manageable the level where you can function well enough to express your feelings and get the empathy you need. It can also be a life saver; you can't heal your mental illness if you've killed yourself because the pain became too overwhelming.

If you're on medication, you definitely should not stop taking it just because of what I've said here. Most psychiatric medication requires a careful withdrawal process which should be monitored by your doctor or psychiatrist. If you're considering going on medication though, it might be worth learning to express your emotions and getting empathy first before heading down that route. If you need it as a stop-gap measure to get by right now though, I say take it.

Learning to express how you really feel in a safe environment where you get the empathy that you need, is the key to curing your mental illness. Finding an empathic therapist, therapy group or community is really important. It's almost impossible to do this on your own. Courses such as Path Of Love, The Hoffman Process and Passionately Alive can be a great way to kick-start this process. Books like Marshal Rosenberg's Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life (also known as Empathic Communication) can help too. You can also learn more about how to master your emotions in Part 2 of The Confident Man Program Guide.

Graham Stoney

Graham Stoney

I struggled for years with low self-esteem, anxiety and a lack of self-confidence before finding a solution that really worked. I created The Confident Man Program to help other men live the life of their dreams. I also offer 1-on-1 coaching via Skype so if you related to this article contact me about coaching.


Moose · July 4, 2013 at 9:51 am

I feel gratitude reading this as it has been my experience too. Avoiding our felt, visceral, innate self (incl. emotions) creates chemical imbalances.


Amy · June 15, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Ohhhhhhh Graham. [personal stuff edited] ... This article is incredibly uninformed, naive, and really quite insulting and offensive.
It has some core ideals which are perfectly true, everyone needs an output of emotions, and having someone to talk to is severely important. A treatment no psychologist or psychiatrist would ever disagree with.
But this article, is like Freud on a field day. I'm left sitting here thinking, ok, well this man clearly never had a good relationship with his parents and has recently overcome his shyness to confide in another human being and now thinks that's the blanket cure to mental illness.
There are so many other aspects of, and types of mental illness which you haven't even considered, to the point, in fact, that this article is more just a guide to healthy minded individuals dealing with average levels of stress. "Express your emotions and get empathy". Fantastic advice, yes, but I don't even know where to BEGIN to cover the other world of information you're not considering with this blanket diagnosis.
Although this isn't even what I find offensive. Thinking that this is the simple quick fix for mental illness is just painfully naive...
What I find offensive is your lack of understanding and respect for the purpose of and workings of psychologists and psychiatrists.
Graham you need to do much more research into types of mental illness. Right now I think what you're referring to as mental illness is realistically 'high stress'.
Take a look at the work being done by forensic psychologists, read about the use of psychologists in our prison systems. Treatment of repeat rapists, peadophiles, domestically violent men and women. Read about types and treatments of the mental illnesses which occur among Sydney's chronically homeless community. Learn about the affects of extended substance abuse on the brain and what kind of treatments need to occur in order for a person to regain a healthy existence.
Also "empathy" is a very particular word.just GET empathy. I mean really - realistically - "my husband butchered all my children in a fit of rage and then raped me repeatedly, and left me for dead, I wish I didn't survive" - "awww gee, yeah I know how you feel" - "no, you really really don't". What you're talking about is often is really SYMPATHY. Unless you're in a support group of people with the same experience. And often when dealing with severe depression individuals will lose circles and circles of friends who are sick and tired of hearing the same sad stories over and over and over with absolutely no change in behaviour. And it IS, it IS exhausting.
I mean this is not even the tip of the iceberg!
Oh love, have your opinion, always - just don't show such naive disrespect to a job and responsibility you really have no wider knowledge of than your circle of friends....

And certainly do not believe that psychologists lack empathy. There are things I have heard in the confidence of a clinic that I will never ever forget. But think also - Sympathy is what you go to your friends for. They will always be there for that. When you take the next step to visiting a psychologist you want more than just to pay $100 for someone who cries with you and says gee that sucks. You are making the decision to go to talk to someone who not only CARES ENOUGH TO HAVE DEDICATED THEIR ENTIRE LIFE to helping people. But also has the medical and HEAVEN FORBID, YES, the UNIVERSITY EDUCATED knowledge to give you the figurative TOOLS you need in order to make a REAL difference in your life.

Then alongside that you write your poetry you paint you sing you talk to your friends you LISTEN to other people's stories. It all works together.
Sigh. Anyway, there's my input. Hope you're well x

    Graham Stoney

    Graham Stoney · June 25, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    Hey Amy. Thanks for your reply. I get that you were triggered by the article, and I note that "uninformed", "naive", "insulting" and "offensive" are judgements that reflect thoughts rather than feelings. In order to experience empathy we need to be willing to feel and express the underlying feeling directly. In this case my guess is that you felt angry, and find it interesting that this wasn't stated explicitly thus reflecting the very problem I'm addressing. Not surprising given the way our society treats emotions, especially anger. There is a big difference between sympathy (feeling sorry for someone) and empathy (connecting with what they are feeling). I'm not advocating sympathy as it is rarely helpful. And yes, any healthy form of emotional expression such as artistic outlets also can help tremendously in the process. Yes it's great that we have professional healers dedicating their lives to the cause, and they vary tremendously in their capacity to provide empathy. University education doesn't necessarily correlate with empathic ability. Cheers, Graham

Nyck Jeanes · June 5, 2013 at 8:26 am

excellent Graham!
Not much else to say, but thank you for mentioning and linking to Path of Love

John · June 3, 2013 at 2:56 am

As this article is saying, stress can cause mental problems. Stressful situations or environments where there is a person or people who cause you a lot of stress builds up to where it gets too much for the mind to deal with. Mental stress and mental abuse have physical effects directly caused by this stress or abuse. Mental verbal emotional abuse can be for the mind like getting repeatedly punched in the head. Even for those of us with understanding of how the mind functions, and saying things like "It's not me, it's them that has the problem" and "I give no one the power to take my own happiness from me," the stress caused by other people is harmful and causes mental damage. I was thinking recently that maybe some of Bipolar or Dementia is caused by the damage stress does to the mind. It's known how stress causes heart problems, grey hairs, and strokes, so stress effects the body and mind. Expressing feelings through talking, writing, photography, art, and music is beneficial. Also, identify what situation or what person or what people cause most of your stress and then find ways to resolve it. We can eventually become like or be very negatively affected by the people we are around or associate with the most. Such as, if 95 percent of stress is caused by parents with control and anger and mental abuse problems, then to resolve this negative situation make money for your own basic needs and get your own apartment and then visit them occasionally and associate with positive people. I know someone who had repressive parents who were especially repressive on the topic of sensuality because of religion, the parents learned these stupid made up religious repressive beliefs from church, then the parents raised their kids under the control of these incorrect unnatural repressive religious beliefs, the kids like most of repressed society were brainwashed into not becoming their real selves because they were conditioned to not be the person they really are as their real self, they repressed their sensuality and became self-righteous judgmental repressive of their own and other peoples sensuality and controlling of other people, especially two of these kids grew up to have Bipolar mental illness likely caused by the stress of their sensually repressive parents and learned not to express their own sensuality to not express their real selves to not express their own emotions, and they often bottle up their own emotions and then explode in anger taking their anger unfairly out on other people, and most of this mental illness was likely caused by the stress of their repressive parents who were brainwashed by negative repressive religious beliefs to not express sensuality and to not express the emotions of their real selves. Even with all the sensuality in the media that makes it appear that is what's happening on a large scale, the reality is especially on countries such as the USA, the minds of many people and some laws are still very repressed by incorrect religiously repressive beliefs. Because many people have been conditioned to repress sensuality and their real selves, they then try to shame guilt control and repress other people by calling them names and trying to tell them what to do such as telling them to join their religion and conform to their mental illness causing repressive beliefs.

    Graham Stoney

    Graham Stoney · June 3, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    Wow; epic comment, thanks! I totally agree with where you're coming from. Chronic stress causes physical damage to the brain; fortunately the brain is able to rewire itself once the stress is removed. I also believe that religious repression is a widespread cause of stress. The delusional thinking behind many religious belief systems would probably be considered mental illness if it were not so widespread. Once again though as you point out the cure is the same: learn to express your true self. Cheers, Graham

amar · May 31, 2013 at 3:11 pm

Absolutely fantastic..so insightful that it will educate a "regular" ( I prefer this word over the word "normal") person to understand himself/herself, his/her situation & relationships in profoundly more mature and sincere ways!

Michael · May 30, 2013 at 11:07 pm


Wonderful article, so insightful and right on the money. I have personallly found EFT to be so powerful in helping to release that stores up emotion from past trauma. I would say it has changed my life.

Thank you so much.


    Graham Stoney

    Graham Stoney · May 31, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Thanks Michael; glad you found it helpful. 🙂

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