Fight or Flight Causes “Mental Illness”

“Fight-or-flight” is a concept I discuss in depth in “Pack Leader Psychology,” because I believe this primal fear response is key to understanding human behavior. This natural survival instinct is also a powerful driver of human emotions and interactions, yet psychiatrists and psychologists seem to have ignored this important fact when developing diagnostic and intervention theories.

I believe we in the profession and in the general public should talk more directly about the fear response. As a psychotherapist, I believe that if we more routinely label these behaviors people will not only begin to understand them, but the behaviors will be normalized. By calmly and clearly explaining a behavior, such as anxiety or depression, as a normal, primal response, perhaps some of the mystery about human behavior and psychology will be removed. It should not abrogate responsibility for these behaviors, especially the violent, abusive behavior that often accompanies the “fight” response, but at least it will increase awareness.

I believe the psychology profession has, for too long, used obscure, confusing terminology. What could be more primal and clear than “avoidance, freeze, flight and fight?” These are behaviors that every animal understands at the level of the survival instinct and to label these reactions as “mental illnesses” is incorrect, stigmatizing and may reduce the effectiveness of therapy.

I routinely explain the “fight-or-fight” response to clients in therapy and many have heard of it, but never applied it to their own behavior.

In “Pack Leader Psychology” I also add new layers of understanding to this concept, explaining why people today are so quick to flip into a fear response in today’s world and how to stop this behavior.

Fear is not a Mental Disorder: Or What is Really Wrong with the DSM

As the American Psychiatric Association (APA) prepares to publish the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in May 2013, there has been considerable debate about the changes in this document. Client advocacy groups and professional interest groups have stated many objections to DSM-5, with most complaints focusing on specific changes in diagnostic criteria, on placement of diagnostic categories, or on inclusion of diagnostic categories or criteria. Specific complaints about the diagnostic categories include:

  • Asperger’s syndrome should not be on the autism spectrum
  • the addition of disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD) may pathologize normal childhood temper tantrums
  • the definition of major depressive disorder should not be broadened to include normal bereavement

In addition, more broad-based, theoretical concerns have been expressed by such groups as the American Psychological Association’s Division 32: Society of Humanistic Psychology. In a thorough and thought-provoking letter to the APA in 2011, the group stated that, “it is time for psychiatry and psychology collaboratively to explore the possibility of developing an alternative approach to the conceptualization of emotional distress.”

The controversies surrounding DSM-5 have once again brought up a debate in the profession that the entire atheoretical construct of the DSM should be reconsidered from the ground up. Given the well-documented shortcomings of the DSM, I wholeheartedly concur and have written an essay titled Fear is Not a Mental Disorder The profession needs to move beyond arguing about minor reshuffling of diagnostic categories. These complaints may certainly be justified, but actually are just a rearrangement of the deckchairs on a poorly designed, poorly constructed, and doomed Titanic. The psychology profession must lead an effort to develop a new, improved, and fact-based diagnostic system that is more accurate, clinically useable, beneficial to clients, and provides an effective therapeutic framework.

I am a practicing clinical psychologist who for years has believed that the DSM is inaccurate and misleading in fundamental ways and could even be considered harmful to clients. The mythology of the DSM has for decades hindered therapeutic treatment of clients, and generally complicated what are very simple, understandable concepts that underlie human behavior.

I am not going join the argument of whether Asperger’s is or is not on the autism spectrum, or whether children who throw temper tantrums should be diagnosed with DMDD. Rather, this essay will take a broad, philosophical look at concerns about the DSM. I believe, as many do, that the time is right to completely re-conceptualize diagnostic strategies from the ground up, with the goal of developing a replacement for the DSM.

In Fear is Not a Mental Disorder, I present a powerful and concise theoretical framework to use when diagnosing human behavioral and emotional distresses. This new paradigm called Natural Psychology is explained in depth in my book Pack Leader Psychology. This paradigm offers numerous benefits not found in the DSM, corrects many of the theoretical errors in the DSM, and provides an effective diagnostic and therapeutic solution. And it does so in far less than the 943 pages of the DSM-IV-TR.

Natural Psychology is based on indisputable facts, not the unscientific, confusing, and complex “system” of “diagnostics” of the DSM. Most important, the Natural Psychology model brings numerous benefits to clients, whom we in the psychology profession are ethically bound to protect and help. Where the DSM pathologizes human behaviors as illnesses and disorders, Natural Psychology offers an innovative paradigm that explains these behaviors as normal, natural responses to perceived or real threats and fears. Natural Psychology is a more positive, optimistic, and straightforward framework that strips away harmful, judgmental labels and de-stigmatizes “mental illness” in a profound and fundamental way.

Quite simply, Natural Psychology is based on this concept:

The majority of “mental disorders” that people experience are due to the primal fear response. Fear is not a disorder, but a normal, adaptive human reaction.

I realize that criticizing the “bible” of the psychiatric profession may be sacrilegious to many, but I believe the psychology profession has a duty to serve clients. Keep an open mind as you read this essay. Remember that just because the DSM has an aura of scientific precision, does not prove that its ideas are valid. The DSM is published by a major medical organization and is loaded with technical language, complex numbering systems, obscure terminology, and weighs an intimidating three pounds, but that does not make its precedence unchallengeable.

The publication of the DSM-5 may the tipping point in a history of over-reaching and misinformation by the American Psychiatric Association, forcing the psychology profession to take action.

In Fear is Not a Mental Disorder I will discuss:

1. What is the DSM?

2. How the DSM ignores major psychological facts and concepts

3. A new diagnostic paradigm called Natural Psychology

4. 10 reasons why Natural Psychology should replace the DSM

I recognize these ideas are controversial, but please keep an open mind, click on the link to open the PDF and read the entire essay.   Then join me in a discussion about the DSM-5 and mental health diagnostics in general. I would LOVE to hear your comments.

PDF of Essay:  Fear is Not a Mental Disorder

Aggressive Dog, Aggressive Owner


July 13, 2012

Probably not a news flash:  Owners of stereotypically aggressive dog breeds such as Germen shepherds and Rottweilers are more likely to be angry, hostile and aggressive. So finds a research study from Ireland, reported in HuffPost and shared by a friend. (Thanks!)

The gangster/pit bull pairing certainly is a stereotype that supports this as well. One of the study’s researchers is quoted: “This might imply (although has yet to be proven) that people choose pets that are an extension of themselves.”

That is one take. But I would propose a deeper and more helpful insight, which I discuss in my book “Pack Leader Psychology.”

Aggressive and hostile people are what I label “Dominators.” These people have very low self-worth and are insecure. Some Dominators are typical bullies. When Dominators feel threatened they “lash out” at other people with the primal “fight” response. These bullies use intimidation and fear to keep people at a safe emotional distance as a means to protect themselves from potential criticism, rejection and feelings of exclusion.

Sure these people choose pets to be an extension of themselves. But the reason they do so is the fascinating part. They do so because they are insecure and feel a need to have a big, aggressive dog to extend their “bully” behavior outward to intimidate and keep people at bay and protect themselves.

In addition, I believe that these anxious, insecure people are not balanced, healthy pack leaders, and their dogs know it! Around an anxious owner, a dog becomes anxious — and some may become more aggressive. As I describe in the book: Dogs and humans both use a “fight-or-flight” response when scared. Just one of the many parallels that explain nearly all aspects of human behavior.

The Dog That Taught Me About Leadership


Reilly, the Muse for “Pack Leader Psychology”

As I say in “Pack Leader Psychology,” a growl instantly moved me from pack member to pack leader with my dog, Reilly. But if I hadn’t had a dog that understood how to be a pack member, I might never have learned this lesson. And I might never have made the connection that being a pack leader to people might also be a good thing for my interpersonal relationships as well.

The story begins when I got Reilly as an eight-month-old dog. She had grown up in an outdoor kennel with her birth pack and several adult dogs. Living for so long with this normal dog pack taught Reilly how to recognize and honor the pack leader or leaders — probably her mother and father.

Continue reading

Welcome to the inaugural Pack Leader Psychology blog post!

I’m very excited to begin this new adventure that has been about six years in the making. I have written a non-fiction self-help book called “Pack Leader Psychology,” and this blog is the first step in introducing the ideas in that book to the public. A full website will follow soon and the book is now available as an e-book on Amazon (Kindle fans!). Print and e-versions on B&N and other sites will be due shortly.

So what is the book about?  Tough to shorten 230 pages down into a few paragraphs, but here goes:

“Pack Leader Psychology” recounts the lessons I learned while becoming a pack leader to my dog, Reilly, that helped transform me from a submissive, abused wife into a calm, confident, independent and assertive human pack leader. Read More