What Is Behavioral Health?
The Human Brain, Emotions, and Behavior
Every moment of our lives, our brains orchestrate a complex symphony of ideas and emotions. Our brains determine how we reason, how we behave, how we feel, and how we understand our everyday experiences. This truly amazing system is what allows us to be fully human—to feel emotion, to reason and make choices, to think and plan, to form memories and relationships, to act wisely at times and foolishly at others. It is no wonder that the human brain and behavior—both normal and abnormal—have been the source of fascination for centuries.
When problems arise within the intricate communications between the mind and body, people may develop conditions that affect how they think and behave. These conditions disrupt their day-to-day lives in ways that can be harmful to themselves or to others. In this volume you will learn how a variety of factors—including genes, environment, relationships, and learned behavior—shape new understandings of certain emotional and behavioral disorders.
What Is Normal?
Every person is different and unique. A person's individual experiences and genetic makeup combine in a way that influences how his or her emotions and behavior develop. While no two people are completely alike, we may say things like "My mom and I have similar personalities." Despite all of our differences, we can recognize reliable personality traits in people, or tendencies to behave certain ways—whether kindly, aggressively, or fearfully, to name a few examples. These traits make up a consistent style of behaving that we call a person's personality. As you read through this book, you will find out that the way psychiatrists and psychologists thought about personality often became the basis for how to help people suffering from mental illness.
But if everyone is different, then how can we decide what is normal? What is considered normal behavior varies widely, depending on the person's age and maturity, expectations within the family and culture, and the context or situation. For example, while in one family it might be normal to be highly emotional, it might be normal in another to be reserved and rarely express strong emotion. Or, behavior that might be seen as normal on the playground may not be considered normal in the classroom. In other words, being "normal" includes a whole spectrum of possible behaviors and different situations.
What is considered normal also changes during a person's development. We would expect a toddler to be afraid of strangers, and a nine-year-old to complete her homework with relatively little help. We would expect teenagers to be thinking about dating and relationships, what they may want to do when they grow up, and even the meaning of being alive. It is normal to wrestle with certain issues at certain stages of development. When events or situations prevent development from progressing smoothly, however, emotional problems may arise.
What Causes Behavioral and Emotional Conditions?
Some conditions develop largely from biological factors. Genetic makeup and brain chemistry can create conditions that result in extreme behaviors, such as autism or schizophrenia. Having a learning disability, chronic illness, or developmental disorder also poses special psychological challenges. With recent medical developments, physicians and psychiatrists are becoming increasingly able to prescribe medicines that help alleviate the difficulties of these disorders.
Many other conditions are understood through the experiences or environments in which they are most likely to occur. Stress is a major factor in many of these conditions, as the ability to cope with stress is closely linked to behavioral and emotional health. Hans Selye, the father of modern stress research, defined stress as the body's response to troublesome demands. Modern stress researchers see stress as any situation that might threaten our sense of well-being to the point where our abilities to cope might be overwhelmed. Almost everyone has experienced the physical and emotional effects of stress at some point in their lives, although not all situations are considered stressful by all people. Phobias, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are a few of the topics discussed here that closely relate to how a person copes with, or struggles to cope with, a particular stress.
An important part of how we deal with stress is how well we learn to solve problems, handle frustration, and get help when needed. Some life events can be so painful or traumatic that even the calmest among us can become overwhelmed. For example, it is normal for someone to experience grief or depression following the death of a loved one, a divorce, or another type of loss. Even with good coping skills and supportive friends and family, a person may need a therapist's help to fully recover from a difficult time.
There are other, more general topics that should be included in discussions about mental health. For example, many of the stresses of modern life can lead to the development of behavioral disorders. Homelessness, violence, and discrimination are social conditions that affect us all, whether or not we experience them directly. Behavioral Health also includes chapters about how disorders are treated, and takes a look at common treatments, as well as some that are more unusual or even controversial.
Everyone Is a Behavioral Health Expert
No one can disagree with you about how you feel. Therefore, when it comes to understanding yourself, you are your own behavioral health expert. But sometimes even an expert needs to consult with other experts to solve difficult problems. As you will see in this volume, there are many emotional or behavioral conditions that can affect people in ways that cloud their thinking, confuse their emotions, and interfere with day-to-day functioning. Some conditions are the result of being overwhelmed by choices we've made, by events that happen to us, or simply by life's stressors.
You may recognize yourself or someone you know in some of the chapters. If it helps you understand a personal problem that needs to be talked about, find a trustworthy adult and he or she will direct you to a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, counselor, or therapist who can help.
We have included almost 100 topics that range from disorders that are common, such as depression and anxiety, to disorders that are rare, such as dissociative identity disorder and fugue. There are also topics about social issues that affect behavioral health, such as peer pressure, families, divorce, love and intimacy, violence, abuse, and homelessness. Other chapters describe how biology affects behavior—you will find chapters on the brain and nervous system, memory, intelligence, sexual development, and genetics. You may identify with the problems discussed, or you may just be intrigued by a particular topic. To encourage further research, there are resources at the end of the chapters to help you learn more. We hope you will enjoy reading about behavioral health and conditions, and that this volume may spark your interest to explore how relationships between the brain, behavior, and emotions help determine who we are.David Sheslow, Ph.D.
Richard Kingsley, M.D.
D'Arcy Lyness, Ph.D.
Nemours Center for
Children's Health Media