My copy of Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker hasn't arrived yet, but I just read some of it on Google Books, and it's got me thinking.
A couple years ago, working a crazy grad-student schedule, I went to White Castle at 3:00 a.m. It's one of the few restaurants in town open that late, and I didn't feel up to cooking. And then I went back. A number of times. I noticed that when I felt especially "brain-scrambled", it seemed that White Castle might soothe it. In reality, the food might have calmed me down slightly, for maybe half an hour, but never much and never for very long.
I did some googling about food and calm, and came across an alternative-medicine web site that said that in many cases, the thing that relieves your symptoms is actually the cause of your symptoms
. In other words, you tend to crave the thing that's making you miserable.
That sounds weird, but it immediately rang true. In fact, the main word in White Castle's slogan was "crave". I don't know if they put something in the food to trigger cravings, but I've never been back. I still have "brain-scramble", but at least my craving for White Castle disappeared in a couple weeks.
This sounds like opponent processes
at work. I wonder, though, if this same idea might have wide applicability in diagnosing problems: Look at what you repeatedly go to for relief from a problem—that's probably the cause of the problem.
Some possible examples:
- An old joke: Alcohol is both the cause and solution to all of life's problems.
- Whitaker suggests that psychiatric medications actually cause psychiatric illnesses.
- People with "personality disorders" or in "dysfunctional relationships" might be in a similar kind of loop. An old school of psychiatry called Transactional Analysis said that often a person playing "victim" seeks relief from a "rescuer" and then switches to "perpetrator" and back and forth, over and over. (Transactional Analysis might be very compatible with Hormetism, in that its main cure is a sort of "constraint": stop playing your role in a "game" and thereby end the game.)
- Carbohydrate binges bring relief from low blood sugar—and trigger an insulin rush that will lower the blood sugar.
In each case, the first time the problem happened, the source of immediate relief didn't cause it. But the source of relief worked by a mechanism that reinforced the problem.
What's got me fired up are two possibilities:
- That it might be possible to cure a lot of chronic problems by just stopping your method of relief.
- That the problem->relief->problem loop might actually be a clue to the way things work when they're working normally.
If living things are anything, they're self-stabilizing. These "reverse hormesis" loops might just be a perverse form of stability.