Book Review: The Science of Stuck // Britt Frank

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The self-help industry has rapidly expanded over the last few decades and encompasses everything from life-coaching, motivational talks and books, to online self-help courses and workshops.

Whilst self-help books can be written by virtually anyone with the resources and means to do so, I have often found myself less receptive to books promising self-help. This owes to the fact that authors sometimes omit the political, economic or social privileges that they have evidently hold in order to have written the book and subsequently, their privileges often come through in the type of advice they give.

For instance, many self-help books offer a militarised approach to wellbeing, often labelling people who ignore it as outright lazy. Advice frequently centres around authors encouraging their readers to go to the gym, which is easy to advocate when you are able-bodied or your mental health permits you some comfortability in attending these spaces. It is also easy to offer this advice when you have the monetary means to afford a gym membership and do not require access to safe-space gyms.

Some books also offer advice that centres upon buying products under the guise of doing ‘self-care’ or encouraging you to seek therapy. Whilst well-meaning and certainly therapeutic, this advice is another facet of privilege. Books that have hustle, bustle and grind at its core feel out of touch with their audiences.

Nonetheless, after recently finding myself feeling stuck and my attempts at ‘self-discipline’ resulting in burnout, I decided to give reins to a self-help book which claimed to prioritise a trauma-based approach.

In The Science of Stuck – Breaking Through Inertia to Find Your Path Forward, Britt Frank makes the compelling claim that humans are not lazy, crazy or unmotivated — these are instead myths that perpetuate mental health stigma and a culture of ableism.

Britt is a licensed psychotherapist who specialises in trauma. Throughout the book she references work with her patients and neuroscientific research, employing humorous personal anecdotes which are designed to highlight how feelings or behaviours that are culturally enshrined as bad, shameful, or unproductive, are simply just survival instincts. 

According to Britt, “there is no such thing as an unmotivated or a lazy person, humans are always motivated. Your brain is motivated either to make conscious choices or to survive threats.”

In the early chapters, Britt begins by making a distinction between anxiety, fear and worry, noting that we habitually conflate or use the wrong words to describe our experiences. Britt begins by focusing on anxiety, through using the analogy of a check-engine light in a car to highlight that anxiety has bodily functionality. For Britt, anxiety is our internal check-engine light. Once it is flashing, it marks an opportunity to check in with ourselves.

Drawing upon a therapeutic framework known as ‘somatic experiencing,’ Britt unpacks what we get wrong about anxiety. This framework, often used in therapy-based settings, attempts to reconnect patients with their body’s survival instincts, seeing anxiety or depression as something which is attempting to work for us, not against us.

It’s easy to reject the idea that anxiety somehow works for us — it certainly does not feel that way when you experience it. However, Britt notes that anxiety is a survival response which requires attending to our body in order to work through it. She argues that “when you pull your attention away from stories and emotions and focus first on body sensations, the feelings of overwhelm often immediately lessen in intensity.”

Britt further states that in order to overcome symptoms of anxiety or depression, we need to have a deeper understanding of trauma responses. As she notes, “Many wellness and health gurus teach us to seek balance […] but balance is not how a healthy nervous system operates. In fact, true balance is physically impossible – your body can’t be ready to dance and also be ready to sleep at the same time. Balance is not the goal.”

Britt challenges dominant discourses surrounding trauma quite substantially. For instance, she recognises that survivors of abuse or traumatic events are often quite upset by those who claim that ‘everyone experiences trauma.’

On the other hand, she also recognises that many people might be wholly opposed to the idea that they have experienced trauma at all. Britt believes that the acceptability of whether ‘everyone has trauma’ rests upon people’s moral judgement, not a scientific one. For Britt, trauma is anything in which severely hinders the brain’s ability to process information or as she states “though the word trauma sounds scary, it is simply a clinical way of saying your brain is overwhelmed.”

Whilst she does not intend this to invalidate or take away from very personal, lived experiences of trauma survivors, she believes that many symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress or panic are brains which feel unsafe and which are therefore having a trauma response. As she notes “a brain that feels safe has no need to produce symptoms.”

Britt frames trauma as a form of ‘brain indigestion.’ I found this a particularly fascinating way of describing the mechanics of trauma, as it seemingly demystifies and de-pathologizes trauma. Since most societies have predispositions that take people’s physical ailments more seriously than mental health problems, using the word indigestion is a fantastic means to facilitate a greater understanding of trauma. It has been well established within the scientific community that trauma is stored and recorded by the body, so it makes a lot of sense to describe trauma through something that we can relate to a bodily process or injury.

As Britt eloquently frames it, “trauma responses are often misdiagnosed and mislabeled as mental illness. Trauma responses do not negate the reality of mental illness, debilitating symptoms, or the need for medication. However, trauma is not an illness — it’s an injury and it can heal.”

Once Britt has put into context the role of trauma in producing anxiety, depression, panic, stress or behaviours such as procrastination. She shows how oftentimes, our inability to commit to tasks or plans is because our body is either in fight or flight mode. She explains that when we are beating ourselves up for being ‘lazy’ or ‘unproductive’ our bodies are attempting to conserve energy or mitigate risks that it believes are present.

Even though we might recognise our environment as safe, our bodies might not, “A brain that feels threatened is not going to be able to focus on anything except survival,” Britt states. Britt offers a range of exercises and a list of helpful trauma-based therapeutic techniques at the end of each chapter, designed to help the reader come out of fight or flight responses.

Britt’s desire to de-pathologize things we are often told to consider as character weaknesses is well executed. Her book perfectly balances a combination of scientific research, humour, and experience. Her writing is sensitively crafted together, shedding light on why we feel unable to make changes or find motivation in our lives. She provides digestible explanations and psychological exercises that we can do to foster greater connection to ourselves, our bodies and other people. 

Words by Natalie Sherriff

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