Which developmental stage am I at in my mental health journey?

How developmental stages of mental health influence our capacities for change, growth, and joy

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Image by Andrew Neel

Within the darkness of depression, there is no light. We yearn for others and yet their presence makes no difference; the isolation exists within the sinews of the body, in the space between others words and one’s own experience. There is a deep chasm that cannot be crossed with mere positivity, patience, or platitudes around self-care.

When someone is trapped in the deepest and most agonizing parts of depression or anxiety, the path forward looks very different then for someone who comes in and out of mental imbalance, someone who has had years of healing but still struggles, or someone who experiences a pretty consistent level of mental well-being. With this in mind, I propose we begin to view mental health, and especially mental health treatment, as a complex and continually evolving stage-specific developmental process which requires different skills, approaches, and tools at each step of the way. There is no one-size-fits-all approach and due to the nature of growth and change, there never will be.

John Dupuy applies the stages of Spiral Dynamics to different stages of addiction and recovery, and in a similar way, I have found it to be useful when breaking down my own stages of mental health development. In fact, Spiral Dynamics was first created by Clare Graves, a psychologist who was trying to identify which type of psychological approach was most effective (i.e. Freudian, Cognitive-Behavioral, Existential, etc.). What Graves ultimately decided on was that each philosophical approach or treatment was effective for a particular stage that it was addressing but not as useful for other stages.

This realization is exactly what I noticed in my own journey when I first used therapy as the catalyst to heal my depression and anxiety, and then eventually went on to become a mental health therapist to try and help others do the same. I realized that some of the skills, insights, and worldviews that were being presented to me in my first year of healing were completely inaccessible to me at that stage. Through the depressive fog, it almost felt as though someone was speaking to me in a different language or using gibberish. And yet, years later, those same skills, insights, and worldviews would suddenly land for me and a new transformation would result. This wasn’t because I was suddenly more intelligent or more willing, this was because my capacity to make meaning or take on new skills and worldviews was actively evolving as I moved forward in my mental health healing. More importantly, this wasn’t just in the mind, my physical body and nervous system were undergoing changes and increasing their capacities as well.

As an example, in the beginning, slowing down and connecting to my breath actually caused more anxiety and panic for me than it did relief. However, in a few years, I was finally able to tap into that feeling of calm and relaxation that most people experience with deep breathing. I was finally at a place in my understanding and healing that both my mind and my nervous system could integrate the new experience effectively. This need for our nervous systems to be able to integrate new input and release past traumas is why change can be so slow and why combining somatic interventions with talk therapy is so important.

The recognition of these constantly changing capacities was profound. Not only are therapists and other healers oftentimes mischaracterizing this phenomenon as resistance, I also realized that depending on the type of tools and treatment approach therapists were introducing to people early on in their care, one could either support them in continuing to move forward or more disastrously, bring out feelings of shame, failure, hopelessness, and the underlying sense that the therapist just doesn’t understand. This can lead to the people who need help the most feeling stuck in their mental health journey and the chances of them reaching out again for help will considerably lessen.

To combat this, we need to approach mental health from a developmental, stage-specific model. In laying out the following stages of human values and motivations, I want to make it clear that as individuals we are too complex to solely be defined by one stage. We are constantly shifting, returning, and acting from multiple stages and that is normal. Each stage has a healthy and unhealthy manifestation so just because it’s a higher stage does not mean that it is inherently better. We need to integrate the healthy aspects of each stage as they provide their own gifts, lessons, and tools for us to practice while we continue to grow.

So, let’s break down the stages of Spiral Dynamics first and then in my next article I will connect and apply these stages to my own journey of mental health and how it can look in real life.

  1. Instinct

In the instinctual stage, outside forces still feel and appear mysterious, dangerous, and beyond our control. Our biggest concern is security and safety. It feels as though we are buffeted along by life’s incomprehensible waves of pain, fear, and pleasure. We are largely still in a survival state with very few internal resources. Survival states are punctuated by strong emotion, reactivity, and all or nothing thinking. When we have strong emotions, we act on them, whether it is in our best interest or not. We cannot dis-identify with the overwhelming and terrifying thoughts, emotions, and sensations which arise within us. We feel powerless and thus are often in search of any little bit of control we can find, even if ultimately self-destructive.

People who have experienced intense trauma can become trapped in this state as their amygdala (or fear center) becomes the main control station of the brain. The amygdala stimulates a stress response which causes cortisol and adrenaline to flood the body which over time breaks down the person’s capacity to heal, reset their system, or access their thinking part of the brain. On the other hand, the healthy aspect of this state is that it keeps us alive. Our fight or flight system protects us from danger and we would not have survived this long without it. Survival is adaptive.

From a therapy lens, interventions that might be helpful during this stage are empathic witnessing, co-regulation through staying calm and mirroring a sense of calm for the other, providing language, consistency, teaching healthier survival skills, creating safety plans, and building basic distress tolerance. Dialectical-Behavioral Therapy might be a useful starting place.

2. Power

In the power stage, we learn to respond to our feelings of powerlessness and fear with aggression, impulsivity, and pseudo-power. Our biggest concern is still survival-but through power over others, force, and banding together in self-protection. From this stage, communities of protection can form such as street or prison gangs, cliques, or terrorist groups. Bullying becomes a protective behavior to hide underlying vulnerability. The world is still seen as dangerous and powerful and in response we assert our own attempt at power and survival. Other people become objects to advance our needs or they are threats that must be nullified. Our reptilian brain is predominant in this stage, so still largely stuck in fight or flight mode, we have little access to our prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) or even our social engagement system in the limbic system(emotional brain). The healthy aspects of this stage are learning self-assertion, expressing anger and limits, and developing healthy willpower which we can use to accomplish goals.

Therapy interventions that may be useful at this stage are being direct, providing structure, giving consequences, and teaching healthy discipline. Note that this is not punishment, but comes from a fair and kind approach with the person’s best interest in mind. Think healthy parenting.

3. Rules or Roles

In the rules or roles stage, we begin to make sense of and control the outside world through creating order, rules, and consistent systems. We develop a sense of morality during this stage by looking outside towards an authority we deem good and fair (vs. strong, such as in the power stage). Morality is still very black and white/right or wrong. There is little room for ambiguity. Discipline, hard work, humility, and being part of a team are important values of this stage. Life is beginning to develop some direction and meaning because good vs. evil and looking beyond the self to perform a role become primary concerns. Although this stage becomes less self-focused, it is generally still focused on a particular group or tribe so it can become intolerant and judgmental of those outside the group. Our emotional limbic brains are becoming more accessible at this stage which gives us options beyond survival and allows us to seek comfort in relationships. Roles also become admired and tried on in this stage such as joining the military, becoming a police officer or lawyer, becoming a parent, becoming a member of a sports or political team, etc. Healthy aspects of this stage are a feeling of increased safety through order and a sense of direction and purpose.

Helpful interventions during this stage might look like providing directive structure, joining support groups or AA meetings, connecting to religion, beginning volunteer work, seeking moral guidance, or creating community. Family Therapy or Systems Therapy might be effective models to try.

4. Reason

In the rational stage, our reliance on being part of a group morphs into becoming more interested in the individual while also following a set of principles that emerges from the outgrowth of science, rationalism, and the Industrial Revolution. In this stage we begin to feel a sense of empowerment and engagement with the outside world through our ability to reason, plan, and learn. Our prefrontal cortex is becoming more accessible during this stage. Although we still have emotions, we begin to temper and balance them with our reason and ability to see long-term consequences. We are beginning to feel more powerful and capable-this causes us to begin prioritizing goals, as well as comfort and pleasure. Self-interest, consumerism, and material pleasure become larger concerns, as well as achievement, individual freedom, and skillfulness. Our morality becomes more focused on utility and individualism rather than the common good. Healthy aspects of this stage are a sense of belief that the self has the power to influence their reality for the better.

Therapy interventions that this stage has the capacity for include drawing upon neuroscience and epigenetics, providing psychoeducation, teaching wellness, and using empowerment-raising techniques. Therapies to try might be non-directive, person-centered approaches, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and drama therapy.

5. Sensitivity

At the sensitive stage, consciousness of the groups and individuals who are left behind in the rational stage, become front and center. Morality shifts from one of black and white or utility to one of relativism, intersectionality, and inclusiveness. The rights of all people become the primary concern and movements such as civil rights, women’s rights, LBGTQ rights, disability rights, animal rights, environmental concerns, and so on arise. Peace, justice, and dialogue are the primary motivators of this stage. In its unhealthy manifestation, nihilistic relativism or inaction can arise. The healthy aspects of this stage are our increasing ability to hold many different perspectives and to approach life from a place of compassion and understanding.

Therapies that work well with this stage include Relational therapy, Multicultural therapy, Systems therapy, Humanistic therapy, Art therapy, and an ecological lens of multiple systems intersecting in someones life.

6. Integration

Finally, we reach the integral stage which is the stage where we attempt to integrate the entire spiral and strengthen the positives of each stage while acknowledging and moving away from the blind spots of each stage. All the stages feel and think that their way of being is the right way, however, there is no wholeness without them all. Each stage is needed in order to emerge and evolve, and each stage brings its own gifts and insights. The final goal is being able to see the whole and act from a place of healthy integration. It is also to assist others in each stage be able to act from the healthiest manifestation of their stage by meeting them where they are at without judgment. John Dupuy reminds us that “while our capacities and complexity increase at each subsequent higher stage of development, so do the complexities of our associated pathologies.” The healthy aspects of this stage are expanded awareness and space to be able to make room for all stages both within us and in the world.

Therapies that work well at this stage might include Existential therapy and Jungian therapy. As well as therapies which incorporate spirituality and holistic mind-body approaches.

In the end, there is no limit to our stages of development because as humans we are constantly being influenced and responding to our ever-changing environment. There will always be new challenges and new solutions.

I use the Spiral Dynamics model merely as a way to help ground and scaffold the different stages I experienced as I engaged with mental health treatment. Perhaps this particular model is useful to you, if not, I encourage you to write out and dissect your own needs, capacities, and blocks throughout different stages of your life. Get as specific as you can. It doesn’t have to look like this one. But once we understand our own developmental stages, this empowers us to treat ourselves with compassion and with the tools that are most effective in where we are at. This gives us the map we need to continue fighting.

Written by

I’m a licensed mental health therapist who loves combining neuroscience, holistic health, somatic work, and spirituality to give people tools to heal trauma.

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