The River Theory

Our minds are beautifully complicated things. There are so many aspects of the brain we don't yet know or understand. This is especially true in regards to our mental health and mental illness. Of course, this likely contributes to the fear and stigma that is commonly associated with mental illness. But one neuropsychiatrist poses a great analogy to understand how our mental health ebbs and flows over time.

In his book outlining strategies and advice for parents on nurturing a child's developing mind, Dr. Dan Siegel describes what we like to call The River Theory. Whether you have children or not, this model provides a valuable understanding on how we flow from high to low mental health, and ultimately help you to sympathize with those who experience mental illness.

The River Theory is this: imagine your brain is floating down a river over the course of your lifetime. The middle of the river is where the mind is healthy. It is where the brain finds harmony. Everything is in balance. 

One riverbank represents chaos. This is where we feel out of control and caught up in the rapids and turmoil of life. This side of the river is filled with instability, anxiety, and fear.  

The other riverbank represents rigidity. Here we are imposing control on everything and everyone around us. We are unwilling to be flexible or adaptive to anything. This side of the river is filled with stagnation. 

The goal is to keep floating down the middle of the river, where your brain is flexible and stable. But you can expect your brain to drift from side-to-side of the river over time. You will experience periods of chaos. You will experience periods of rigidity. In those times, you utilize tools to help return to the center. But you also must recognize that it's okay to not remain in the center of the river 100% of the time. 

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