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The Hidden Psyche – Understanding Alzheimer's And Related Dementia Through A Psychoanalytic Lens

Dr. Dragana Favre is a psychiatrist, psychotherapist, and a seeker of the human psyche's mysteries. With a medical degree and extensive neuroscience education from prestigious institutions like the Max Planck Institute and Instituto de Neurociencias, she's a seasoned expert.

 
Executive Contributor Dragana Favre

Alzheimer's disease and similar dementias have long been studied from a neurological standpoint, focusing on brain pathology and physiological changes. However, emerging evidence suggests that these conditions might have deep roots in the psyche, acting as profound defense mechanisms against unresolved trauma and lifelong secrets. By integrating psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theories with contemporary scientific research, we can explore a compelling hypothesis: that Alzheimer's disease is fundamentally a psychiatric disorder with consequent neurological changes.


A photo of white flowers.

Freud introduced the concept of defense mechanisms, psychological strategies employed by the mind to cope with anxiety and distress. Among these, repression and dissociation play central roles in managing traumatic memories and unresolved conflicts. In Alzheimer's, these mechanisms might become extreme, leading to genuine forgetting as a way to avoid confronting lifelong emotional burdens.


Jung's theories further enrich this understanding. Jung emphasized the ‘Shadow,’ representing the unconscious, repressed aspects of the self. As individuals age, the process of individuation—integrating these hidden aspects—can become overwhelming. Dementia (not its every form, but Alzheimer’s-like dementia) might represent an extreme form of avoidance, where the mind shuts down to evade confrontation with the Shadow and unresolved personal histories.


Chronic psychological stress and depression are linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease. Studies have shown that prolonged exposure to stress hormones can lead to hippocampal atrophy and other neurodegenerative changes. This supports the idea that Alzheimer's might be the brain's response to persistent emotional turmoil. Neuroimaging studies highlight how chronic stress can damage brain regions associated with memory and cognition, providing a scientific basis for the hypothesis.


Research indicates that individuals with histories of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more susceptible to dementia. These findings suggest that intense psychological trauma leaves lasting imprints on brain function and structure. The neurobiological consequences of trauma can trigger neurodegenerative processes, reinforcing the notion that Alzheimer's is intricately linked to psychological experiences.


Certain personality traits and coping mechanisms can predispose individuals to dementia. Traits such as neuroticism and avoidance can exacerbate stress responses, supporting the idea that dementia serves as a prolonged escape from psychological distress. These personality factors highlight the role of chronic emotional states in the development of Alzheimer's and similar conditions.


In psychoanalytic theory, repression and dissociation are crucial for managing traumatic memories. In Alzheimer's’, these mechanisms might dominate to such an extent that they result in widespread memory loss and identity dissolution. This can be viewed as the ultimate defense against confronting repressed trauma and secrets accumulated over a lifetime.


From a Jungian perspective, dementia could be seen as a way for the psyche to protect itself from archetypal confrontations. The overwhelming presence of unresolved issues in the collective unconscious might lead to a retreat into a state where these conflicts no longer need to be addressed consciously. This profound dissociation aligns with the extreme forgetfulness observed in dementia patients.


Recent controversies in Alzheimer's research (see ref. 7) underscore the need for a broader understanding of the disease. A landmark Alzheimer's paper containing doctored images has cast doubt on the reliability of some findings in the field. This incident highlights the possibility that the visualized hallmarks of Alzheimer's, such as amyloid plaques, might represent the brain's response to prolonged psychological distress rather than primary causes of the disease (and not being equally expressed and related to the diseases in all patients). This perspective encourages us to consider how addressing unresolved trauma and secrets, particularly within familial contexts, could be crucial in preventing dementia.


Integrating psychodynamic therapy, stress reduction techniques, and trauma-focused interventions might help mitigate the progression of dementia. Addressing the underlying psychological issues can lead to more holistic and effective treatment strategies. Therapies aimed at resolving trauma and reducing stress could potentially slow the neurodegenerative processes associated with Alzheimer's.


In other words, let’s evaluate the highly likely possibility that Alzheimer's disease and similar dementias are not merely neurological disorders but complex conditions deeply intertwined with psychoanalytic and psychodynamic processes. These diseases reflect the mind's attempt to manage overwhelming psychological burdens through extreme defense mechanisms. By exploring the interplay between psychological trauma, defense strategies, and neurological changes, we can develop a more comprehensive understanding of these conditions. This integrated perspective opens new avenues for research and therapeutic interventions, ultimately aiming to improve the lives of those affected by these devastating diseases. More than anything, it invites people to verbalize, share, own and integrate their individual or collective Shadows.


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Dragana Favre, Psychiatrist and Jungian Psychotherapist

Dr. Dragana Favre is a psychiatrist, psychotherapist, and a seeker of the human psyche's mysteries. With a medical degree and extensive neuroscience education from prestigious institutions like the Max Planck Institute and Instituto de Neurociencias, she's a seasoned expert. Her unique approach combines Jungian psychotherapy, EMDR, and dream interpretation, guiding patients towards self-discovery and healing. Beyond her profession, Dr. Favre is passionate about science fiction, nature, and cosmology. Her ex-Yugoslavian roots in the small town of Kikinda offer a rich backdrop to her life's journey. She is dedicated to helping people find their true selves, much like an alchemist turning lead into gold.


 

References:


  1. Neuroscience News. (2023). Alzheimer's, Stress, and Depression.

  2. France Inter. (2023). Air Pollution and Dementia Risk.

  3. Neuroscience News. (2023). TBI, PTSD, and Genetics in Alzheimer's.

  4. Neuroscience News. (2024). Personality Traits and Dementia.

  5. Nature. (2023). Environmental Factors in Neurological Health.

  6. Neuroscience News. (2023). Forgetting and Memory Engrams.

  7. Science. (2024). Researchers Plan to Retract Landmark Alzheimer's Paper Containing Doctored Images.

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