Conditioned Responses

Conditioned responses

Last term, I had a psychology module at medical school. In all honesty, the module disappointed me a little for its lack of focus on mental health conditions. There was just one lecture thrown in on mental illness, and the rest was mainly based on the psychology of doctor-patient relations. All of it could be summed up by: People are different, adapt for that.

Having said that, however, there were some interesting parts that could be applied to mental health issues. My favourite topic was the topic on learning theory. It made me think a lot about my own struggles, and how they made sense in terms of psychology. In particular, the concept of classical conditioning was very relatable.

What is a conditioned response?

I feel that the best way to explain this would be by using an example.

The best example, in my opinion, is that of Pavlov’s Dogs. In response to food, a dog would start salivating. This was a natural response. The food was said to be an unconditioned stimulus (i.e. something that produces a natural reaction from someone) and the salivating was an unconditioned response (i.e. a natural response). Then, the experimenter rung a bell every time he presented the dogs with food.

The dog’s begun to associate the ringing of the bell with food, and so started salivating when they heard the bell. The ringing of the bell was a conditioned stimulus, and the salivating in response to the bell was a conditioned response.

How does this fit into mental health?

The summer breeze

For most people, the summer breeze is something that has a very soothing and positive effect. For me, the summer breeze has become something entirely different.

In my time in the psychiatric hospital, I was sitting outside on the bench. All I was doing was staring into the distance while contemplating what had happened. The summer breeze would be blowing gently, and I became very accustomed to it. Of course, this breeze and the sun has now become associated with that. Every time I look at the sun outside, I end up with a very tight feeling in my chest. All I can think about is sitting on that damn bench.

And so all I can do is take a deep breath, force a smile and pretend to enjoy it like everyone else.

Taylor Swift

I can’t understand why but in a lot of my appointments or even stay as an inpatient, Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off seemed to be playing somewhere. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t dislike the song. Quite the contrary in fact: I think it’s a very good piece of music.

Thinking it’s a good piece, however, makes this a little more painful. I can’t listen to that song anymore without being constantly reminded of everything. Reminded of feelings of despair, of being admit in a psychiatric unit, of a psychiatrist taking a history from me. The physical reactions of nausea, sweating or palpitations can even come about when I hear this song.

Pizza Hut and Westfield!

If you’ve religiously been following my blog, you may understand what’s coming by the title alone.

There was a time just over a year ago where, in front of a group of friends, I ended up having a bad psychotic breakdown. I won’t go into too much detail here but if you want to read the full story, you can read it here. As you may have guessed using all the other examples – seeing either Pizza Hut or a Westfield shopping centre has rather negative connotations.

It’s difficult to walk past them without the memory of psychosis coming back.


A couple of weeks ago, it was my 21st birthday. Originally, I wasn’t looking forward to it. Going by the theme of what’s being said on here, you can probably work out why.

On my 20th birthday exactly a year before, I was admit in the psychiatric hospital. My day began with nurses and healthcare staff wishing me a happy birthday, while checking up on me every hour to make sure I was still alive. I was therefore very nervous about the day, for it only reminded me of that. Thankfully, my friends at medical school made sure that didn’t happen and threw a fantastic day for me.

Final thoughts

Thankfully, in the world of psychology, a term called stimulus extinction exists. What that means is that eventually, these conditioned responses can disappear. They tend to disappear when the conditioned stimuli are presented without the unconditioned stimuli. That is, for example, going to pizza hut without a psychotic episode happening every time will make the pizza hut association disappear.

To overcome it all, I am forcing myself to go out and expose myself to these negative feelings. It is difficult – but it will also help me recover. At least, I hope so.


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