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The Science of Stuck: Breaking Through Inertia to Find Your Path Forward

Britt Frank LSCSW
Published by TarcherPerigee in 2023

            A brain that feels safe will not get stuck. The Science of Stuck: Breaking Through Inertia to Find Your Path Forward is a quick course on validating and understanding our feelings and reactions. As a therapist, Britt Frank knows we can’t take away the pain in life, but we can help each other get through it by removing shame and confusion. She argues that when we understand our emotions, we are less likely to pathologize them and become “stuck.”

Britt Frank takes the best from current mental health research and pulls it together in this accessible book. She provides practical steps for moving through difficult situations and seasons in life, much of it based on the polyvagal theory. With a caveat on the first page that people in currently abusive relationships need advice specific to their trauma, she proceeds to lead the reader through conversations about anxiety, motivation and procrastination, shadow intelligence and internal family systems, friendship and dating, emotional skills in families, and addiction. Chapters are sprinkled with charts, cartoons, footnotes, and quotations from many other psychologists and therapists.

            Britt Frank is open about the fact that she knows what does and doesn’t work because she’s struggled with addiction and trauma herself and has successfully used these strategies with many clients in her own therapy practice. Mental health authors with lived experience like Frank are my favorites because their stories are hopeful and their advice is practical. Each chapter ends with a list of ideas that will reassure the reader that change is possible when they have the tools to get unstuck. She also includes Five Minute Challenges that people can easily do on their own or with a friend.

            Frank normalizes some things that we tend to see as problems by explaining the evolutionary benefit of these behaviors and reactions. For example, anxiety is a series of body sensations, a signal that lets us know we are stuck and something needs to change. Anxiety tends to grow when we ignore these sensations, not because we are impossibly broken inside. Therefore anxiety doesn’t need to be fixed or numbed, it needs to be understood.

            Frank claims that all humans have some measure of trauma. Those who insist that nothing terrible has happened to them or those who have experienced intense trauma and know that their pain isn’t widely understood may resist this claim. Frank uses Levine’s definition of trauma: Trauma is too much, too fast, too soon. A trauma response happens when, after trauma, something triggers the body to perceive danger, and you go into fight/flight/freeze mode. She believes we won’t be so quick to pathologize these autonomic (sympathetic and parasympathetic) responses when we understand why they are happening. One section I found particularly useful is a list of suggestions for regulating when our sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous systems are overactive. Frank lists ten suggestions for each, using our sensory systems and various ways of talking to ourselves as tools to regulate our vagal state.

She spends quite a bit of time on relationships. A chapter on internal family systems provides strategies for internal conflict. Subsequent chapters offer advice on maintaining other kinds of healthy relationships: friendships, dating and marriage. As with the rest of the book, there is a lot of good research and advice here. One paragraph, though, seemed off the mark, as Frank says that polyamory, swinging, and monogamish relationships are good alternatives to monogamy. She says that all iterations of non-monogamy require advanced communication skills, thoughtfulness and consideration. Throughout the book, though, Frank says that all relationships require those same skills. Here she seems to wander from science, especially the growing understanding of the function of oxytocin, a hormone involved in reproductive system functions, coping with stress, and relationship bonding.

            The book ends with a reminder that mental health is a commitment to reality and one of the realities that Western culture doesn’t like to acknowledge is grief. Frank explains why grief needs to be honored, not suppressed. She explains how the commonly known five stages of dying are different from the tasks of grief. If mental health is a commitment to reality, this includes the realities of grief and change.

            I recommend this helpful book for all of us who are not therapists, yet find ourselves searching for ways to have therapeutic moments with students, our family, church members, friends, or ourselves. I plan to use much of the information and practical content in this book as mental health activities with our church youth group and more!

Marie Ippel

Marie Ippel teaches and learns at Rehoboth Christian School in Gallup, New Mexico. Her middle school science classroom is one of her favorite places to be. She likes to walk the high desert trails in the nearby red rocks and ponderosa forest with her family, friends, or all by herself. And she loves a good book with a cup of chai.