Looking after Number One

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As you will see, it is somewhat ironic that I sit here writing this entry at 2am in a Starbucks Cafe in Washington DC, a long way from the place I call home – Sydney. Yet it is oft the absence of something that hammers home its importance to us.

 

I look back on three pivotal events that have defined the last few years of my life; going through depression, catching glandular fever, and finding purpose. The first two taught me the importance of looking after ourselves properly, the latter provided me with a powerful incentive.

 

Now some time ago, I wrote about the investment we can make in ourselves, and that I believe this to be the most valuable investment we make in our lives. It pays back with some serious interest. I’d like to follow up on this.

 

I didn’t learn a great deal from my Neuroscience studies (except that the aroma of formaldehyde should never be combined with a hangover), but what stands out is that the body is at all times a quite remarkable and fine chemical balance. It is so easy to knock our bodies off balance, and we really feel the effects of doing so. I’ve recently been reading Matt Church’s ‘High Life 24/7’, and he mentions that one night of no sleep can affect us for up to six weeks after – that’s how long it takes for our bodies to return to their proper chemical balance. That one night of missed sleep in isolation is not much of a health risk, but it may be the reason why you wake up the odd day feeling lethargic, and your day is worse for it. How that could have been avoided…

 

He refers to give key areas of our lives that have a significant impact on our chemical balance; nutrition, sleep, exercise, thought patterns and how we deal with stress. I’d venture that social connection should be number six, as this has been shown by research to have a significant impact on our neural chemistry. Now I’ve met very, very few people who I believe take good care of each of these areas. Simple habits such as drinking lots of coffee, eating fast food, sleeping in at the weekend, staying up past when we’re tired, missing out on gym sessions and letting stress control them can have negative consequences beyond what we realise. They can knock us off-kilter, leaving us wondering why we feel tired, snappy, uncreative or disillusioned when there seems to be no obvious life circumstance at the cause. This is rather an obstacle to us achieving our goals, whether they be in our working lives or just life satisfaction.

 

However, there is an enormous, gargantuan opportunity within this. The sheer scope of this opportunity has only begun to register in my consciousness since I arrived in Sydney five months ago. The opportunity is that if we can learn to listen to our body chemistry, to understand our needs and develop habits that nourish them, then we are potentially better off for every day of the rest of our lives. If we can understand the ideal sleep pattern for ourselves, eat well, exercise as much as we need, develop great strategies for stress and learn positive thinking habits…then everything in our life benefits; productivity, creativity, contentment, relationships, confidence, learning, purpose, passion…We can do more, better, and we feel more fucking awesome about it. Not bad.

 

So why the heck are so few people developing these habits? There are a few obstacles. Lack of knowledge of what these needs are in ourselves and the habits we should develop. Lack of time or patience to implement them. But I think the biggest obstacle, and I’ve written about this before, is that we’re bloody awful at being self-aware. Whether it be because of the western favouritism of logic over intuition, or the fast pace of modern life, we plain suck at tuning in to our bodies and minds. But this extra time spent on self-reflection means that we get more out of all of the rest of our time.

 

I’m not theorising. I firmly believe in the importance of understanding these needs and habits – and preferably doing so young – because I’ve benefitted enormously from it. At some stages of uni I was sleeping four hours a night, drinking a lot of alcohol, using caffeine to get through the day, not taking the time to cook and eat properly and running off pure adrenaline much of the time. The dips could be extreme, I was frequently getting ill and wasn’t getting anywhere near my own potential. Nowadays I eat really well, drink only water, consume no caffeine most days, cycle every day and get a solid sleep almost every night. The difference is staggering. I feel better, and I’m capable of much more than I previously thought. I also learn and develop much faster than before. It’s very rare that I wake up and don’t feel full of energy/optimism for the day, and I’ve had one day off ill in five months. I feel that embedding these habits now (and continuing to improve them) will allow me to get more from my life for the foreseeable future, and in all likelihood will make my life longer too.

 

Convinced yet? If not, pick up a copy of one of Matt Church’s books and see for yourself how much more awesome your life could be. And let’s be honest, we’d all rather like that. I see this as building a foundation upon which we can flourish for the rest of our lives. It’s not sexy, but the rewards are phenomenal.

 

So with all this in mind…how much better would this entry have been if I was more well-rested, had been eating better food, exercising more and feeling more settled? I guess we’ll never know for sure, but I would venture it would be a fair bit better…

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Fatigue…why are you bothering me?

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These past two days I spent bushwalking at the Royal National Park. I took the famous and popular Coastal Track from Bundeena down to Otford. Prior to beginning on Sunday, I had a feeling that I really needed to do this walk and had been feeling pretty fatigued in the lead up to it. Now a day and a half later, having gotten up at 5:20am on Sunday to begin the 4 hour journey (cycle, train, ferry) to the walk’s start point, and having covered the better part of 30km on foot (over some tough terrain) and 20km on bike whilst spending last night sleeping uncomfortably in a tent, I now find myself feeling distinctly refreshed. I feel incredibly relaxed, my mind is not jumping from one task or decision to the next and I keep laughing at the most unlikely things.

Otford (the walk’s end point) found itself one of the main objects of my amusement. Having seen signposts to it from the beginning, starting at 26km and gradually getting whittled down by our relentless walking, it held this magical allure as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (the Coastal Walk, of course, being the rainbow in this tenuous analogy). I had rather hoped to find a pub when we reached it, or at the very least a cafe where I could grab the hot chocolate I had been daydreaming of when we set out on pouring rain and harsh winds that morning. To find that it contained little more than three roads, three houses (one was in construction), some signposts (mainly containing the names of Otford’s roads, in case you couldn’t find one of the other two) and a railway station stimulated feelings of disappointment outweighed by feelings of amusement. I found it all very funny, which made me rather happy.

However, this piece of writing is not dedicated to Otford’s charms or lack thereof. In fact, no piece of writing ever should be dedicated to Otford. If it was, I wouldn’t read it (I might out of curiosity when no one was looking).

It’s about Fatigue.

So.

Naturally upon acknowledging my feelings of refreshment upon finishing the walk, the next thought to enter my head was ‘why?’. Indeed. And then I asked myself why we ever feel tired. What causes this?

Our first instinct often is that we need more sleep. Or a holiday. Somehow we summse the lack of sleep and/or holiday is at the root of our feeling worn out. I don’t doubt this can be the case, but I would venture that the roots of fatigue can be complex, and often cumulative. I believe that doing one kind of activity for too long can wear us out, whether it be the same job, the same routine, the same lifestyle. If you don’t change it up, those areas of our brain being utilised by these activities don’t get a break in which to recover.

For instance at the end of my time travelling I was exhausted. It wasn’t a hard lifestyle; I was able to make up each day as I felt, never worried about somewhere to sleep or food to eat. But I felt so fatigued by that lifestyle. Travelling has great variety true, but although the places change and the people too, the conversations you have and the type of things you do in each place become quite repetitive. I was shattered, and yet raring to get in to my new work and new life in Sydney. On the face of it, that sounds more exhausting, but I had so much energy for this different challenge – much more than for travelling.

Reading is a great love of mine as a means of winding down, but in recent times that’s not always helped. If I’ve had a brain-bending day that challenges me to work through problems, then reading a non-fiction book that engages me in a similar way does not help – it just wears me out further. However, reading a novel does help.

The realisation that I think I’m coming to from this rather anecdotal blog, is that when we look at how much energy we are using, we should not look just at the activities we’re doing, but how they work our brains. My long walk refreshed me, because the parts of my brain usually utilised by the work I do were able to go on holiday. In fact, trying to access them actually required a lot of effort. Instead I had been thinking about my environment, watching for the terrain, taking in the sounds, picturing Otford…

In recent weeks I’ve not been bouncing out of bed in the usual energetic manner, ideas and connections weren’t flowing like I’m used to and physically I hadn’t been feeling too well. Yet, I had changed little in my lifestyle (if anything getting more sleep and downtime) and this presented physically. I find it fascinating that this can be so; that mental fatigue presents in a physical way. I feel that mental health and physical health are so intricately connected, and as society begins to accept and discuss mental health, the depth and extent of this connection will only increase in our consciousness.

It also demonstrates the value of building in to our lifestyles activities that work different parts of our brain. Activities that require such focus that you don’t reflect on work. Perhaps sport or creative hobbies.

I’m certainly going to take that lesson on board, and reflect a little more in this subject in the mean time.

And next time I feel tired, I might just take another long walk. To Otford.

P.S. One more thing. If there’s one takeaway action, it’s this: spend a day without turning on and using your phone or computer (or tablet). Acknowledge how uncomfortable feels, and how remarkable it is that this was probably the norm a few decades ago. What I found, is that it is also very relaxing. Your stress levels noticeably drop.

The most simple and powerful ‘cure’ for mental illness: Looking after ourselves

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Last week I was invited to speak at Vibewire’s FastBREAK event; a monthly breakfast event in which five speakers blitz five-minute presentations on a particular topic, this month’s topic being cure. My background over the last few years having been mental health, I had one or two thoughts on this one. The great thing about these sorts of opportunities, is they force you to consider your own views on the topic, and articulate those thoughts in to something coherent and with a message behind it.

I think modern society’s obsession with fixing things and finding a ‘cure’ is not an altogether healthy one, and in the mental health sector I’ve seen evidence of that. The medical model takes the view that mental illness is a physical malfunction of the brain that needs to be corrected. As a starting point for how we view mental illness, I think this is bullshit and can do more harm than good.

Sure, the evidence is solid that many psychological disorders (to varying extents) have a genetic component, and some people are more predisposed to them than others. I don’t dispute that. But it nonetheless needs a life trigger to happen, and that comes down to personal circumstances. This model in isolation does not explore the life circumstances that triggered the problem in the first place. It’s like giving someone who is obese weight-reduction pills, and ignoring the fact that they spend all day on the couch eating fast food. You’re treating symptoms, not the cause, and as long as that’s the case then the problem will repeat.

The other major gripe I have with this model, is that it waits until there is a problem before looking for a solution. What has become increasingly apparent to me over the years, is that the best solution is ‘prevention’. The smartest investment may not actually be in finding the best drug treatments, but in showing people how they can better look after themselves in the first place.

Now I’m not saying here that the medical model has no value, not at all. Research in to mental health increases our understanding, and helps us to see where the triggers lie and what aspects of our life might have caused the problem. And in some cases, the mental illness is so debilitating (and long-term), that drug treatment is the only way in which to give that person decent quality of life, or to get them to a stage where they can start looking at more holistic techniques to better understand what triggered the problem and the life changes they can make. But I want to use this blog to demonstrate why I think simply taking better of ourselves is the most obvious, and underused, ‘cure’ for mental illness out there. Heck, it’s probably the best ‘cure’ for physical illness too. You’ll see that mental health and physical health are so inexorably linked that when it comes to maintaining them, it’s little use to differentiate.

The positive effects on our bodies and minds of exercise are incredibly profound. Other basics such as our diet and getting enough sleep are also tremendously impactful on our wellbeing. Lack of sleep is correlated with all manner of psychological disorders, and I’m sure we’ve all experienced feeling crap when sleep deprived.

From a more psychological point of view, I think enormous value should be placed on our social relationships with others – family, friends, colleagues. The drive to be accepted, appreciated and part of a community is at the core of humans. We’re fundamentally social creatures. Also having purpose, feeling like we’re contributing something positive, learning are all deeply important to our mental health.

The New Economics Foundation put together a ‘Five Ways to Well-being’ project, which is nicely presented and based on the strength of research. It’s worth a look.

I’ll also jump back to a blog I wrote a while ago on acceptance, and why this is so important. As Seema Duggal explained in her talk, somehow we have developed a culture in which we expect to feel happy – it is deemed the ‘norm’. This is ridiculous and unrealistic. The whole premise behind the evolution of emotion is for the adaptive advantage it gives us. The ability to recognise whether something is good for us or not. Inevitably, there will be some of the latter. It’s healthy to feel sad when we experience loss or disappointment, and there are valuable lessons in the painful emotions too. Accepting our emotions, whatever they may be, is an important aspect of taking care of ourselves.

We all have mental health so let’s take proper care of it; doing so has a huge impact on every day of our lives. I learned this lesson the hard way when I went through depression, however my life has been so much richer since then because of the care I’ve given to acknowledging and building my own mental health. It’s been tough, and I have to be proactive with my mental health. I take time out every day for activities such as meditation, walking, cooking/eating good food, cycling, time with friends and view these as essential parts of my day.

My final thought is on how we might teach people the importance of and techniques that assist us to look after our mental health? Should this be part of public education as we grow up? It has such enormous consequences, and if we could learn these things early…

So a final question. What will you start doing every day to look after your own mental health better? You can’t use the excuse of being short of ideas – there are about ten in this blog alone! Good luck with it, and enjoy the rewards.

Why is global compassion on the rise?

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This article really resonated with me. Yes, like all ‘science journalism’ its scientific credibility is somewhat dubious, but this exploration of mankind’s compassion and the wider picture of why it might be growing has had me hooked for a while.

A couple of years back I came across some research demonstrating that we’re growing more inclined to admire those who have strong compassion, empathy and kindness rather than traits of ruthlessness and manipulation that have worked well for many leaders – both past and present.. And it was Darwin who claimed that sympathy is our strongest instinct.

Science aside, you observe trends in the world. Now more than ever I hear the word ‘collaboration’ come up. This was evident both in the UK and now here in Australia. This is particularly amongst the younger generation and younger organisations, but those that are a bit older are also warming to it. Charitable, altruistic work is on the rise. I meet so many more people choosing to set up or get involved with organisations that set out to solve problems faced by people in the world that they have no obvious connection to, and devote their lives to this. That’s pretty remarkable isn’t it?

There’s no denying that our lives are becoming more global and technology means that we can connect globally, instantly and at any time. I’m able to speak to and see my friends and family over on the other side of the world instantaneously, which still astounds me.

What this also means, as the article rightly says, is that the issues we face are more global than before, and it will require more global collaboration in order to solve them. Working within our local communities is hardly likely to solve the lack of renewable energy, overpopulation or food shortages, which are all global issues on the rise. Yet all of these are big challenges of the 21st century and will all spill over to affect every single one of us in time if they are not addressed.

Unless we work together, and have compassion for those with whom all we share is our humanity, rather than nationality, religion, politics…then the great challenges of the 21st century may be too complex overwhelming. Attention must be given to similarities, not differences. Our reasons for cooperation, not conflict. Conflict within species is a part of nature, but for no other species in the planet’s history (to our knowledge) has come close to having such a profound impact in such a short space of time.

When I look at this whole picture, I can’t help but wonder whether we are indeed evolving to be more compassionate, more altruistic and more connected on a global scale. Humans have fought one another for millennia, but now we’ve reached the stage where any large-scale conflict would have potentially devastating consequences. Cooperation must be the first option. And some of the challenges we face are so vast and complex that it needs people coming together from all over the world to tackle them.

I see growing movements of people actively seeking out more fulfilling and altruistic lives, challenging our money and consumption obsessed values, prioritizing the positive impact they have in the world over the money they earn. It’s a slow trend, but it’s there, and I can’t help but wonder why. Perhaps evolution – our own fundamental drive for survival as a species – is the answer?

But hey, I’m only speculating…

Making the most of each day and why less really is more

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There’s been an inescapable realisation creeping up on me this past week. That there’s more. Yes, you know exactly what I mean right!? An explanation then.

I know there are times when I feel extra tuned in and sensitive to life. I notice things I ordinarily wouldn’t; the body language of someone I’m speaking to, connections between people and activities, a conversation off in the corner, the flavours of something I’m eating, previous situations that are similar. It’s being in the moment. Almost an animal-like extrasensory state of being. It’s incredible, but I have no idea what triggers it, and eventually it seems to wear off. When I’m in it, I’m creative, incisive and inspired. I get more out of every little experience taking place around me. It’s as though there’s this extra level, an extra 5% that I get access to.

Where the more lies, is not outside in the world – this is where I think is where so many go wrong. We have no shortage of access now to incredible people, inspiring literature, art, magnificent places. Our days and lives are more varied than ever before, and there is no shortage of sensory input. Yet, somehow on the journey that sensory input takes to reach our consciousness, much of it is filtered out. Neurologically, that makes sense, as our brain receives an incomprehensible amount of information and has to filter out what we are aware of. Can you imagine if we noticed every single time a bird shouts, or the precise actions of our fingers as they type, the pressure on our feet as we stand? It would be incredibly distracting. From an evolutionary perspective, I do wonder if this sensory overload is the reason why we can’t be more tuned in to what we’re experiencing. The brain has had to adapt to this incredible amount of input, and with only so much energy available, that means that there is less to be given to feeling in the moment. Every now and then though there’s a glimpse of it, and it’s phenomenal.

Sometimes I’ll listen to a piece of music and it will trigger off a strong emotional reaction, in turn giving me this heightened sense and with it greater creativity and inspiration. Or I’ll see other people go through an unexpected and emotional experience, which will provide them with greater insight. What is it exactly, about these experiences, that triggers our access to this extra layer?

Many people I meet seem so lacking in self-awareness. They don’t understand why they feel as they do, and can’t connect the dots. When they feel miserable or disillusioned they can’t figure it out. I see people repeat the same behaviours and choices time and time again, and then end up surprised when it leads to the same feeling they were hoping to avoid. It’s utterly bizarre. I see it in work decisions, relationships and even simple daily habits such as sleep. I wonder if this and the sensory overload/lack of consciousness are interconnected.

I see people rush through their lives. Dashing from one task to the next, one person to the next, one place to the next. They soak up the sensory input that’s out there, and in the process completely miss out on a whole level of sensation, experience and awareness that would come from paying more attention to how they feel inside. Often when people slow down that’s when they have these great realisations and epiphanies. A vacation, a break between jobs, a long walk. So many times I hear people come back from a holiday and express excitedly all these new realisations about themselves and their lives that they have discovered, just because they took the time to slow down. Imagine if you could do that every week…?

And if you slow down and allow those realisations to sink in, then with less stress comes greater creativity. I’ve heard it said that the first thing that goes when people cut down on sleep is creativity. Stress makes you productive yes, but how often do our greatest insights surprise us by appearing in the middle of a peaceful moment – a walk, when we get in to bed, cooking dinner? Compared to say… a busy period when we’re drawing up some document or ploughing through emails.

So when I talk about there being more, I don’t mean that there’s more out there in the world, I mean that there’s more inside of us. More awareness, possibilities, potential. Every now and then I meet someone who seems to have found a way to access this, and they give off an incredible energy.

I don’t think we’ll access it through being busier or having/doing more. That distracts us and negates our self-awareness. I think it may come from taking time to slow down, allowing for spontaneity, and through spiritual practice such as meditation. From living a more minimalist life, and cutting down on distractions. Keeping things simple, and demanding less of our energy for processing all this stimuli, so it can instead be redirected to conscious awareness. Buddhist monks are some of the most self-aware, wise people you’ll ever find, and yet they live remarkably simple lives.

We ought to pay more attention to what’s inside, rather than outside.

Why does sunshine make us so happy?

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Well it does, doesn’t? We all know that beautiful feeling of waking up, looking out of the window and seeing blue skies with sunshine streaming in. It puts us in a great mood straight away. Conversely, when up above you is a blanket of grey clouds, we feel pretty fed up. A funny little observation I’ve made since being in Sydney is that people here, broadly speaking, are a little more friendly and cheery than in the UK. And it really is a noticeable enough trend to be obvious. And yet much of the population shares the same ancestry, so how did that happen? The UK’s not that bad is it?

But I’m not going to spend this blog convincing you that sunshine makes us feel happy. Most of us have already had this insight and if you haven’t…well you should probably stop reading here as the rest of the blog is based on this assumption. And you’re probably living somewhere without much sunlight – like Antarctica maybe. Go and take a holiday in the Caribbean and then read it again.

Neuroscientists have identified the physiological basis of this improvement in mood that occurs when we receive more sunlight. Depending on what you read, you will hear about increases in certain chemicals called endorphins and serotonin. Both have been frequently linked to mood, and indeed the main form of drug treatment for depression is a series of drugs called SSRIs, which artificially raise our levels of serotonin. I touched on the subject in an earlier blog (linked to brain changes blog).

For most Neuroscientists, they think that this increase in chemicals is a splendid answer to the question of the title. But not for me. You see, mood is an adaptive mechanism that has evolved over time to give us a biological advantage. We have reward pathways in the brain, which exist to give us a positive feeling when we do something that is good for us i.e. anything that helps us to survive or create more mini people. Likewise they give us a negative feeling when we do the opposite. Of course there are plenty of examples where this can go horribly wrong – such as with some recreational drugs, which act very powerfully on these reward mechanisms and confuse the hell out of our bodies.

So emotion isn’t just there because it’s nice to feel happy. It has a more adaptive purpose. With that in mind, why does the sun lift our mood? Or rather, why does our reward mechanism in the brain tell us that being in the sun is AWESOME? When I connect up the dots I’m left with the conclusion that sunlight obviously has an impact on our bodies that is important for us physiologically – important for our survival and health.

The best answer I can come up with is Vitamin D. Sunlight is well known to increase Vitamin D in our bodies, a vitamin that is quite tricky to get from any other source in the same quantity as from the sun. It’s good for our teeth, bones AND does truly marvellous things for our immune system. Well that’s pretty awesome. I guess with that in mind, it would make some sense that our brain is telling us to go and soak up more of it.

The bizarre lead on then from this then, is that those of us living in countries without much sunlight and feeling miserable (typically associated with higher levels of mental illness, especially seasonal affective disorder and even higher suicide rates) are actually receiving feedback from our brains telling us to LEAVE. It’s basically saying to you, “Look, you can stay in this country with its rubbish weather where I’m not going to get any of that delicious Vitamin D I like, but I’m going to make you feel bloody miserable if you do.” If this was the most powerful driving force for humans, we would probably see a very different population density across the globe, with hoards of people moving to Latin America and the Caribbean, and no one left in Scandinavia or the UK. I don’t know what would happen to Eskimos.

So those are my two cents on the matter. Hopefully I’ll uncover more reasons why our brains have adapted to encourage us to get outside in the lovely sunshine.

And in the mean time go and listen to ‘Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone’ by Bill Withers. It’s been in my head the whole time I’ve been writing this blog…

Mental illness: A cause or effect of changes in the brain?

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As a graduate of the ever evolving field of Neuroscience, who has since committed their professional life to mental health work, the inevitable link between the two areas has cropped up in discussions more times than I count. It’s a connection I can’t help but think about, given that the potential implications are so far-reaching.

The current drug treatment model is largely based on the assumption that if you remove the associated neurological changes i.e. changes in the level of various chemicals in the brain, then you also remove the problem. Increasingly often this is being paired with more holistic therapeutic techniques such as CBD, and this dual approach is one I certainly see as being more effective.

However, what if the actual underlying problem that has caused someone to become ‘mentally ill’ is far deeper, and by treating the neurological symptoms you’re thereby missing out on areas of their history or lifestyle that, if ignored, will only lead them to return to this unpleasant psychological state. It’s a possibility that would potentially completely undermine the current medical model, and yet this line of thought is continuing to gather momentum.

Based on my experience of mental illness – both personally and of the many people I’ve met, and my time spent studying the brain (somewhat ironically, in between killing my own brain cells with alcohol, like a true student) I’ve come to my own conclusions on it and it’s something I’d like to share, especially in the context of how we approach helping people who are psychologically distressed. At this point I’d like to throw in a couple of key points that will impact upon the context of the rest of this piece.

1. This is not a scientific article, and nor is it intended to be. It’s a blog. There is a great deal of literature and research out there, but I’ve chosen not to reference it here. This is part because I’ve seen how exceptionally competent scientists are at failing to explain their conclusions to the average member of the public, and partly because…well it takes a bloody age. I’m just going to provide an outline and I’ll leave it up to you if you really want to look it up (there’s a ton of stuff out there). Otherwise you’ll just have to take my word on the sciencey-stuff and assume I’m not just making stuff up for kicks.

2. I’m using the term ‘mental illness’ and associated disorders such as ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety disorder’ because they are widely understood. For the record, it’s not language I actively promote because of the negative associations it creates, and I’m also not a fan of grouping such varied symptoms and personal differences in to the narrow categories currently used. The mind is a tad too complex for that. But that’s a whole other topic…

So let me start by saying that there is a well-established link between mental illness and abnormalities in the brain, which has been accepted for several decades. There’s not really any argument about this. Which part of the brain, however, has caused a great deal of dispute. A chemical named dopamine was once thought of as the ‘happy’ or ‘pleasure’ chemical of the brain (what a revelation that would be!), but this theory has since been disproved. Modern research in to depression has brought a lot of attention to a chemical named serotonin, and led to the advent of a popular drug type called ‘selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors’, which is indisputably catchy.

The point I’d like to make here, is that the brain is not so simple that one chemical is assigned to one particular function, such as mood in this context of this blog. Physical and psychological changes are brought about by changes in levels of neurological chemicals in relation to one another, and it also entirely depends on which area of the brain these changes are occurring in. We have a series of chemicals that can either inhibit or stimulate a chemical pathway, and depending on the brain network, an inhibitory chemical could have completely opposite effects on your mood in two differing areas of the brain. Are you beginning to see how damn complex it is? So even if you’re changing serotonin levels, you need to target a very low percentage of those serotonin pathways to have the desired effect. The shotgun effect, which is seen in every drug treatment, produces a whole range of responses to the drug – both good and bad.

What you may also start to realize from this, is that no two brains are identical – quite the opposite. The design of the pathways in your brain and your level of chemicals is completely unique – which is one of the few things I can say with certainty in this commentary. You can imagine the headaches researchers get when trying to draw conclusions about mental health when looking at large samples of people who are all presenting different results.

I’ve spoken with many people who have shared their experiences of drug treatment for a mental illness with me and a few common themes have come out. Firstly, that they may have to try a few different types of medication before they find one that works. Secondly, that they often feel worse to begin with before they start to notice an improvement. Thirdly, the dreaded dependency effect.

What became apparent through my experience of depression, and many others I’ve spoken with who have experienced ‘mental illness’ is that there is a cause, and a trigger. Some of us are genetically more susceptible, but life experience plays a big role. There’s a bigger picture here. And our brains have not evolved to just ‘imbalance’ and cause us to become mentally ill. Doing so is maladaptive.

One of the biggest realizations in the field of neuroscience in the 20th century was that the brain remains plastic for its entire life i.e. it continues to change, develop and adapt. This happens throughout our lives. And these are potentially fairly considerable changes too. And even on a daily basis, there are notable changes. A moment of excitement , of disappointment, a spark of happiness…they all cause a change in the brain. It’s absolutely plausible that events in our life that are too much for us emotionally can have strong, and potentially long-lasting effects on the brain. In fact, it would be completely counterintuitive for someone who is depressed to not demonstrate some notable changes in their brain.

I feel that current attitudes and the medical model fit with our way of western thinking – to find a quick fix and put the cause as being out there somewhere. The fact that we can actually be the biggest drivers of change in our own lives is an intimidating and, often, ignored concept.

I believe we need to depend less on the medical model, accept how different people are and understand that each experience of mental illness is unique so it can’t be treated the same way. Rather, it should be treated holistically, with drug treatment only if so severe they can not manage their everyday life or are very high risk.

What I’d also like to mention, is that sometimes changes we make in terms of what we put in to our bodies could trigger these changes in the brain. A different diet, drug treatment for a physical problem, the contraceptive pill…these can all lead to changes in the our chemical balance and lead to mood or personality disorders.

Where it gets very blurred and unclear for me is in some of the severe cases of mental illness, such as with bipolar disorder or forms of schizophrenia. My conclusions don’t extend to this – partly due to lack of evidence, knowledge or experience. The strike me as being more long-term, with possibly more of an underlying neurological dysfunction and thus drug treatment has more of a role. The brain is so incredibly complex, and we’re learning more all the time.

Whether these changes in the brain are definitively a cause or symptom of emotional and psychological distress, or even a combination of both, remains unclear, and it’s likely that it varies depending on the situation. What is clear given the huge implications, is that like all things related to mental health, we need to talk to get it out in the open and explore it from the point of view of what will be the best for people.

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