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…

A fear of the path well-trodden

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On occasion, I feel there’s value in pausing on the path we’re taking through life, turning around and taking a good look at how far we’ve come. It can be quite surprising.

Over the last few days a number of events and conversations have triggered off the realisation in me that I’m further along in my own development than I thought – in terms of my abilities, skills, assuredness –  and in my crazy mission to make the world we live in better.

When I turn around on that path and look at where I was going through school, it’s a very different person I see. I was shy, unconfident and didn’t like groups of people. My self-worth wasn’t great. This is probably true for many teenagers, but there was little evidence of how much that would all change.

During the end of school, through college and early university this changed a little and my fear of judgement receded a little, but I was still terrified of criticism or of appearing foolish. I grew more comfortable in groups, and valued myself more, but remained very cautious. This impacted upon my view of the future. I didn’t see a great deal of adventure or excitement, and didn’t trust in my own ability to engineer these as core components of my life. I wasn’t sure what the future held, but I was sure that the ones I could see – working for the sake of earning money in an office somewhere, living for the weekends, being stuck in a lab doing science – were not ones that appealed to me. In fact, I found them quite depressing.

Oddly though, I appeared to be less worried about my future than many of my classmates. Despite what I’ve written above, my glass was always half-full and I the hope that something extraordinary would emerge remained ever-present. That attitude helped me a lot in getting through depression. And though I wasn’t sure how I wanted Nathaniel’s future to look, I did have some idea of how I wanted future Nathaniel to look. I could see traits in other people that I admired, and could see the amazing things that those traits enabled them to do. Writing, public speaking, enterprise….I wanted to be good at these things.

I was aware that to develop these areas, I needed to just throw myself in with the knowledge that I would be no where near as good as other people or as I wanted to be – and other people would judge me for it. For a long time, that fear of what others might think of me held me back though. Instead of just jumping straight in, it was easier to bask in the envy and make excuses why I was actually better than them or why some other circumstance outside of my control meant that I couldn’t do these things. That it was down to talent perhaps.

And then something happened one Christmas. My sister and her husband bought me a book by Alastair Humphreys. I was hooked not so much by the astonishing fact that he CYCLED AROUND THE ENTIRE WORLD, but more by the huge personal doubt he overcame to do so. That he was just an ordinary guy, with an extraordinary dream. What set him apart was not physical excellence or unshakeable self-belief, but attitude. He dared do something extraordinary, and that made him extraordinary.

And with it my attitude changed. I was inspired beyond belief and decided I would dare do what terrified me. Those areas that I wanted to get better at – that scared me – I started doing them and giving them a go. Put simply, it came down to this: my fear of being judged by others was outweighed by my fear of leaving an ordinary life – of judgement by myself. Living with the knowledge that I didn’t take risks and hadn’t been bold terrified me more than anything else – than getting up in front of 50 people and talking, of jumping out of a crane, of starting something original and letting others judge it.

So I did things like run student groups, start new ones, go bungee jumping, write for the uni paper, take every opportunity to speak in front of people that I could. Risk being wrong. Risk making a mistake. Risk being judged. I recall how I would feel speaking in front of a group, or when I was writing for the paper – I would try to overcome my fear of what others would think of me. All that attention, all those opinions at one time. It wasn’t natural to me.

But those things have turned out pretty well. It’s hard to explain how rewarding it is to see my improvement in those areas; I enjoy talking in front of people and now even have people coming up to me telling me how good I am at it! I write very transparently in my blog and elsewhere. I’ve started up a number of community organisations. And I don’t worry about what people think of me, in fact I tend to belief they will think well of me. And I’m always open to constructive criticism and areas of improvement. The emotion of envy pops along infrequently , and when it does, I pay close attention to its lesson. It means that somebody is able to do something that I can’t and would like to. So I listen, and then get on with changing that. The envy very quickly disappears.

And now I reflect that this turning point in terms of my attitude to self-improvement, is one of the biggest of my life. Because now I’m on this bike, I can’t get off it. Whenever I see something I want to get better at – no matter how ambitious it seems or how far off I am – I immediately work out how to improve and get straight on it. I think this will serve me well for the rest of my life.

The sad thing is, I see is this same fear in many others – held back by a fear of what others may think of them. And yet, if we had that fear when we were toddlers, we would never learn to walk. We look pretty stupid falling over all the time before we finally succeed. I believe that to some extent it is natural that as we become self-conscious, we do develop some fear of judgement.

However, I am firmly of the view that this fear of judgement – of being wrong – is more often than not facilitated by current public education. It’s an education system based on right and wrong, of assessment, of being compared to others. We’re given little numbers that tell us – and everyone else – how good we are and we’re judged on them. We’re pushed to fit in to a system. And yet, there is an opportunity, through education, to encourage people to flourish, to build their self-belief and self-worth. To help young people realise their strengths and improve their weekends. Except in some unconventional schools, this is an opportunity that is wasted.

And here’s a question I won’t waste much time trying to answer, but that is thought-provoking. If I had learned this attitude to self-improvement earlier, and this self-worth at 5 years old, instead of 20 years old, where would I be now?

Drive

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The realisation crept up on me recently that my frameworks around what defines a ‘good’ day have changed quite dramatically.

Going through my early teens, I recall that as I lay in bed at the end of the day, the question I would ask myself was ‘was I happy today?’ That was how I framed whether or not it had been a successful day. Of course when you’re a teen, simply attaining happiness is no easy feat – your hormones are going crazy and of course, no one understands you…especially not your parents. It’s not like they were ever teenagers.

As I matured and progressed through my mid-teens towards adolescence, this schema changed once again. I learned that one of the most fundamental forces behind my feeling good was the richness and variety of experience. It wasn’t just happiness I was after, but the whole spectrum of different emotions. Whether or not I attained that variety of emotion was determined by novelty and depth of experiences – new places, people, conversations, learnings, challenges, activities. I wouldn’t say that happiness and richness of experience were necessarily distinct, there was a great deal of overlap, but the scales certainly began to weigh more heavily on the latter.

My framing was completely shaken up when I went through depression at 18/19. The questions I asked myself were things like ‘was today better than yesterday?’ or ‘am I getting closer to feeling ok again?’ and at its lowest points, ‘was there one good thing about today?’ or ‘did I feel something positive today?’ It took some time – years – before I started asking myself again whether it had richness of experience.

But I remember that around 17/18 I began to notice another motive creeping in, one that grew stronger and stronger over time. The question was ‘have I helped someone today?’ or ‘have I had done some good today?’ I recall that I spent more time wanting to listen to how people were, understand them and try to support them. And then after – and even during – my experience of depression as I tried to make sense of it, tried to see something positive out of what felt really shit at the time, this motive gathered momentum. It told me that if I used my painful experiences in some kind of positive way, then that would help me feel better again. And it did. Enormously so.

As more and more of time went to volunteering, and particularly volunteering based around youth mental health, this motive of ‘doing good’ shaped up as the main driving force in my life. Richness of experience, happiness were still there, but this started to weigh heavier than either of them.

Now unquestionably this is how I define my days. It’s not about whether I’ve had a ‘good time’, but by ‘what good I’ve done’. And it’s all inexorably linked, the more of a positive impact I feel I’m having, the greater emotional richness I get to experience and I guess, the more happiness I feel. It’s a neat cycle.

But it’s only since I arrived in Sydney, and looked at the almost completely blank slate of my new life in front of me, that the considerable impact of this drive to do good became obvious. Some of the more ‘fun’ activities I used to take part in – drinking, watching films, playing sport, travel – no longer appealed to me anywhere near as strongly as they used to. This core drive is so fundamental to who we are and how we spend our time, that it shapes every little activity and decision we make, even when we don’t realise it. I find myself now more drawn to networking, learning, personal development and trying to further the good I do. Indeed, I understand very well that in order to help others, we have to first look after ourselves. So I even look at the time invested in taking care of myself as again something that facilitates my having a positive impact in the world. It’s a gradual shift, but the effect is enormous.

And even now as I appreciate the value of long-term thinking more and more, I notice the question shifting from not just ‘what good have I done today?’ but also including ‘has today enabled me to do more good in the future?’ I have little idea how it’s going to develop next, and I’m actually pretty excited by that.

What drives you?

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 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.

Why ‘acceptance’ is fundamental to mentally health living

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The question of what mental health really means stimulated a lot of cranking of brains and conversation at the recent ThinkActChange meetup. For too long it’s been synonymous with mental illness, and for many there is still no distinction between the two. It’s something we’ve worked to change through student groups, because as long as this misunderstanding persists, there will still be a lot of fear around discussing the topic, and a great many people who don’t seek out the support they need as a result.

Take the parallel with physical health. Physical health is not necessarily associated with having a cold, or fracturing an ankle, or god forbid, breaking a nail. It’s about wellness and proactive maintenance of good physical health. We achieve this through nutrition, exercise, getting enough sleep. But as soon as you mention mental health, the association is immediately with depression, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia… There is, however, another side to it.

It’s when you start really exploring this other side that the answers become more challenging. There’s been so little interest in what it is that keeps us mentally healthy, with psychology for years predominantly researching why and how abnormalities occur – and then how they can be fixed. How they could be prevented, and that they can be prevented is a line of thought only recently gathering momentum. If you’re interested then take a look at the growing field of positive psychology. Shawn Achor’s ‘The Happiness Advantage’ is an insightful read, and will probably benefit the way you live your life.

I found myself pretty stumped when asked what it means to be mentally healthy, which surprised me as a lot of our work through students has featured the methods we promote for staying mentally healthy. One of the panel made a great suggestion, which is that it is about understanding your mind and the way you’re feeling, and being able to handle – with the support of those around you – the inevitable bumps that life delivers.

For me this is where it all begins, with acceptance. And accepting how you really, genuinely feel is something I don’t think many of us are good at. It’s much easier when we’re happy, but no matter how mentally healthy you are, you won’t always feel happy. That’s unrealistic, and not how we’re wired. Nonetheless, we like to give off that impression – to show people how awesome our lives are. How many people’s Facebook profile photos are of them smiling? Biologically, we’re more drawn to people who give off that happy vibe, so it makes sense that we try to give off this persona. But at times that just means that you’re pretending – to others and to yourself.

When someone is struggling emotionally, we’ve identified that the first thing that must happen in order for that individual to start tackling the issue that’s causing those feelings, is to simply acknowledge that they are struggling. That they’re not happy. That they feel really, really miserable and it sucks. And there will be many times in our lives that we do feel that way, and in every case there’s a good reason for it.

Acceptance also benefits us in the long run. I believe that we all have good natural instincts, but that in many people these are curbed over time by fear, social expectations or an over-reliance on logic. And the less you trust those natural instincts, the less reliable they become – because they’re not having a chance to learn and develop. We’re also neurologically wired to learn that way. Our brains are exceptional at being able to project a possible course of action in to the future and from there determine whether we should pursue this action or choose another. And how does the brain learn? Through experience, of course.

By accepting how a situation or outcome makes us feel, and not pretending it makes us feel the way we want it to make us feel, we can learn and hone our instincts. Now when you find yourself in a similar situation, you instinctively know how that previously used action will make you feel. If it’s positive, you’ll probably repeat it. If not, you probably won’t. And you can’t get around that with logic. Reframing a situation you’re uncomfortable with will only get you so far. If it’s a job that makes you feel miserable, you can’t think your way around that and the self-denial will then hinder your instincts in other areas. You’re in danger of not really having a clue what does and doesn’t make you feel good, and that now sounds like a very confusing life to live.

I wouldn’t proclaim this as hard evidence, but I’ll throw in a little anecdote as I always find them helpful to illustrate a point. Towards the end of my fourth week in Sydney I found myself feeling flat, unmotivated and pretty frustrated. I was convinced that moving to Sydney and the Student Minds Project here would be very exciting – my projections in to the future left me with no doubt about this, and up until now they had been spot on.

I tried to think my way out of it, and not even the splendor of the Blue Mountains could help with that. Finally on Sunday evening I accepted that I really was feeling genuinely miserable, and then began to explore why. I spoke with a couple of people about it, and a couple of realizations then dawned on me (in this case it was to do with not having enough variety in my life, and not knowing people well enough here). From there I switched my focus to spending more time getting to know people, acknowledged that good friendships do take time to build, and started to pursue a couple of other projects I’m interested in. The few days that followed have been a big improvement, and my instincts are a little better as a result of this learning experience.

For myself and for many others who have shared their experiences openly, part of the experience of depression is anhedonia; a flatness of emotion. I had so little notion of how a course of action would make me feel that decision-making became terribly difficult.

Even as I recovered I became very self-protective against negative emotions and developed a tendency to block them out. It pains me to admit, but it’s taken me several years to reach the same level of trust in my feelings and intuition that I had before I became depressed. It’s a huge personal challenge to expose yourself to your whole emotional spectrum again in the knowledge that it includes the misery you once experienced every day. But without accepting those feelings exist, you’re shutting off parts of what’s inside you. For me, I’ve come to realize that I know and understand the depths of my own emotion, and developed a comfort in my ability to handle it. At times I notice certain feelings, that if ignored and allowed to fester could lead me down the route again. The difference is now I acknowledge them and act on them quickly.

To be mentally healthy, I believe you must start by accepting – to yourself, and then to others – how you feel at any one time. Don’t put on a face. Because if it’s a feeling that you don’t want to become a common theme, by acknowledging it you can then take action in your life to reduce the likelihood of it coming up. Your brain is wired to help you out with that. And it works with positive feelings too – by being more tuned in to them, you can then repeat the actions that brought them about, which could be anything – grabbing coffee with a friend, listening to a piece of music, or picking weeds (hey, I’m not judging). And you don’t need to take a university course to acquire this ability; it’s hard-wired in to the brains of every single one of us.

How about we begin making the most of this gift.