Getting to Know Our Mental Health Series – Part 2

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Did you Missed Getting to Know Our Mental Health Series? Read Here

Is it really all in the mind?

Last issue, I introduced you to a new topic – mental health. At TYV, we’re always talking about wellbeing, ambitions and aspirations, and achieving your goals. But meeting all those goals is pretty much impossible without having a good grip of your mental health.

Though mental health is often just brushed aside – ‘It’s all in your mind’, ‘You just need to chill out’, ‘Those feelings will pass’ – the way your mind works is as complex, fascinating, and very much as real as any other aspect of your physical being. Just as you’re taught which foods fuel your body and which foods damage it, you should also make yourself aware of what makes your mind tick.

So, what’s going on up there?

Your brain is an amazing organ and, over millions of years, has evolved to cater for your exact needs. The human ‘thinking’ brain is responsible for logic and reason. Negotiating your packed exam timetable? Your thinking brain will take care of that. The mammalian ‘emotional’ brain kicks in when you experience joy, love, happiness, grief, and all those mixes of emotions that we humans experience day-to-day and decade-to-decade. When you’re learning, feeling and experiencing, you might be aware of these parts of your brain happily chugging along. However, towards the back of your brain, near the brain stem, there’s a part of the brain we share with all animals, and this part is responsible for our survival and our responses to stressors.

Imagine a tiger entered the room in which you’re sitting right now. You wouldn’t consciously think to yourself, “Hmmm, what should I do now then? Let’s think about my options.” No. Your primitive brain would kick in. Just as you don’t have to consciously remember to breathe, when it comes to survival, your primitive brain really does do all the work for you. And this is true for all animals. When a gazelle catches first sight of a cheetah, it bolts. When a mouse sees the shadow of a hawk flying overhead, it scuttles off to safety. The human brain evolved for the same functions – when our cavemen ancestors saw danger, they ran. This is the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response.

So what does this have to do with mental health? Well, let’s call the sight of a cheetah, a hawk or a tiger, the ‘stressor’. At first sight of this stressor, our primitive brain kicks in and we react – adrenaline pumps around our bodies, bodily functions that aren’t needed in that moment are put on hold, blood rushes to our limbs so that we can escape. Once we’re safe, our bodies return to normal.

The problem comes when a ‘stressor’ is one that we can’t just run away from or fight. Let’s say, an exam or a relationship breakdown, for example. Our brain senses danger and our bodies react accordingly. But because there’s no immediate escape, our bodies don’t recover in the same way they would after finding safety away from the tiger. So, adrenaline continues to pump, perhaps making you feel shaky. Blood continues to flow away from where it thinks it’s not needed, perhaps giving you the feeling of butterflies. And non-essential bodily functions shut down, perhaps playing havoc with your stomach. In the long-term, this all adds up to very real, very uncomfortable physical symptoms of stress.

So, if we have an exam coming up in 6 weeks time, we might experience this prolonged stress response until the exam is over and done with (though it may well continue to results day!). Talk about torture!!

It’s absolutely essential to realise how your brain and body are so closely linked to one another. That’s the first step to gaining control of your mental health. Once you know how normal it is to want to vomit before an exam, or to go literally weak at the knees, or to feel faint or dizzy when you’re exposed to stress, you can begin to take steps towards coping with those physical manifestations of stress…

Next issue, we’ll be taking a look at some really simple techniques you can use to kick short-term stress and anxiety.

Got any top tips to share? Write us at editor@theyoungvision.com