Mental Health and what happens in our brain
I am going to share another inspiring IGTV, part of the series”Why we feel this”, hosted by Jada Setzer.
Dr Sarah McKay is originally from New Zealand. She was however joining from Sidney, Australia, connecting at 6 am, local time (she was hearing the coffee machine grinding as she was on the live with Jada – what a beautiful image for an early start in her part of the world).
During lockdown, Jada was rediscovering what she really wanted to do, as the pandemic happened and her work suddenly stopped. During that time, she obtained a Neuroplasticity Diploma learning about the inner work of the brain.
The focus of the start of the conversation was around the question: “What is Neuroplasticity?” – The definition varies depending on the area of expertise related to it.
Considering the possibility of “zooming” in the brain, there is a whole set of changes happening, according to the different experiences in someone’s lifetime.
The brain alters its structure as it responds to experiences. Synapses, the connections between two neurons, happen non-stop with new genes being created, new patterns, especially during childhood. During this time, new connections are formed and others are removed at a later stage. There is a significant amount of activity and changes depending on activity and the response to that.
The first twenty years of our lives we are extremely receptive to anything occurring around us. As time passes, we seem to face a general decline. Changes in the structure then occur for this reason. Sensitivity changes and our mastery skills are different. The more we learn and the more we face changes. This is the real fascinating part that I have always been interested in learning myself.
The first question Jada asked was:
- What happens when we are stressed from a Neuroplasticity perspective?
Dr Sarah expanded on the different definitions of stress. Everybody responds to it differently, as well.
Last year was stressful and everybody responded in different ways, displaying a very different ability to cope with that (some thriving and others really struggling).
A great part of what we feel when we are stressed is strictly related to the way we cope with what happens to us. Wondering about what is happening and explore the sensations around it can be beneficial. We perceive stress as a negative emotion generally, which really challenges us.
The response to something which is scary, uncertain, unpredictable can really vary. It is therefore important to activate some response mechanisms.
Dr Sarah does not personally like the word stress, but rather threat, challenge or opportunity.
When facing a threat, a challenge or an opportunity, indeed, we can trigger inner resources. At a physical level, the autonomic nervous system is the one which enables us to activate natural resources within us.
The sympathetic nervous system is the one responsible for the “fight” or “flight” response (causing blood flowing, increase in heart rate). It equips us to meet a threat, challenge and opportunity.
On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system, the calm part, is defined “rest and digest”.
The body is hyper vigilant in some situations, in response to the external stimuli. The brain interprets that as thoughts and feelings. Some people feel fear (making it harder to manage stress, as a consequence). What could be an opportunity is perceived as a threat in some cases.
Bottom up experiences are the external stimuli whereas top down ones made of our thoughts and feelings. Everyone has their very own unique responses.
The brain keeps receiving messages from the hormones, from nature, from the current interactions or non-interactions, which are not possible due to a conscious experience of stress. There is a constant stream of input, the cycle of daylight, meeting (or not meeting now) other people.
Jada asked next:
- Can you change the brain by using your brain?
The hardest way to change our thoughts is via our thoughts themselves, according to Dr Sarah.
She mentioned her own experience of waking up in the middle of the night and having a thought of when her kid fell from a rock while climbing. It was hard to reframe that, but could change the bottom up part of it. Rumination can in fact be quite impactful, too in people’s lives.
A walk in nature, moving our body can boost and make change easier (via a whole new set of inputs). There are various relaxation and breathing techniques that can support this, too. Walking somewhere else could stimulate different thoughts and clear the mind.
The state of “brain fog” is informally used in Neuroscience. It is sometimes not possible to push through, get some fuzzy thinking due to this. That happens very often to women experiencing menopause, also, but most commonly to people lacking sleep. It might be partly due to top down reasons (something internal rather external affecting the quality of our sleep).
We in fact do not sleep deeply if we feel stressed. Everything is processed slowly. Perhaps drinking too much wine could be an example, not exercising, missing the basics of our own wellbeing. Hormonal issue during menopause can influence that as well. Sleep is key. Fixing sleep makes it possible to coordinate all the rest of our daily activities. The brain needs to be in those cycle sleeps
What happens during sleep has become clearer recently in research.
Some neuroscience findings suggest how we evolved on Earth, paying attention to the cycles of the sun. We naturally have mechanisms to promote healthy sleep tuning in that cycle. An exposure to the early morning light will help reset and harmonise that rhythm, temperature regulation.
Jada uses a wearable watch device and a lamp replicating the cycle of the night and day and changes colour depending on the time to help create natural sleep patterns.
Another relevant question was:
- How can we train our brain to be happier and experience more beneficial experiences?
We can use our imagination to shift into a happier state and stop ruminating. The more positive experiences we feel the more we will live them in the future. A healthy diet and exercise thought processing, regular cycles of sleep (as each of them has a specific function). We need to go through our circadian phases, in order to delete the data for new input to be processed.
Finally, related to some neuroscience findings in regards to the desire for toxicity:
- What are thoughts on that?
Engaging in toxic conversations can be a stimulant and the best way to avoid is becoming aware of that. Conversations on Twitter, for instance, can be really captivating but have negative experiences and detrimental consequences in the long haul can display an undesired outcome. For this reason, it is good to step back and approach it in a “grown up” way. The stories are sometimes triggered by our own internal insecurities. Alcohol can be associated with resent, guilt perhaps due to us feeling unwell.
Meditation has a key role in the thoughts process. In my meditation sessions and mindful breathing activation techniques in the body support to create that space which makes you more of an observer. Putting your thoughts on the side is very important. Any technique can be useful and powerful. It is not possible to proof what is producing thoughts, as yet. That is the “hard problem”, or an “emergent property” of the brain, according to neuroscience. It is not possible to look at the mind from a microscope, in the same way as with other hence the inability to provide answers.
In the meantime, we can certainly write journals to get thoughts out of our head and create self-care habits. .
Dr Sarah McKay Is an Oxford University educated Neuroscientist, educator, presenter, media commentator, Director of the Neuroscience Academy, author of “The women’s brain book”.
Enjoy the IGTV here
Thank you Jada and Dr Sarah!