I am sure you are aware that stress is bad for you, while mindfulness is good, although try to explain how stress affects us in scientific terms or what exactly is mindfulness and you may stumble. I know, I will. So if you are like me and you want to hear some hard facts and a scientific explanation before you decide to take things like stress and mindfulness seriously, read on.
- By 2030, the World Health Organization predicts more people will be affected by depression than any other health problem. It already affects more people than all physical illnesses put together.
- Mental illness accounts for nearly half of all people on incapacity benefits in the UK. The official figure is 44%.
- Data accrued from six European countries found that 17% of the population reported some experience with depression in the last six months.
"Hold on!", I hear you say, "what's this got to do with me?". I quoted the above facts from the book Sane New World, written by Ruby Wax, who explains that one in four of us will suffer from mental illness at some point in our lives and can therefore do with some explanation of how the brain works to understand mental illnesses such as depression and what to do to help ourselves to deal with relentless inner critics, negative thinking, obsession with making lists and being busy, treating shopping as therapy, you name it. Sounds familiar? Read on.
The reason I think Sane New World is a must-read manual to understand what's happening inside our heads is because it helped me to understand what happened to me earlier this year. In March I got ill, and was later diagnosed with post viral fatigue, which means I get tired all the time, get flu-like symptoms after a half an hour walk and will take many months to recover. At the beginning of the year I was very stressed. It was caused by all sorts of things but nothing dramatic, I was just winding myself up to do this and that, I never stopped. Wax explains that "stress increases your risk of getting diseases that make you sick, or if you're already sick and you add stress, you can kiss farewell to your natural defences." I picked up a virus (say, someone sneezed at me), but my stressed immune system could not fight infection and I fell seriously ill.
Here is how stress works:
"As soon as you even think about stress, a whole cascade of reactions happen: your thalamus (the relay station of your brain) sends out a wake-up call to your brain stem." This is the oldest part of our brain, developed about 400 million years ago. "It prompts us to mate, kill and eat, which is perfect if you're living in a field or working for Goldman Sachs." Signals are then sent to all vital organs and muscle groups, getting them ready into "fight or flight" mode. Adrenal glands release cortisol, the stress hormone, which suppresses the immune system to reduce inflammation from potential injuries and stimulates the amygdala to keep you vigilant, which produces even more cortisol. "It also suppress activity in the hippocampus reducing your memory so you only think about what you did last time you had a similar emergency. This chemical also stops your digestion and the urge to have sex. Another chemical, epinephrine, increases your heartbeat so it can move more blood and dilates your pupils (to help you find your foe in the dark). All this is useful if you're actually in danger. If you're not actually in a life or death situation and those chemicals can't stop pumping through you, they will wreck havoc on your body and brain". No wonder I got ill.
Since we are no longer hunting for meat or face mortal dangers on a daily basis, our basic instincts do not help us deal with modern day problems. We are hard-wired to "go get" this or that, in order to get a "reward" (via dopamine released by the brain), but today we are not just foraging for the honey combs, we are facing sale targets, family expectations, status symbols, etc. We are shaped to survive and reproduce but not to "be happy". The complicated, evolved structure of our brain is the reason we are all a bit insane. "This is why there are women who read Heidegger but also want to screw the plumber." (Ruby's example, not mine)
But here are the good news. Neuroscience has progressed so much in the recent decades that we can now take advantage of new knowledge and become healthier, happier and wiser. Wax talks about neuroplasticity, which suggests that it is possible "re-wire" the brain, change unhelpful habits, cultivate positive thoughts and awareness, thereby building up brain muscle in a same way we train our bodies. Wax gives a few examples of how to go about taming your mind in order to switch off the "negative commentary", become less obsessive about "being busy doing stuff", less stressed or whatever upsets your well-being. But she recommends mindfulness and backs it up with latest research.
Mindfulness is just about being present (as opposed to just resting or emptying your mind) and it does not require you to bend into a pretzel or become a Buddhist. "When you stand back and just watch your thoughts and feelings, you find yourself less scattered, more anchored and clearer thinking." She suggests helpful exercises to practise mindfulness and here is my favourite one.
If you find yourself in a rut (e.g. feeling angry about something or unable to sleep thinking about tomorrow's duties or mentally going over a never-ending to-do list or punishing yourself for that pizza), notice that (and this is already an achievement) and switch your mind to a physical sensation. For example, concentrate on listening to the sounds around you or focus on the sensation of your feet standing on the ground or divert your attention to the smell around you. Our brain may be complicated but it cannot do two things at the same time: continue negative chatter and focus on the present sensation. Brilliant, isn't it?
As you have probably guessed, I am a big fan of Ruby Wax and her Sane New World. It takes a mind of brilliant intelligence, patience and humility to talk about personal experience of depression, explain how the brain works in simplest terms and advise on how to start taming our minds to become less judgemental, more tolerant and kinder to ourselves.