Our brain is an extraordinarily complex organ that keeps us alive and helps us to thrive, but we take it for granted in so many ways. Please spare a second thought for it on World Mental Health Day on October 10th. There’s hope, but we must act now.
What are synapses?
We are so much more than just the sum of our parts. The brain and spine form the Central Nervous System, which then connects to the Peripheral Nervous System, which sends back trillions of bits of information from all over the body. Once the information has been decoded by the brain, orders are sent back to muscles to make them move, or release hormones to stimulate other organs, or any other of the multitude of functions going on continuously, even when you sleep. Actually, sleep is essential for system maintenance. At the base of the brain we have a primeval brain responsible for basic instincts and basic functions, like breathing while we sleep, the survival “fight or flight response”, etc. The higher brain is divided into two hemispheres which control more complex functions, such as motor skills, reasoning or creativity. This creates our consciousness and self-awareness. The complex system consists of an enormous array of synapses, axons, neurons, morons (only joking!)… Anyway, apparently, we only use about 10% of the brain’s capacity, but much of the grey and white matter is set aside for storing information like memories, birthday dates, phone numbers, song lyrics, stupid jokes, and fascinating-but-useless trivia (my favourite). Did you know the longest recorded flight of a chicken was 13 seconds and covered 301 metres? Well, now you do…
What is Normal?
Before anyone says “Stay in your lane”, after writing this material I asked my wife to check it over to assure that I was giving good advice. She is a renowned Clinical Psychologist working with Infectious Diseases in a major Spanish Hospital. I also asked her some tough questions, like “what is “normal” anyway?” Many people wonder whether they’re normal and whether what they think is normal, and believe it or not, that’s entirely normal. Too many of us are scared to ask questions that might not have answers, or create more questions than can be answered, a bit like going down the rabbit hole in “Alice in Wonderland”. Sometimes, it’s hard for us to put into words how we feel and in a lot of cases we were told as kids “there’s no point crying over spilt milk” or “get used to it, because life is hard”. Due to this, many of us often bottle up our emotions and when a problem occurs, there seems to be a kind of explosion. In our adolescence, we try to find out who we are, and our likes and dislikes. Establishing your sense of self can be traumatic for many teenagers, feeling pressured to identify with one thing or another. A question as simple as, “What is your favourite type of music?”, becomes deeply troubling when you haven’t yet decided. Do you have the right to change your mind later on if you decide you like something else even more? Do you have the right to have no opinion about something? Questions, questions, and then even more questions? Patience is advised…
Is Mental Health taboo?
In many countries, like the UK, mental health is considered a taboo subject; while in a country like Argentina, it’s very much talked about. While a broken nose is easily distinguished, invisible illnesses are not as well understood. Take a person with depression, for example, who can appear entirely “normal” functioning at a high level socially while just going through the motions keeping up appearances, all the while feeling terrible on the inside. Telling someone with depression “don’t worry, be happy because things could be far worse”, doesn’t help either. What if it’s caused by a hormonal imbalance and needs treatment with medication? I know people love to give advice, but sometimes it’s best just to leave things to the professionals…
Are you concerned about Mental Health?
Most problems are common, easily diagnosed and as easily treated by a health professional. The most common problems are: mood disorders (like Depression and Anxiety), eating disorders (like anorexia nervosa and bulimia), psychotic disorders (like schizophrenia and delusion) and dementia (like Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease). In 2019, 7.2% of European citizens reported having chronic depression. In 2020, 3.6% of the world’s population reported having anxiety. However, those figures may all change quickly with Long Covid affecting up to 50% of those infected with Coronavirus (Covid-19 or SARS Cov-2), and much is yet to be discovered how it affects us, but mental illness is increasing alarmingly. Around 50% of young people fear for their futures, and many suffer Eco-anxiety, a relatively new term used to describe the anxiety of psychological impact of climate change.
Employees are suffering stress and burnout, due to our hectic modern lives. The Chinese have even started the Tang Ping movement against the 996 work system. As many work days are lost every year due to mental health problems as are lost to physical problems. 1 in 3 people will struggle with a mental health problem in their lives, and 1 in 6 will be dealing with one right now. Don’t feel ashamed to seek help, because anyone could suffer from a problem that is no fault of their own. Oh, and guys, it’s not a sign of weakness to admit you might need help, because men often let problems worsen until it becomes destructive in their lives, like alcoholism, domestic violence, etc.
We assume we have a lot of people around us due to social media, but that is a false assumption. If you can count more than 5 people who would do anything for you, you are very lucky indeed. We should remember to cultivate relationships, and by giving love, we normally get it back. Many people will suffer loneliness, which is becoming increasingly common, especially among the elderly. Try to spare a minute for your neighbours when they start to chat, as it may be the only interaction they have with someone that day and as it often brings a smile, releasing endorphins, which in turn make both parties feel good.
Pollution and its consequences
Recent studies have shown a causal link between worsened mental health disorders caused by air pollution. Cities, in highly developed countries especially, have a much higher prevalence of it than in rural areas. One of the culprits is Particulate Matter (PM 10, 2.5 & Ultrafine particles (UFP)), which is believed to cross the blood brain barrier, and even arrive to unborn children in the womb. Magnetic nanoparticles, which occur naturally in our brains and are irregular in shape, help to provide connectivity for our brain cells, but these can be replaced by round ones formed by fossil fuel combustion, reducing connectivity. This has been observed blocking brain functioning, causing dementia (Alzheimer’s, in particular). Air pollution can affect anywhere at any time as we’ve seen with wildfires worldwide. Of course, losing your home, property or relatives to environmental disasters is going to be pretty distressing anyway. Time and time again, studies indicate humans need contact with nature to relieve stress, so the lack of green spaces in cities takes their toll on our poor brains and bodies. Noise contamination is also believed to trigger the fight or flight mechanisms, causing the release of adrenaline which raises blood pressure and prolonged exposure can lead to heart attacks, strokes, etc.
Body and mind linked
The key to a healthy body is a healthy mind, and the key to a healthy mind is a healthy body. Mindfulness can help us to live in the present moment, where we don’t worry about the future (anxiety) or past (depression). At least 30 minutes of vigorous exercise is recommended daily, which could consist of cycling, running, walking briskly or even doing housework. Even with all the pollution in the city, it’s still important to find time to exercise somehow. Gymnasiums usually provide a well ventilated environment that is healthier than the street outside. Personally, the idea of following after sweaty people on a bike doesn’t appeal much to me, but you can easily invest in a home gym, which could be perfect for healthcare in older individuals. Getting outside the city and into nature to exercise would be ideal. Sometimes I worry too many people are taking their polluting cars into the countryside, leaving their rubbish, but that then reminds me of a sign I once saw in a park, “Here, please behave like animals, because they leave nothing but footprints behind!”
Use it or lose it
Feed the mind, feed the soul. Keeping your mind active has been proven to protect against dementia in old age. Learning a language is an excellent way to stimulate your grey matter, especially when you speak regularly. Listening to podcasts or music is known to activate many parts of the brain, and playing an instrument, even more so. Think about how your past-times might inspire you.
Suicide is the single largest cause of death in people aged between 15 and 44 years of age worldwide. Suicide prevention hotlines operate 24 hours a day in every country. If you’re contemplating it or have contemplated it in the past, remember that you are loved and would be greatly missed.
How to Save Our Synapses?
Individually: If you can be anything, be kind.
Collectively, including Governments: We must talk more about the things that worry us and voice our opinions, but in a respectful manner, of course. Although we may have the right to protest and our opinion, that doesn’t necessarily make it right, and does not give us the right to say absolutely anything at all. It is worth remembering that your rights stop the moment you infringe on the rights of others.
Unpopular opinion: You just don’t know which of the 10,000 reasons why a person might not treat you as well as they could. The problem is rarely your fault, and perhaps social media is partly to blame for that. We see people speaking badly to each other more often, like on Twitter, and perhaps with that sense of anonymity the internet provides, relating to people face-to-face has become more complicated. Dating certainly has, and we often pick up on the things that irritate us most about ourselves (except for Janice in Friends, who really is just annoying). Remember that you can please most of the people most of the time, but you can’t please all the people all the time.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to check the veracity of the information contained within, certain limitations could result in not all data being current or completely accurate. Please feel free to contact us if you feel something needs updating.
Save Our Synapses Test
Here are 10 questions...
How it started
How it's going
SOSquiz Glossary of Terms (with links to Wikipedia)
AEEA (Asociación Española de Educación Ambiental)
ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network)
Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
Carbon Monoxide (CO)
Coronavirus (Covid-19 or SARS Cov-2)
Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
National Security Agency (NSA)
Particulate Matter (PM 10, 2.5 & UFP)
Quality of life (QOL)
Ultrafine particles (UFP)
World Wide Web (www)