The human brain in the modern world
The notion that ‘we all have mental health’ has become a common refrain. On one level it has been helpful in raising awareness and breaking stigma. But I’m not sure we talk enough about what lies beneath the phrase, in order to understand the drivers and triggers of a healthy and unhealthy mind.
I often think that ‘everyone has mental health, because everyone has a brain’ would be more appropriate. But what does this really mean? And what is the benefit to paying more attention to it?
I first became interested in ‘mental health’ at university when I was involved in the student listening service Nightline. Since then I’ve volunteered for Samaritans and Mind, trained as a mental health first-aid instructor, and a couple of years ago was lucky enough to work with Paul Farmer (CEO of Mind) and Lord Dennis Stevenson to produce Thriving at work: a review of mental health and employers.
My initial interest though wasn’t in ‘mental health’ as we know it now. It was with people, their brains, how they behave and how that changes depending on circumstances. When I then began to learn more about mental health conditions – from depression and anxiety, to forms of psychosis – I realised that, while symptoms may vary wildly, many of the triggers are the same.
Our mind will often play tricks on us
None of us wants to feel out of control, we all need social connection and emotional support, a goal and focus, hope for the future, sleep… So it’s not surprising that when we don’t have these things, our mental health starts to suffer. It’s also important to remember that our brains are wired in a way that’s entirely unhelpful at times.
Our physical response to threats and fear, which is known as ‘anxiety’ – increased heartbeat, brain fog, the shutting down of digestive systems – were designed for fleeing animals in the wild, not for presenting at a meeting, or turning up at a social event where you don’t know anybody.
Our brains also trigger us into dredging up past emotions to which we attach meaning in the present, making us feel angry or upset at something seemingly minor, straining our relationships. In short, our minds are delicate, they need looking after, and ever since we were born, have been adapting based on the details of our life experience.
This is positive: it means we can always work to adapt. We can learn new, helpful coping mechanisms, or even unlearn unhelpful ones. Of course, this isn’t always easy, and it can take people years of ongoing therapy and life changes to feel well again. But understanding what people need to help them through tricky times is crucial in supporting them throughout.
Good support and someone to listen is vital
Having a strong social network is immensely helpful, and through our social interactions we all have the opportunity to help one another. From the earliest days of our lives, our connections to others provide sources of validation, safety, security and reassurance. What has amazed me in supporting people is how much people can eventually open up when you listen and respond to them.
However daunting this responsibility might feel, if you focus and listen you soon get into a rhythm and start to build a connection. Sometimes it can just be about sitting there in silence so someone doesn’t feel alone.
In running active listening training for the Samaritans, the bit that always chimes with people is when we do role play scenarios to test how it feels to be listened to or not. That really makes people think about what mental health support means in practice, how basic some of the skills can be and why we can feel triggered or frustrated when we feel misunderstood.
So it’s worth remembering that there’s a lot you can do. There’s so much evidence out there about how to look after ourselves, but we rarely follow it.
In the workplace it’s about unlocking potential, building a better team – not just helping a vital few – to become a better manager, colleague, friend. It’s about being attuned to the emotions and experiences of others. It’s about listening and making people feel understood.
Below is a set of evidence-based principles of things (devised by Dr David Rock and Dr Dan Siegel) to help our minds. So, try and make your own plan of action. Remember that mental health is about taking care of our brains, and others', better understanding how they work, how to keep them well, and what to do when things inevitably go wrong.
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