A post about mental health, that might also relate to grief for some people.
I’ll put a little disclaimer here: I’m not medically or scientifically trained, and my understanding of many topics is a layman’s, and also from life experience. I do however participate quite regularly in training sessions related to grief and bereavement, and along the way there’s been quite a bit to learn.
Recently I took part in two different learning sessions, different venues with different speakers, but in both cases they talked about the hippocampus, that little bit in your brain that looks like a seahorse. (The most I knew about the hippocampus before this was from listening to the BBC Radio Drama “Tracks“!)
The point of both discussions was that the trauma of grief or severe mental illness can result in actual physiological changes in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is involved in the formation of new memories and is also associated with learning and emotions.
When it comes to mental health – either a long-term condition such as bipolar disorder – or PTSD “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” as a result of a shocking bereavement or other severe life event – sometimes people think that you can just “pull yourself together”, or that it’s all “in your head”.
The trouble with this attitude is that it can make you feel like a failure if you’re not getting better. This could be about your own mental health, or it could about a loved one who died after struggling with mental illness – as my own daughter did.
Another false implication of this is a belief that the sufferer shouldn’t need to take medication or other treatment. They should be able to take control of their condition. Put their mind to it. And everything will be okay.
Sometimes those from a religious background will feel that prayer should be sufficient treatment, and/or that the mental health problem is actually a result of sin or some spiritual cause.
It is rare to see the same attitude towards someone who is being treated for cancer or inflammatory arthritis or heart disease or any other obvious physical illness. But when it comes to mental illness, there is still so much stigma and misconceptions about the person having a choice in the matter.
The reality, though, is that it’s not just “in your head.” It’s actually in your brain. Perhaps understanding more about the physical or physiological side will help us move away from those mistaken attitudes.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything to help ourselves, because it’s clear from the article below that we can – but if so, it will be in conjunction with medical attention, not alone. Physical and mental exercise are helpful, as is deep-breathing. And the medications that are prescribed can also help too.
For me the bottom line of this is that if we’re suffering from a severe mental illness or depression, and/or if we are traumatised by our loss and grief, then we should be prepared to accept medical attention, just as we would if we had broken a leg or had some other physical condition.
Along with the medical attention, we should take care of ourselves, try to relieve stress – including through prayer or some other spiritual practice, if we are so inclined – and make sure we exercise physically and mentally.
Breathing deeply is also a good idea. which is why there’s a link here to a short breathing relaxation exercise.
(The following article is a bit technical, but worthwhile reading if this is a topic that interests you. Not everyone will agree with these findings, as it is an evolving science, but this is a point of view I keep coming across in one form or another.)
Remember the hippocampus!: You can protect the brain’s ‘regeneration center’
Stress management, physical and mental exercise, and some medications can keep the hippocampus active, allow neurogenesis.