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Protection of our mental health

Dr Mark Bellamy October 2017

The point is often made that this is the first time in our history that we do not derive enough exercise from our standard daily lifestyles to keep us physically healthy. We need to make our lives less efficient by building exercise opportunities into our days as well as taking schedules exercise sessions at the gym or other formal exercise approaches. For example through physical workload and cycling and walking to and from work or school. All of this is very easy to tell others to do, but what we are really talking about is how we can make exercise opportunities a habit we bring into our lives. Can you take a 20 minute walk before dinner, take three trips up and down the stairs, or park your car on the out-side of town and walk into the centre? We have become efficient about communicating and travelling with virtually no physical effort and we need to build lots of little inefficiencies into our lives.

This may be a turning point in our lives, actually having to seek out exercise to get the minimum dose that provides us with the health benefits we need.

This change in culture also happens against a background of obesity and a problem in the culture of our food and eating which for whatever reason has led to an obesity crisis in the rich Western world the like of which has not been seen before.

This however may not be the biggest of our health problems stemming from a 21st century technology driven culture. Our mental health is suffering as well and again we may be in the early stages of a crisis where we can no longer take our mental health for granted in the face of changes to our lifestyle and culture and we now need to be actively working to support each and every one of our layers of mental health in the face of many functions of daily life that we are beginning to take for granted but that are in fact also a danger to our mental (and physical health).

Let us consider the huge changes that we expect human beings to adapt to that have been brought in by technological changes over a very short period of time. The types of development that we have had to adapt to over 30,000 years now to us seem fairly mundane, swapping one type of metal for another, having to deal with gunpowder and perhaps things like the printing press, but in general until the industrial revolution things did not change at a great speed.

We then had 200 years of accelerated development, until about 30 or 40 years ago when life accelerated and that acceleration has steepened in the last 10 or 15 years to the point where many people send a very high proportion of their time connected to some type of electronic device.

Now it may be that we are well primed to cope with this, but certainly there has not been time for any type of natural selection to take place to bring prime candidates for a technological world to the fore ( we might see it in wealth creation, but there is a lot more to a successful life than how much money and how many toys and baubles we manage to accrue along the way). We can of course also adapt through how each individual brain changes through the stimulus it receives, but we are still at a stage where we do not really know the impact of this on our brains and mental health long term.

What does seem to be readily apparent though is that there is a bigger and bigger problem with the mental health levels of many levels of many sectors of our population with mental heal levels with young people seemingly reaching crisis point.

Now it may be not fair to blame, ‘being connected’ for this crisis, but what does seem to be true is that tech is taking the place of many of the traditional activities that were without us realising it giving us a level of mental health protection. That being connected for long periods of time activates certain parts of the brain, and that in general we may be operating at a higher level of activation through the tech world that we live in.

Friendships tend often to be through media rather than first hand, and how often do we see a conversation break up for someone to take a call or text or to check social media?

Tech does not seem to be the only issue, we seem to live in a very uncertain world, perhaps we know about more things happening more quickly and so we have a biased perception, but world events do seem to be occurring at an ever increasing rate, with terrorist activities being perhaps a good example of this; not yearly, not monthly or even weekly, but seemingly now at a daily rate.

Speak to many people of some age and the feeling is that we are living in a world that is ever accelerating. Take this idea to young people and it is all they have known, but of course they are relying on the brains and survival mechanisms they have been gifted by their ancestors who knew and were adapted for a very different world. What is the new normal for young people of today may be a far different scenario for what are brains have adapted to cope with on a daily basis.

Highly activated brains are revving hard but not always combining the physical activity that helps to dissipate activation, and we know a highly activated brain that does not recover, can become an anxious and depressed brain.

We know that brain activation can impact on sleep and of course, we are beginning to understand just how important getting good sleep is. If we are going to sleep well, perhaps the first thing we need to do is remind ourselves how much our lifestyles impact. We should also consider how if someone has only known a life with high levels of tech and high levels of connection, that perhaps they may easily lose the link between lifestyle and sleep, in the same was as there is now concern that modern fast and convenient food is beginning to break the links that are passed down from parents to children of how to cook well from raw and real ingredients. Once we lose these links it becomes hard to get them back and they should be cherished.

Perhaps the above is a bunch of suppositions, but it is very easy for us to reset the new normal, and not even remember or know what life used to be like. Are we now drifting into a world which we are not really designed for? It may seem exciting but are we prepared for it and are we working to ensure that we are giving our young people the resources to deal with a new and different world where we do not really know what resources and what abilities to cope will be required?

I would suggest that in the same way as we are now entering a world where we have not got enough physical activity built into the average persons day to keep them healthy and we need to hunt out exercise opportunities, we are also entering a world where the impact of our daily lives on the health of our brains cannot simply be taken for granted as benign and we now should also be putting strategies into place in our daily lives alongside whatever else we do to protect, future protect and maintain each and every persons mental health at a sound level.

So what do we have to support us in this area?

Luckily we know that in the same way as exercise and a desire to be fit and healthy can be at least a great gateway for managing obesity and a lack of fitness. We also know that getting a fitness habit and keeping it at that (rather than an obsession), can be a great part of developing a mental health support plan. We know also that were exercise to be a pill, it is often reported that it would be the most powerful pill in the world. We are not suggesting that exercise is a total cure all, but what we would very much suggest is that if we want a start point for managing and protecting our mental health then exercise and a healthy lifestyle based around all the things that make exercise work is a good place to start.

When we consider exercise and all the things that make it work, we are really talking about putting a healthy lifestyle first, good nutrition ,recovery, sleep and exercise really are the physiological needs we have that comprise our first level of health. Maslow’s expanded Hierarchy of Needs shown below (Maslow, 1943, 1954)

What we are looking at here is a bottom up layering of needs from physiological upwards; in simple terms Maslow suggests that we need to satisfy needs from the bottom up and once these have been satisfied then we can move up. Although quite an old model, it still provides us with quite a good schematic of how we move forward in life and a fairly sound model for health. On this basis if we are able to ensure that we are dealing with health first then we have a chance of living a fulfilling life.

We would suggest that dealing with health and fitness is the first stage in good mental health, and from once we have that in place then we can develop upwards.

Rather than go any further than that in this article, simply thinking about, planning and putting into place a plan that incorporates, physical exercise, a healthy lifestyle and good recovery from both exercise and perhaps from the connectedness of tech may be a good place to start.

To find out more, please contact mark at mark@performt.com