So, I’ve been for a couple of jogs. They were sort of mainly walks with running shoes on. I’m not following a strict regime or a motivational app. I don’t even listen to music. This is my version of mindfulness – listening to my breathing (for which read, rasping), waving to cows, and pausing in a field for yogic stretches. Once I actually hugged a tree, in pure relief, having told myself that I had to keep running ‘til I’d reached it. I do have a Fitbit, but it makes siren noises when my heart rate reaches two squillion or so, which apparently is a bit high.
After one jog I felt so amazing that I was driven to re-read the technical bits of Ruby Wax’s book Sane New World on brain chemicals. It’s fascinating! Exercise releases endorphins which are famous for reducing pain and stress. But they also, with the aid of dopamine, induce a euphoric feeling – similar to that produced by morphine – known as ‘runner’s high’. Pretty cool that I got runner’s high just by wobbling along the lane for half an hour. That’s why exercise is said to be the most effective treatment for depression.
There’s more! For example, when we kiss, our brain releases a heady cocktail of dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin. Wow! Serotonin, the happy shiny one, is a natural feel-good chemical. Dopamine, the bad boy, stimulates the same area of the brain as heroin and cocaine, and produces euphoria and addictive behaviour. And oxytocin, the love drug, fosters feelings of affection and nurturing. Wax says you can tell who has plenty of oxytocin because “in the queue of life they’re always at the back taking care of others”.
The thing is, feelings are not separate from the brain, they are determined by it. Feel free to roll your eyes and go ‘duh – obvs’, but I honestly think that we don’t always get that, and it is key to kicking the stigma of mental illness into touch. As Wax says, “I’ll say it again. Mental illness is a physical illness. Let us shout it from the rooftops until everyone gets the message; depression has nothing to do with having a bad day or being sad.”
I may sound like a born again neuroscientist (well, I’ve read a book!), but I think they should teach this in schools. To understand how the brain works is to understand how physical and chemical processes in the brain determine how we think and feel, and therefore how we can adjust that if it’s not quite firing properly. In basic terms, when neurotransmitters pass across the synapses repeatedly, the synapses change shape to make the process more efficient. This is the reason I can remember that six sixes are thirty six, all my friends’ home phone numbers from when we were 14, and how to ask for a kilo of strawberries in French. Explain to children what happens to their brains when they learn times tables and they might just think it’s ‘awesome’ enough to actually do it.
What’s more awesome is, we can determine which synapses to strengthen and which ones to let shrivel away – accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, as the song goes. “I consider that a brain is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose” – Arthur Conan Doyle.
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