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The importance of physiology
Posted on 8:07am Friday 27th Jan 2012
The Mental Health Workers’ Guide part 3:
The importance of physiology
Physiology is, in broad terms, the study of how the body works. It is different from anatomy which refers to the structure of the body. In today’s blog post I want to consider how the way we use the body affects emotion just as emotion affects the way we use the body in return.
Remember that you can view the movie file that accompanies this article by visiting The Guide on this website.
We know, for example that when people feel sad or miserable they tend to hold their bodies in particular ways. Muscles become more relaxed and breathing and posture change. When we’re sad we tend to look downwards or stare into space and over time our movements and even our thought processes slow down.
We also know that these physical changes produce chemical alterations. The neurotransmitters serotonin and noradrenaline, or rather the lack of them seem to be most closely associated with low mood and inactivity (so far as medical science can ascertain). Inactivity appears to reduce levels of both these neurotransmitters in the central nervous system. We also know that reduction of noradrenaline and serotonin appears to bring about a deepening of our misery in return.
The result is a ‘chicken and egg’ style cycle which, if unchecked can result in such extreme debilitation that people actually lose the ability to move or even to organise their thoughts. One depressed person I nursed described this as a feeling of ‘wading through treacle’ whereby everything seemed to require gargantuan effort and even speaking to others took an effort, not just of will power but of exhausting physical work as well.
This is why in clinical depression (when biological symptoms occur) it may be necessary to boost the levels of brain chemicals with antidepressants.
However there is much that people can do to stimulate their physiology naturally before they reach the stage of clinical depression. Prevention is better than cure and boosting levels of serotonin before the onset of depression is much easier than dealing with biological illness later on. So another of the principles we need to develop emotional management skills is that of early intervention.
A stitch in time saves nine.
If you want to avoid sinking into clinical (biological) depression then intervene at the first sign of sadness and take positive steps to boost your physiology. Get active, take exercise, go for a walk, do something – and do it ‘briskly’.
It’s also important not to sabotage serotonin by over use of other chemicals such as alcohol which destroys serotonin and also depletes the body’s supply of vitamin B. Develop a routine along the lines of Alfred the Great’s 8 hour ‘clock’. Divide the day into three equal parts devoted to work, rest and recreation.
Even if you don’t feel like doing fun things, act as if you do. That will affect your physiology and begin to boost serotonin, thus preventing a deepening of your problems long before you reach the stage of clinical depression. The increased activity also aids sleep. Sleep disorder is another problem associated with serotonin depletion so stick to the routine, force yourself to get up when the alarm goes off even though you may not want to and get active. You can have a day off when you’re feeling better. Let’s face it – if you stay in bed when you’re feeling down you’re not going to enjoy it anyway so you might as well do something positive instead.
Some people, I’m sure will object to the idea that serotonin levels can be affected by any means other than pharmacology. I absolutely understand that. However, in writing this series of posts I cannot avoid making this fundamental case for non-medical interventions, particularly when (at least so far) we’re only talking about a general sadness or perhaps mild clinical depression.
The belief that only medication can affect brain chemistry is a leap of faith that is not supported either by the scientific evidence or by the less formal experiences of those people who have mastered the skill.
I’m proposing the same belief in emotional management that prompts parents daily to encourage their children to go out and play when they’re upset. This is the same process of physiological change that makes exercise or even dog-walking so helpful.