Chapter 7: Part IV: Warning Signs

When you have a toothache, you get yourself to the dentist as soon as possible, even if you hate going there. The clue is big and clear – your tooth hurts. You know that the early discomfort will continue to get worse and, if left untreated, could even kill you (just ask the Ancient Egyptians who often died from the infection of a decaying tooth). Yet, for some reason, we tend not to do this with depression. We try to struggle through it on our own. We don’t want to admit that something is wrong with this particular organ of our body. Is this the fault of society’s stigma? Is it our own fault for caring so much about how we are perceived by others? We often wait months before seeking any medical help. Why? Something is wrong with my tooth – I get it sorted right away. Something is wrong with my brain – I wait months without even telling anyone? Something is seriously wrong here. I brush my teeth twice a day, avoid too many sugary treats, and rinse with mouthwash before bed. I have been explicitly taught this by parents and teachers. In the grand scheme of things, our teeth are relatively unimportant (sorry dentists) and yet most of us take better care of them than we do our brains.

“In the grand scheme of things, our teeth are relatively unimportant (sorry dentists) and yet most of us take better care of them than we do our brains.”

My parents and teachers never explicitly taught me to look after my brain. I’m sure this is because they didn’t know we had to.  We need to stop thinking of our brain as this mysterious organ that will just take care of itself… a hinge that never needs oiled; an engine that never needs maintenance. We need to start looking after it, just like we look after our liver, kidneys, and intestines.

Let’s throw this into the mix… there are people who believe you should be able to reason your way out of depression, without seeking help! Years ago I was one of those people! “C’mon, snap out of it!” “You’ve got nothing to be sad about” Well, that’s what depression often is – sadness with no reason (although the depressed person’s brain often tricks them into finding false reasons for the sadness). We are talking about our brains! This is serious! Maybe we can talk our way out of that toothache while we’re at it. Or heal our broken leg with some positive thinking. Perhaps I wouldn’t have asthma if I had a rosier outlook on life? Hey, I’ll throw away those antibiotics for my kidney infection, and take this bottle of optimism –one teaspoon, twice a day and I’m sure I’ll be just fine.

“We need to stop thinking of our brain as this mysterious organ that will just take care of itself… a hinge that never needs oiled; an engine that never needs maintenance.”

I’m not saying that positive thinking won’t help. Seeing the silver lining is something from which all of us can benefit, at any point in our life. It is certainly helpful in dealing with any aspect of human existence, especially the hardships. I also believe that it helps release the ‘feel-good’ chemicals that keep our brains operating well and increases electrical activity in parts of our brain associated with feelings of contentment. But it’s not enough on its own.

This is our brain we’re talking about. It’s just like all the other organs in our body, but way more complicated and we know less about it. We cannot assume that it will just keep ticking over nicely for the whole of our lives (I have had to learn this the hard way). Why do we assume it will take care of itself and heal itself when we don’t expect this of our other organs? Unlike other organs, when something goes wrong with your brain, it can alter your entire perception of the world. It can change anything about you, including your personality and temperament – just take a look at Alzheimer’s patients, or someone who is drunk (the alcohol can do a great job of changing aspects of our personality until its effects wear off). Our brain is a finely tuned organ full of chemicals and tissues that even the best of scientists don’t fully understand. Small changes to these chemicals and tissues can have dramatic effects. The good news is that in most cases they can be fixed. Look out for the earliest of warning signs. Seek medical help as soon as you think something might be wrong. Waste no time. Act now. It’s your brain for crying out loud.

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