Brain Health

What do you do, when you are at a girl friend’s house, but they are a friend you don’t know *that* well, and one of their male friends (you’ve never met before) becomes anxious and agitated, and tensely yells, “Oh should I just calm down? Should I just calm down? Should I just calm down?” while racing back and forth through the kitchen, from the hallway door to the porch door, before stopping at the porch door and banging their head against the door, hard, several times? And everyone is making hushing noises, and someone offers them a chair and calmingly touches their shoulder, but the guy violently strikes their hand away… and five minutes pass, and people resume chatting, trying to get things back to normal, and the event is glossed over, like nothing happened?

What do you do, when you’re staying with some family friends while travelling, and the 40-something sister of your host trips over a child’s toy on the floor, and picks it up and throws it across the room (it narrowly misses hitting the TV), and they cry, “People who can’t keep control of their kids shouldn’t be allowed to have kids!” and your host laughs it off with, “We’re lucky you’ve got terrible aim!” And you can see that, for the next hour, the distressed woman is not coping very well, but the event is glossed over, like this is a regular occurrence?

What do you do, when you start a new job, and a work colleague is preparing lunch with you in the office kitchen, and she confides that her ex-boyfriend is stalking her and hacking into her phone and email, but she can’t prove it, and you’ve heard that she says this to everyone when they’re new? And apparently the ex-boyfriend is really nice and stable, and had to break up with her because she is obsessive?

I don’t know. These are fictional scenarios, but there are people in my life who behave in similar ways, and nobody talks about it. Maybe it is an older generation thing (pretend that Uncle Francis didn’t sit through dinner looking comatose, not touching his food!) and maybe new generations will deal with this differently.

I asked a family member recently why we don’t talk about a particular person’s anxiety and antisocial behaviour. Why we don’t acknowledge it. Why, especially, we don’t acknowledge it when it happens. This family member didn’t really have an answer, except to say that the anxious person has had a rough life, and that their behaviour was more a weakness or character flaw rather than anything like my implication – mental illness. I argued, saying that they need professional help, and my relation disagreed, and said that I need to be compassionate about their weaknesses.

My boyfriend says (paraphrased): I think everyone is on a spectrum of mental illness, but most people are still functional within society, and we only notice the ones who are not. This makes sense to me. Brains aren’t an immaculate work of perfection; that’s not how nature works. Some people might have naturally higher levels of hormones (and other human-ingredients) that mean they have more stress, or more aggression; that they find it harder to form attachment; that their short-term memory isn’t fantastic. Just the way that my body might have an allergic reaction to certain sunscreens, my brain *must* have some parts that are healthier than others. I probably have eczema of the longterm memory, and a benign growth in my reasoning abilities.

Or… maybe, for some of these people, it’s a communication issue (or years and years of communication issues, and the accumulated fall-out from this.) If you don’t know how to healthily communicate what you are thinking and feeling, or if you aren’t in touch with what you think and feel, then I think you can easily develop a raft of problems; the superficial symptoms of these may be anxiety, exploding, reacting in a seemingly inappropriate way, behaving antisocially, and so on.

From MRIs and other brain analysis tools, we’ll be able to diagnose and understand more of what’s happening in the brain, and I hope this will help us talk about it more. I don’t know what will help us learn about healthy communication and confrontation, or how to be in touch with ourselves and what we think and feel. Like I said before, maybe it’s a generational thing: some of my peers talk openly about their mental health issues, diagnoses and treatments; and some are really trying to understand themselves better. Not a lot of people are talking about healthy self-expression, communication and confrontation, though. I would love to learn more about self-expression and communication, but I don’t know where to begin. As for healthy confrontation, I’m taking a Coursera course on arguments at the moment, which I’ll write more about later.


  1. Andrew Chapman says:

    Great article Fox – well written and insightful!

    Here’s my $0.02 cents worth, whether you like it or not :-)

    I like the idea that “normal” and “weird” behaviour is a spectrum and mental illness falls at some arbitrary point along that line. I think most things about human perception and behaviour are a spectrum.

    In regards to getting people to talk about mental health more, I think feelings of guilt and blame often get in the way. i.e.

    – Someone observes another person acting antisocially and thinks: “That guy is a dick”. (blame)

    – Another person understands that their own behaviour makes other people not like them or feel odd, and therefore feels guilty for being the way they are.

    Both feelings are not constructive.

    IHMO we need widespread understanding and acceptance of two things:

    1) The structure and functioning of our brain is the result of evolution, a process with no designer. Evolution does not create “perfection”, just rather just a thing that is capable of surviving.

    2) In regards to experiencing the world, the brain IS everything. There is no external entity (i.e. a soul), rather what we have is an emergent consciousness created by a glorious mess of billions of neurons that communicate via 50+ chemical neurotransmitters.

    My feeling is that if we embrace both of these ideas then we can more easily remove feelings of blame and guilt from the conversation, as no one gets to decide their own genes – people are doing the best they can with the cards they were dealt.

    It also follows that as are brains are not designed and that we wont be upsetting some deity by making alterations, it is totally OK to want to optimize the circuitry. We already have drugs that can alter the creation or uptake of neurotransmitters or the activity of neurons in general which can absolutely improve how someone feels or perceives, and by consequence improve their ability to deal with the world.

    Another consideration is that sometimes people act in a certain way that others don’t necessarily like, but at the same time causes no real harm. E.g. more reclusive personality types might prefer to not go to parties which might offend the party holder, however we could argue that the issue is actually more with the expectations of the party holder than the socially reclusive person. Complicated :-)

    • Fox says:

      All good points. What do you think about the situation where someone is behaving in a way that gives the impression that they might be unwell, or distressed, or similar, and you want to address it, but everybody else is pretending like it’s not happening?

  2. Nomes says:

    Re when someone is behaving badly, I think it depends on your level of friendship. If you value the person and are their friend, I think you have an obligation to address it. not as an emotional policing thing, but more that sometimes people get so caught up in their own narrative they do not appreciate that they are acting out or making friends uncomfortable or that their perspective is not healthy. not as in not healthy for others, but for them. sometimes it only takes a caring friend to challenge your viewpoint to get your own brain questioning itself and its own narrative. it might not be an epiphany moment, but it will lodge as a seed and hopefully inform that person’s future behaviour. even if it is not appreciated as a caring act at the time. likewise, if that person communicates why they acted as they did, it might plant a seed for you and your development.

    • Fox says:

      I agree about talking to friends like that. What would you say if it’s someone you don’t know very well? And they’re not necessarily behaving badly, it’s more like you think they are not super-mentally-healthy at the moment (e.g. maybe you think they have the symptoms of depression or anxiety)? Should you try to talk to their close friends about it, or stay out of it?

      • Nomes says:

        I would probably stay out of it. You can’t empathise or help everyone and part of that is also making sure you are giving to the friends you do have. There is a point at which another person’s drama is not your own and do you really want to get caught up in another person’s drama if they are not your friend? Talking to their friend about it might end up being a bit gossip-y? rather than helpful? I don’t know, I have had to make very significant changes in my generosity (ie cutting that shit out) and who I am able to spend time on. just mentally you can’t give to all those people. you know?

        • Fox says:

          True that: you can’t help everyone and it’s not your business. I guess my problem is that nobody is talking about it; they’re just pretending it’s not happening. On one hand, if you talk about it, you’re meddling. On the other hand, if you ignore it, you’re turning a blind eye and you’re contributing to the cone-of-silence that already exists around mental health topics. Tricky stuff.

  3. Nomes says:

    oh right, I had assumed someone was talking to them at least. well you can always make a passing observation I guess to the friend along the lines of X seems like they are in a hectic space, you guys close enough to support x coz it looks like x needs some help. and leave it at that?

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