Modern Living - Our Brains Weren't Built For This

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Butterfly writes:

    "My husband has been on medication for his bipolar and he had been really good but last night he took a major turn as stress at work has come to a major crunch factor."

    I have a theory about stress. Remove it from our lives and watch mental illness disappear to almost nothing. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out. People already knew this back in the early 1800's.

    The beginning of the industrial revolution in the mid-eighteenth century coincided with a sudden explosion in mental illness. Asylums - literally sanctuaries - were envisioned as quiet places in the country where patients could recover from the stresses of the cities. It was only later that they turned into overcrowded chambers of horrors.

    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:


    A 2004 WHO survey of 14 countries and two Chinese cities found Nigeria with the lowest rates of mood disorders - less than one in ten compared to nearly ten percent for the US. Granted, Nigerians may be more worried about other things, such as basic survival, but something also tells me they may have what we are looking for.

    In a blog on the Huffington Post, Therese Borchard cites these brutal cold facts from the book, "finding the Deep River Within," by Abby Sexias:

    • The average working couple in America spends 20 minutes a day together.
    • "Family time" has become a goal, an achievement, rather than a natural consequence of being a family.
    • Most Americans are trapped in a vicious cycle of overwork and over-consumption.
    • Dropping in on a neighbor is practically nonexistent.
    • Keeping busy and multitasking are praised, while slowing down is frowned upon.


    No wonder Butterfly is concerned.

    Think of the stress the average family is under: Impossible financial obligations, absurd expectations, crushing responsibilities. Your time always belongs to someone else. We labor in corporate sweatshops, sleep-deprived, cut off from nurturing communities.

    Our brains simply weren't built for this.

    Scientists pretty much have the stress-mental illness connection nailed. A landmark 2002 NIMH study found a connection between a genetic variation and a hyperactive amygdala, a tiny region of the brain that helps kickstart the "fight or flight" response. Later studies have linked this gene variation to depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and anti-social behavior, amongst others.

    It seems that stress attacks the weakest link in our brains. We know that stress is a major mood trigger. Accordingly, we take great care to avoid stress.

    But what about Butterfly's husband? He just can't stop working. In this economic climate, losing your job is the equivalent of being pushed out of a plane without a parachute. We are all living in fear - yet another source of stress.

    Butterfly was wondering whether she should approach the Health and Safety Officer at her husband's work. I wasn't so sure about this. On the "Ask" feature here at BipolarConnect, I suggested instead that the first step may be initiating a dialogue with her husband.

    Men, of course, are prone not to talk, especially when it comes to admitting their vulnerabilities. Especially when their bipolar is starting to gain the upper hand. In their book, "Loving Someone with Bipolar," authors Preston and Fast suggest breaking the ice with something along these lines:


  • "I notice you've been under a lot of stress lately. Is there anything I can do to help?"

    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:


    Hopefully, this can lead to a fruitful discussion, with some equally fruitful outcomes.

    I'm half-convinced that had I lived in another era, my bipolar may never have manifested. I may have died a lot earlier. I may have been limping, shivering, with no teeth, looking out of one eye. But all of my contemporaries would have been in similar situations. If you don't believe me, count the pockmarks on George Washington, along with his wooden teeth.

    Our brains, it seems, were built to deal with all that.

    Life in the crazy lane? No, this is all new. There are no easy answers.

Published On: March 13, 2009