Psychologist Kimberley Wilson talks through three common misbeliefs that confuse how we see the relationship between the brain and the body in preventative mental health.
Think about your brain like a factory. Just as a factory that churns out a diverse range of products needs good raw materials, so your brain needs good nutrients to regulate emotions, thoughts and moods in a sustainable way.
That’s the powerful metaphor that chartered psychologist and nutrition expert Kimberley Wilson uses to introduce her approach to whole-body mental health; and the key interplay between the brain and the body that underpins it.
Speaking at Stylist Live @ Home this weekend, Wilson explains that – just like a factory ramping up production ahead of Christmas – a crisis like Covid-19 means that the brain tends to increase production of stress hormones such as cortisol. So it then needs more nutrients to cope with that influx, on top of taking care of your normal hormone profile.
The problem with this is that stress is associated with the body’s survival mechanism: so if you’re not careful, the brain will prioritise nutrients for the stress response at the cost of all other functions during stressful times such as a relationship break-up, or a global pandemic.
“It’s really important for all of us, in periods of prolonged stress, to make sure that we’re taking care of our brains as much as possible,” explain Wilson, during a session that will reassure anyone who’s struggled with anxiety, depression or similar. This includes “making sure it has sufficient nutrition so that it’s not depleted and your brain doesn’t have to struggle any more than it needs to”.
This strategy, however, involves re-wiring the core beliefs many of us have around mental health. As Wilson explains, “When we start to see impairment in the functions of the brain (for example, your mood, your attention, ability to generate good sleep), we don’t tend to think ‘Oh I wonder what my brain needs’. […] We tend to think ‘Oh I’ll just push through, I’ll just ride it out, I’ll try not to think about it and see what happens afterwards.”
In this way, how we think about mental health conditions differs dramatically to how we think about physical problems such as high blood pressure, or diabetes. And yet, just like these complaints, mental health is related to a biological organ: the brain.
Below, Wilson discusses three myths around mental health that we must dispel in order to more closely understand this relationship between the brain and the body in preventative treatment – as told in greater detail during her brilliant Stylist Live talk:
1. Mental health problems aren’t ‘real’
The idea that mental health is “all in the head”, and that someone suffering can somehow try harder or “think positive” to make their way through, is one of more frustrating misunderstandings that Wilson encounters in the course of her work.
“It’s often used either to stigmatise other people, or people then use it to downplay their own distress,” she explains. “It’s simply not true.” For example, a condition like depression has biological markers that may include:
- Changes to someone’s blood profile
- A high level of immune proteins known as cytokines, that show the body is under stress
- Different activation patterns in the brain, and differences in the way that attention is distributed in relation to the outside world
- A shift in body temperature
“We have biological markers for our psychological distresses,” says Wilson. “So we need to stop thinking about mental health as only being neck up and in the brain. It involves the entire body […] We’re talking about biological conditions that affects a biological organ, which is the brain. And that means that the brain needs some additional attention, it needs some additional care.”
2. You can ‘push through’ psychological distress
This myth is another major bugbear of Wilson’s, and a barrier she comes up against frequently in her therapeutic work.
“If you think back to the fact that psychological distress is physical distress because your brain is a physical organ, then it simply doesn’t make sense to push through the discomfort,” she says. “So if you had a sprained ankle, you wouldn’t say ‘Oh I’m just going to run through it, I’m just going to push through it, I’m just going to keep going and hope that it heals itself through my sheer determination.’
“You understand that when you are injured in a physical way that what you need is rest, treatment and appropriate care,” Wilson continues. “And we need to then be thinking about the brain in the same way. Your brain will not recover if it’s struggling by just pushing through, by putting additional demands on it. It won’t work, it won’t make it better.”
3. Mental health problems can only be dealt with at crisis point
“[Since] we don’t think about the brain as an organ in the same way think of other organs in the body… we tend to leave problems in the brain until they’re really entrenched,” says Wilson. “We leave them right until the end, until there’s a crisis.
“With the brain, we wait until that first bout of depression, we wait until that first panic attack, we wait until someone feels as if they are at the brink of a breakdown and then we intervene.”
As Wilson explains, this attitude “doesn’t make any sense”.
It differs entirely (and for no reason) from every other area of health, where we build up resilience and prevention ahead of time, “so that we’re not left having to pick up the pieces later”, says Wilson.
In the same way, research shows that we can reduce the risk and severity of specific mental health conditions with the right preventative steps. From movement to leafy greens and essential fats, find out more about what these steps are by tuning into Wilson’s session with Stylist Live @ Home (available until 29 November). You can find out more about Wilson’s work on her podcast and via her book, How to Build a Healthy Brain.
Tune into Kimberley Wilson’s eye-opening talk, along with many other inspiring workshops and discussions, at the Stylist Live @ Home festival running all this weekend. Tickets are still available for £15, and you can watch the entire show on catch-up at a time that suits you, at any point up to 29 November. Stylist Live @ Home guests will also get first access to discounts across our curated shopping collections courtesy of The Drop. All tickets include a £1 donation to Women for Women International.
This holiday season, athletic apparel brand lululemon invites you to celebrate the everyday moments that matter most. The message? Let The Feeling Flow—a campaign that encourages daily moments of connection through acts of kindness to yourself, others, and the community. Follow on Instagram or visit lululemon.co.uk to find out more.