Toughen Up Princess!
Has anyone ever said that to you? — Did it help? — I doubt it.
Nevertheless, there is some logic in the sense of needing to toughen up in tough times.
But you wouldn’t say to someone laying on the ground with a broken leg, “c’mon princess toughen up get on your feet and get on with it”, …. because you could see that the person is physically unable to and no doubt in real pain. But, when a person is suffering a neurobiological disorder, stemming from a mental disorder, that might not be obvious to the eye, there is sometimes a tendency to dismiss that person’s condition as something to just get over. “c’mon toughen up”
Firstly, lets consider the definition of a ‘neurobiological disorder’: It is an illness of the nervous system caused by genetic, metabolic, or other biological factors. Indeed, many illnesses categorised as psychiatric disorders are neurobiological, including autism, bipolar disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, schizophrenia, and Tourette syndrome to name just but a few.
Such disorders might also be diagnosed as, ‘psychosomatic disorders’* which have a long history of being seen as less legitimate than visible, physical conditions, resulting in a damaging stigma. The very definition of psychosomatic means both mind and body, and there is a scientific explanation for even these unseen conditions.
So, let’s consider the efficacy of telling someone to toughen up in the presence of a neurobiological disorder stemming from a mental health disorder. To be blunt, it’s usually about as beneficial as t#ts on a bull; akin to kicking the person in their broken leg to get them on their feet – they might just want to die to be relieved of the pain from your kicking. The pain would be torturous as you might imagine. Similarly, it can be down-right damaging to a person suffering a mental health disorder induced neurobiological disorder to ridicule their suffering by belittling or deprecating their condition with taunts of toughen up. In some cases such haranguing them, even though perhaps well meaning, could lead to the sufferer wanting to be relieved of the pain by ending it all – just wanting to die – because the pain is similarly torturous.
Accordingly, we have to be careful when dealing with mental health issues so as not to misunderstand the potential dangers of well-meaning, but nevertheless misguided, jibes. Moreover, we have to be careful not to mislabel a person suffering a mental health disorder induced neurobiological disorder with some wayward misdiagnosis such as malingering for example. Indeed, as late as WWI, soldiers were routinely executed for ‘cowardice’. As psychiatry became more widely accepted as a science in its own right, medical conditions such a ‘shell-shock’ were diagnosed which demonstrated that soldiers suffering the condition were indeed suffering a mental health disorder induced neurobiological disorder which physically prevented them from functioning as ordered. (that is not to say that fighting is a neurobiological norm – evidence shows that it is not) – To see the devastating physical and mental effects of such neurobiological disorder click here for YouTube-shell shock >>
While a broken leg will in all likelihood physically prevent one from getting to their feet and getting on with it as it were, the ‘neurotransmitters’ within the brain functionate circuitry, in terms of there being a neurobiological disorder in play, may well be sending signals to the body to prevent other parts of the body working as desired, whether the prevention is caused by pain or otherwise in terms of the signal not reaching the receptors responsible for the desired physical function the results are much the same for the sufferer thus, while not suffering an obvious physical injury like a broken leg, a person nevertheless suffering a mental health disorder induced neurobiological disorder may well be unable to stand as if their leg was in-fact broken.
Note: This article is focused on mental health disorder induced neurobiological disorders as opposed to genetic induced neurobiological disorders such as Cerebral palsy or Motoneuron disease which are generally quite obvious to the eye. But what about someone who is in the developing stages of such disorders later on in life, which along the way is being misdiagnosed. Sometimes such persons are told they are feigning it – faking it. Early onset dementia is sometimes mistaken for drunkenness etc’ The devastating impact on the sufferer’s mental health cannot be underestimated. Similarly, a person suffering a Post-Traumatic Stress related disorder or even a severe case of anxiety and depression can trigger symptoms* of neurobiological disorders. Thus, it is imperative to seek expert diagnosis if symptoms of a neurobiological disorder present. Better to rule it out than let it manifest.
So, what does ‘neurobiological’ mean
The word ‘neuro’ relates to nerves and the nervous system. The term ‘neurological’ comes from neurology – the branch of medicine that deals with problems affecting the nervous system.
Essentially, neurobiology is the physiological approach to psychology which attempts to relate human behaviour to electrical and chemical activities via ‘neurotransmitters’ which take place in the brain and central nervous system. Moreover, this field studies nervous system functions, brain function and the related structures such as the spinal cord. Neurobiology is thus a subset of both physiology and neuroscience.
In terms of ‘biological’ this is pretty straightforward. Something being of a biological nature relates to life or living. Obviously, the brain is an essential feature of our biology. It controls everything that happens in the body, including vital functions like breathing and heartbeat. Without the brain, the body would not be able to function. The brain is connected to the rest of the body via the spinal cord and the nerves – which together, the brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system.
Messages (nerve impulses) from the brain travel along the spinal cord and control the activities of the body, such as the movement of the arms and legs, sensory functions like touch and temperature, and things we don’t think about that go on in the background, like the function of the organs.
Then we have the ‘peripheral nervous system’ which is the set of nerves which branch out from the spinal cord through the dura and vertebrae and form the peripheral nervous system. Essentially, the peripheral nervous system is the network of nerves outside the central nervous system. It carries messages between the central nervous system and the rest of the body via a series of receptors.
Chronic dysregulation of these systems can lead to functional impairment in certain individuals. Indeed, trauma has a significant connection with neurobiological disorders. So does extreme depression and anxiety.
What are ‘neurotransmitters’
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the body. Their job is to transmit signals from nerve cells to target cells via the central and peripheral nervous systems. These target cells may be in muscles, glands, or other nerves. The brain needs neurotransmitters to regulate many necessary functions, including:
- heart rate;
- sleep cycles;
- muscle movement.
Neurotransmitters have different types of action depending on the type of receptor that they are connecting to, for example:
Excitatory neurotransmitters encourage a target cell to take action;
Inhibitory neurotransmitters decrease the chances of the target cell taking action. In some cases, these neurotransmitters have a relaxation-like effect;
Modulatory neurotransmitters can send messages to many neurons at the same time. They also communicate with other neurotransmitters.
So, we can see that neurotransmitters play a vital role in nearly every function in the human body. Accordingly, imbalances in neurotransmitters can manifest in a range of ‘neurobiological disorders’ and are present in many conditions, including:
- post traumatic stress disorder PTSD;
- severe depression;
- severe anxiety;
- bipolar disorder;
- traumatic brain injury;
- spinal muscular atrophy;
- spinal conditions;
- multiple sclerosis (MS);
- Parkinson’s disease;
- motor neurone disease
- cerebral palsy;
- brain cancer;
- stroke; and
- Tourette syndrome.
Indeed, there are more than 600 diseases of the nervous system. Some medications target these conditions to allow your body to receive more or less of certain chemicals to help manage and in some cases possible negate some of the effects of some neurological disorders. Unfortunately there is no proven way to ensure that neurotransmitters are balanced and working correctly. However, having a healthful lifestyle that includes regular exercise and stress management may help reduce the potential for development of neurobiological disorders.
Clearly, the human mind has enormous influence over the neurological condition of the body. For example, if you allow yourself to become fixated on negative thoughts, you can actually modify the conditions of the hormones and neurotransmitters in your body. Thought processes can shut-down or severely effect heart, brain, and other autonomic (controlled without your thought or intent) systems. Your mind has power over your body’s systems. You can see this effect for yourself just by performing a simple experiment. Notice the way your pulse and blood pressure change when you’re relaxed, excited, stressed, or depressed. Your blood chemistry changes, too, which is why certain animals can ‘smell fear’.
Experts have identified more than 100 neurotransmitters to date. Some of the main chemicals and hormones related to neurotransmitters are:
Acetylcholine triggers muscle contractions, stimulates some hormones, and controls the heartbeat. It also plays an important role in brain function and memory. It is an excitatory neurotransmitter. Low levels of acetylcholine are linked with issues with memory and thinking, such as those that affect people with Alzheimer’s disease. Some Alzheimer’s medications help slow the breakdown of acetylcholine in the body, and this can help control some symptoms, such as memory loss. Having high levels of acetylcholine can cause too much muscle contraction. This can lead to seizures, spasms, and other health issues.
The nutrient choline, which is present in many foods, is a building block of acetylcholine. People must get enough choline from their diets to produce adequate levels of acetylcholine. (Many vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and dairy products contain choline as does fish, beef, poultry, eggs, and some beans and nuts being also rich sources of choline) However, it is not clear whether consuming more choline can help boost levels of this neurotransmitter.
Dopamine controls many functions, including behaviour, emotion, and cognition. This chemical also communicates with the front part of your brain, which is associated with pleasure and reward. On the positive side, it helps motivate you to work toward achieving a reward.
However, many illegal drugs also target dopamine receptors, contributing to drug and alcohol dependence. Because dopamine is related to movement, low levels have also been linked to Parkinson’s disease.
Endorphins inhibit pain signals and create an energized, euphoric feeling. They are also the body’s natural pain relievers. One of the best-known ways to boost levels of feel-good endorphins is through aerobic exercise. A “runner’s high,” for example, is a release of endorphins. Also, research indicates that laughter releases endorphins.
Low levels of endorphins may play a role in some headache disorders. A deficiency in endorphins may also play a role in fibromyalgia. The Arthritis Foundation (USA) recommend exercise as a natural treatment for fibromyalgia, due to its ability to boost endorphins.
Also known as adrenaline, epinephrine is involved in the body’s “fight or flight” response. It is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. When a person is stressed or scared, their body may release epinephrine. Epinephrine increases heart rate and breathing and gives the muscles a jolt of energy. It also helps the brain make quick decisions in the face of danger.
While epinephrine is useful if a person is threatened, chronic stress can cause the body to release too much of this hormone. Over time, chronic stress can lead to health problems, such as decreased immunity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.
Doctors can use epinephrine to treat many life threatening conditions, including:
- anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction;
- asthma attacks;
- cardiac arrest;
- severe infections
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a mood regulator. It has an inhibitory action, which stops neurons from becoming overexcited. This is why low levels of GABA can cause anxiety, irritability, and restlessness.
GABA-rich foods include cruciferous vegetables, beans, peas, tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms, sprouted grains, rice (particularly brown rice), and chestnuts. Also, enjoy fermented foods (kefir, yogurt, tempeh, kimchi, etc.) and oolong and white teas, which all naturally contain GABA
Benzodiazepines, or “benzos,” are drugs that can treat anxiety. They work by increasing the action of GABA. This has a calming effect that can treat anxiety attacks.
Glutamate is the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the nervous system. Glutamate pathways are linked to many other neurotransmitter pathways, and glutamate receptors are found throughout the brain and spinal cord in neurons and glia. As an amino acid and neurotransmitter, glutamate has a large array of normal physiological functions. Consequently, glutamate dysfunction has profound effects both in disease and injury.
Glutamate has many essential functions, including early brain development, cognition, learning, and memory.
However, having too much glutamate in the brain has been associated with neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease)
This chemical, also called noradrenaline, can sometimes act as a hormone as well. Its primary role is part of your body’s stress response. It works with the hormone adrenaline to create the “fight-or-flight” feeling. Norepinephrine may also be used as a drug to raise or maintain blood pressure in certain illnesses.
Norepinephrine is released when a host of physiological changes are activated by a stressful event. In the brain, this is caused in part by activation of an area of the brain stem called the locus ceruleus. This nucleus is the origin of most norepinephrine pathways in the brain.
Together with adrenaline, norepinephrine increases heart rate and blood pumping from the heart. It also increases blood pressure and helps break down fat and increase blood sugar levels to provide more energy to the body.
You probably already know that serotonin plays a role in sleep and in depression, but this inhibitory chemical also plays a major role in many of your body’s essential functions, including appetite, arousal, and mood. Many antidepressants target serotonin receptors to improve your mood and lessen depressive symptoms.
You can’t directly get serotonin from food, but you can get tryptophan, an amino acid that’s converted to serotonin in your brain. Tryptophan is found primarily in high-protein foods, including turkey and salmon. But it’s not as simple as eating tryptophan-rich foods, because of the blood-brain barrier which is a protective sheath around your brain that controls what goes in and out of your brain.
Exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, triggers the release of tryptophan into your blood. It can also decrease the amount of other amino acids. This creates an ideal environment for more tryptophan to reach your brain. Spending time in the sunshine also appears to help increase serotonin levels, and research exploring this idea suggests one’s skin may be able to synthesize serotonin.
Interestingly, most of your serotonin is stored in the intestine, and this chemical may play a role in digestive functioning as well.
People often think functional neurological symptoms are feigned
Functional neurological symptoms are neurological symptoms that are genuine, but not due to a disease of the nervous system. They are called functional symptoms because they affect the “function” of the body rather than being caused by damage to the “structure”.
Symptoms can include:
- loss of motor control;
- sensory symptoms;
- speech problems;
- attacks or seizures;
- visual symptoms; and
- cognitive problems.
These conditions can in some circumstances also be described as ‘psychosomatic disorders’ or ‘somatic symptom disorders’ which describes a worsening or creation of physical symptoms caused, at least in part, by an individual’s state of mind.
For example, we know that stress can make you sick. Stress is scientifically proven to lower your immune system. As well, the condition can turn on the body’s fight or flight response switch, and once this happens, it can be extremely difficult to ease the resulting anxiety or tension. Our brains can be a factor in many ailments such as chronic pain, fatigue, and the aggravation of lymph nodes.
Persons with these disorders often feel they are not being taken seriously, feel they are being told they are faking it or are crazy. Some estimates indicate that up to one-third of patients seeking new consultation by a neurologist have functional symptoms.
Studies have shown that patients with functional neurological symptoms have a higher frequency of experiencing functional symptoms elsewhere in the body.
Symptoms can include:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome;
- Unexplained heartburn and indigestion (functional dyspepsia);
- Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction;
- Atypical Facial Pain;
- Loin Pain Haematuria Syndrome;
- Chronic Unexplained Fatigue;
- Chronic Pelvic Pain / Painful heavy periods;
- Atypical Chest Pain; and
- Chronic Hyperventilation.
With the proper diagnosis and treatment, the symptoms of neurobiological disorders can often improve and may even go away entirely. Thus, while it is never too late to seek out professional help, the sooner you do the better the possibility of assisting you identify and alleviate the problems affecting you.
So, we can see that sometimes saying to someone “toughen up princess” may be doing more harm than good.
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Psychosomatic disorder – is characterised by somatic symptoms (such as pain, fatigue and gastrointestinal problems) that are distressing or result in significant disruption to daily functioning, and are persistent (greater than six months duration), although the actual nature of the symptom may vary over time. Psychosomatic means mind (psyche) and body (soma). A psychosomatic disorder is a disease which involves both mind and body. Some physical diseases are thought to be particularly prone to being made worse by mental factors such as stress and anxiety.
Symptoms of ‘neurobiological disorder’ – may include – Functional Limb Weakness, Functional Tremor, Blackouts, Functional Dystonia/Spasm, Sensory Symptoms, Functional Walking Problems, Pain, Word Finding Difficulty, Tiredness / Fatigue, Slurred Speech, Sleep Problems, Bladder Symptoms, Poor Memory / Concentration, Bowel Symptoms, Dissociation, Low Mood Worry / Panic, Swallowing Problems, Dizziness, Complex Regional Pain, Headache, Functional Jerks and Twitches, Health Anxiety, Facial Spasm, Post-Concussion Syndrome. This is not an exhausting list of possible symptoms of neurobiological disorder