Sea Squirts – A Study in Depression and Anxiety…..

I am currently listening to an excellent podthing series based on the work of Oliver Sacks, a neurologist who some people might know from his rather awesome book, ‘The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat’. He was also the person Robin Williams played in the film ‘Awakenings’. That film used Oliver’s work with people in a mental health college in the 1960’s as the basis for the story.

The series I am listening to is written by another Neurologist who worked with Oliver and knew him well,  Indre Viskontas, and it is well worth a listen if you have an interest. Its called ‘Radiant Minds, The World of Oliver Sacks’.

The episode I was listening to this morning was on Tourette’s Syndrome and it got my neurons spinning in an interesting direction as I considered some of what it was saying and then thought about the processes in relation to anxiety and depression. I will try to explain!

This might sound random, but one of the things Indre spoke about was the Sea Squirt! It is a little sea animal that is born from an egg and develops a functioning (rather large apparently) brain and nervous system. Using this brain it swims about until it finds a patch of rock it likes and then it attaches itself to the rock using a sucker on it head. Nothing unusual so far really, I know we as a species don’t tend to attach ourselves to things (unless you count fuel protesters/climate activists, they do it quite frequently) and up to that point, the Sea Squirt sounds like millions of other creatures on this planet that have a brain, a nervous system and move about. It is what they do next and why that really caught my attention and imagination.

Once the Sea Squirt has attached itself to the rock, it digests its brain and nervous system! It eats the parts of it that allow it to move around and for the rest of its life it stays still, head stuck fast on a rock until something comes along and eats it or it dies.

The idea of something intentionally, instinctively digesting its own brain was a vivid one for me as I was driving home! Indre goes on to explain why it does this. Put simply, it does not need to move any more so the brain is digested so the nutrients and energy can be used for its new sedentary lifestyle, immobilised voluntarily onto rocks. The conclusion that can be made from this is that long before we used our brains to think and make sense of the world, the brains first function was to help make up move around. This idea, that the first reason for a brain developing was to facilitate movement is the basis of my later thoughts about anxiety, but before that a little more context!

Movement is vital to all us. To quote Indre ‘Neurons get us moving, and moving gets us neurons’, we are instinctively social, all of us (even if we fight that sometimes). We know that we need other people in our lives to survive and then thrive. No person does brilliantly in total isolation. How many happy hermits have you met? We therefore have an instinctive need to move and also to speak, to communicate with other people, this is inherent in all of us. We have learn to override the urge to move, to speak to be still. One way to override the urge to move is to focus on something, a goal, a plan, a TV programme, anything that occupies our mind enough to dampen down the urge to move. In the podcast Indre talks about pilots, surgeons with Tourette’s, who tic when they are at home, but when they are focussed on their job, they don’t tic. This fascinated me. The idea that we can override an instinctive urge and drive in us by actually focussing on a task or job.

This is important to know when considering something like Tourette’s syndrome. People with Tourette’s experience things called tics. These can be verbal (noises, shouting, swearing etc), or physical (parts of the body moving or jerking). One of the people on the podcast speaks about being able to stops the tics for a short time, but when she does this she gets other physical side effects (nausea, headache) and when she allows the tics to start again, they all come through at once which is also distressing for her.

Like most people know when they are going to sneeze, people with Tourette’s know when they are going to tic, the feeling is very real, very physical and yet if they concentrate they can stop the tic and delay it from happening. This comes at a cost as I have mentioned, but it is possible.

Right, I can hear you all wondering loudly, ‘what on earth has this got to do with anxiety and  depression?’. Well. My thought process kind of went like this:

Most people with anxiety and/or depression can be faced with a situation when the flight or fight mode kicks and they find it difficult to do things. It could be leaving the house, if really bad, it could be getting out of bed, but our fear response is activated and it overrides the instinctive urge in all of us to move and speak. This is often beyond difficult for the person experiencing it and it can lead to a cycle or pattern of thought and behaviour that can make the anxiety or depression worse over time. We know we are becoming depressed or anxious, we can feel it viscerally in our body and mind and yet the easiest way of managing this is often to stop doing, stop moving and withdraw.

This might actually be a counter intuitive process though! If we hold then that our instinctive need to move came before our flight or fight mechanism evolved in then it may well be that if we can re-engage the neurons around movement and speech, keep them active over time, then the fight or flight mechanism will switch off. Indeed, if we do it consistently over time, those neurons will lay down healthy pathways which will make it easier to move and to do than not!

Indre in the podcast talked about people with Tourette’s being in the flow, or in the zone. When they are in the flow they do not experience any tics and as I mentioned before pilots can fly planes and surgeons can perform complex operations without a tic in sight. As Oliver Sacks himself put it, ‘The I vanquishes and reigns over the it!’. The conscious and grounded self overrides the instinctive and subconscious self.

I know this is not a new idea, but it struck me as a way of looking at this in a different way that might make more sense to people than just being told, ‘the best way to not be depressed or anxious is to do stuff’, which is a bit of blunt tool for most people to be honest.

For me, I like the visual image of the Sea Squirt (so called by the way because if you prod it after lunch, when it is on the rock, it will squirt a stream of water at the prodder!) knowing it needs to move to get itself a nice hew home, and when it gets there it is happy to just eat its brain and relax! The brain has served its purpose and it can then focus on the rest of its life. The next time I am anxious, or when I notice my mood dropping and my urge to do things dropping alongside it, I will remember the sea squirt and remind myself that if I focus on getting some things planned, or done or both, that will be a much more attractive way of coping than eating my own brain and gluing my head to something! Both ways of coping work, if I do stuff, I will feel less anxious or depressed and if I ate my brain, I wouldn’t care that I am anxious or depressed, I just feel being active might be the more popular option. Unless you are a climate protester of course, in which case, fill your boots! Stock up on the Evo stick and find yourself a nice pavement, I am sure the effect will be similar!

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