Dr. Rebecca Brachman has dedicated her life to exploring the connection between mental illness and stress. As Brachman gears up to speak at the TED conference today, the TED Fellow shares the best way to combat your stress and finally puts to rest the idea that mental illness indicates genius.
Inc.: We are usually passionate about something for a reason. What pulled you into neuroscience and mental illness?
Dr. Rebecca Brachman: My mom is a doctor and my dad is an AI researcher, and neuroscience is sort of the natural hybrid thereof. I actually thought I was going to be a creative writer, but from the first few weeks of my science class, it was clear the field of neuroscience was going to see enormous change, growth, and discovery within my lifetime. Also, the more I learned, the more it became clear that the neurobiology of psychiatric disorders was poorly understood, even just compared to our understanding of learning and memory or visual processing.
On a more personal note, the Littleton shooting happened my sophomore year of high school. Our school was singled out as having a 'similar demographic' to Columbine, and Tom Brokaw and The Nightly News broadcast a town hall meeting from our school gym. The shooting definitely brought mental illness to my attention.
Mental challenges like depression and mania are being discussed even more in entrepreneurial communities today. Have you found a correlation between mental illness and the inspiration/so-called "genius" that drives us forward?
One of the challenges in talking about "mental illness" is that our terminology tends to be overbroad and overused. "Depression," for example, means different things in different contexts. My understanding is that clinical manifestations of psychiatric disorders (i.e., "depression" when it means major depressive disorder or postpartum depression) are not associated with creativity or genius.
One thing I find fascinating about this topic is the resonance between the mythology of mental illness and that of tuberculosis. In the 1700s and 1800s, people believed tuberculosis increased sensitivity, empathy, and creativity. It was a "fashionable" disease. Now we know TB is caused by an infectious pathogen, most people don't think that anymore... it will be interesting to see if the same thing holds true for mental illnesses once we understand them better.
What is the one insight entrepreneurs should understand about mental illness?
It's incredibly ubiquitous. One in five people in the U.S. suffers from mental illness--and that's just in a given year. But because most people don't talk about their experience with psychiatric disorders, there's a false impression that these disorders are not as common as they really are.
If you are running a company (especially a high-stress startup), more likely than not, you, someone you work with, or someone who works for you is struggling with some form of mental illness--which can impact both productivity and quality of life. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.
If you or one of your co-workers is experiencing symptoms of mental illness, it's worth seeing a medical professional for two reasons: 1) though our current treatments aren't ideal, the right treatment regimen and/or the right therapist can be life-changing, and 2) symptoms like anxiety and depression can have a lot of different causes, including thyroid disorders, that can often be treated once diagnosed.
What is the strongest lesson you've learned about researching PTSD?
First, though we tend to think about soldiers when we think about PTSD, they are just one of many groups of people at high risk for the disorder. Firefighters, police, first responders, ER doctors, prisoners and prison guards, aid workers and refugees, cancer patients, etc., are all at high risk for PTSD. For example, up to 80 percent of patients diagnosed with a cancer recurrence develop PTSD.
Second, many people recover from PTSD.
Lastly, some people exposed to major stressors experience post-traumatic growth: increased stress resilience and flourishing in the wake of trauma.
As you go deeper into understanding stress and developing appropriate drugs to help, what effective, non-drug-related practices have you discovered along the way?
Stress resilience is an active biological process. Emerging evidence suggests it can be increased--or at least maintained--by lifestyle interventions. In the lab, exercise and "environmental enrichment" are as robust resilience-enhancing interventions as any of our other approaches (drugs, surgery, etc.). Immune activation and social isolation, on the other hand, decrease resilience.
So taken with a grain of salt (or a few) and extrapolating to humans: exercise, a healthy diet, good sleep hygiene, and social support protect against stress. Whereas being sick, or having a poor diet, or getting insufficient sleep, etc., makes people more vulnerable to stress.
Stress inoculation is also a fascinating process, but not really something someone can practice.
Think about the end of your career. What single impact would you want to have?
To establish the field of preventative psychopharmacology. Aside from creating the first drugs that can prevent psychiatric diseases, I want to catalyze a paradigm shift in psychiatry. The idea that we can prevent, not just treat, mental illness opens up all sorts of promising new avenues of scientific research.