Like anyone who's suffered with severe and recurring depressive episodes - and probably especially those of us who go through bipolar depressive episodes (which for various reasons that I'll get to in a separate post some day are more intense) - my mind used to be a horror show of negative thoughts, very bad beating myself up self-dialogue, cognitive distortions, black and white thinking, very dark and negative future projections and much else to do with "thoughts" and our inner mental world.
This is why I emphasize so much what consciousness is and what it's made up of - what I often refer to as our "conscious experience". Thoughts are a huge part of how our brains both "communicate" to us as part of our conscious experience and create our realities.
In the fall of 2013, I was deeply and badly struggling during the early parts of a massive and mind crushing depressive phase that was part of the mother of all manic depressive episodes. At the same time I was really beginning to fathom and grasp the neuroscience of thought and of the incredible power that thoughts can have in our minds and mental states. I was beginning to learn to examine my own thoughts and the roles they played in my mental states and it was at that point that I knew I had to work on my thoughts. That fall was also when the fatigue started absolutely hammering me and I was left with being unable to do much else than to spend most of my days just sitting staring out the window.
I also was beginning to deeply understand how much of our moods and mental states are driven by our own reactions to those very thoughts and to life around us. I understood that a great deal of what we needed to do was to "retrain" our brains to react differently not only to our own thoughts but to life events, circumstances, challenges and even to our own desires, wants and goals. And not only to retrain our brain's reactions to our thoughts but to create different thought patterns altogether.
The question then became how to do this.
Through the study of neuroplasticity, I was quite familiar with the principles and benefits of online brain training games and could grasp their potential but a) I'd quickly become wary of the claims made by sites such as Luminosity and b) I'd tried some and quickly realized that these were not what we mental health peeps needed.
What we needed was something that'd help us work on:
- distorted thoughts such as black and white thinking, cognitive distortions and negative self-dialogue
- learning self-compassion and forgiveness
- dark thoughts about the future
- letting go
- more confident decision making
- creating better perseverance and resilience
- creating better reactions to difficulties
- creating more positive inner dialogue
- our reactions to our own selves and the challenges of life
And much so on along these lines.
As well - and I can't emphasize how important this is - I knew that I needed something to keep my brain and mind occupied and distracted during the worst of the fatigue because what I discovered during those dark times was that if we don't find ways to keep our mind occupied when we don't have the energy to do anything else, it creates particularly fertile ground for our minds to run amok and for demonic dark thoughts to dominate.
Not only that, I very, very well understood the dangers of losing my higher cognitive abilities due to the fatigue if I didn't train and exercise my brain in some way when I was really hammered with the all encompassing mental and physical fatigue.
No available brain training exercises I looked into did anything like that.
So I designed my own.
My brain training exercises work on multiple levels if approached and practiced correctly.This post is going to give an initial outline on how to approach them, establish further how and why they work, and how to apply the lessons learned to real life situations.
For "games", I just used the standard solitaire games that come with Windows OSes but I apply the same techniques when doing crosswords and then I began applying the same processes to virtually everything I do (the ultimate goal). You could use anything you like, as long as it's at least somewhat mentally challenging, holds your interest and keeps you engaged. You could actually apply the same principles we're going to learn here to any hobby you like - cooking (a favourite of mine), playing an instrument, woodworking, you name it!
I talk with a lot of people privately (both in real life and online) about what I've been through, what I've accomplished to overcome and stabilize very advanced Type I bipolar disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, major anxiety and massive suicidal depression and how I did and continue to do it all without medications or any ongoing professional help. Most marvel at what I have done and can do (granted, the people that tell me this are those who deeply, deeply understand mental health issues and the struggles and challenges. "Normal" people - those who are mentally healthy or have never really gone through the worst aspects of long term mental health difficulties - don't get it at all). I get a lot of interest in wanting to know how I did it.
Looking back on it, I feel very strongly that my brain training exercises made the biggest difference (and I use them to re-enforce many of my Positive Difference Making Fundamentals). Now, if we go back to Neuroscience in Focus - an Introduction to Neuroplasticty and what we began to learn there, we can see that when we are trying to change deeply ingrained mental patterns such as very negative self dialogue or negative self-image (very closely related, of course), what we in fact have to do, is "rewire" actual brain circuits and this takes time and repetition and this is what exercises like I introduce here are designed to do.
So let me try introduce my approach.
Assuming we're starting as I did with the solitaire card games we're all familiar with, the most important thing to keep in mind for the best approach and for best results is that we must not think of them as "games", we must think of them as puzzles.The brain loves puzzles. Human brains evolved to solve puzzles and find solutions, to seek patterns in apparent chaos and so on. So right away, the appropriate mental approach and attitude is that you are giving your brain puzzles to solve. This is a form of exercise for the brain, just as Pilates is for the body. A huge part of my concepts for better mental health is exercising the brain; the principle being that a brain that works better and more efficiently and that taps into the brain's higher cognitive powers is going to lead to less overwhelm and negative results in life situations. A better exercised brain is going to solve problems better leading to a smoother life and less stress and all of this is going to by course of nature lead to better mental health. Make sense?
I have lots of other ways that I exercise my brain - I read a lot of challenging material, I poke at different languages, I do a lot of music therapy (please refer that post as an introduction) and so on - but the following are the exercises that I do most and work at the most.
Now, not only are we going to exercise our brains by giving it puzzles to solve (crossword puzzles also work well and I often use them in lieu of card based puzzles), we're going to work on our mental processes and states as we do so.
As a Distraction and Change of Focus:
Puzzle solving games can be a great distraction technique.
Distraction, or changing one's focus, is a classic and powerful method taught by many psychologists for dealing with emotional overwhelm, periods of anxiety, racing negative thoughts, etc. So the games can at once give one's mind a different focus while also giving it something challenging and engaging to do.
There are times when one is getting pummeled with overwhelm and a breakdown feels imminent that some sort of distraction is vital. I just like to do my distractions with something with purpose (and we will feel less guilt as well if we feel we are actively trying to do something beneficial and purposeful). I also do a lot of mindfulness activities like cooking or baking, accompanied - of course - by music therapy (please see this introduction to music therapy and this post on some of the neuroscience of music therapy).
Correct Mental Approach:
It is critical for the brain training games to be most effective (results will of course vary) to approach the games mindfully; that is, to pay close attention to what one is doing and not just mindlessly move cards around (or whatever is involved in solving the puzzle). To that end one must also take a goal orientated approach to the games. There are multiple goals one can set. The most obvious goal is to win the particular game one is currently playing (or about to start). But there is much more than just winning individual games. There are long term goals (winning ten games, achieving a certain winning percentage, finishing a game within a set time limit and so on). As well, one should take the goal of aiming for constant improvement.
As it is not possible to win all the time, losing can feel quite discouraging and even frustrating. Feeling discouraged or frustrated with losing is perfectly natural but a) these are also automatic reactions we want to change and b) if one takes the approach of using each game as an opportunity to improve or to learn then no matter what, one can always take something away from each session.
If you're not feeling discouraged or frustrated by losing then perhaps you don't have enough desire to win, something that itself must be changed. This, I find, is not uncommon among those who've been beaten down by life for too long. However, by winning, we needn't necessary think of winning as the ultimate goal, or winning at all costs, but as always trying to attain the best possible outcome for ourselves out of whatever situation we face. For some of you I know it means learning that you deserve the best possible outcome.
Just a brief note on the "winning attitude" before we move on. Looking back on the many challenges I have faced in the course of the last several years - especially being homeless through a Canadian winter and related ongoing basic housing challenges - training myself through these exercises to always look for the best possible outcome no matter "the hand that I was dealt" was easily, in my mind, the biggest difference maker out of these brain training exercises. I've been dealt some pretty crappy cards the last few years and in constantly training myself through the exercises to always look for the best possible outcome no matter what and not just throw in the towel or "fold", it's just something my mind tends to do automatically no matter how bad I feel at first in a given new challenge.
Okay, now bearing the mindfulness approach in mind (and the following section), you the brain trainer need to understand that the pace at which you play is probably going to be quite slow to start. Actually, I'll state that it should be slow to start. This is an important part of mindfulness; going very slowly, paying close attention to each step, paying close attention to one's mental processes, inner dialogue and so on. Taking this approach while solving the puzzles is going to start training your mind to do this with other tasks you perform as well.
Using the Games as a Mental Exercise:
These are exercises that, if approached and practiced correctly, will target and exercise specific parts of the brain and brain networks, just as practicing a new golf swing does (or practicing anything in a focused and directed manner). These kinds of exercise are important for the brain – and for you – because it's very difficult to practice and change all the things outlined above (among others) under real world conditions, just as it is for an athlete to learn new skills in game conditions. That's why athletes practice daily in private controlled conditions - so they can master new skills or strategies before entering the arena of competition. My exercises give you the opportunity to work on things like cognitive distortions, negative self-dialogue, etc. in safe, focused, controlled and specific conditions.
In other words, the brain training exercises are like your own “practice field” and I (through these instructions and others to follow) am your personal coach (like a golfer even as great as Tiger Woods has a personal swing coach or a tennis player like Serena Williams has a personal coach). Like athletes, you can learn and master new mental skills and strategies before heading out into the arena of competition called Life.
Once one is making gains in a specific area, one can begin applying the new abilities in those “game conditions”; the real world day to day conditions of life. One may even notice that they are subconsciously beginning to change (IE: practicing new, more positive self-dialog without any conscious effort to do so), which would really be great!
Again, the exercises are designed to activate and strengthen specific brain regions and networks while weakening the connections in brain regions that have been overactive and dominating one's mental states, thoughts and so on. I will address the power of thought in a future post which will further bear out the importance of working on and making these changes.
Correcting Negative Inner Dialogue:
There are many things one can work on while solving the puzzles but the number one thing most people seem to want to start with is negative inner dialogue and self-criticism and I must agree this is a great – and very important – place to start because negative inner dialogue and that nasty self-critic has such an enormous impact on what we are consciously experiencing, our moods and mental health. Negative inner dialogue even shapes much about how we feel about and see ourselves (our self-image) and what we project to those around us. If we can change this, I can assuredly say that we can make profound changes and differences to our moods and mental states that will begin to change our lives along with how we and the world see ourselves. It's not a quick process, I must caution, but in time the difference can be striking.
Okay then, when we are performing almost any kind of mental task (or slow paced physical tasks), we are going to have a running dialogue going on in our head. We are going to use practicing the puzzle solving exercises to slowly change our inner dialogues by working to deactivate negative dialogue networks and to create, build and strengthen positive ones. Additionally, in doing so, we're going to start working on something I call Mindfulness Meditation CBT (which I introduce in this post) – becoming more aware of our thought processes and questioning them more and building alternate thought processes and reactions to situations.
So while one is going through the task of solving a puzzle, I'm going to ask that you become very aware of and conscious of your thought processes and inner dialogue. What I'm going to ask you to do is try to catch yourself saying negative things or running negative mental approach “programs” then pause to replace them with more positive ones. Replacing “can't” with “can” is just one tiny example. Replacing self-recriminating remarks like “you idiot! What a stupid move!” with dialogue that acknowledges the mistake with something like “oh shoot, that didn't go well. Hhhmm, now how could I have done that differently?”.
It's necessary to try and stop each time you catch yourself running a negative inner dialogue and really focus on the new dialogue, repeating it several times. Then – and this is very important – you need to follow up with actual action. If there was a mistake (you saw that you played a card wrong, for example), you need to slow down, examine what you could have done differently, then try it again or if you can't try it again, fix it in your mind how you might approach the same or similar situation next time. It's very important to align better inner thoughts with better actions; the two work best when re-enforcing each other (and this is indeed a cornerstone of CBT training - cognitive = the mental processes, behaviour = actions. CBT works to align these in healthy ways).
Also - very important to teaching ourselves better inner dialogue and reducing self-criticism - we're also going to start learning the habit of self-forgiveness and compassion. We can start learning to tell ourselves, "it's okay, it's perfectly natural to make a mistake". Because, in complete factual truth, it is perfectly natural to make a mistake, especially when we're worn down and stressed out. Retraining our brains to eliminate negative self-dialogue and the bitter inner critic is much, much harder if we don't, as we go along in these brain training sessions, learn to be more forgiving and compassionate towards ourselves in general - something I talk at some length about in this post on compassion and gratitude. This will also begin to apply to how we think of and talk to others as well. Change or improve this and I can one hundred percent guarantee that you will begin to notice an improvement in the relationships in your life. Improve the relationships in your life and your life begins to improve. Win/win, baby.
There are many other mental approaches and attitudes in our minds that we can retrain. Sometimes you may look at the cards (or whatever it is you're using to practice) and think, "oh crap, no way can I win this game". We can train ourselves not to "forecast" what might happen (especially in negative ways) and just learn the attitude to do the best we can, to make the best out of a bad situation and see what happens. I found that training myself to use this approach prevents me from shutting off possible solutions and instead helps me find solutions I may have otherwise missed.
I also found that when I trained myself not to jump to forecasting conclusions and not to either mentally give up (and only half-ass finish off the game, resulting in certain defeat) or just "throw in the cards" (literally or figuratively), that more and more games that at first appeared "unsolvable" ended up being - ta-da! - solvable! And - AND! - as this habit of not forecasting and jumping to conclusions and instead training myself to more calmly and mindfully work towards all possible best outcomes became more set in my daily mental make up, this new mental habit began to apply to real world situations and I got myself out of all kinds of pickles that I would not have otherwise done with the negative mindset that my mind had become in the years of my worst struggles (and of course at various points throughout my life).
There is much, much more but I'm going to leave it at this for now.
To get the relative optimal results, it is best that one practice daily (like practicing any new skills or keeping skills sharp). One must practice in a very focused and mindful way (which is actually a key part of the training and what is being trained in your mind). I'd suggest giving it a minimum of thirty minutes a day, at least to start. You can do it at set times (I often use them first thing in the morning to help wake up my mind and get it "on stream") or, as I've said, times when you feel too exhausted to do much else is when they can work as a good way to keep your mind occupied, or as a vital distraction or change of focus if you are beginning to feel overwhelmed by your own thoughts or some external stimuli. And I'd ask that you try to practice them purposefully and not think you're just screwing around killing time (which utterly defeats the benefits).
I always combine my brain training exercises with music therapy (again, introduced in this post). Combining my brain training approaches and the proven benefits of music therapy is very powerful.
It is my hope that this lays out a solid idea of what you can do to retrain your brain and thus so many of the undesirable mental models you'd like to get rid of or change. Again, I'd ask you in conjunction with what we learned in this post to take some time to reread the post introducing neuroplasticity where I begin to explain in a bit more detail the principles of how specific, focused and directed mental exercises can change the brain regions and networks involved in creating mental models that help drive depressive moods and states, both long term and short term.
Now the real cool thing about mental exercises like this is that when we begin to regularly exercise our brains in controlled conditions like this (again, just as athletes do to improve and grow), we in very deep and interesting ways kind of jump start the whole neuroplasticity processes in our brains (the deeper neuroscience on this is very interesting). And what this means is that once we "wake up" our brain's ability to adapt and grow in new ways, this can cascade into all kind of other new positive habit change, something Kelly McGonigal observed in the course of teaching thousands of Stanford students the science and methodology of habit change, which she documents in her book The Willpower Instinct. Which is why I concluded that doing these exercises regularly and daily made the biggest difference - because the better brain processes I trained into my brain cascaded over into so many other things I do and other areas of my life.
One last thing ...
As with all my approaches for attaining better mental health, my brain training exercises should not be taken in isolation or viewed as a "cure" or anything like that. This was and is just one part of my overall approach, one that includes lifestyle management, a specific diet, physical exercise and movement and much else (all of which I'm gradually getting to).
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