Positive Difference Making
Things That CAN be Done
There's a lot of interest in knowing how I manage without medications and without any kind of ongoing help from a medical professional.
My growing understanding of brain functions and how it all worked told me that there was no way to quickly turn around all the things that were going on in my brain to create what I kept experiencing. I knew there was no way to just quickly turn around any human behaviour, thought patterns, mental experiences or mood disorders.
I also knew that success in anything required following basic fundamentals practiced daily. The trouble was no such guide existed for “us” - those of us who suffer all the mental phenomenon and symptoms associated with psychiatric disorders, or at none that I felt were adequate and certainly none created from our perspective.
All of this has taken on added meaning and understanding as recently it has been found that what created much of what I dealt with in the years starting in late 2007 was not any kind of psychiatric disorder but the effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy as a result of numerous concussions ranging from moderate to severe earlier in my life. This is a neurodegenerative condition with no known treatment or cure. The outwardly observable symptoms and what an individual experiences mentally , however, can seem very much like several disorders as defined by the DSM (which is why I was misdiagnosed so much).
Almost everything here is based on neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity - which I briefly introduce here - is a term referring to the brain's malleable ability to change form, how it arranges its wiring, what section controls what motor movement or sensory function, even down the inner workings of individual neurons, and, most relevant here, how it controls behaviour. The brain can do this naturally on its own when, for example, a certain area is damaged and it takes over another part of the brain to compensate or when a sense such as eyesight is lost the areas responsible for hearing and touch will grow.
While this is interesting enough and has long been known, it's when I learned the more recent knowledge that specific mental and physical exercises and activities could change the shape of specific regions of the brain that a massive light bulb went off in my head.
This, I strongly felt, was the answer to dealing with any kind of mental health disorder. It occurred to me that my mental health problems, especially the issue of suicide, was a problem of the wiring in my brain being out of wack (I refer to these as broken brain loops) and certain regions being either hyper-active or under-active and that neuroplasticity meant that I could change that wiring and those regions. [I have since come across massive amounts of research to support this]
The question then became how.
The literature on neuroplasticity shows great possible promise but long lasting plasticity – real change, in other words – doesn't come without daily work and practice. I also felt strongly that we needed solid practices that were time honoured, backed by credible science and most importantly which we could do on our own without having to pay for them.
Success is an odd term with many possible meanings. Nonetheless, however we think of "success" to get there requires some kind of daily habits and fundamentals that make some sort of incremental positive differences towards the "goal". I conceived and compiled these specifically to learn how to successfully manage, live with and possibly overcome any kind of psychiatric or mood disorder and the daily life challenges that will come with those.
The following then is what I study and work on daily.
It works. This can be proven with brain scan technology that shows that meditation can make plastic changes on certain regions of the brain. There are various methods but there are simple ones that can be learned and practised relatively easily. Like with anything though, it takes daily practice. I sometimes do well with this, sometimes not so well. But I keep at it. I may miss it for several days or longer but then I'll remember and get back into it. Meditation can have a profound effect on how the brain works and processes input.
Most people think you have to become some sort of guru or practice complicated, advanced forms. Nothing could be further from the truth. The two most effective for brain and mental state improvement and are most relevant to those with mild depression problems or even more severe conditions like mine. And those are mindfulness meditation and a simple meditative focus practice that involves simply paying attention to and counting your breathes. Just practicing these two several minutes a day had massive and profound benefits and improvements in my ability to manage my mental states and outlook.
I introduce my approach to meditation in this post. It is the first of what eventually will be a series on meditation specifically designed for recovering from mental health disorders.
I work on my habits.
It's very simple; bad habits equal bad outcomes and good habits equal good outcomes (or as good as you can be). Almost everything we do is habitual including how our brain works. If we change our habits we transform how our brain works and therefore our lives. But it takes work and this work is not easy because habits, as we all know, are NOT easy to break. My go to book for habit change is one by behavioural change expert Kelly McGonigal who teaches a wildly popular course on change at Stanford University. Her book The Willpower Instinct is a must have book for changing habits. Her methods are based on solid neuroscience and the latest knowledge about how the brain works. She has one simple concept that works amazingly well. They're called “will” steps, “won't” steps and “want” steps. For example, I had a goal of changing my diet for the better (I knew that my very poor diet was having an effect on my mental health) so I used her will, won't and want method for changing my diet. It's easy because it can work in the tiniest doable little steps to start with. Within not too long, I'd changed my diet much for the better. The same little steps can be applied to many habits. She has lots of neat little methods for increasing our willpower as well (which goes towards changing our habits). Oh, and she's very big on meditation. HUGE difference maker.
I made big changes to my “data input”.
One of the intriguing theories of what "we" are in the brain is that it's the collective memories built up over a lifetime and indeed there is a great deal of evidence pointing to this model which I get to in the post Memory Functioning in Major Depressive Disorders.
Building on this premise, what are memories?
Memories are built up from all the information our brains absorb from our environments starting in the womb until close to the time we draw our last breath. This information, this collection of "memories" - or "data" as I like to refer to it - forms the basis for your particular version of reality , IE: how you view and perceive the world which will be unique from anyone else's, your sense of mind, your beliefs and so on. These kinds of memories generally fall under what are called episodic memories or memories of our experiences.
Another form of memory important for understanding what and who we are and how to change that are procedural memories. These are ingrained processes involved in physical skills and abilities which includes many of the things we do things on a day to day basis that we don't need to think about in order to do them; from the mundane like walking and talking (even at the same time!) to skills and tasks like driving a car, negotiating a mass transit system, or higher skills like playing the piano, etc. These can also be known as "automated" or autonomously running "programs".
Both of these memory systems will combine to form the basis of your daily thoughts and reactions and decisions in response to life around you and how you navigate through life plus - plus! - all the emotional aspects attached to how you "store" memories and "retrieve" them. This is really important to understand.
We'll think of all this collective memory "data". We then need to understand that the great majority of our thoughts what this is and does and how it guides our thoughts, emotions and action and behaviours base on or guided by this data.
A way I'd like you to think of how "data" affects the brain and thus "who we are" is based on the principle of put garbage in, garbage will come out. Put quality in, quality will come out. Consume negative input, negativity will come out. Consume positive input, positiveness will come out.
It doesn't make any sense then to attempt to change our selves - our thoughts, feelings and behaviours - without working on changing the "data" we input into ourselves every day.
When I became fully cognizant of this I became much more careful about what I read, watch, listen to or who I spend time with. The better the quality of all of these things, the better the brain both produces our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and deals with them.
Changing data input necessitates and induces plastic changes in the brain. It will change the wiring, it will change its thoughts and thought patterns. But this can be for good or bad. Bad data in, worse brain functioning and worse mental models and states. Better data in, better brain functioning and thus improved mental models and states. Better data input makes a huge difference in moving away from negative brain functioning to positive functioning. Obviously with suicidal depression this is a big area to work on. I stay very aware of this and work at it. I tailor my online experience, my reading, the company I keep, everything to producing better data input. As I wrote before about memory functioning and depression, negative "data input" can really impact what's in our memory and thus how our memory affects our mental states and our mind projects our future. So you really want to minimize negative or garbage input and maximize positive input. Improving my data input HAS made a huge difference.
I've learned a lot about letting go.
We all need to move forward in life and moving forward is a lot more difficult when dragging a fifty ton sack of yesterday's shit around. So I learned to let go. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes it's not. I work at it all the time. Letting go of the past, or letting go of negative things and events in your life, is amazingly enlightening and disencumbering.
Letting go is also letting go of many things, ideas and possessions that you are convinced are "vital" and that you "can't live without". I had to go through this process dozens and dozens of times. When I was melting down over something, I had to stop myself and think (this is where practicing the above mentioned meditation techniques pays off big time) "is this really that important? Do I really need this?". Turns out, most of them aren't really as important or vital as one would think nor as needed. So let them go.
It is also impossible to learn and grow in life without letting go of who we used to be or what we used to have. This can be a very difficult lesson but it is vital to learn, accept and practice. You cannot become who you can be if you cannot let go of who you once were. I can one hundred percent guarantee I could not have gotten anywhere near where I am today had I not learned to let go of who and what I once was - both the best and worst of it.
Letting go very much ties into the Buddhist tenet of "staying in the now" which leads us to:
Living One Day at a Time (or Staying in the Now)
This sounds like one of those simplistic snippets of advice we get or read in some shiny-happy graphic on social media that can drive us bonkers when we're in the midst of overwhelm meltdown. But this may be the most life saving mental habit of all.
Living one day at a time sounds counter-intuitive and it sort of is. There's lots of things from our past we need to remember and certainly we have to plan for the future. But in times of overwhelm - I get to more about what goes on in the brain in these times of overwhelm and why in the more detailed post on Staying in the Now - carrying around the weight of a thousand yesterdays and a thousand tomorrows is literally mentally crippling and a monster source of body and soul destroying stress (which is why we break down). You can't deal with that. NOBODY can. Anyone in a position of power and authority and has to deal with dozens if not hundreds of crucial decisions must learn to master dealing with the current day and the current day only.
This is not only a Buddhist tenet (making it 2,500 years old), literature pertaining to mental stability going back centuries talks about and urges the same thing - deal with each day on its own and each day only. It is of course not easy - trust me, I know it's very challenging at times - but as with all new and better habits, it gets easier with time.
It is also tied to "staying in the now", one of the underlying principles of mindfulness; that is, just focusing on the task at hand and nothing else.
As far as I know, no one has invented time travel so we can't go back and change the past, folks. And NO ONE can predict the future so there's not much use in dwelling on what that may or may not be. So it is best to stay in the now.
Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes.
I've worked very hard at changing my mindset. This ties back to habits and input. I want the most positive mindset and attitude possible. This is vital for fighting ANY illness and this is well documented. It's vital, therefore, for fighting mine. I slip and I forget at times but I do generally work at this a lot. When the darkness of depression descends this can be really challenging but I'm convinced that working at this makes a difference.
Learning to learn and Creating a Growth Mindset
There is nothing better you can do for your brain than learning something new. It will create new neurons, new connections between current neurons, it will open new areas of neuronal real estate or liven up old areas. And it's more than just learning, it's learning to learn. If you can learn to become an awesome learner - and I'll get to a post about how to do this - and create in your brain the habit of learning, your brain will just become better and better at learning almost anything you really want it to do.
This is another huge way that I create better moods and get myself re-centered after some big blow and getting into a dark and bad place. Refocusing on learning and the process of learning is how I do all the research that goes into writing this blog, it gives me something positive to focus on and it literally trains my brain for how I can better come up with creative solutions and get myself past stuck places. Not to mention, it's a great way of building confidence and hope and improved esteem that's built on a solid foundation. It creates what is known as a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset - a growth mindset can better understand and solve problems, a fixed mindset tends to get stuck and is more prone to overwhelm and melt down.
Massive difference maker
I discuss growth mindset in this video on my YouTube channel with University of Oklahoma instructor Laura Gibbs who's developed a superb and popular course teaching the concepts and methods of growth mindset.
This ties back to meditation. This is important for moving forward and feeling more positive about that. It's exactly as the words imply; visualizing something positive such as a positive outcome for something I desire. The method is meditative in nature and again, it can produce positive plastic changes on the brain. And while you can't predict or form the future, you can visualize the most positive outcomes for future events that you can. Positive visulization also exercises very key areas in the brain for more positive mindsets in general.
Something important to accept is that a lot of what we visualize won't happen the way we "script it" in our minds. While this is normal, things not going the way we visualized, planned, expected, wanted and hoped for can be a significant trigger for a "defeat" model of depressive episodes and anxiety about the future. So this has to be something we work on - better attuning our positive visions to our skills, abilities and probabilities in our life plus the corollary of working on our skills and abilities to better achieve what we envision and hope for. This again is not something we're going to master at once or quickly but just another daily habit to cultivate and work on and simply strive to retain the core principle of trying to visualize the best possible outcomes and doing the best we can on a give day to achieve or work towards them.
Getting better quality rest.
I learned early on in my research into bipolar that good sleep was vital so I work on this a lot. I learned simple meditative breathing techniques for calming my mind and getting to sleep. I also do little meditative rest breaks throughout the day. Giving your brain proper rest and breaks is proven to be vital to proper brain functionality so obviously is vital for dealing with my illness. So I actually work at getting better rest. My being more aware of this has made a huge difference. I know that when my brain is starting to wobble that I need to shut it down and give it some rest (which is a lot these days).
Humans are actually pretty hard wired for spirituality (uber amounts of evidence and brain science on this) and in today's world many of us have become too disconnected from spiritual connections and on a deep subconscious level the brain doesn't like this. I am not religious so this is a challenge. There are other ways, I believe, to be spiritual, however, and I try to do these things. Part of that is to connect to other people in the most positive, empathetic way possible. Be a good person, the idea goes, and you'll get good stuff back. I need good stuff to happen in my life to help make me and my life better so it just makes good sense to be the best person possible to help make that happen. That's my spirituality. As well, there's some impressive recent science that shows that we can have a spiritual connection with nature and that this has very positive benefits on our brains and thus our states of mind. So I also try to stay connected with nature as much as I can. You should too. Yes, I know how "busy" you are - MAKE time.
Learning and practicing empathy, compassion and forgiveness.
This ties back into being spiritual. Being empathetic to your fellow humans – regardless of race, colour, nationality, gender or class – will do some amazing things to the brain. Your brain needs lots of exercise to stay healthy. This is a superb way to give it that exercise. See The Compassionate Brain for some of the science on this. This has been the easiest of all my methods to practice. It plain feels good and this will make your brain feel better. There's some crossover with positive visualization that can be practiced here too. Oh, and most importantly, I learned a lot about practicing compassion and forgiveness with myself. Hugely important.
Please see Positive Difference Making Fundamentals in Focus - Spirituality for more on spirituality and practicing compassion and gratitude.
Believe, just believe, baby.
This is often HUGELY challenging for me. When I (or anyone) am in the throes of bipolar depression – which, again, is a massively dark place – my brain scoffs at the idea of belief. It almost literally says, “believe??? Look at your messed up life! Believe in what, you fucking moron?!” This part of the brain (or whatever is going on in there) is really in control during bipolar or major depression so this makes belief really challenging. But I keep at it and if I keep at it, a tiny little part of my subconscious will hang on to belief and will give hope in even the blackest periods of inner darkness and hell. You would not believe what I have survived and it was ONLY because some little corner of my mind clung to belief. So no matter what, I work on belief. You - no matter whether you have a mental health disorder or not - have to work on belief.
Belief is also a great stress buster; if we can believe - have faith, however you want to put it - this can greatly aid in putting our minds more at ease to handle the present day and to stay in the now and thus reduce overwhelm stress.
There's just crazy amounts of science on this - going back a hundred and fifty years. Exercise is good for your brain and is essential to mental wellness. This is hard for me, because my body has broken down and the crippling fatigue that often comes with long term disorders (see link next paragraph), but I poke away at it and try at least to get out for walks. With exercise every little bit helps. Any little bit you can do is something. You just have to try keep increasing whatever you do a little bit every week.
Many of us who've suffered from mental health disorders for many years will almost certainly be dealing chronic fatigue issues (about which I wrote a very well researched three part series starting here). What most people think of as exercise is therefore very difficult for us. I developed some simple exercises based on some basic yoga and tai chi principles involving gentle movement but combined with breathing techniques can stretch and exercise our muscles, oxygenate our blood and stimulate key brain regions. I'll be doing a video series on this as soon as I can (which may yet be some months, admittedly).
A massive and confusing topic, I know. I keep it simple and try to avoid fads and eating lifestyles for which there is little concrete or consensus evidence.
It comes down to brain and body health and some basic elements which support that.
H2O. Your brain and body need water. That's it, that's all you should drink on a daily basis. Some flavouring is okay as long as it's natural. Filtering through coffee grounds seems okay but is not without controversy. Various teas are better. I personally favour green teas.
A balanced diet as free from processed foods as possible. You know, basic grains, meats, vegetables and fruits. Virtually any deviation from that other than rare needs for specialized diets comes down to fads and "diet politics". For the best combination of those for any individual a DNA profile is required. There are slowly becoming available tests for this along with detailed diet guidelines based on them.
Fibre and roughage. It is hard to understate how important this is to the microbiome in the GI tract and general digestion and discharge of wastes in general.
The power and healing benefits of music on the brain are now well documented. I use all kinds of music, but meditation music, classic jazz and classical music work best for calming. The latter two, because of their more complex structures, produce positive neuroplastic changes on the brain leading to enhanced creativity and cognitive abilities. I listen to a lot of jazz and classical music in focused, attentive way. Upbeat music is great for lifting one's mood. Huge, huge difference maker.
Please see An Introduction to Music Therapy to learn more.
Having a sense of purpose is very, very huge. The best thing any of my eighteen or so psychiatrists (!) ever said to me was, “Brad, you have no purpose in your life. You can't live like that. NO ONE can”. Boy, was this a big wake up call for me. The more I thought about it the truer I knew his words were. So I learned to work really hard at this. Right now, for better or worse, my purpose is my writing and research. These things too become very challenging during the darker periods of bipolar depression. But I make myself do it, even if just a little bit per day. It keeps me connected to a greater sense of purpose and this makes a big difference.
My Brain Training Exercises
I have been practicing these for about a year and half, having developed them during my worst periods of bipolar depression and fatigue. I introduce them in this post but briefly they are designed to help us exercise key brain areas involved with planning and mental states and attitudes while helping us reduce negative self talk, self sabotage and replace it with more positive inner dialogue and narratives.
All of these things are very challenging in that place of darkness, despair and hell.
As well, with energy and fatigue issues and other pressures it can be really hard to work on our selves. But this why I put together a list of many things to work on. Life remains hard and challenging but I find I am able to work on at least a few of these every day. They are designed so that no matter how beat down we are and how much things seem to be swirling around us, it is still possible to find at least a little time to work on one of these life changing fundamentals.
I'll write about this in more detail in a future post but the biggest thing I found in gaining more mastery over my mind, my mental states and - most importantly - stress triggers and stress in general is that the more tools we have the more power we can gain, the more we can take control over little moments in our lives and then expand that control to bigger moments and then days and then our lives and it is this power that we learn in tiny little incremental steps that gives us power over our mind and our lives.
We just have to commit to making little steps each day, staying within the day or the moment and dealing with that as best we can. These fundamentals give you some of the tools you can use daily and moment by moment to give you more power.