Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Flower in Darkness

The darkness descends
Envelopes you
Takes you
You resist it not and sink into it
Down and down
Until there feels to be only one escape
From the blackness
That has sucked out your light, your life

But you are not the darkness
You are the beauty, don't you see?
You see the world's pain
You feel the world's pain
You see the unfairness,
The unjust
The evil
The darkness is the pain of the world

But you are not the pain
You are the beauty the world needs
You are the flower
A pained world needs

Do not take yourself
Nor let yourself stay in darkness
Where the world cannot see your beauty
Don't you see?
The world needs flowers like you

You are not alone
Only in the darkness are you alone
But there are others like you
Together there could be a field of flowers

To allow yourself to succumb to the darkness
Would allow the world to become dark
And more people would be in the dark

It is hard, I know
But with beauty can come courage
Bring your flower into the light
Let us water and nourish it
Let it blossom
Let your courage and beauty bloom

You are a flower for a reason
Delicate, yes
But within your delicate petals
Is a beauty and courage
That the world needs

Do not succumb to the dark
And make the world a darker place
For your absence 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Positive Difference Making Fundamentals in Focus - Staying in the Now

Staying in the Now

I again must apologize, dear readers, for this post has too long been delayed.

I talk about all my Positive Difference Making Fundamentals yet have not delivered the most important factor and daily habit to truly making them all work and for you to get on the path to better mental health, better emotional stability and to work past and even end your suffering. Today's concept - staying in the now and living one day at a time - is the glue that holds it all together and makes it work. It's the glue that will hold you all together and make you work.

So again, I apologize. In my defense, however, I'll say that sometimes it takes the passage of time practicing all these things to realize which is the most important.

At any rate, better late than never.

We who suffer mental health difficulties ranging from anxiety to depression to major psychiatric disorders like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia will have to endure a lot of off the cuff "fluff advice". Actually, come to think of it, we'll have to endure a lot of completely useless "advice" from supposedly highly trained professionals. During the worst of my disorder between the spring of 2010 and the end of 2012, I often felt inundated with "advice", almost all of it unsolicited. None of it felt useful and as I was slowly (or at times quickly) losing my mind (not in the popular colloquial sense of that expression but in the real and severe sense), these barrages of seemingly simplistic folksy bits of "advice" not only didn't help at all, it only increased my frustration, aggravation and thus worsening mental states. The advice itself almost literally drove me insane.

Plus - plus! - I saw over the course of my roughly three and a half years at the hands of the mental health system no fewer than twenty psychiatrists and somewhere between half a dozen to ten psychologists. Every now and again the message was right, but the delivery was ... ham handed, shall we say. There are reasons for this disconnect between professionals and we peeps, but I'll get to that another day. Suffice for now to say that much of what we're told and how we're told it ends up being not particularly useful.

Two bits of advice that drove me crazy - and I'll get to why below - were being told to "stay in the now" and to "live one day at a time".

However, in the dawn of 2013 when I started my now (sort of) famous quest for "why?" in understanding psychiatric disorders and what to do about them outside of the dominant paradigm of the pharmacological treatment pushed by psychiatry and the mental health care system and I read anything and everything I could, I came across the concept of "staying in the now" again and again and again. One of the best books I ran across early in that mad (sort of literally) dash to learn everything I could was How to Stop Worring and Start Living by Dale Carnegie, a truly timeless book of practical approaches to dealing with stressful worry.

That book impacted me in a number of powerful ways. The interviews and real world research he did to compile all the stories and techniques that went into that book covered a span from the late 1800's up to the depression and World War II years. And as I read story after story of people being crippled and broken by anxiety and worry and depression to the point of destroyed physical health and to the brink of suicide, it struck me that people have always suffered for similar reasons. This is probably true of every generation but we modern generations - roughly the baby boomers through today's millennials - always somehow think we're the first ones in history to experience something like depression and anxiety. We could certainly argue that there are more stressors around today and that we're exposed to more of the world's ills (and today is nothing compared to many points of the past) and that this is making mental illnesses more common and widespread, but the core reasons and the experience of it are the same as always.

In any case, reading through all the stories or case studies, the striking familiarity of them to today's cases and the language used to describe them hit me between the eyes. This made the methods described within the book to overcome acute or chronic internal crises all the more interesting and powerful to me.

Two chapters stood out most to me and were the greatest source of methods for learning to live more free from stress and anxiety and how to get through the periods of being hammered by suicidal darkness. The one I'll get to another time and the other forms the basis for today's post - learning to live one day at a time, stay within one day at a time and within the moment.

Carnegie laid out the basic principles of living within the present day in multiple ways from the scriptures of various religious books to the teachings of ancient texts to how modern (at the time of the book's writing in the 1940's) CEOs managed their enormous workloads and pressures; all stressed the importance of staying within the present day. Throughout ancient history through to more recent times, it seems, people have learned that the best way to deal with life's stresses and sources of anxiety was to stay within the present day and present day only.

As well, Carnegie gave numerous examples of how people on the verge of suicide or were literally becoming sick with stress and anxiety turned their lives around in big and productive ways by simply learning to stay within the present day.

So that's a very powerful historical perspective.

Not to mention that the concepts of one day at a time and staying in the now are fundamental tenets of Eastern thought and mind philosophies that have been successfully taught and practiced for 2,500 years.

This is a very brief summary of everything I looked into regarding "living one day at a time" but I can tell you that the real world historical evidence for it being necessary to a healthier mind was pretty much irrefutable.

However, as most of us who struggle with moderate to severe mood or psychiatric disorders will know, "staying in the now" or "living one day at a time" ranks very high in the easier said than done department; it's very easy to say (and give out as advice), quite different in actual daily practice.

As with everything we are told to do for healthier minds but which we find so hard to practice, I wanted to know why it was so difficult for us to do.

Why it's so hard

Staying in the now or the present day and keeping our minds within these "compartments" (as Carnegie referred to them) is not easy. There are reasons most people have such difficulty with it and why we mental health peeps especially struggle with it so let's have a look at some of them.

One reason is memories and the power of them. Much of what we experience as memories is of past events and of our past lives (known as "episodic memories"). These kinds of memories, of course, are a massive part of Who We Are. As well, it is now well understood that painful memories will become more "seared in" to our memory banks and thus will haunt or plague us more (PTSD is at the high end of this scale). One thing that differentiates us mentally suffering peeps is that we form memories more powerfully than most people. As our lives become more painfully difficult, circuits and regions involved in memory formation create more negative memories. This can build up over a lifetime or it can take place during a several year stretch of particularly difficult mental health struggles during which a great deal of very powerful and painful memories can almost literally burn themselves into our minds making them seemingly inescapable.

Additionally, there are some powerful brain regions involved in what is known as ruminating thoughts. These are thoughts in which we examine our distress and pain and their causes and consequences, largely by accessing the aforementioned memory "data". It is not necessarily wrong to ruminate or reflect on what we'll term simply as "things that went wrong", it is an important and perfectly natural part of how we learn from past mistakes. This brain and mental circuitry is supposed to be there and utilized. As with all our neuronal hardware, it evolved for a reason. It is in these specialized networks where we experience and process such feelings as guilt, remorse and "right and wrong" and so on. People in whom these regions and circuitry are not as active become disordered in a different and perhaps less socially correct way. Inactivity in these regions is thought to be a part of what goes on in the brain of a psychopath - this absence of ruminating over guilt, mistakes, right and wrong, etc. We wouldn't want to be like that, would we!

However, in the "disordered thinking" we see in unipolar depression, the depressive phases of bipolar, and anxiety disorders, the regions and networks involved in ruminating thinking become far too stimulated and activated becoming "locked on" thus "trapping" us in nearly endless loops of ruminating and guilt and grief filled thinking which almost invariably ends up in very negative thoughts and mindsets and beating ourselves up. These endless thoughts - and look at the ginormous amounts of "past memory data" we could dig up and go over - become a massive weight we drag around that makes it nigh on impossible to move forward in life. This then becomes an enormous source for further anxiety, stress and dark depressive episodes.

Because the brain regions involved in creating ruminating and guilt and grief filled thoughts are a very powerful and important set of brain regions, however, it does not relinquish its "role" in your thought processes and mental states easily (and for good reasons, as we saw above). More in a moment.

On the opposite side of the coin is our deeply and uniquely human "predictive functions". A huge part of what makes humans able to do many of the things we do which other animals cannot is being able to "plan for the future". What enables us to do this are brain regions that can take all kinds of present and past information and extrapolate that into the future, creating a "model" from which to work and plan on. As with any networked brain function, though, it can work for us or against us. When we are getting trapped in worry and melting down with anxiety, a good deal of that is over the future and what we "see" there.

Again, this is a very powerful mental process of networked brain regions that, like all our brain functions, is to a great extent part of our "zombie programs"; brain functions that run for the most part autonomously below our conscious control. Our self-reflection and "ruminating on mistakes and the past" regions are the same - programs that more or less will "run" whether we want them to or not.

When you look at and study depression and anxiety at their roots, much of what both drives and creates it is this constant loop of ruminating about negative past events and projecting this forward into a negative future.

This is partially how the stress response system and related networks are designed to work. This system "records" a bad event, kicks in the brain areas involved in examining these bad events (ostensibly to learn from them), then notifies the "predictive functions" that are supposed to help us prevent them from happening again. But with chronic stress and anxiety this system gets "locked" into this maladaptive loop creating a tragic cycle that traps us into negative rumination and "forecasting" scarily dark futures.

But the more we dwell in negative pasts and forecast negative futures, this - guess what?! - creates more anxiety, which further stimulates the stress response system which further stimulates the "examine past events" regions which further stimulates and floods the "forecasting" equipment with dark negativity and ... well, as you've no doubt noticed, that's a hell of a shitty loop to be caught in.

Tied to both of the ruminating and future forecasting regions are various brain networks involved in the human capacity for imagination which, by its very nature, works well outside the laws of "objective reality". These networks that create the power of imagination can become terribly tied up with both our past and future mental images, also creating frightening mental states which again triggers our stress response system which again triggers "examine mistake" and "project future" regions and ... round and round we go, where we stop, nobody knows. You know the drill all too well.

Why Not Staying in the Present Day Creates So Much Mental Distress and Anxiety

To begin to understand this, let's go back to our "conscious awareness plate".

For new readers, or to remind regular readers, we'll just briefly revisit what consciousness is. "Consciousness" is that moving picture show you see when you are awake. It represents what you are thinking and imagining, it is what the brain is experiencing and then puts in your "mind". We can also think of it as "conscious awareness" - what are aware of and what our brain is telling us needs attention and to work on at any one time.

I have likened conscious awareness and this "work space" to the screens and speakers of our computers. What is on the screen and playing through the speakers is what we deal with on our computer at any one time out of all the programming and tools our computers are capable of and so it is with our mind.

This concept of conscious awareness and what we're "working on" at any one time - this brain work space - is not unlike the RAM memory in our computer. In brain parlance these are known as working memory and short term memory. while related, they are somewhat different. Both will be involved with what we are consciously working on at any one time. If we attempt to run too many programs on our computer at once, it will freeze or crash. And so it is with our working minds. It is literally not possible for your brain, your consciousness, your mental "work space", to hold so much from our past plus so much from all our future days PLUS the present all at once and actually deal properly with any of it.

There is a complicated network of regions involved with what we are consciously experiencing or working on at any one time and like all brain regions and networks, their capacity to handle and run "data" is limited. Greatly involved is our "short term" or "working" memory. This is very limited. It is not just your brain that is limited in this regard, all brains are. They can be trained to handle more (which is what I'm cleverly trying to get you to do), but the capacity of all the regions and networks involved is greatly limited by very hard "laws" of elementary brain functioning physics and biology. Not to mention, how every cell in your brain and body creates energy (a series that examines energy depletion in bipolar disorder but the fundamentals of which apply to all brain functioning) and the general "energy economy" of the brain is also of vital importance to understand. Think of your brain having limited watts on which to run and filling our "working plate" with too many functions of past, present and future very quickly drains the energy reserves down to very low - dangerously low for many of us. When our brain energy reserves run too low is when we are most likely to experience overwhelm and meltdown.

Thus, if we flood this "work space" of our minds with too much past, future and present "data", it will freeze, melt down and you will experience overwhelm and stress and anxiety (thus further stimulating this horrendous loop).

So it's not just that your brain cannot function under these conditions, no brain can - not even the healthiest of brains.

Another way to look at this mental state overload is as a form of multitasking. Numerous, numerous studies have demonstrated how poor we are at multitasking (and the better we "think" we are at it, the poorer we'll actually perform at it). So think of trying to juggle so much from the past along with so much from the future then piling that on top of the present as a particularly bad form of attempted and tragically performed multitasking - your brain simply can't do it, nor can any brain.

So learning to stay in the present moment and only deal with the present day is absolutely vital for clearing up space in your conscious "working plate" so that you can work on what is before you properly.

To further understand how all this works and why we get so easily trapped into these loops and why it's hard to break them, we need to quickly revisit something we've learned before - the principles of neuroplasticity - and something that will undoubtedly be new to many of my readers, and a rather recent way of how neuroscientists examine brain functions, the concept of default mode networks. These are highly complex interacting networks and regions that, to put it very briefly for today, are what your brain "defaults" to when it has "nothing better to do". In other words, in a more or less resting state, these networks and what they do are what our brains will fall back on when the brain appears to be "at rest", IE; what it will most naturally tend towards when not actively engaged in a relatively focused task.

There are many, many different and individualized kinds of default mode networks among us, and no two are exactly alike. I posit that in many of us mentally suffering peeps, one of our most pernicious resting state or default mode networks is this agonizing loop of suffering we just briefly looked at.

These networks and loops become part of our resting state default modes because of the "dark side of neuroplasticity" - the more a given set of regions and networks, etc is activated, the more "wired in" and dominant it becomes (this is a very well known and studied aspect of neuroplasticity).

I also posit that we each have more than one or several default mode networks; this negative past ruminating and negative future projecting and resultant meltdown one being but one of them - one that we'd like to rid ourselves of!

So to summarize, is it hard to stay "in the now" and live "one day at a time" and stay within the day and not get trapped in the past and not project negative futures?

Absolutely it is.

However, in all my research and study reviewing vast bodies of all manner of studies, I found no other way to retrain our brains to avoid these crippling cycles (and they are crippling) than to build the habit of living within the present day.

How to start training your mind to stay in the present day or moment

We'll try to keep this very simple for now.

What I'd love is for you to tie this into mindfulness meditation cognitive behaviour therapy. What I do is put on some zen meditation music (via YouTube), using that to slowly wake up my mind first thing in the morning. I do perhaps fifteen minutes of the mindfulness CBT to get my mind cleared of troubling thoughts or situations and then I try to set up my day. Based on what I've been working on in the CTB, I remind myself of my core values and goals based on them and then I do the best I can to plan my day around what I can do to move those forward.

Foremost, I remind myself to stick to what I can do that day and that day only. This will not, as we saw above, be easy for you in the beginning thus has to be a daily reminder.

The simple meditation practices I have utilized and talked about in the past help train my mind to stay on my present task and day (which in my present life is almost always reading and researching or holding discussions related to that).

You - or I or anyone - are defined by your daily actions, so ask yourself each morning - what am I going to do today to make a difference on this day? These needn't be major things. Just small steps and gestures can often do. And then do your best to follow through on what you can do to move these things forward that day.

There are times I think about the past and future, but I have now carefully trained myself to think only of "information" relevant to my present task or tasks. I have learned to better let go of the emotional attachments of past and future information.

This, however, is when times are "good" and things are going well and life (and I) is relatively stable.

As you know, we cannot avoid difficulties in life and days of bad mental states. These are not going to stop happening, I'm afraid. Something will happen - a trigger - and we'll get hammered by pain and perhaps experience times of panic. Or some sort of destabilizing event or events will happen in our lives that greatly stress us out and start the whole loop again. These are the days when our minds will most be tempted to get into that negative rumination about the past and imagining dark, hopeless futures. These are the days we will really be tested.

This though, my friends, is when the importance of making these healthy brain practices part of our daily routines really comes to the fore.

If we practice staying in the present day enough, if we consistently train our minds in these ways, it is during the hard times that our brains will have a better chance at "defaulting" to this new mental habit rather than the bad mental habits of the past. We may have to more consciously work on it, though. In hard times, we just have to focus on getting through the hour, then the morning, then the afternoon and then the rest of the day. Don't even allow yourself to think about the whole day!

This is the key to any seemingly impossible monumental task, my friends - breaking it down into the smallest doable bites possible and doing the best we can to only handle them one at a time (and I know how challenging this can be to those who are juggling home life and a career and so on).

And this is where another daily habit can prove invaluable - no matter the task, no matter the difficulties, no matter the pain, if it is important to my long term values and goals, I train myself to get the best possible result I can out of whatever it is. I have trained myself not to let myself plunge into the sinkhole of "fuck it" and throwing in the towel on myself. This has been and often remains very, very, very challenging but I have for the most part instilled this "refuse to lose" mindset. It is true that some days we have to say "fuck it", but instead of thinking of it as completely throwing in the towel, it is merely letting go of it for that day.

And it is through approaching each day like this that we learn to separate our present from our past, however painful or difficult it was. As we do this day by day, we can begin to leave our painful pasts behind, to lessen their grip on us. This is how we begin to retrain our brain networks to break the cycles we looked at above.

This is also how we train our brain to let go of it's predilection for "forecasting" the "future". This one of the human mind's worst habits and for mental health suffering peeps one of the greater sources of overwhelm and anxiety meltdowns.

Rather than getting stuck in the impossible (literally impossible) mind trap of "predicting" the future, practising staying within the day and doing the best we can with each day is how we build our future. Build each day as well as we can and the future will take care of itself. This is how we learn not to create self fulfilling prophesies for negative futures based on past events and not to erroneously believe we can "predict" the future.

This practice of staying in the now and within the day is how we can learn to bust many mental health crushing cognitive distortions and other cognitive bias thinking that sabotages our goals and truer needs.

I will admit that there are days I realize I just don't "have it" that day, and do what I can to defer the most difficult tasks to a time I have more energy or am more able. When we take each day on its own, when we get hammered by very difficult pain, we can remind ourselves that it's only "that day" and learn better to get through it and not let it become more major than it need to be.

Or I may remind myself to be compassionate with myself, to not expect to be my best all the time and to just see how I can get the most out of that day with what I have that day. I try to stay focused on getting the best out of whatever task I'm doing or situation I'm in and accept that that's the best I can do on that day.

At the end of the day, I sort of do a repeat of my morning mindfulness CBT, using it to evaluate how things went in a non-judgmental way.

Then - critically important - I let that day go. I can go to sleep knowing I did the best that I could in handling that day and that day only. I create a sort of "reset" button for my mind to "clear the cache" of that day and assure myself that I'll get through the next day in the same manner as well. This is how we prevent a bad day from becoming a massive long bad period that traps us back into the negative past/future loops we looked at.

Yes, yes, I know what you may thinking - the present is what hurts and sucks so bad and that's the problem.

This is very difficult indeed and there were many times that the last place I wanted to be was in the present! This is when that fluff "just stay in the present" advice used to drive me nuts. "The present is the problem", I wanted to scream!

But in the end, I knew the only way to work past that was one day at a time and this started to pay off after a while. Each day I would try to commit myself to making that day the best I could make it, to create the most positive memories and outcomes I could and so on. If it was a terrible day and I managed to survive it okay, I would congratulate myself with a little fist pump and a "yes!".

And if we do this bit by bit, day by day, we can start to create a better and better "present" that isn't so hard to be in. Bit by bit we can create a present that we want to be in.

And of course every day I do as many of my Positive Difference Making Fundamentals as I can. I compiled a long list so that no matter how bad things were going, I could practice something that would have a positive effect on my mind. Many of those are designed for long term effects so I knew that even if it didn't have an immediate effect, I was doing my brain good for the long term.

And this is how all major change happens, folks - staying focused on little steps practiced daily. We go step by step through the day, then day by day through the week, focusing on creating the best outcomes we can for that day and that day only and one day we can look back and see that we're not in as bad a place as we were. Then another day we can look and see we have our lives moving forward more positively and with more hope and belief.

But we must be very, very cautious of "great days". These can be like hidden traps. We can get too up and feel like we can rush ahead and this can set us up for failure or a return to bad habits. So even on our best days, we must try as best we can to stay within ourselves for that day and not take on too much. Even the best days are only that day and that day only. The next day is a different day.

And this, folks, is how I deal with living with infamously hard to treat Bipolar Type I in men fifty and over (the well documented worst category of the bipolar spectrum) - without medications or drugs of any kind. This is how I keep my mental states relatively stable without medications or drugs. This is how I don't plunge into weeks and months of dark hopeless depression and how I prevent myself from kiting up into dangerous episodes of mania. This is how I worked - and work - my way past crippling anxiety and worry. This is how I get through the challenges of living with a condition the long term physical damage of which has left me disabled and not able to earn a living in normal ways. This is how I work my way past horrendous tendencies to suicidal distress. This is how I survived the horrendous prospect of living outdoors through a Canadian winter with a very difficult health condition.

A review of any case where a person grew out of terrible lives, circumstances and conditions will reveal the same process.

So I need you to commit to the same - living one day at a time and focusing on doing only what you can in that day only. Commit each morning to making that day and that day only the best you can that day. Then each day at the end, let that day go - think of it as emptying your "cache" - and reminding yourself that you'll get through the next day as well as you can too, no matter what.

Do this and in time I can promise you that you'll tame some pretty major polar bears. You'll sleep better, live with less stress and anxiety and work your way to a more positive future. This is how you'll train your brain not to get caught in those loops of rumination about the past and imagining dark hopeless futures.

I can also promise you - from the bottom of my neuroscience heart - that your brain cannot properly function any other way. NO brain can. If there is only one habit that I write about and teach that you choose to master, make it this one. Give your brain just the present day to work on and see what a difference it makes after a month, then several months, then a year and so on. All kinds of mental and cognitive functions will improve when you're not "overloading your circuits" all the time.

As always, thank you for reading.

And as always, yes you can. Yes. You. Can.

Monday, March 7, 2016

More Positive Difference Making Fundamentals in Focus - Self-Compassion

I'm pretty humbled sometimes by the success of Taming the Polar Bears. I suppose it's because almost everyone has some sort of "bear" (AKA inner demons) to "tame". 

While the page views run into the tens of thousands, the "likes" and "plusses" into the thousands, I can have no real idea how many people really read my posts and get value from them (probably I've put no small number of people to sleep with the length of some of them) but I do get a fair amount of direct feedback and occasional emails or private messages. And such was the case this evening, from someone I know to be a regular reader. 

It went,

Dear Brad,

 Regarding the post on Spirituality and Compassion, a question:
Would you please add some examples on exactly how to
practice self-compassion? How to catch yourself being too
harsh on yourself and then replace the self destructive
thoughts with more compassionate ones??!

Thank you :))

Actually, it didn't start off with "dear Brad" but I thought it'd be fun to give it a "dear Abby" tone. Maybe that should be a regular thing. 

Anyway, this of course is a great question (two actually). 

I talk to and have talked to a lot of people about "all this". Plus, in various online forums and communities I belong to or have belonged to, I have followed the personal stories of probably at least a hundred people. And I can tell you that for the great majority of the people whose story I've come to know and are suffering mental health problems in some way, that self-hate, self destructive thoughts and beating oneself up inner dialogue is distressingly common. Turning these things around and learning to practice self-compassion and better inner dialogue can be tremendously difficult.

I think most people just become okay with self-destructive inner language and mindsets. There will be times when it feels things in life are going better and one is feeling better that it will go away or diminish. Then something will go wrong - one of many possible triggers - and it will come flooding back; the fury with oneself, the self-blame, guilt, remorse, intense feelings of stupidity and inadequacy hit like a hammer blow then all the familiar beating oneself up dialog sets in and they will beat themselves up in every way about their appearance, their intelligence, their abilities, about their very being and place in this world, you name it. And what this will almost invariably create is this powerful vacuum that sucks us down into this dangerously dark depressive place we are all too familiar with. 

The fury of this tires out after while, it slowly ebbs away and for a while we may feel "okay" again. One can actually feel "better" after getting this all out of their system. The inner voice is still negative and unrelenting, we feel dark and down but it's "okay", it's tolerable. It just becomes part of the furniture or a kind of background noise, the darkness a part of our "reality", something we sort of learn to accept. Some may sort of learn to tune the inner nagging out or try to ignore it. 

Until the next trigger and go around, of course. 

That's the normal pattern. 

For me it was somewhat different. 

I don't want to get into the details of my story again, but for me it was extremely simple; change - or die. I mean that very literally and seriously. I know many people have or experience "suicidal thoughts", but a bipolar mind - and especially a male bipolar mind - unleashes these with a terrifying fury and power, will and drive to do something about it that is quite different from the vast majority of the population (this is all quite well documented in regards to the difference between bipolar and unipolar "depression"). (1)

For a variety of reasons, I knew I could not allow this to happen. Yet it kept happening. And with a violent suddenness and fury that was ... terrifying, once it passed and I looked back on it. 

When I started studying the brain and the power of thoughts, beliefs and mental states and the neurobiology of them and how they change the very make up and "programming" of our very neurons and then how our thoughts could - in the very literal sense of the word - be toxic, I knew I had to change how my mind works. 

It was either die a long slow death or a quick one. 

So for me there was never any choice. It was change - or die. 

Not many people have that same motivation. 

The other side of the equation was in all the studying I did, I found that it was simply not possible or reasonable to blame myself for everything my mind did or what I had become and the things I had done to become so angry with myself. Brains do a lot of weird - and wrong - things for all kinds of reasons that lie below our conscious control. That's why I write at length about all that. That's how I learned to forgive myself (though NOT forsake responsibility) and be more compassionate towards myself. 

But that's not what the reader asked - to hear more of my story or for more blah-blah-blah science explanations. 

So let's try a different angle. 

In talking to people who have a lot of self-destructive thoughts, I can't help but notice that many of them are full of anger, hate and blame in general. Things are wrong in this world and their lives and somebody has to be to blame for this. People, I've found, can be astonishingly vicious towards others. 

As anyone who's been paying attention can attest, this is all too common. What I've found with those suffering mental health problems, however, is how this can turn inwards. When this pattern of blame and anger turns in towards oneself is where we see what we looked at above. 

Violent emotions will be the root of any vicious and hurtful language. This I also learned (in my blah-blah-blah science way). I also learned this in the (pretty excellent) group therapy sessions I attended in the winter of 2014. 

So I knew I had to work on my emotions not only about what went wrong in my life but as well about the world around us before I could work more on self-compassion or else the violent inner outbursts would never truly go away. 

It has to start there then, I'm afraid to say. We can train ourselves to speak to ourselves in a kinder language, and that is essential too of course, but without taming our "emotional polar bears" in general, we will always be prone to ambush from our own very thoughts. 

Most of my work on my emotions I did with the daily sessions I created for myself for Mindfulness Meditation CBT, in which I learned to question my emotions. 

"Is this <insert source of the anger> really worth getting this angry about? What difference does getting angry and upset about this make?" And many questions along these lines. And if I came up with "reasons" - which were really just rationalizations - I questioned those too. 

And when I questioned myself enough and taught myself not to accept lame reasons or rationalizations for the basis of my negative emotions, I realized there wasn't a single good reason for getting angry or that it was ridiculous to think that getting angry would change any of the things in the world, or within my world, that were really outside of my control. I realized - and this is a universal truth that can be found in millenia old philosophies - that all I could really control was my own mind and my reactions to life around me and within me. 

Then I would remind myself of another very real core truth - that feelings of anger and bitter hate were literally killing me from the inside. And then this saying (2) would sear into my consciousness - 

Because it really is like that. Trust me. This can be explained in excruciating neuroscientific and body biology detail and it ain't pretty. As it just so happens, when brushing this piece up recently I came across this brief introduction and handy infographic that outlines this. This is exactly what I mean when I say that our reactions plus the thoughts and language we use for them are literally toxic and making us sick.

In the mindfulness CBT sessions, we also examine and work on our core values. So the question you have to ask yourself is this: "Is this really how I want to be? Is this <insert negative emotional state and its source> really what I want as a core value for myself?"

And when we really put it to ourselves like that, it sounds ridiculous. Nobody wants an angry, bitter, hateful person with venomous language to be our core self, for that to be part of our core values. I'd also bet dimes to doughnuts that there will be times when people have flashes of recognition about this and beat themselves up about this too.

So what would we like to be in place of that?

Personally, I think having as a core value being a kinder, more compassionate and gentler person in general would be awesome.

But I know what you're thinking - that's "wimpy". 

And that, my friends - and pardon the language - is bullshit. Complete and utter hogwash. Nonsense. 

For what I have also discovered is that emotional responses filled with hate and anger and bitterness are what's actually wimpy. These are the hallmarks of weak people. 

True strength lies in kindness and compassion - towards others, and our selves. 

So looking at becoming stronger through compassion and gentleness as becoming part of our core values begins to sound pretty awesome. We begin to look at it as growing into becoming a stronger person. We can look at it as building our "superpowers". For it is always better to build towards something than to just trying to leave something behind. 

So first we begin by learning the process of chosing different emotional responses. We begin that by questioning the basis for our emotions and especially anger and bitter blaming of others and our selves. For in fact, blame changes nothing and only hurts one person and one person only - you. 

Or it hurts those closest to us and that comes back to hurt us as well. 

Once we begin and establish a beachhead by questioning and then building better emotional responses, we can then begin to retrain our inner thoughts and dialogues. 

Now about those emotional responses. It is not reasonable or realistic - or even desirable - to expect us not to at times go through powerful negative emotions emotional experiences. Negative emotions like anger are a natural part of us, a natural reaction to what we feel is unjust (speaking very generally). We're not going to stop feeling it or having it triggered and while learning to stop beating ourselves up and learning better internal language are critical, what we also need to learn is how to better channel negative emotions when we do feel them. This is a whole different conversation for a different post but another strategy is learning ways to channel powerful emotions - AKA our "passions" - into something more positive and constructive. People sometimes ask me how I can take on such a big project as everything that goes into this blog and put so much into it. That's the answer - I took all the powerful feelings I had about all the wrongs and injustice I found in the world of mental illness plus the enormous empathetic pain I felt for everyone and I channeled it (and continue to) into all the research, writing and work I do.

I don't recommend taking on a project this big (though nor do I discourage it) but you too can find positive constructive ways to channel your passions and sense of injustice.  

These things like any habit change, we start with a larger goal - a want, in this case becoming an awesome kinder, gentler more compassionate strong superpower person and finding ways to channel our energies. Then each time we catch ourselves with beating ourselves up language we practice "won't" - stopping it. Then we replace with a better "will" choice. (I have a more detailed post for retraining our "inner critic" coming soon, I hope) 

We learn to do that with others, then ourselves - or ourselves, then others. It all has to work together.

Another trick I taught myself for cutting off negative thoughts and dialogue at their roots was that I set up all kinds of "police - do not cross" tape in my mind. I just took all kinds of really shitty stuff that was sure to bring feelings of pain, remorse, guilt, shame, humiliation and so on and put it all behind those "do not cross" barriers. I trained myself every time that shitty stuff came up in my mind to say to myself - "do not go there", and I literally visualized it behind that police tape. I put all the crap in territories of my mind that were strictly "off-limits". This really helps in preventing oneself from dredging up painful shitty stuff from the past. (I would later find this to be quite a common strategy)

I also worked hard daily to create things to feel good about. I tried daily to do positive, productive things and tell myself - "atta boy!". Seriously. This is how it works. This is how we slowly retrain our minds and thoughts and dialogue. 

It's hard to train our minds to think and talk to ourselves differently without "mentors" or examples. You have to seek what gentler language sounds like. You have to seek and read and hear and soak up examples. This also probably means cutting out half the crap you read and listen to (something I am getting to in more detail in a coming Positive Difference Making Fundamentals post on changing "data input"). 

It helps to practice daily - that's what I created my Brain Training Exercises for. 

The road to learning true self-compassion and changing our inner dialogue and thoughts is not perfect nor will you be perfect. It's a daily thing. We just try each day to be a little better at it. Some days will not go well. When you've had a bad day - and these invariably will be when we're tired and worn down and our "willpower" to resist natural urges depleted - we just let that go and try get a good night's sleep and try again the next day. Rinse, repeat. 

And slowly it will change.

So to start, ask yourself - look ahead a year, two years, three years, five years. Do you really want to still be like this then? Think and imagine hard on that. I know you all have very vivid imaginations for things like this. If you do this right, it should hurt. Really hurt. 

Good. Now imagine that pain again and again year after year and waking up five years from now and being even more bitter and angry and full of self hatred - and very likely more physically ill. 

Then understand that the only alternative to that is to be a kinder, gentler, more compassionate - and truly strong - person. 

Can you do it? Goddamn right you can. 

But as with thoughts and inner dialogue, we need examples and mentors. So find some. What does compassion look like? Sound like? Model that. 

The reader asked what I did - that's what I do. 

Then - then! - even more powerful - be a mentor and model for others. That, my friend, is when this will really begin to take root.

That's how you tame the polar bears of destructive self language and learn self-compassion.  

(1) My entire understanding of the mental states I went through and continue to deal with has changed radically since being diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encethalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that arises out of a history of early to mid life concussions. Many of the symptoms mirror those which could be found in bipolar. I'm still sorting through it all, as I literally have to "rewrite" the book of the mind phenomenon I experienced and suffered through for the past decade plus. 

(2) though popularly attributed to Buddha, this is actually not so - it holds up, nonetheless