Depression and anxiety are common problems for humans. So common that almost all of us will experience one or the other or both in our lifetimes. In truth, both depression and anxiety are normal and healthy reactions to life stressors, grief, and trauma and they have their uses in terms of survival and adaptation. The problem comes, then, when they linger beyond their useful time.
The Neurotransmitter-Only Myth
In modern medicine we tend to compartmentalize and idealize situations in which we can blame a problem on one concrete and measurable thing. Like serotonin. Serotonin is a great thing to blame in medicine. Not only is it concrete and measurable, but we have drugs to change how it is used and processed and therefore, it’s “fixable.” That is all nice and neat and it would be perfect, if this strategy actually worked. Like, really worked.
I am not at all suggesting that this is a bad route of treatment for depression – it’s actually a pretty good one and lots of people see improvement of their symptoms and sometimes even resolution with a drug that affects serotonin, like an SSRI. But, lots of people don’t, which means we have a ways to go.
Last week, we talked about other factors that can lead to depression, and those are generally physical states. These are typically also pretty straightforward to address and will often bump a person from meh, to good. That is tremendous. But what about what is left?
Mental Bad Habits, Also Known As Neuroplasticity
The factor in troubled mental health that I feel is most overlooked is the bad habit factor. Unfortunately, this is a giant factor in our mental health because there is an important survival-related brain function that prioritizes neural pathways that we use frequently, which we call “neuroplasticity.”
Neuroplasticity is part of the way your brain learns what is important to you. The pathways between neurons that you use most frequently get strengthened and prioritized because they matter to you.
Picture it like a path through tall grass. The first time you walk through the tall grass and weeds you have to push through weedy tangles, the plants pull at your legs and they’re so close together that you can feel resistance as you walk. The fifth time you walk the same path, you notice the plants are trampled in that area, there is a natural space opening up and walking is easier. The five hundredth time, there is a dirt trail there where the plants have stopped growing because the path is traveled so frequently. It’s clear and easy and there is no resistance.
Your brain is exactly the same way – the more you use a certain pathway, the easier it becomes to continue to use that pathway. This principle applies to many mental states that could be considered mental bad habits.
- Negative self-talk
- Obsessive thoughts
- Intrusive thoughts
- Guilty or self-reproaching thoughts.
- Lack and scarcity
This also applies to many mental states that can be considered mental good habits.
- Self acceptance
Now, does this mean that if you focus on retraining your brain that a lifetime of depression and anxiety can disappear? In all honesty, I think it does, but it also takes a significant amount of work, and sometimes there really are nutritional deficiencies, physical problems, or neurotransmitter imbalances that need to be corrected as well.
Breaking A Mental Bad Habit
There are three techniques that I think are incredibly helpful in breaking a bad habit. The key to all of these is experimenting to see what seems to work best for your particular bad habit, and then repeating the technique over and over again. Mostly, this boils down to practice. So here are the techniques to choose from:
Say your issue is catastrophizing or anxiety and you get into a place of “what if.” “What if I lose my job and I can’t keep up with the bills and I have to choose between keeping the house or …” We all have these thoughts sometime and they are largely unproductive. This isn’t when most people do effective planning, this is just when they spin out into fear and anxiety. So, here’s what you do.
- Notice you’re spinning out. This is actually the hardest part because if you get into this thought frequently, it often runs in the background without you placing any attention on it.
- Choose something awesome instead. With the above job-loss fantasy (which is in most cases just a fantasy), replace it with an opposite fantasy. “What if I win the lottery and buy my own jet and …”
- Enjoy it for a minute. Really get into the replacement fantasy. Figure out what you would do, imagine how it would feel waking up every day knowing that you can do whatever you want. Think of all the things you could enjoy.
- Repeat. Every time you notice anxious thoughts, do this same thing. It takes practice, but you will notice the anxious thoughts coming less frequently, feeling less emotionally compelling, and vanishing more quickly.
The Stop and Drop
This is my personal favorite, just because it’s a nice gap in a crowded mental landscape. Again, the hardest part is noticing your mind.
- Notice you’re having a mental bad habit. If you’re doing your mental bad habit – judging yourself, feeling bad about something, obsessing, the first step is always to notice you’re doing it. This means recognizing the thought or feeling in the moment.
- Stop. In that moment stop what you’re doing for a few seconds, take a deep breath, and notice your body, your hands, your shoulders, the physical feeling that goes with your mental bad habit. Usually, people notice clenched jaws, fisted hands, bunched-up shoulders, clenched belly, that sort of thing. Let your body relax.
- Drop. Take another deep breath and keep your body relaxed and let the thoughts just drop. You don’t really have to do anything with the thought, just let it finish and go away and don’t choose to pick it up right away.
- Repeat. Again and again and again. This isn’t quick, but it is so effective. You are literally training your brain and just like training a dog or a horse, it’s all about persistence and repetition.
I learned this technique when my little girl was an early toddler and it applies to adult brains too.
- Notice your brain is in a bad place. Again, this first step is the hardest but if you start to pay attention, you will start to catch yourself in places you don’t want to be.
- Choose a distraction. Find your own version of a toddler distraction. Something your brain likes to do that isn’t a mental bad habit. It could be a book, a funny youtube video, or a quick game of some kind. Something that is mentally compelling enough to distract you entirely from that thought.
- Do your distraction for 1 – 3 minutes. It helps to set a timer so you don’t get lost in your distraction because that isn’t helpful either, but use your distraction as a way to bump your brain out of an unhealthy pattern. I’m not suggesting you binge watch Friends to stop your depression because ultimately, that isn’t the point. Distracting yourself for twelve hours straight really only counts as one episode of distraction. The key is to repeat at short intervals.
- Repeat. Every time you notice your bad habit, give yourself a quick distraction. It will happen
A Note About Recognizing How You’re Feeling In the Moment
This is actually the hardest part because at the end of the day, the mind is a wild landscape and it’s not actually under much control. Your mind mostly does it’s own thing and you actually tune in selectively. Tuning in more often means you’ll have to learn the signals your mind gives you. A big part of this process will be noticing the trigger thoughts, feelings and body sensations that actually tell you your mind is in a dark place.
Lots of what goes on in your mind stays in the dark corners, never really coming to your attention except maybe as a sour feeling in your stomach, tense shoulders, or the sinking feeling that you’ve done something wrong and you’ll never be good enough. All of those things start in your mind even if you don’t hear or listen to the thoughts. It’s especially hard to see if you’re in that state almost constantly. Just keep trying. Even if you notice it twice a day, that’s a huge step forward.
If you really don’t ever notice it, then set alarms for yourself to practice one of the above techniques randomly. Take 2-3 minutes out of your day as often as you can – even hourly while you’re awake. It all adds up and stopping any thought and replacing it with something either entirely neutral, like the stop and drop or joyful, like the fantasy, makes a difference in the tracks your brain will follow.