Last week we started our conversation about the “bad habit” component, called neuroplasticity, of depression, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and obsessive or compulsive thoughts. This is, of course, only part of the picture. Neurotransmitter balance is a factor along with the often overlooked physical contributors to depression and other states.
When you’re first trying this, it can be really helpful to try all three strategies at different times to see what works the best for you. You’ll know it works when you are able to pop yourself out of your mental bad habit – to feel different in your body and to let go of whatever thought pattern it is that you’re working on.
Stages of Resolution With Mental Bad Habits
Learning. In this phase, you’re actually learning to pay attention to your thoughts and that takes more time than you would think. You may find a particular “warning” signal for you – it could be a behavior (like when I’m starting to feel this way I always log on to Facebook and click links that make me angry or I start craving XYZ food. It could also be a physical feeling – a headache in a particular place, a clenching in your belly, pain in your neck or shoulders. It could also be something more subtle like tuning into your mood more frequently.
Out of Control. This phase feels like you’re moving backward. You’ve started tuning in and now you’re actually noticing how much your brain does this thing and it’s a ton! It will seem like your brain is a wild horse racing ahead of you, and it feels like the bad habit is happening more, not less. That is a GREAT sign because the reality is that you aren’t doing the bad thing more, you’re just noticing more and that is the first step to actually changing it. This can take a few months of diligent attention, but don’t get discouraged – you’re doing it and you’re making progress.
Quietening. In this phase, you start to make tangible progress and you’ll notice that the mental bad habit becomes softer somehow. Quieter. The thoughts/feelings are still there and they still affect you, but you’re learning to let them go more quickly and it’s easier not to get pulled in by them.
Maintenance. This phase is amazing. One day you’ll notice your mental bad habit pop up and the first thought you’ll have is “Oh! I haven’t seen that for a while.” and you’ll dismiss it and move on. This is the phase where you have the freedom to move on to something else because that bad habit is mostly gone. It’s a good idea to still take proactive action when it pops up, but it is popping up so much less frequently that it becomes almost a curiosity when it’s there.
Great! So I’ll be mentally healthy by next week, right?
Absolutely not. I would love to say it was easy and took no time or effort, but that would be a bald-faced lie. It’s a challenge and it takes time. You’ve probably had this mental bad habit for years if not for your entire adult life, so it will take some time to break it too. And some time doesn’t mean a couple of weeks, it means months and maybe even a year. This isn’t quick, but it is SO. WORTH. IT.
Does This Work Every Time?
This works every time if you stick with it, and when there isn’t some other major imbalance. If your serotonin is actually so low it’s living in the sub basement, then this will still help fix the habit part of it, but it won’t completely normalize the serotonin (but it will bring it up – research shows these techniques are associated with higher levels of both serotonin and melatonin). Although, every day we’re learning more about what this can actually accomplish.
What IS This Witchcraft? It’s Mindfulness.
Yup. That thing that hippies and new-agey types do. Also, everybody who studies neurology and neuroscience of any sort, because as it turns out the effects are so powerful as to be almost unbelievable.
Among the many documented effects of any form of mindfulness are:
Reduced cognitive reactivity (so external things don’t affect you so much)
Reduced reactivity of the autonomic nervous system (you don’t get an adrenaline spike every time something bad happens)
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.
Guilty or self-reproaching thoughts.
Lack and scarcity
This also applies to many mental states that can be considered mental good habits.
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.
Overmethylation, as we have discussed, is the least common state according to the research of Dr. Carl Pfeiffer in his book Nutrition and Mental Illness, An Orthomolecular Approach To Balancing Body Chemistry. Ovmethylation isn’t caused by just one thing – it’s a tendency based on your genes, lifestyle, stressors, diet, and environment. Interestingly – you can be an overmethylator without having an MTHFR mutation at all. Overmethylation also flows on a spectrum, from very mild symptoms to far more severe ones.
If you’re not sure if you’re an undermethylator, methylation neutral, or an overmethylator then visit this post for a comparative chart. As with everything else, even the most severely overmethylated person will have some traits and not others – this is all very individual. The biggest constants are artistic or creative tendencies, empathy and/or social activism, and anxiety.
Overmethylators Are Blessed With Many Positive Traits.
Highly artistic or musical
Highly empathic and sensitive
March to the beat of their own drum
Passionate and self-sacrificing
High pain threshold
Some of These Traits Have a Darker Side:
Obsessive or manic focus on what is important to them (social cause, activism, artistic project)
Ruminating – hard to shut brain off
A tendency toward self-enhancement (extreme plastic surgery, implants of all types), tattoos, piercings
Overmethylation Can Lead to Physical and Medical Issues
Food and chemical sensitivities – this picture is dominated by low histamine which then translates to alternate immune pathway sensitivities.
Pain – head, neck, and general body pain.
Anxiety or panic
Sleep disorders – especially with physical or mental restlessness.
Depression – depression – especially with an anxiety component
Hyperactivity, ADHD – in combo with restlessness and anxiety
At The Extreme End of Pathology Overmethylators Can Be Prone To:
Self-mutilation or self-harm
Psychosis including post-partum psychosis
Nutritional Tendencies In Overmethylation
Great Reactions to B Vitamins – most overmethylators are low in B vitamins generally, but especially folate and B12 and typically do well with higher than average dosages.
Often high copper levels, which can be balanced by increasing zinc
Often low histamine
Often low B3 and B6
Often intolerant to estrogen therapies including birth control and HRT
Serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine may be elevated
Medication and Supplement Reactions in Overmethylation
This represents what is typical for the group, but drug and nutrient reactions can be very personal, so this is a general guideline and not a certainty. This information is both from Dr. Pfeiffer’s book (see above), this article, and my own experience with clients.
Typically Good Reaction
Typically Bad Reaction
Lithium (Rx) or Lithium Orotate
Estrogen – birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy
On the internets, it seems like everyone cares about MTHFR right now, but honestly, it isn’t necessarily important for everyone. Not even for everyone with a known mutation.
Just having a polymorphism is not a cause for panic. Having an MTHFR mutation, even one that is considered significant will never have any symptoms, signs, or health risks from the polymorphism. Just having the gene doesn’t mean anything at all in terms of supplements you should take, things you should do, or really anything else. In fact, over supplementing can be as harmful to your health as under supplementing.
Two Main Factors Make MTHFR Matter
Let’s review what MTHFR might do, and then we’ll talk more about circumstances and symptoms.
Cancer: including breast, lung, brain, stomach, head and neck, and kidney.
Cardiac disease: including thrombosis (increased tendency to clot), deep vein thrombosis, high homocysteine levels, pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure in and around pregnancy), vascular dementia.
Fertility issues: including miscarriages or multiple pregnancy loss, low sperm count, history of children with birth defects.
Neurological issues: including migraines, autism, Alzheimer’s dementia.
Mood and Psychological issues: including anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive traits or tendencies, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Also, reduced reactions to certain medications like SSRIs for depression, and increased tendency toward addictions.
Abnormal Reactions to Medications and Therapies – including methotrexate, FOLFOX (a combination chemotherapeutic agent), SSRI medications for depression, some vitamins including folic acid, methyl-B12, betaine, and others.
When Should You Be Concerned?
This is simple. These are the circumstances that matter:
Fertility and Pregnancy – if you suspect you or your partner might have an MTHFR issue and you’re considering having a baby, it matters to know so you can get your health right before you build a baby.
Treatments for Depression and Anxiety aren’t Working – this is a strong indicator that there is something underlying the issue that isn’t being addressed, and none of the medications out there manage MTHFR issues.
You Have a Strong Family History of Early Cardiac Death – it might not be related to MTHFR, but if it is then knowing your MTHFR status gives you something you can work on, instead of waiting for the ax to fall.
You Have Three Known Bad Copies of MTHFR – this is three compromised copies of significant MTHFR SNPs (C677T and A1298C) out of four.
Who Should Care about MTHFR Polymorphisms?
These are the symptoms that matter. If you or your genetically related family members have more than three of the following, then your life might get better by addressing your methylation, whether you know about your MTHFR or not.
Cleft lip or cleft palate
Abnormal or unexplained clotting
Bad reaction to birth control pills
Unexplained low sperm count
High homocysteine levels
Food or chemical sensitivities
Intense competitive drive
Serum folic acid tests is abnormally high or abnormally low
“New car smell” gives you a headache or other symptoms.
Taking B vitamins sometimes makes you feel depressed
Who Should Not Be Worried About MTHFR Polymorphisms?
People who know they have no bad copies.
People who know they have one bad copy but have no related symptoms or family histories.
People who don’t know their genetic profile who also don’t have related symptoms or family histories.