Is Your Depression or Anxiety Just a Mental Bad Habit?

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.

  • Anxiety
  • Catastrophizing
  • Depression
  • 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.

  • Gratitude
  • Mindfulness
  • Acceptance
  • Forgiveness
  • Self acceptance
  • Abundance

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:

The Fantasy

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 …”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The Distraction

I learned this technique when my little girl was an early toddler and it applies to adult brains too.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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Find Your MTHFR Red Flags – MTHFR Basics

Part of successfully working with any health issue is knowing when you’re moving in the right direction and when you aren’t. Oddly, it’s trickier then you might think – especially with MTHFR and methylation issues.

Why Are We Even Talking About This? Of Course I Know When I’m Getting Healthier.

Here’s the thing. Most conditions have clear symptoms that are similar for most people and obvious when they happen. If you get migraines, you often know when you’re going to have a migraine (by aura or by repeating pattern – say association with hormone cycles or weather), you CERTAINLY know when you have a migraine, and you know when it’s gone. You can track the number of migraines per month and it’s all pretty easy to tell when it’s getting better or getting worse.

MTHFR is not so cut and dry, partly because it looks very different in everyone who has the polymorphism, and partly because some of the indicators that your methylation is getting out of control are things that we normally consider to be either positive traits, or personality traits.

Do you really know which direction you’re headed today?

There Are So Many Ways To Experience MTHFR

Within my clients, I can honestly say that no two MTHFR folks have the same spectrum of symptoms, although often I see repeating patterns. Also, it’s hard to predict which symptoms will change as a person moves toward health. This is why symptom trackers are so important. Questions about progress can be very vague, but if you’re tracking your symptoms regularly then you can begin to see a pattern that might not have been noticeable before.

How To Use A Symptom Tracker

Symptom trackers are simple charts where you can record a list of your symptoms, then track them on a scale from 1 – 10 each week (or each day if you’re a geek for tracking like I am). These aren’t complicated, but they are a super valuable life hack. The complicated part, is knowing what to include on your chart. If you’d like a free .pdf version of the symptom tracker I use, just sign up for the mailing list below the article or in the sidebar and you’ll get the free download.

What Symptoms To Include:

With MTHFR there are four big categories of symptoms to include on your tracker.

Knowing which symptoms to track is half the battle.
  1. Obvious symptoms that are troublesome to your health, happiness, or mental wellbeing. These are the ones everyone thinks of – like headaches, joint pain, sleep disturbance, nausea, eye twitch, hormonal issues, whatever.
  2. Symptoms from within your Basic State group. If you aren’t sure what I mean by Basic State group, follow the link to the article and see where you fit in. If you’re an undermethylator you will notice a list of signs and symptoms and personality traits that might be related. Anything you see on that list that applies to you, also write in your symptom tracker. If you’re methylation neutral, then write any symptoms that you experience from either side of the list.
  3. Warning signs of imbalance from your Basic State group. This can be tricky, because most of us really love the positive traits from our basic state, but with MTHFR even positive traits come with hidden issues. Overmethylators, like myself, are highly creative and that is a huge gift and one that I prize above all others in myself, but it can also be a sign that I’m moving toward unhealth. When my creativity is flowing to the point that I’m skipping meals, or not interacting with my family, or forgetting to sleep… That feels amazing to me, but is actually one of my early warning signs that I’m not in balance. Undermethylators are the overachievers, the doers, the pushers. And that also is a tremendous gift, but it can have the same manic effect on work, can lead to burnout or obsessive perfectionism and even things like anorexia. Initially these are positive traits and most poeple don’t ever mark them on a symptom tracker, but they can also act as early warning signs of trouble to come, so if you’re willing to work yourself like a slave for that next promotion, ask yourself carefully whether that should be on the symptom tracker. These are almost the most important MTHFR red flags because they’re often the earliest warnings – the canary in the coal mine.
  4. Measurable states. This is another rather obvious one, but anything that is reasonably easy to measure at home, like weight, blood pressure, heart rate or number of incidents of whatever thing you might experience (muscle twitches, or heart palpitations, stabbing pains, episodes of brain fog, whatever.) Also, for women, tracking hormone cycles and their associated symptoms. Over longer periods of time, we can also use lab data from blood tests like homocysteine levels and that sort of thing.

Why Does This Matter?

The thing that I find most helpful about this exercise is that many of my clients (along with myself) will find some very immediate symptoms that they can use to notice on a day-to-day level whether they’re in a good place, or not. If you’re just tracking things like joint pain, which has day-to-day fluctuations but generally changes reasonably slowly, then it can be hard to tell when you’re on track for you and when you aren’t. Likewise, with hormones or even energy level. If your average energy level is 2/10 and you’re making good progress, it’s still not likely to be an 8/10 by the end of the month. You need something more immediate than that to know when you’re moving toward health and when you’re moving toward disease.

Stop your problems when they’re molehills, not when they become mountains, by understanding your early warning signs.

Knowing Day-to-day Whether You’re Moving Toward Health Allows You To React Quickly To Changes

If you don’t recognize your MTHFR red flags, you don’t know you’re off-track, so you aren’t going to take steps to get back on-track. It’s as simple as that. If you have something you can look at day-to day or even week-to-week then you can catch problems before they turn into really big problems like that migraine we mentioned earlier. Also, this gives you great ways to check in with your own health and give yourself breaks, or exercise, or extra sleep or a little bit of detox when you’re showing your earliest warning signs. This keeps you moving toward health, constantly.

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