In this post, I’d like to share a combination of the things I’ve learned through becoming a certified educator for the Council On Drug Abuse through courses provided by The Canadian Council on Continuing Education in Pharmacy (CCCEP) and all of my personal research reading books and articles about topics including mood disorders, neuroscience, psychology, supplements, nutrition.
Consider these “10 Gems” as 10 things I’d recommend you learn and research for yourselves based on my personal experience living with emotional instability due to a variety of comorbid disorders, along with overcoming a variety of addictions. I think they’ll all add to the quality and longevity of your life. These are some of the top things that worked for me.
1. Brain Plasticity
It sounds like common sense that practice makes perfect, or that the repetition of doing something difficult eventually makes it easier. Similar to conditioned reflexes that someone can learn through something like karate, your brain can learn conditioned reflexes to stress, or potential stress. When someone throws a punch at a person who has conditioned reflexes to block, this is great. But if that person is constantly expecting someone to throw a punch at him while he’s at work, on the subway, in the mall, at his friend’s house, or while he’s sleeping, this would cause problems with the nervous system.
If you worry too much, your brain will eventually believe it’s doing you a favor by worrying, as if it’s essential to your survival, so much so that your brain develops a way of increasing the speed and intensity at which it’s able to achieve a heightened state of panic through neurons and pathways in your brain.
This is called negative plasticity.
Your nervous system has two main systems: “fight or flight” and “rest and digest.” However, when one of these systems is engaged, it reduces the input of the other. For some of us who suffer from anxiety and depression, this can cause our brains to constantly be stressed out, expecting more stress and ultimately unable to rest or digest.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is one method against negative brain plasticity. Learning to think and envision positive outcomes takes practice, and soon enough it can make for positive brain plasticity. For instance, even though I’ve spent most of my life living with some form of depression, I am a very optimistic guy.
2. The Frontal Lobe
Learn how your brain works – about the 4 lobes of the brain: parietal, temporal, occipital and particularly the frontal lobe, along with the cerebellum. I’m not suggesting you change your career to become a neuroscientist, but it might be a good idea to at least check out the Wikipedia page.
The frontal lobe is the CEO of the brain. Most importantly, if you have depression or AD/HD it’s the frontal lobe that’s the main reason for why your motivation and enjoyment levels are compromised. It also controls planning and impulse control. Click here for a great book on how the different parts of the brain affect mental illness.
Have you ever felt the inability to contain your impulses? I know the feeling. As someone who grew up with and has AD/HD, understanding why I simply could not suppress some of my immediate impulses was easier for me to understand when I learned about my delayed frontal cortex development.
Iron is absolutely critical to dopamine production. If you’re low in iron, you’re likely low in dopamine too, and that’s a bad place to be. I recommend doing some research on the health effects of iron and checking your personal levels.
Your gut is your second brain, and when I say gut, I’m referring to your gastrointestinal tract (which consist of primarily your stomach and intestines). If your second brain isn’t functioning well – as in your digestion is problematic and your nutrient absorption is null and void – your brain is going to suffer the consequences.
Our typical North American diets aren’t ideal. Likely, your intestines could use some help. Probably a lot of help. Probiotics will give your gut healthy bacteria to fight the unhealthy bacteria and promote better digestion and nutrient absorption, enhancing your energy levels and emotional stability.
5. Circadian rhythm. (Sleep & Wake Cycles)
Going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day has been paramount for me dealing with my mood disorder. Sure, we all need to go out from time to time on special occasions, but I think it’s best kept to a minimum. I highly recommend coordinating your down time with the sun. However, my circadian rhythm seems best at about 12:30am to 8:30am. Figure out what works best for you, document it, and follow it as best as you can for as long as you can to see significant results.
I mentioned learning about the different parts of the brain, but there are also 5 chemical messengers that are also really important to know a bit about: dopamine, serotonin, GABA, norepinephrine and acetylcholine. Get a sense of what they do, and it’ll help you assess yourself and make sense of your past. Being aware of how they affect your irritability, concentration, sleep, cognitive functions, pleasure, motivation and calmness will allow you to better assess yourself, becoming more self aware and emotionally stable…meaning more in control of your mood.
7. The Weather
The doom and gloom has begun. The good news is that most of us are used to it, but an awareness of the effects of the decrease in natural light will increase our ability to live to die another day. We set our clocks back a couple of nights ago and we are experiencing a period where there’s a big difference between the amount of sunlight we are currently receiving and the amount we were receiving a month ago. That period of transition can sometimes be incredibly painful. Most people will simply feel a little down, but it can make depressive episodes worse and/or more frequent – if this is happening to you, look into Seasonal Affective Disorder.
8. The Coolidge Effect.
One of my favourites. A male rodent will have sex with a female rodent and get a surge of dopamine. However, if the rodents (both male and female) continue to have sex with each other regularly ,that surge of dopamine lessens, and the male rat will no longer be interested in having sex with the female, even if she’s still available and interested. But give the male rodent a new female rodent, one after the other, he can literally physically exhaust himself having sex due to the dopamine surge in his brain caused by new stimuli, which will ultimately govern his motivation.
How does this apply to us? It’s more about stimulus and less about sex. Those with Bipolar Disorder, AD/HD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and addictions can experience the Coolidge Effect more frequently and dramatically with just about anything. It could be food, a TV show, a style, clothes, work, a routine, music, art, a restaurant, a car or a hundred thousand other things.
You won’t be so hard on yourself when you get bored of something or someone if you at least understand what’s happening in your brain.
It’s simultaneously underrated and overrated. But if you’ve never done it, it might be a good idea to try it. A good psychotherapist can help you to love yourself more by encouraging self awareness and understanding. But from there, the work is up to you. You need to know yourself mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Psychotherapy should help with this along with allowing you to unload some pain in the process.
Having a mental illness means that often our own minds will circumvent any attempt to sit silently, being one with our bodies, focusing on our breathing and just watching our thoughts and feelings as if we were watching TV from the comfort of our couch. But if we can practice this skill, soon enough we can learn better breathing skills and ultimately have the ability to detach from the TV in our brains and just be calm and comfortable in our own skin. Relaxed. Being present. Not worrying about tomorrow or yesterday.
About Mickey Von Bron
Mickey Von Bron is a certified personal trainer who specializes in nutrition, supplements and natural methods of improving health and wellness. Having experienced and overcome many obstacles associated with mental health and addiction, he is committed to inspiring people through his own example. His first book, Drug Free June: A Hypomanic Episode, is soon to be published. You can read some of Mickey's other writing about mental health at AliveAndAwake.ca and Light Way of Thinking.