Change Your Brain Change Your Life

I’ve recently found a book that I wanted to share with you.  As any reader knows I have struggled with anxiety since a panic attack in 2007 changed my life forever.  I have improved a lot but things have never quite been the same.  Even just this week I felt life overwhelming me.  I knew things would turn out fine but that didn’t seem to stop things from boiling up inside of me.  I’ve gotten better at how I respond to the boiling feeling but not making it go away just yet.   I’d tell you all the details but they really don’t matter.  As I’ve said a million times anxiety is not a logical experience so it doesn’t make any sense when you describe it.

Cognitive therapy has helped me immensely over the years especially Dr.  David Burns book Feeling Good which I’ve praised many times on this blog.  It is a cheap book go out and BUY it! Even if you don’t struggle from a diagnosable mental illness such as depression or anxiety his thoughts on distorted thinking will help anyone (For the list of distorted thought patterns read this post https://smilingldsgirl.wordpress.com/2011/12/09/feeling-good/).  An example is if you make a mistake your distorted thought might be ‘I’m a total screw up and never do anything right”.  Nobody is such an extreme but how many times does Satan fix that thought into our heads?  I know he does it to me far too often.

Anyway, another book that I’ve recently been introduced to and found very helpful is called Change Your Brain, Change Your Life by Dr.  Daniel G Amen.  While admittedly a little dry and scientific, I found this book to be fascinating and extremely helpful.  Dr.  Amen, a psychiatrist, has studied brain scans of mental illness patients to look for patterns depending on the illness.  What he found is certain areas of the brain are more active in patients with one condition and other areas for other conditions.  For instance, in anxiety patients the basal ganglia area of the brain is more active than in a normal functioning brain.

An example of Dr. Amen’s brain imaging

The basal ganglia ‘are a set of large structures towards the center of the brain that surround the deep limbic system.  They are involved with integrating feelings, thoughts and movement, along with helping to shift and smooth motor behavior.  The basal ganglia are involved with setting the body’s idle speed or anxiety level.  In addition they help modulate motivation and are likely involved with feelings of pleasure and ecstasy. ”

So basically this is the area of the brain that tells you when to “jump when you’re excited, tremble when you’re nervous, freeze when you are scared or tongue-tied when the boss is chewing you out.  The basal ganglia allow for a smooth integration of emotions, thoughts and physical movements and when there is too much input, they tend to lock up“.

Excuse the long quote but I found that to be the most amazing thing.   That when I feel like I’m boiling inside its because my brain is basically boiling inside! Here are physical proof of physical symptoms of what for so long was viewed as something purely mental.  What a relief! I’ve always thought the experience I had in 2007 changed something inside of me and now I think it might have really done that. I wonder what Dr.  Amen would have seen in a pre-2007 scan and post of me?

Dr. Amen chocks the book full of case studies and characteristics of increased basal ganglia activity including conflict avoidance, nervous tics and fine motor problems, but the one I found the most interesting was ‘low and high motivation’.  Tell me if this describes someone you know… ”

“They tend to work excessive hours.  In fact, weekends tend to be the hardest time for these people.  During hte week, they charge through each day, getting things done.  On the weekend, during unstructured time, they often complain of feeling restless, anxious and out of sorts.  Relaxation is foreign to them.  In fact, it is downright uncomfortable.  Workaholics may be made in the basal ganglia.  Their internal idle speed, or energy level, doesn’t allow them to rest.  Of course, there is positive correlate.  Many of the people in society who make things happen are driven by basal ganglia that keep them working for long periods of time”  (Could this possibly be said blogger who wrote a 105 page novel in 8 days…)

All of this would be interesting but not empowering if left on its own but Dr. Amen’s next chapter gives 8 prescriptions to dealing with basal ganglia activity.  I have a feeling I will be working on applying all 8 for many years to come (none of these are exactly new to me but the combination of them I found very encouraging and illuminating.)

Prescriptions for “optimizing and healing problems with the basal ganglia”:

1. Kill the Fortune Telling ANTS (automatic negative thoughts)- I was already working on this with Dr. Burns distorted thoughts and Dr. Amen gives similar advice still good reminder.  I had a great example of negative fortune telling this week.  I signed a new contract on my house and I started to feel some anxiety about the new price with upgrades and additions that had built up.  I had convinced myself it was going to be astronomical and it ended up being about 2k more than my original contract.  Bad fortune telling ANTS!

2. Use Guided Imagery- “Find a quiet spot where you can go and be alone for 20 to 30 minutes every day.  Sit in a comfortable chair and train your mind to be quiet. In your mind’s eye choose your own special haven.  Imagine your special place with all your senses.  The more vivid your imagination the more you’ll be able to let yourself go into the image.  If negative thoughts intrude, notice them but don’t dwell on them.  Refocus on your safe haven.  Enjoy your mini vacation.”  This is definitely Hawaii for me and with my insomnia specialist’s encouragement I have been doing an hour of soothing activities before I go to bed and I was skeptical but it does seem to be helping.

3. Diaphragmatic Breathing- This is the low breathing you do when you sing.  (I wonder if that’s why my voice lessons are such a soothing experience for me?)

4. Meditation and Self Hypnosis- similar to the guided imagery Dr.  Amen gives a guide for the self-hypnosis which I must admit I haven’t tried yet but want to but it is mostly about focusing on tranquility and relaxing your body.

5. Think about the 18/40/60 rule- This was brilliant.  “When you’re 18, you worry about what everybody is thinking of you;  When you’re 40, you don’t give a hoot about what anybody thinks about you; When you’re 60 you realize nobody’s been thinking about you at all”.  How much energy is wasted on worrying about what others think about you?

I think I’ve gotten better about this as I’ve gotten older (maybe because I’m nearing the 40) but it creeps back in every now and then.  For example, the other day a person implied fairly strongly she thought I was lonely and desperate to get a man and the idea made me crazy.  I am not and and the idea I could be giving that kind of impression really upset me, but that’s not who I am so why do I care?  I wish I could explain it but all I can do is keep improving.

6. Learn How to Deal with Conflict- This is probably my worst one of the whole bunch.  Both panic attacks I’ve had were because of an intense fear of conflict (and a fear of looking like an idiot despite a valid case, so looking stupid in conflict). I’ve gone 48 hours with no sleep because I was so terrified of a conflict with a person.

Dr. Amen says ‘asserting yourself in a healthy manner’ is the key.  That the keys to effective conflict management are “1. Don’t give into anger, 2. Don’t allow the opinions of others to control how you feel about yourself.  3. Say what you mean and stick up for what you believe is right. 4. Maintain self control, 5. Be kind, if possible, but above all be firm in your stance.”

Easier said than done. I think being bullied as a child has always left me with an insecurity that I won’t be listened to in conflict. I don’t know if I’ve ever walked away from a conflict feeling like I was really understood and that it was effective, so I’ve learned to just stuff it inside which is obviously unhealthy behavior.

The 2007 incident was completely caused by a fear of conflict at a meeting and I could not get the idea of confronting a person out of my head.  What if I exploded?  What if I did something stupid?  What if she manipulated me like she had a million other times? I had no confidence and the questions didn’t stop.

This is the hardest one for sure to solve. Luckily I don’t have conflict that often as I’m not in a relationship (and no that is not why I’m not in a relationship) and have rarely if ever fought with my friends.  Still, I know it is something I need to work on…

7. Basal ganglia medications- There are 5 classes of medications that can be used to treat basal ganglia activity most Dr. Amen recommends on a  ‘short term basis’ as to avoid ‘addiction’.  I have an emergency only prescription and I’ve had 2 30 pill bottles filled since 2007, most of the second is full so clearly I use them rarely but it reduces panic and anxiety to know they are there if I need them.

8. Nutrition- This I found very interesting.  Dr Amen says “If your symptoms reflect heightened basal ganglia activity and anxiety, you’ll do better with a balanced diet that does not allow you to get too hungry during the day.  Hypoglycemic episodes make anxiety much worse.  If you have low basal ganglia activity and low motivation you will likely do better with a high protein, low carb diet to give yourself more energy during the day.  It is also helpful to eliminate caffeine, as it may worsen anxiety”

This was fascinating to me because I do get very crabby and anxious when I’m hungry, tired or sore (all which can be symptoms of hypoglycemic episodes and basal ganglia activity).  Ask anyone who knows me and they will agree I am not at my best when I am hungry.

Conclusion

So that is the list!  I don’t know if this will be interesting to anyone who isn’t struggling with anxiety but as I’ve always had a great response to my posts on the subject I hope it helps someone.  I’m still pondering Dr. Amen’s book and I am aware there is some skepticism in the psychology world of his scans but I have found much of it helpful so that’s what matters to me.

I hope that you find it helpful and would be curious for your response.

2 thoughts on “Change Your Brain Change Your Life

  1. Very cool..i have been recently diagnosed with dystonia, a movement disorder that makes it hard to speak and chew. I will try these steps , maybe they can help me too!

    1. Get Dr. Amen’s book. Its old so I’m sure it will be at your library. I didn’t see that condition by name in the index but he talks about a lot so you might find it helpful.

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