Here at the 2-Minute Mind Check we are grateful to partner with WeWork to host Bay Area events that provide strategies for working with and overcoming symptoms of depression, anxiety, and burnout. In December we hosted Survival Tips for Beating the Holiday Blues with two extraordinary mental health experts; Dr. Elissa Epel, whose talk I summarized in my last post, and Dr. Philippe Goldin, whose depression relief strategies I’ll share with you here.
Dr. Philippe Goldin is many things; an Associate Professor at UC Davis; a clinical psychologist; a cognitive neuroscientist; and — perhaps his toughest job — a Dad. As someone who has had the privilege of getting to know Philippe over the last couple of years, he is most definitely an experimental scientist, or in my terms - a science geek - who makes science accessible and even fun. Science always eluded me in school probably because as a Liberal Arts major, I didn’t fully give it enough attention to understand the appeal. But after hearing Philippe’s talks, I have a much deeper appreciation for the application of science in daily life and to the treatment of depression.
According to Webster’s dictionary, Science is the knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation. In his talk, Dr. Goldin invited us to geek out and become scientists of our own natural world — the world of our individual body and mind — and to explore how what we think, feel and do contributes to our real world experiences — including the experience of depression.
To begin this paradigm, Philippe encourages us to consider our body and mind as the ultimate research project. Afterall, we wake up every morning and we go to sleep every day with this mind and this body. We can’t trade it in or divorce it. We can have the most amazing job, home, relationships, friendships etc., but our relationship with our mind and our body is our longest, and ideally best relationship. As such, it makes sense that the quality, ease, acceptance and self-compassion we bring to the relationship with ourselves is essential. We’re in it for no less than a lifetime. Hence it’s time to become intimate with how our own mind/body works!
Yet, few of us received a user’s manual at birth for how to best work with our mind/body, and it can be especially difficult if we have mental health opportunities. So, how do we do it?
One of Philippe’s mentors from South Africa taught him to always state the obvious, so Philippe did just that:
If we want to change our mind from a mind of angst, pain, confusion, and self-doubt to a mind that’s innovative, awake and brilliant, we have to modify our current beliefs about ourselves. And, thanks to neuroplasticity, science shows us empirically that we can change our minds and neural connections, even if our minds are prone to depression. Phew! The user’s guide exists! Below are five helpful points for your own personal user’s guide that I picked up from Dr. Goldin’s talk.
ONE: Understand your negative self-beliefs and how they show up in your body.
It might be a relief to know that you’re not alone if you sometimes think not-so-kind thoughts about yourself. Even the most confident, and accomplished person can harbor negative self-beliefs and most of the time it’s some version of this: I’m not worthy of love, I’m innately flawed, I must not make a mistake or fail, I’m not good enough, etc. etc. As Dr. Goldin said, “We all live in the waterfall of negative self-beliefs.”
There are some people — I’ll call them the Teflon breed — who can quickly let this cascade of negativity slide off of them. However, as Dr. Goldin explained, there’s a cognitive triad of distorted thinking in depressed people that goes something like this:
The world sucks!
The future sucks!
Yuck! These thoughts then create emotions that manifest in specific ways in the body, which is oddly a good thing. The body is a continuous sensor and if we don’t catch the thought in our head before it spirals us down, we can turn to our body — as a scientist — to illustrate how our thinking makes us feel.
Dr. Goldin gave us a chance to practice what thoughts feel like in our body. I invite you to try it out:
First, shift your attention to your body. Simply notice your chest for example. Now, bring up the thought, “I’m not good enough.” Take a moment to let the thought sink in. Now, notice the resonating impact of this negative self-belief in your body and in your chest specifically.
When doing this exercise, I noticed that my chest collapsed inward a bit, and my shoulders followed, emulating the body language that goes alongside, “I’m not good enough.”
Next, think of a moment when someone fell in love with you, or wanted to be close to you. Or, think of an unconditional loving dog who just wants to be near you. How does that feel in your body? I noticed that the emotion of feeling love opened up my body, creating a sense of lightness and ease.
As a scientist of our own experience, this is pretty cool isn’t it? We can see the direct impact of our mind on our body.
Dr. Goldin reminded us that in the context of threat, real or imagined, the brain can spin super fast. In milliseconds, a whole set of brain functioning happens before it’s even conscious to us, and our affective state has shifted from neutral to fear, anxiety, worry, jealousy, even love or awe. This in turn sends a bunch of signals to the regulatory systems impacting our cognitive control and attention regulation which then sends signals for us to respond.
This all happens so fast that, if we’re not practiced in emotion regulation (one of Philippe’s specialties), we can inadvertently have bursts of thoughts, emotions and bodily responses that contribute to a downward spiral. Early research shows that most people have a 5:1 ratio of negative to positive thoughts. So, it’s not hard to see that over time, these same negative neurons fire together, and voila — depression, anxiety, I suck, the world sucks, the future sucks!
TWO: Recognize that the mind is sticky - and it’s not your fault!
Science also shows us that the mind is sticky and it will catch and hang onto negative beliefs like a Venus Flytrap catches a fly for consumption — and by the way, those negative thoughts are about as tasty as the fly. Whether it’s stress, anxiety, social pain, or physical pain, we can become more vulnerable to a sticky negative self-concepts when we’re under duress. Dr. Goldin shared that our sticky thinking becomes even stickier when we believe the three P’s:
Personal — It’s about me. It MUST be about me.
Permanent — It will always be this way! I will always be not good enough, young enough, etc.
Pervasive — It’s in every part of my life! Generalizing, like I always do…
When we strengthen our negative thoughts via the 3P’s, the neural pathways that handle attention, emotion, self-views, emotional reactivity, get stuck like a key trying to turn in a clogged-up lock. Let me say that again - our neural pathways get stuck! This is rumination my friends, and it’s a huge part of depression. At some point, we need to recognize that those negative thoughts are gunking up our neural connections; exacerbating the issues that ignited them; have no valuable return on our investment of time and energy. And, then we need some tools to unstick the mind.
Turning the page in our user’s guide, this is where Dr. Goldin invites us to apply Mental WD-40!
THREE: Apply Mental WD-40 to unstick the mind
So, how can we change the mind from one that grabs and hangs onto these unproductive thoughts to a mind that is more flexible and performing optimally? The answers are in proven technologies that have been well-researched by scientists like Philippe and his colleagues and predecessors for decades and longer. These technologies include psychotherapy, Cognitive Based Therapy (CBT), Behavioral Activation Therapy (BAT), Mindfulness, exercise, yoga, proper nutrition, sunlight, social connection and many more. These tools represent the WD-40 of mental health treatment and by “spraying them” onto our lives regularly, they loosen up the grit of our thinking just enough for the master key to unlock the wellbeing of our mind.
When things are not going well, when we have hyper-emotional reactivity, etc., it’s easy to spiral down to anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation (which is a fatal strategy to get the pain to stop.) But, when we apply Mental WD-40, it loosens up some of the over-learned habits of our neural pathways, just enough to be able to take a different perspective on life, and ultimately to reduce our suffering and optimize our performance.
So the formula looks like this:
Negative Self Beliefs + Mental WD-40 = psychological flexibility
The effect of mind/body practices is miraculous really. It shows us that the way we relate to and talk to ourselves is not as permanent as we may think, and not as elusive. These processes are all neural networks that we can explore and change. We can actively increase or decrease certain elements of our experiences in the brain. So cool!
The goal in all of this, of course, is to unstick the mind, to become a master of emotions, at ease, able to use emotions — like bodily sensations — to notice how you’re doing, how you feel with other people, how you feel with yourself. With Mental WD-40, you become a Jedi Master of your life.
So, now you’re a scientist AND a Jedi Master! What’s next?
FOUR: Customize your Mental WD-40 blend:
Everyone is different - thank goodness! So that means that my blend of Mental WD-40 may not be the same blend for you.
For example, let’s think back to the Teflon people. Their Mental WD-40 is working great! They are resilient. They see all these negative thoughts and don’t get stressed out. They say to themselves, “This is just neurons firing. Why would I get upset with neurons?” They can intellectually visualize the self-talk language networks and recognize that it’s just a biological function and it doesn’t mean anything.
Others wake up and almost every single breath is bombarded by negative self-talk and beliefs. That is HELL! Some people live in that hell. I’ve lived in that hell. And, what has helped me the most — my Mental WD-40 — is a mindfulness meditation practice where I sit and neutrally observe my thoughts, like a scientist. Meditation does not relieve thoughts, by the way. But, it modifies the stickiness and reactivity patterns that create the grit that makes the lock sticky. It’s taken me lots of practice to get to the place where I recognize that my thoughts don’t actually mean anything. And, sometimes, if the mind is really out of control, meditation will not suffice. I need to exercise, like hiking or yoga, to stop the rumination, get out of my mind and into my body.
Each of us has to figure out what works best for us. Each of us has to do our own inner research to learn which tools are right to unstick the mind. What is your personal Mental WD-40 formulation?
FIVE: Practice what works for you until it becomes a habit
As a scientist, and a Jedi, it’s now up to you to decide what works in the research lab of your mind and body. And, as the saying goes, the best practice for you is the one you do!
A good place to start is by looking up two practices that Philippe lead us in. One is called Focused Attention, where you simply learn to focus attention with gentle intensity on an object in a sustained manner. If your attention drifts, notice where it goes and gently bring it back to the sensations of your breath, the inhale and the exhale. The second practice is called Open Monitoring, which includes monitoring the ebb and flow of experiences from moment to moment in order to recognize patterns in the stream of thoughts, emotions, images, and sensation. In this practice, you simply notice where your mind goes. Notice the thoughts, feelings, sounds sensations. Notice that there’s nothing to hang on to and nothing to push away. It’s best to do these practices with a neutral and curious mind.
The beauty of these two simple practices is that we learn that we can indeed direct our brain, and that’s incredibly empowering.
But, if meditation isn’t your thing, there are thousands of methods to train your mind and cultivate the qualities of insight, wisdom and compassion. Here are some that might resonate:
- Open your 5 senses. Go outside and feel the cool breeze on your face, smell the fresh air, or feel the water when washing your hands or the dishes.
- Yoga, walking, running, biking, climbing are all great practices that with intention, elicit a concentrated state. Physical activity changes not only the body, but rumination patterns.
- Breathing methods: many yogic breathing activities change the brain pathways and turn on the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Consistent sleep and proper nutrition and supplementation can become a “practice” of self-care that physically supports a healthy brain.
- Schedule time with support systems, people you feel good about, people who “wag” a bit when they see you.
- Stay away from people and activities that inevitably elicit the cascade of negative thinking such as the news, or social media which can elicit comparative narratives that aren’t helpful.
As mentioned, it’s essential that you practice what works for you regularly until it becomes a habit. You can’t use these technologies once and expect your brain to miraculously change its well-grooved patterning. But, the good news is, it doesn’t take that long for the Mental WD-40 to start working. Research has shown that just 2 weeks of meditation changes the grey matter in the brain, ensuring less moments of “I suck” and more moments of “I rock!”
As someone who has functioned well in life despite many episodes of depression, it’s a gift to hear speakers like Dr. Philippe Goldin and Dr. Epel, as they provide me additional tools for working with my relentless brain! I hope this summary gives you similar gifts for becoming a scientist in the research lab of your own beautiful mind and body.
P.S. You can review Dr. Elissa Epel’s powerful Stress Resilience Toolkit here. And, you can complete a confidential depression self-assessment as well as access more helpful blogs and free depression resources at 2-Minute Mind Check.
About the author:
Emily Hine is a social entrepreneur who serves as Vice President, Business Development for Meru Health, a digital therapeutics company for depression. Emily spent many years in Corporate Philanthropy at Microsoft, and over the course of her career has raised over $150 million for nonprofits worldwide. After 9/11, Emily quit her job at Microsoft in order to increase compassion and reduce suffering in the world. This commitment led her to work with Global Luminaries such as The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Emily is a Certified Mindfulness and Compassion Teacher from Stanford University. And, she is an inspirational speaker and writer at Holy Sit.