Brain health truth bomb: When I am living under chronic stress, in “fight or flight,” I am physiologically incapable of accepting other perspectives and showing empathy. My brain can’t make sense of new information, especially information that is contrary to what I believe is necessary for my survival.
This is becoming more and more apparent to me, this year especially. I typically love welcoming other perspectives and opinions, which is the reason I will interview anyone and everyone on my podcast, no matter what side they are on for any issue.
So when I’m feeling triggered by something someone says, it’s a sign to me that I am not carefully self-regulating or taking care of myself the way I need to. I have to do a self check-in.
It’s February, the month of loooooove, so I can’t NOT talk about the importance of relationships to your overall well-being.
While loneliness is just as detrimental to your health as smoking, there are numerous studies showing that having healthy relationships increase your quality of life and longevity! Those with social support have better mental health, cardiovascular health, immune system function, and cognitive ability.
Our relationships with others are PRIMARY NUTRITION.
What you put inside your mouth may cause a temporary shift in your body’s digestive processes, but being in a stressful, unhealthy relationship – or being in isolation – can be a chronic stressor that causes permanent dysfunction to your entire body.
Why is that? I have a few thoughts.
When a body is in “fight or flight” mode from stress, it is impossible to access the prefrontal cortex in the brain to make clear decisions, show empathy, connect to others, regulate emotions, be open-minded, and control impulses. So for someone who is under chronic relationship stress, or under stress from isolation and loneliness, it is possible that they will struggle with making good choices when it comes to health and well-being. They will literally be in survival mode, taking the easy way out, time and time again, because their brain can’t offer any other solution.
Another possible reason stressful relationships wreck physical health is because it increases the amount of cortisol pumped into the bloodstream. Where there is cortisol imbalance, there is inflammation. Where there is inflammation, there is chronic disease and lack of health.
Stress destroys digestion. When digestion is altered, your body can’t utilize nutrients from food or restore bacterial balance in the gut, which is so needed for mental and physical health.
I encourage you to make the effort to strengthen the relationships you have.
Maybe that means seeing a marriage counselor, or finding an individual counselor for yourself to deal with your past hurts in relationships. Maybe you need to call up an old friend or schedule a dinner date with someone you care about but haven’t had time to see lately. If you’re married, plan an intentional date night (you know, something different than turning on Netflix after the kids go to bed).
Take time to nourish your relationships this month. Your health and theirs depend on it.
*If you are looking for a professional therapist to support your healing journey, check out Talkspace and use the code sparkingwholeness for $100 off your first month of therapy.
It’s been one year and a half since I stepped on a scale. She’s an old friend. We haven’t had the best relationship over the years. More like a dysfunctional one.
She doesn’t give me my worth or value. She doesn’t even tell me how healthy I am. But I used to let her, over and over again.
When her number is up, my mood is down. When her number is down, my mood is up. We can’t ever seem to agree on anything. Yet the codependency has existed for decades.
Some would say I fear her and what does that say about me? But I’m learning to see past her gaslighting and abuse, her finger-pointing and blaming.
I refuse to let an inanimate object steal my joy or give me fleeting confidence. I refuse to let a number tell me a story about my health – because health is about so much more than a number, or a diagnosis, or anything you can measure.
In my new online course, ReFOCUS 21, starting February 1, we are renewing our minds with truth and adjusting the way we look at health, habits, body image and chronic dieting!
It’s not too late to join us for 21 days of a new view of who you are – beyond what a number tells you. Each day’s content will be delivered straight to your inbox. Click the link here learn more and sign up!.
I recently heard that it may be helpful to write a letter as a way to process grief and loss.
Because loss comes in many different forms and there is no one size fits all to grief, I want to say goodbye to you and process my losses in a way that makes sense to me. Since I’m writing to an inanimate object, I will try not to get bogged down by my perpetual fear of offending anyone or hurting anyone’s feelings.
You know the song lyric that goes, “You don’t know what you got til its gone?” 2020, you made those lyrics realer than anything. As I have been processing my grief since March, I realized that most of the things I lost, I didn’t appreciate until they were gone.
The first thing I lost this year is the belief that I don’t have to pick a side. You taught me that the lines are tattooed into the sand so tightly that we must choose. I thought I could avoid that. But it’s not true. We must pick sides, and we must use extreme assumptions. For example: If I believe that black lives matter, I’m a Marxist. If I am pro-medical freedom and body autonomy, I don’t care about other people. If I question Fauci, I’m a conspiracy theorist. If I do my own research, I’m anti-science. If I don’t vote for Trump, I’m not a Christian. If I do vote for Trump, I’m a racist. There is no middle ground, no exception, no gray areas. You are the year that forced us to believe we must all play your twisted version of Red Rover.
At some point during your reign of terror, maybe around May, I lost the silly notion that as humans, we can assume the best about each other and offer one another the benefit of the doubt. These days, thanks to the ease of social media, I see that we only assume the worst, then swiftly cut contact, de-friend, unfollow, cancel anything that we disagree with. We make posts that start with, “I’m about to get real, and if you don’t like it, block me and unfriend me.” I’m grieving the belief that I have the option to share that which offers encouragement and hope, not division and dissent. Many times, what I thought would be encouraging, was offensive.
The other big loss I experienced this year, something I didn’t know was a luxury until now, is the loss of smiles. Thanks to the cooler weather, I’ve started walking and running outside again, and it is such a gift to receive a real life toothy smile from a stranger as I’m passing by. Many people walk by expressionless, not saying a word to me. Were they like that before? I don’t know. But 2020, you have made me hyperaware of how other people interact, or fail to interact, with one another. I really miss smiling. Facial expressions are important to my psychological well-being, and I didn’t know it until now.
How does someone with an active mental illness get through 2020?
My first response is, “I have no idea.”
But that’s not true. In reality, I’ve spent years prepping for 2020. I’ve spent years restoring my body and brain through a variety of therapies because I know that I can’t guarantee smooth sailing in every life stage. I’ve spent years reading, studying, and educating others about mental health tools.
I am so glad I did. I believe the key to treating mental illness, in whatever form, is to initiate tools for healing before times get bad, before the waves of instability hit. I played defense with my health for far too long, so at some point in the last decade or so – I started playing offense and implemented a wide range of strategies to manage my moods.
Yes, this year I have struggled with bits of anxiety, disrupted sleep patterns, and moments of apathy. I have had days where I lay around the house and don’t shower, eating at random times and doing nothing but reading crap fiction and watching crap TV shows. But that is very rare, and honestly – sometimes I plan for those days of doing nothing and I schedule my lazy days like I schedule my appointments – which makes them intentional and responsive, not reactive.
So this is my “pat myself on the back” moment. I haven’t had a breakdown. I haven’t gone into a full blown manic or depressed episode. I haven’t lost it.
But I’m not out of the woods. Ever. I must stay vigilant. I must continue to utilize the tools that have gotten me through so many years of stability.
Whether you have been diagnosed with a mental illness, or you are simply struggling with the mental fog that is the year 2020, I want to share some of my tips that keep me sane in the hopes that it helps you, too. There is no one cause to mental illness, therefore there is no one solution. What works for me might not work as well for you. This list is not exhaustive and is only a brief summary.
We are in the middle of a mental illness epidemic. According to a report done by the CDC in June, 25% of people between the ages of 18-24 seriously have considered suicide since March. The percentage was 16% for adults 25-44. 31% of all age groups reported experiencing anxiety or depressive disorder, and over 40% experienced adverse or behavioral health symptoms. “The prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder was approximately three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019 (25.5% versus 8.1%), and prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019 (24.3% versus 6.5%) (2).” See full report here.
These numbers affect me on a very personal level.
I was diagnosed with PTSD at a young age, followed by depression, followed by a diagnosis of bipolar disorder by the time I was 18. I was on many different medications to attempt to treat my mental disconnect, and while some of the worked, some did more harm than good. I understand what it is like to experience the deepest of lows and the highest of highs. I know what it feels like to have a brain that you can’t control, a mind that races and thoughts that spin around and threaten any kind of peace or stability.
One thing I have learned, in my last decade of mental stability, is that our mental health symptoms are always responses to an imbalance in our internal or external environment. External triggers could be grief, stress, or lifestyle disruption. Internal triggers could be something like blood sugar issues, thyroid dysfunction, nutrient deficiencies… or poor gut health. Learning about the gut/brain connection and addressing key areas in my physical health made a huge impact on my mental health.
Now, there is no one size fits all. What worked for me is not going to work exactly the same in someone else. But I do believe everyone can benefit from improving gut health.
In a perfect world, the lining of the intestine allows entry to nutrients from our food to be absorbed and go where they’re needed. This lining is supposed to prevent toxins, bacterial overgrowth, and food products from exiting the gut lining. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. When you have poor gut health, thanks to stress, toxins in the environment, overconsumption of sugar and processed foods, overuse of antibiotics or other common medications, and a whole lot of other triggers, the intestinal barrier becomes permeable, and endotoxins leak out. This is what the phrase “leaky gut” refers to. The inflammation that results leads to a myriad of health issues, but what is being studied a lot right now is the effect on the brain and mental health. Many psychiatrists are suggesting that poor gut health is at the root of many of our mental illnesses.
To further that point, it’s important to note that over 90% of our serotonin (the “happy” neurotransmitter) is produced in the gut, and serotonin cannot be produced without the assistance of amino acids. So if what we eat impacts the way our neurotransmitters are produced, it stands to reason that what we eat impacts the way our brains receive neurotransmitters and find mental wealth.
There are many lifestyle interventions that are FREE, that can benefit our brain function as well as our gut. To break it down in the most simple form possible, here’s the acronym LIVE to help you get started and give you some practical ways to start taking nourishing your gut and brain together!
A survey from the CDC in June reported that since March, 25% of young adults ages 18-25 had seriously considered suicide since the start of the pandemic. The number for adults ages 26-44 was was 16%. This is NOT okay. We have a problem. Correction: we have HAD a problem with mental health concerns, but it seems as if the stress and isolation and fear from this pandemic have just exacerbated all of them!
I am on a continual quest to discover why. I want to know why our brains are suffering and why mental health issues are rising and why we have all the meds in the world – but we still have an epidemic of mental illness.
I don’t typically do book reviews, but these three books have been so helpful for me the last few months as I dig into all my why questions and seek to understand the root of mental health concerns. These issues will not be going away anytime soon. But we can support our bodies and brains through a variety of tools in the toolkit.
Book #1: This is Your Brain On Food by Dr. Uma Naidoo
Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Naidoo and discussing her new book. Listen to the interview here. What sets this book apart, and the reason I list it number one, is that Dr. Uma is a psychiatrist AND a nutrition specialist AND a professional chef. She understands food on multiple levels, from food as medicine to food as an art to food as comfort. In her book, she details the gut/brain connection and why our food choices matter so much. Then she divides each chapter up by specific issue (depression, anxiety, bipolar, etc), and she explains a bit about the diagnosis, what foods improve that condition, what foods hinder it, along with what supplements to include. The recipes in the back of the book are simple and delicious, and I’m always a fan of adding new recipes to my repertoire!
Book #2: Brain Wash by David Perlmutter, MD and Austin Perlmutter, MD
Lately social media has been annoying me. I mean, this isn’t a new thing. There are periods of time (like election years) where it seems like comments get more heated than usual. So take an election year, add in a pandemic and a whole lot of confusion and it’s a recipe for a social media disaster! What I love about this book, Brain Wash, is that it breaks down how our brains work and why we respond the way we do under stressful circumstances. It ends with a 10 day brain detox program, incorporating all of the suggestions made in the book. I’ll be honest – I read the first half of the book twice, because it was so helpful for me. The difficult concepts are explained in a way that everyone can understand.
Book #3: The End of Mental Illness by Dr. Daniel Amen
Dr. Daniel Amen is someone I follow religiously on social media, and I admire his approach to psychiatry. Unlike most psychiatrists, he performs brain scans on his patients. He seeks to address root causes to the brain dysfunction being presented. He doesn’t diagnose and slap a prescription in someone’s hand, he looks at other tools that are helpful. In this book, he outlines all the principles he adopts with his patients and all the factors that impact our brain wellness – from blood flow to toxins to inflammation to genetics to head trauma and so much more. This book gives a lot of practical guidance on suggested supplements and changes to make to have a clear, healthy brain.
All books are available on Amazon or wherever books are sold.
Because we are in the middle of a mental health epidemic, we have a battle to fight with our brain health. There are so many tools available to support a healthy brain. These three books are excellent resources for anyone seeking to get to the root of their mental health issues.
I don’t remember a lot from my Latin class in college, but I remember this one phrase: “Dum spiro, spero.” It means, “While I breathe, I hope.” This quote has been heavy on my mind in light of everything going on today.
There is so much confusion and uncertainty causing mental distress and pain. It seems as if everyone is divided, and we are required to take extreme stances for every issue. I swear, if I wrote up a post about why I love having a dog, the cat people would come after me and attack my character. Totally kidding, but do you get what I’m saying? Have you felt the same way recently? It’s like everyone is on edge and forcing each other to pick sides… but when it’s the “wrong side” – you’re cancelled.
It’s exhausting. I find myself tense and edgy as a result, quick to react instead of thoughtfully respond. It keeps me in a triggered state. It keeps me STRESSED.
Chronic stress, or being in a constant state of fight or flight, can have negative effects on our immune system, digestive function, blood sugar, blood pressure, reproductive organs, decision-making ability, empathy, and so much more!
However, a regular practice of breathwork (deep intentional breathing) has been proven, time and time again, to take our body out of chronic “fight or flight” and straight into “rest and digest” mode. When we are only taking short, shallow breathes through the mouth, we perpetuate that stressed state. I’ve recently found that wearing a mask for a long time disrupts my breathing. I start breathing through my mouth more and I begin to feel a little panicked. I know that’s no bueno for my overall health.
If you could do JUST ONE THING for your health today, can you promise me you will take a few deep breaths? As you may know, I’m a big fan of the simple 4-7-8 approach. Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold for 7, and out through your mouth for 8. Repeat two to three times. There are excellent apps to help get you started in a regular breathing practice as well, from Headspace to Insight Timer, to faith-based apps like One Minute Pause and Abide.
For more on the importance of deep breathing and how to incoporate it into your daily life, check out my video below!
I consider myself a lifelong observer of human nature. I love questioning and digging into motivations and why people respond and interact the way they do. I love people-watching. Since my people-watching opportunities are limited right now, I prefer opinion-stalking on social media.
Lately I have been wrestling with the concept of cognitive dissonance. Once you understand how it works, you can see it happening all over your newsfeeds.
Here is the definition: “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.”
What this means is when you encounter an opinion or belief contrary to your own, it causes a knee-jerk response of defensiveness, shutdown, or absolute denial that any belief system other than your own could potentially be true. It causes an inability to give anyone the benefit of the doubt because that may mean that your belief isn’t as rock solid as you thought, or maybe – you have been wrong.
For example, let’s bring up the topic of vaccination. This is a hot button topic for so many so it feels like a perfect example to start with. In fact, I can already sense you getting uncomfortable. In my observations, it seems to be more common to shut down someone and call them “anti-vaxxer” than to sit down and ask questions about their decisions and thought process. Why? Because if that person shares that their child was injured by a vaccine, and you have the belief that vaccines are completely safe, it may cause you to question whether you are opening up your own child to injury – and no parent wants to believe that. See? Cognitive dissonance. So we shut down, say those people are ignorant with their “Google degree,” and refuse to listen or give them the benefit of the doubt. I get it because I was once there, too. I didn’t want to consider an opposing view of vaccines.
Now, someone reading this is already shutting down and refusing to read the rest – so to that I would question, why? Why is this offensive to you? I would encourage you to dig into that and maybe sit down with someone who stopped vaccinating their child. You might find, like I did, that no parent chooses to make such an extreme decision for their child without doing a lot of research (beyond a Google search). I would even wager to guess that the majority of parents I know will do anything it takes to keep their kids safe – and that might look different from parent to parent. It may not change your mind, but at least it could create an environment of care and sympathy, something that often seems to be lacking in this controversial conversation.
I’ll bring up another example to make you even more uncomfortable. White privilege. Systemic racism. “Systemic racism doesn’t exist.” I hear that from time to time. And when that belief gets challenged, it causes more shutdown, more defensiveness, and maybe some articles or videos thrown in. Cognitive dissonance causes such an internal storm that it makes it nearly impossible to listen to anything other than your view. But remember, like my first example, just because you haven’t experienced something yourself doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. For those who don’t believe in white privilege or systemic racism, I’d encourage you to sit down with a person of color. Talk to them about their experience. Listen to their stories. As I mentioned above, you don’t have to change your mind, but maybe you could show someone you care enough to consider an alternate perspective.