How to build a happier brain.

How to build a happier brain.

How to Build a Happier Brain
(Article source: Julie Beck-

There is a motif, in fiction and in life, of people having wonderful things happen to them, but still ending up unhappy. We can adapt to anything, it seems—you can get your dream job, marry a wonderful human, finally get 1 million dollars or Twitter followers—eventually we acclimate and find new things to complain about.

If you want to look at it on a micro level, take an average day. You go to work; make some money; eat some food; interact with friends, family or co-workers; go home; and watch some TV. Nothing particularly bad happens, but you still can’t shake a feeling of stress, or worry, or inadequacy, or loneliness.

According to Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, a member of U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center’s advisory board, and author of the book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, our brains are naturally wired to focus on the negative, which can make us feel stressed and unhappy even though there are a lot of positive things in our lives. True, life can be hard, and legitimately terrible sometimes. Hanson’s book (a sort of self-help manual grounded in research on learning and brain structure) doesn’t suggest that we avoid dwelling on negative experiences altogether—that would be impossible. Instead, he advocates training our brains to appreciate positive experiences when we do have them, by taking the time to focus on them and install them in the brain.

I spoke with Hanson about this practice, which he calls “taking in the good,” and how evolution optimized our brains for survival, but not necessarily happiness.

“Taking in the good” is the central idea of your book. Can you explain what that is as a practice and how it works in the brain?

The simple idea is that we we all want to have good things inside ourselves: happiness, resilience, love, confidence, and so forth. The question is, how do we actually grow those, in terms of the brain? It’s really important to have positive experiences of these things that we want to grow, and then really help them sink in, because if we don’t help them sink in, they don’t become neural structure very effectively. So what my book’s about is taking the extra 10, 20, 30 seconds to enable everyday experiences to convert to neural structure so that increasingly, you have these strengths with you wherever you go.

Do you want to explain how that actually works in terms of brain structure? What is the connection between having this good experience and making tangible changes in the brain?

There’s a classic saying: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” What that means is that repeated patterns of mental activity build neural structure. This process occurs through a lot of different mechanisms, including sensitizing existing synapses and building new synapses, as well as bringing more blood to busy regions. The problem is that the brain is very good at building brain structure from negative experiences. We learn immediately from pain—you know, “once burned, twice shy.” Unfortunately, the brain is relatively poor at turning positive experiences into emotional learning neural structure.

On page one of the intro you said: “Positive thinking … is usually wasted on the brain.” Can you explain how positive thinking is different from taking in the good?

That’s a central, central question. First, positive thinking by definition is conceptual and generally verbal. And most conceptual or verbal material doesn’t have a lot of impact on how we actually feel or function over the course of the day. I know a lot of people who have this kind of positive, look on the bright side yappity yap, but deep down they’re very frightened, angry, sad, disappointed, hurt, or lonely. It hasn’t sunk in. Think of all the people who tell you why the world is a good place, but they’re still jerks.

I think positive thinking’s helpful, but in my view, it’s not so much as positive thinking as clear thinking. I think it’s important to be able to see the whole picture, the whole mosaic of reality. Both the tiles that are negative, as well as the tiles that are neutral and positive. Unfortunately, we have brains that are incentivized toward seeing the negative tiles, so if anything, deliberately looking for the positive tiles just kind of levels the playing field. But deep down, I’m a little leery of the term positive thinking because I think it could imply that we’re overlooking the negative, and I think it’s important to face the negative.

The second reason why I think most positive thinking is wasted on the brain goes to this fundamental distinction between activation and installation. When people are having positive thinking or even most positive experiences, the person is not taking the extra 10, 20 seconds to heighten the installation into neural structure. So it’s not just positive thinking that’s wasted on the brain; it’s most positive experiences that are wasted on the brain.

Why did our brains evolve to focus on the negative?

As our ancestors evolved, they needed to pass on their genes. And day-to-day threats like predators or natural hazards had more urgency and impact for survival. On the other hand, positive experiences like food, shelter, or mating opportunities, those are good, but if you fail to have one of those good experiences today, as an animal, you would have a chance at one tomorrow. But if that animal or early human failed to avoid that predator today, they could literally die as a result.

That’s why the brain today has what scientists call a negativity bias. I describe it as like Velcro for the bad, Teflon for the good. For example, negative information about someone is more memorable than positive information, which is why negative ads dominate politics. In relationships, studies show that a good, strong relationship needs at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions.

Positive experiences use standard memory systems: moving from short-term buffers to long-term storage. But to move from a short-term buffer to long-term storage, an experience needs to be held in that short-term buffer long enough for it to transfer to long-term storage—but how often do we actually do that? We might be having one passing, normal, everyday positive experience after another: getting something done, look outside and flowers are blooming, children are laughing, chocolate tastes great, but these experiences are not transferring to storage or leading to any lasting value.

When you’re trying to avoid these threats, that’s what you call, in the book, “reactive mode” for the brain. But even though we’re wired to dwell on negative things, you still say the default state is still the relaxed or “responsive mode,” right?

Let’s take the example of zebras, borrowing from Robert Sapolsky’s great book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Zebras in the wild spend most of their time in a state of relative well-being. Sometimes they’re hungry, but often they’re in a fairly relaxed place; they’re eating grass, they’re with each other in the herd. They’re in the responsive mode of the brain, what I call the green zone. Then all of a sudden, a bunch of lions attack. All the zebras go into to the reactive mode, they have this burst of fight-or-flight stress, they go into the red zone, and then this episode of stress, as Sapolsky writes, ends quickly one way or another. And then they go back to the responsive mode.

So, Mother Nature’s plan is for us to spend long periods in the responsive mode. And it’s good for animals to seek to rest in the responsive mode, which is when the body repairs itself. But we have also evolved the capacity to switch out of the responsive mode very, very quickly, for a fight or flight or freeze purpose. And then we need to learn intensely what happened, to try to avoid going there ever again. So the resting state is actually very good for humans, for our long-term physical and mental health. On the other hand, it’s very important for us to learn from our negative experiences to try to prevent them in the future.

You write that people are more likely to get stuck in the reactive mode today, but if modernity takes care of most of our basic needs, why are we more likely to be in the reactive mode today than, say, in the wild?

It’s a deep question. I think it’s easy to sentimentalize hunter-gatherer life. There was a lot about it that was very hard: there was no pain control, there was no refrigeration, there was no rule of law. Childbirth was a dangerous experience for many people. There’s a lot about modernity that’s good for the Stone Age brain. We do have the ability in the developed world—far from perfect, of course—to control pain. We have modern medicine, sanitation, flushed toilets and so forth and, in many places, the rule of law. But on the other hand, modernity exposes us to chronic mild to moderate stresses, which are not good for long-term mental or physical health.

For me, one of the takeaways from that is to repeatedly internalize the sense of having our three core needs met: safety, satisfaction, and connection. By repeatedly internalizing that self-sense, we essentially grow the neural substrates of experiencing that those needs are met, even as we deal with challenges, so that we become increasingly able to manage threats or losses or rejections without tipping into the red zone.

Could you talk a little more about those core needs—safety, satisfaction, and connection, and how to meet them?

There are certain kinds of key experiences that address key issues. For example, experiences of relaxation, of calming, of feeling protected and strong and resourced, those directly address issues of our safety system. And having internalized again and again a sense of calm, a person is going to be more able to face situations at work or in life in general without getting so rattled by them, without being locked into the reactive mode of the brain.

In terms of our need for satisfaction, of experiences of gratitude, gladness, accomplishment, feeling successful, feeling that there’s a fullness in your life rather than an emptiness or a scarcity. As people increasingly install those traits, they’re going to be more able to deal with issues such as loss, or being thwarted, or being disappointed.

Lastly, in terms of our need for connection, the more that people can have a sense of inclusion or a sense of being seen, or appreciated, or liked or loved; the more that people can cultivate the traits of being compassionate, kind, and loving themselves, the more that they’re going to be able to stay in a responsive mode of the brain, even if they deal with issues in this connection system like being rejected or devalued or left out by somebody else.

Do people differ in the sort of mode that they tend to be in, reactive or responsive, based on their personal history or personality?

The short answer, I’m sure, is yes. There’s a general finding in psychology that, on average, about a third of our personal characteristics are innate, and roughly two-thirds are acquired one way or another. And so, it’s true, I think, that some people are just by tendency more reactive, more sensitive, fiery. They come out of the box that way. On the other hand, anybody can gradually develop themselves over time through repeatedly internalizing positive experiences and also learning from negative ones. There’s been research on the development of resilience, as well as many anecdotal tales of people who were very reactive because they grew up in a reactive environment—a lot of poverty or chaos in their home or within the family—but then over time, become increasingly sturdy and even-keeled as they navigate the storms of life.

You said in the book that regular exercise can be a factor; can you explain how that helps?

It’s interesting, and I’m someone that doesn’t like exercise. Research shows that exercise is a very good physical health factor obviously, but it also confers mental health benefits. For example, regular exercise is roughly as powerful on average for mild depression as medication is, studies show.

The research that’s relevant is on learning, both cognitive learning and especially emotional learning.
People who are depressed, mildly to moderately depressed, are still having positive experiences, but they’re not changing from them; they’re not learning from them. One of the theories about why exercise seems to have such a powerful effect on depression in terms of lifting the mood, is that exercise promotes the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, which is involved with learning—both learning from specific life experiences, as well as learning how to put things into context, see things in the bigger picture. It’s possible that as exercise promotes the growth of neurons in the hippocampus, people become more able to cope with life and make use of positive experiences.

Taking in the good seemed like something you started to do on your own in college, and then later you found that research supported the practice, is that right?

A lot of people stumble upon something that works for them, and then later on they find out there’s a lot of research that’s related to it. For me, the research that’s relevant is on learning, both cognitive learning and especially emotional learning. How do people grow psychologically? The research on that shows that it’s a two-stage process of activation and installation. Also as a long-time clinician, I began to think about how relatively good we are as clinicians at activating positive mental states, but how bad we generally are at helping people actually install those activated states into neural structure. That was a real wake-up call for me, as a therapist.

You include a lot of testimonials, examples from people in the book. Is this something you do in your work with your patients?

Yeah, definitely. It’s changed the way I do therapy and more generally it’s changed the way I talk with people in life in general. Let me turn it around, to go back to your question about modernity. On the one hand, due to modernity, many people report that moment to moment, they’re having fairly positive experiences, they’re not being chased by lions, they’re not in a war zone, they’re not in agonizing pain, they have decent medical care. And yet on the other hand, many people today would report that they have a fundamental sense of feeling stressed and pressured and disconnected from other people, longing for closeness that they don’t have, frustrated, driven, etc. Why is that? I think one reason is that we’re simply wasting the positive experiences that we’re having, in part due to modernity, because we’re not taking into account that design bug in the Stone Age brain that it doesn’t learn very well.

For me, by repeatedly taking in the good to grow inner strength, you become much more able to deal with the bad. For me, taking in the good is motivated by the recognition that there’s a lot about life is hard.

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Why some people tend to cheat.

Why some people tend to cheat.

Having read the last couple of relatively maudlin posts, I decided to bring some other, less personal content on line for a while. The first is an extract from Scientific American Mind. Enjoy.

“Cheating is not limited to humans; it has been documented throughout the living world, wherever there is competition for limited resources. … In an effort to better understand cheating, scientists have discovered that creativity, fear of loss and the observation of dishonest behavior can motivate cheating or make it more likely. … In nature, cheating has evolved as a way for organisms to gain advantage over others without incurring the cost of effort. …

“One major manifestation of social intelligence is the ability to deceive. Tactical deception is widespread among primates. Ethologist Hans Kummer of the University of Zurich vividly described cheating behavior in hamadryas baboons in Ethiopia: female juveniles mate with juvenile males while concealing their actions from the alpha male by hiding behind rocks. Primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University has documented examples of deception by chimpanzees living in captivity. In 2004 psychologists Richard W. Byrne of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and Nadia Corp, now at Keele University in England, showed that neocortex size predicts the degree to which primates practice deception. The bigger the neocortex in a species, the more individuals in that society use dishonest tactics for social manipulation.

“Humans are surprisingly quick to cheat when the circumstances are conducive. In 2008 behavioral economist Dan Ariely of Duke University and his colleagues described what happened when they asked college students to solve math puzzles for cash rewards. When the researchers changed the experimental conditions such that the students assumed the examiner could not detect cheating, the average self-reported test score rose significantly. The researchers determined that the scores were not inflated by a few students who cheated a lot but rather by many students cheating a little.

“Not everyone is equally likely to cheat, however. In 2011 Ariely and behavioral economist Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School reported that people who score higher on psychological tests of creativity are more apt to engage in dishonesty — a connection that is perhaps not surprising considering that creativity and tactical deception are both products of the neocortex. Yet Gino and Ariely believe the two are not just anatomically correlated but causally connected. They submit that creative individuals are better at self-deception: they come up with more inventive rationalizations for cheating as a way of making themselves feel better about doing it. … Ironically, the creativity and intelligence that we regard as distinctly human might have arisen alongside our ability to deceive. We are who we are because we cheat….

” Cheating can breed more of the same if nothing puts a brake on the process. Once someone has overcome the initial barrier to cheating, subsequent hurdles to dishonest behavior may seem smaller and trivial to surmount. Ariely calls this response the ‘what the hell’ effect, as in ‘what the hell, I already blew my diet, so I may as well have the dessert.’ … Another way that cheating can spread is through copycat behavior. Seeing someone else cheat without apparent consequences strongly encourages others to do the same. … In 2011 psychologists Agata Blachnio and Malgorzata Weremko of Catholic University of Lublin in Poland described an experiment in which students took a spelling test in a room secretly fitted with a one-way mirror. A dictionary and a thesaurus were in the room, but the students were asked not to use them. Subjects were three times as likely to cheat when an assistant posing as a cheating student was also present. In fact, unchecked dishonesty can promote the perception that one must cheat to remain competitive.

“Such observations have led Ariely to refer to cheating as ‘infectious.’ … This kind of social contagion may help explain the high prevalence of cheating in relatively small groups of people. For example, 125 Harvard students were recently under investigation for cheating on the final examination in an introductory government course. (More than half these students were told to withdraw from school for up to a year as punishment.) It is statistically unlikely that nearly half the 279 students in that class are sociopaths given the low prevalence of sociopathy — about 3 percent in males and 1 percent in females. A more plausible explanation is contagion. The widespread bending of the rules probably led students to conclude that collaborating with other students was okay.”

Author: Ferric C. Fang and Arturo Casadevall
Title: “Why We Cheat”
Publisher: Scientific America Mind
Date: May/June 2013
Pages: 32-36

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A letter to my younger self.
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A letter to my younger self.

Dear Jamie.
What a ride hey?!
Please know how special you are to me. Recently I have been too busy to check in with you to see what you really need going forward, I’m sorry. It seems that you’re still trying to make everyone around you happy and that you’re not taking enough care of yourself. If I can give you a bit of guidance my precious one… Please, look after yourself, do less, remember that what you need is important too! Dont forget to play, just for the sake of it. Try not to take yourself too seriously, no matter how much life may hurt. Remember to feed your wonder for the small things and to take time to explore the world around you. Things will change, if nothing else, you can count on that. Magic is real no matter what they tell you. Never hide your light. Gratitude is important because without that you will feel despair and it may overwhelm you.Protect your heart by nourishing what matters to you. Do nothing sometimes, because sometimes, there is nothing you can do. Know the difference between your truth and what others tell you to believe. Beware internalising the invalidation of others. Let go of critical and judgemental thoughts when they arise. Try and learn to accept some things as they are. Allow yourself to be exactly who you are. Set aside time for yourself. Cultivate healthy connected friendships. Nurture your compassion for others. Stay open and courageous because without your capacity to love in the face of adversity you will become small and tight. Remember your ability to survive because it will sustain you through dark times. Believe in people’s ability to evolve, especially your own. Know that pain is a great teacher and it will lead you to deeper truths. Meditate. Walk in the mountains, make eye contact with strangers,dance with wild abandon, be creative, eat food that makes you happy without worrying, risk being vulnerable with those that matter and remember to connect to joy whenever possible…because life is short.
And know that no matter what may happen, you are loved.

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Reader submission- the good fight
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Reader submission- the good fight

“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery–isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.” – Charles Bukowski

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How to rebuild a life in under 400 words.

How to rebuild a life in under 400 words.

Ok, so after a rather grim but essential period of personal reflection over the past couple of months, it is time for reconstruction… much like the city of Dresden after World War 2 (picture above).
Where does one even begin?
This weekend, I went back to my black box, a box that similar to the ones used in aviation, contains the last fragments of my history. Pictures of my childhood, my adolescence (not too sure of the dodgy Stock Aiken and Waterman phase),friends past and present, school reports, my trinkets and amulets accumulated over time and distance. It was nothing less than an essential reconnection with the narrative of self. The reclaimation of my history, layer by layer, using nostalgia to bind and release, resculpting a lens through which to look at myself anew.
The day long process brought me to the present, where refortified I now need to build solid foundations from which to move into the world again.

Here is a very simplistic tool I harvested along my travels which I find useful when doing an inventory of Self (it can be adapted to fit your particular areas of focus, but most areas are generic).
The idea is to give yourself a rating out of 10 for each area ( 1 being a serious problem, 5 average and 10 being ridiculously good)
For example, (not my actual ratings…)

Mental stimulation (how nourished your mind is with interesting content) 5
Physical: nutrition 5, exercise 5, sleep…, energy (between 3-7)
Psychological: depression 2, anxiety 9, self esteem 6, use of substances (alcohol, recreational drugs etc) 2, ability to self soothe (using internal resources) 3
Spirituality (not necessarily religion, feeling connected to something greater than your ego identity)6
Creativity (doesn’t have to be a classically creative pursuit)2
Relationships: intimate 4, friendships 6, work relationships, family …
Basic needs (financial-material) 5
Living environment (enough space? Sparse? Poor reflection of who you are?)
Career/studies (is there fulfillment? Are you wanting to leave…are you disinterested?)
Joy ( do you do things that fill you with Joy? Or is it a luxury?)

The next part of the equation is to identify 2-3 key areas and ask yourself how you would change the rating by 10%, tackle small manageable areas first, eg exercise…from 3 to a 4:plan-walk 3 x per week in the morning, nutrition/ plan- 6 glasses of water etc) to build confidence. Then, when there is some momentum one can start to tackle bigger areas eg career. It is important not only to come up with a plan, but to have a time frame too! All of the areas are an interdependent system- so a change in behavior in one area will impact subtly or directly on another.

It’s so simple, it works.

395 words (job done!)

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Things to pack for a dark night of the soul
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Things to pack for a dark night of the soul

LIFE has turned to face me in full frontal, terrifying technicolor. At first I was petrified, paralyzed (strains of “I will survive-Gloria Gaynor” come wafting through my mind),I am being churned and burned to the bone. Clean, white bone.
A colleague of mine told me about Tibetan Buddhist monks who sit in charnel grounds with the dead, while the buzzards pick the bodies clean, meditating for days to remind them about the impermanence of life. I can relate to that as the old parts of my ego identity die, as I re-examine, update or discard elements of my outdated operating software.

Although I am still in a difficult space and am being continually flung back on my own resources, I have become aware that I am looking for comfort in familiar places that have always offered me safe refuge.

So tonight, in an effort to get out of my own way, I offer some of the aids I am using to get me through. The following is by no means an exhaustive list, merely a snapshot of what constellates to heal the heart wound at this moment.

My current anthem is Babel by Mumford and sons, the lyrics resonate and there is a prayer in there somewhere.
Islands: Essential Einaudi, particularly the Earth Prelude
A bit of Neil Young, Muse, Ben Howard, The Golden Path-chemical brothers, Vivaldi, various moody cello sonatas for when I really want to drop in and blister and some Jon Kabat Zinn guided mindfulness audiobooks to try and still the mind before sleep (didn’t work tonight though).

I avoid texts that are too heady when my emotions are up and rather aim for people who have mapped this terrain with their hearts. Anything by James Hollis, Tolle, Coehlo’s Warrior of Light, my weather beaten copy of the Norton Anthology of Poetry (to be opened at random pages for inspiration although I have my favorites) and obligatory pieces of fantastic escapist fiction which I reread (e.g. Julian May’s Intervention Saga and various Ian Mckewan novels) for when the going gets too heavy and I need to eject.

First Aid Kit:
Candles, dogs (fed and walked), a good bottle of Merlot, crackling fire, my numerous notebooks that I have written in over the years, so that I can track change and re formulate and re calibrate, head torch for wandering at some ungodly hour and an old alchemical tarot deck which I use to evoke the slumbering unconscious and drag it to the surface.

And last, but certainly not least, a fragment of hope that I have kept safely hidden in the very core of my being for just such an occasion.

What would you pack for a dark night of the soul?

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Reader submission- anon
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Reader submission- anon

Feeling acted upon and frail,
Minute examinations of each moment,
Never failing to find evidence (and excuses),
Race, class, age, height, voice – whatever’s at hand –
To explain why they all hate me

Is this the triumphant verse?
The one where I’m post-, post-, post-..?
The one where I’m happy and free?
The one with history carried lightly,
Only existing as edited earlier references,
In tales of victory?

The truth might be,
That my goals are now circumscribed,
That my vision grows myopic,
That narrowing of hope
Means narrowing of despair;


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On why Psychiatrists can be so wrong- reader submission

On why Psychiatrists can be so wrong- reader submission

Being “depressed”, suffering from depression and being a “medicated” individual is quite normal. The numbers of boring conversations we “depressed” folk have, on how depressed and medicated we are, are nothing new, because it is normal to feel something less than ecstatic on a daily basis. I, personally, have been labelled everything from depressed to bipolar 1,2, manic, dysthymic – the labels I could proudly bear, if I genuinely believed any of them. Having been a “medicated” individual for a good period of ten years, 2013 is the first year I have been able to take a step back, reclaim my own brain from the paws of the psychiatrists and state simply: “I am not depressed, manic, bipolar or any variant. I am merely alive and working through it”. I have turned away from the path of the drugs for the time being, to enable my own brain to work things out for me. I say the time being, because I recognise the value they can have as an assistant to someone with a lack of mental buffering against daily living. Here is how I came to acknowledge that psychiatrists can very often get life very wrong.
Something that comes up continuously in my journey is the issue of psychic defences. In simple terms, how do we deal with what is thrown at us daily, without resorting to mania, hysteria, medication, alcohol, or the other lists of emotional replacements we have easy access to. These defences, as I have discovered very slowly, start to develop from Day 0, but not everyone has the pleasure of experiencing the development of these skills from the get-go.
From a young age, we are often either taught how to feel, or rely on what limited resources our young brains have to grasp some means of dealing with life. The common phrases are “chin up”, “don’t be sad, Mom will take care of it”, or “think of how much you have to be grateful for”. These substitutes for facing what is happening can be quite damaging to a young psyche trying to evolve in a world that is most fearsome and joyous, as they blanket what a child is facing.

My developmental defences were relatively stunted, because I was never forced to face life on my own. I was cradled, sheltered and constantly protected from any kind of adversarial events or people, and I simply never had to deal with sadness, depression or a family that was rapidly shattering the older I grew. I couldn’t remember when I last remember a family that was happy, but I was so comfortable in my childhood and teen basket of love that, when I was forced out of the nest, my defences were non-existent.
I chose to go overseas following my high school years. I was upended in a world of no nests, but endless opportunities to drink, take drugs, and have sex and repeat – no discipline, no safety nets. I hurtled through it for a good 7 months and suddenly hit a wall. I was spiralling into a danger zone. I felt destroyed. My brain felt frozen. I started self-harming to stop feeling so absolutely shit. Instead of recognising a young mind needing a friendly voice, and some good old chicken soup, exercise and a way to breathe again, I was bundled straight to the doctor, whose R400 assessment was to put me on anti-depressants. No thought patterns, nothing. The message to my brain was “I must be crazy to be on those drugs”.

The thought that I was crazy stayed with me for 10 years. It got worse. Instead of doing things to help my brain heal and strengthen, I was shoved along to more doctors’ appointments, and then, by my volition, to another psychiatrist, whose assessment was to put me straight into a clinic, following weeks of shit-faced benders, more alcohol and more hysterics. If my father had known the truth behind my “breakdown”, he would have said I needed a good klap. I had no idea how to think, deal with any curveballs or lifeballs and my response (drinking til driven to insane behaviour) was rewarded by a lot of medicine and a three week trip to a psychiatric day spa, where I grew fat, read novels and attended art class. My behaviour was not a result of a breakdown, as I was repeatedly told. It was a result of not having the faintest idea how to face any accumulated stress, interpersonal relationships and trauma absorbed over a lifetime.

I waded through a fog of lithium, SSRIs, anti-psychotics and anti-anxiety pills for a 2 year period following the day spa trip. I did nothing to adjust or try and understand my behaviour. I went through brief storms of exercise inspiration, but did nothing to address why I felt anxious, sad or suicidal. The tipping point came when, in a flood of tears, I begged one of my nurturers to help me. The response was brutal – “I can’t help you. You have to figure out what is making you sad. Go see a proper psychologist”. What do you mean, you can’t help me? Why can’t you just keep me in your nest? Give me money to soothe things? I was stymied, but starting to feel the nagging pressure and acknowledgment of adult responsibility weighing on my conscience.

Enter psychologist. The beginning of a massive shift in my thinking. Slowly, painfully slowly, I became aware of my utter lack of capacity to defend my brain against life blows. The brain paths were so addled with chemicals, self-doubt and labels that I didn’t believe it was possible to think independently of these old friends. Half way through my first year of sessions, I panicked and ran back to one of the many doctors. Response? MORE DRUGS! I am aware that this is a profession and they need money and blah blah, but what makes me angry, in retrospect, is that the ease with which the prescription pad came out, as opposed to asking actual questions about why the medicine was needed, countered the efforts of the psychology I was trying to understand.

What seems to work? Upon reflection of the last 9 months of 2013, there are some key patterns and routines I have slowly developed this year and need to stick to. Yoga, as replacement for anti-anxiety drugs. The right people for the right problems – not relying on everyone to be my parachute. Slowing down, instead of speeding up in the face of adversity. Going back to where I am, who I am without the chaos. Connecting with the right therapist and being brutally honest with them – too often did I lie to easily manipulate the doctors into thinking I was crazier than I am, because of my tendency to over-exaggerate on the label. Letting my little girl voice and my inner Ms Miyagi meet and shake hands now and then. If I tumble down and forget these patterns, the rocketing brain starts to fire again and needs to splashed with water to cool down and come back down to earth. That would be called mania by a traditionalist. I can now call it fear being tempered by realistic solutions.

Psychiatrists and GPs can be so wrong, and sometimes right. What I think I would have benefitted from was someone recognising that all that was wrong with me was a little girl needing to grow up, with the right psychic tools in place and the right means to dealing with her own demons. Drugs? Were they necessary? Did they help? I am still yet to decide on whether that path was useful, but I will continue to interrogate my reactions for the timebeing, without the assistance of chemicals and crazy labels.

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