A mental health moment.

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Mood and emotions seem like quickly vacillating, arbitrary, amorphous “things” that are influenced and controlled by events and people around us.  “My (fill in the blank) is driving me crazy.”  “(Blank) is getting to me.”

Thoughts and emotions are products of your brain function and they work on a “feedback loop” that can  change your neural structure and function for better or worse.  While we still don’t know exactly how things work, neuroscience and psychology are working to get a better understanding of the brain structures involved in emotion and memory and to find out how we can work with them to improve our mental quality of life.  If you care to read up about it, focus your studies on the limbic system which is made of: the hippocampus (memory), the amygdalae (twin centers deep in the temporal lobes which process emotions), and the hypothalamus which provides a link between your nervous and endocrine systems.

Now to move away from the research stuff for a minute. What are some things that one can do to improve mood, emotional outlook, and one’s overall sense of mental well-being?

First, recognize that all thoughts and emotions are products of real, measurable chemical and electrical changes going on in various parts of your brain.  It’s not some magical event or weird vapor that passes over your mind.  It’s something concrete and factual.

Second, understand that when you exert some conscious effort, your mood and emotional reactions to situations CAN change.  Think about it this way: you have to exercise to build your physical strength.  You have to practice a musical instrument to improve your playing.  If you put some constructive work into your mood and emotions, they can improve as well.

Third, in the absence of any constructive, conscious work, your thoughts, mood and emotions will become more and more engrained.  If you get stuck on a negative track and allow your brain to keep thinking the same thoughts and soaking up the same chemicals that are released with the negative feelings, you are setting your brain up for more of the same.

Fourth, there are many tools and activities available to us that can help when we are not able to consciously “exercise” our emotional centers and get better on our own.  In no particular order, these include but are not limited to:

  • psychotherapy provided by HIGHLY trained QUALIFIED professionals–sorry social workers, but most of you seem woefully under-qualified and should not be in charge of counseling people with serious mental health issues.
  • “talk” therapy, i.e. working things through by talking with a trusted friend or mentor who can listen patiently and knows they don’t have to give you the right answer.  Also, talking to others (online or in person) who are going through what you are experiencing can be a great help too for putting things in perspective.  Postsecret is one of my favorite online forums to share in the lives and experiences of others.  You can even unburden yourself and send some postcards.
  • meditation has been shown to make measurable positive changes in the baseline functioning of the human brain.  You can do it by yourself or participate in group guided meditation classes.  Meditation is not strictly a spiritual practice and doing it does not mean you have to ascribe to a particular religion to participate and reap the benefits.
  • pharmaceuticals can be an incredible boon to people who have medical conditions that make it impossible to self-regulate.  There is a still stigma attached to people on “meds” but if it means the difference between suicidal depression and being able to function in daily life, I think you need to ignore the haters and get the help you need.  I strongly feel that drugs should always be used in conjunction with non-chemical methods for improving mood and emotional response.
  • pleasure therapy which is the term I use to describe “doing stuff that makes you feel happy.”  The more you involve yourself in happy activities, the more you train your brain to enter the “pleasure mode.”  It’s best if you find activities that are free, readily accessible, and get you involved with other (positive) people.  Shopping, food and sex can affect our brains on a very deep level and usually do make us feel happy, but they are often associated with many other complex emotions as well so I feel it’s best not to use them as a form of therapy.  Things like enjoying or making art and music, spending time with a pet, watching a funny movie or t.v. show, and exercising strenuously to release endorphins (the body’s pharmaceuticals) are some of my favorites.  Engage in these for a significant period of time (at least 20 minutes) a few times a week to feel the effects.  You may find that some of these activities also have a meditative quality to them as well.  Double points!
  • memory therapy which is spending time thinking about good times you’ve enjoyed (so get out there and do some pleasure therapy).  Picture the scene in detail and even write it down so you can go back and read it.  Wallowing in good memories is a great way to retrain your brain to think positively.

I am not some sappy-happy-go-lucky person and I was definitely not raised by positive people, but these are some things that I have found helpful.  Remember, you won’t change overnight and there will be some days when everything seems completely suck and you might backslide.  That’s okay.  It’s only too late to change when you are dead.  Until then, keep trying.  Hope you are well.

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