Cleaning up our mental mess: The importance of mind management (Dr Caroline Leaf)

Dr Caroline Leaf is a Cognitive Neuroscientist and bestselling author.

Our approach to mental health makes a difference

Good (or bad) mental health has always been part of the human experience. In the last 40 years, however, we’ve seen a drastic change in how mental health is approached and managed across the globe. We’ve redefined bad mental health as a type of illness under the biomedical model: people are being diagnosed and labelled with a ‘mental illness’ which is then treated as if it is similar to diabetes or cancer. Yet more and more research indicates that the state of people’s mental health has gotten worse over the same period of time: more people are battling with depression, anxiety and burnout.

In the developed world, people are also dying younger. This reversal in population trends is crazy, because for hundreds of years the advances in medicine and technology have been extending people’s lifespan. Now we live in a unique era where people are dying 15–20 years younger than they should, from preventable lifestyle diseases. What research is also showing, is that the ‘mental illness’ label can drastically shorten someone’s lifespan. But there is hope! Research has also shown that good mind management enables people to better manage their mental health patterns, which enables them to break free from trauma and toxic habits, and restore health to their minds and bodies.

Everyone battles with their mental health at some point in their life. Everyone experiences adverse circumstances that can trigger mental health issues or make them worse. We need to recognise that feeling frustrated, depressed or anxious is a natural response to adverse circumstances: it’s how we manage our minds in these instances that determines our future mental health.

The mind-brain connection

Our mind and our brain are separate, but inseparable. Put simply, our mind is how we think and feel and choose, while our brain is the physical substrate that reflects our thinking and feeling and choosing activities. So although the brain is a very complex organ, it doesn’t produce mind, it responds to mind. This is a very hopeful difference, because it means we have a level of control over our mental (and physical) health. The mind uses the brain to store and express information: so whatever we experience will affect how our brain functions, and because our brain controls our bodies, obviously our bodies will be impacted.

Various factors affect the physical health of the brain:

  • Diet, exercise, chemicals, inflammation and neuro-degenerative diseases all affect the brain and can therefore impair cognitive function.
  • Trauma (whether a single event with high impact, or little negative things that happen constantly) affects our brain, because as we experience these events, our mental reactions pass through the brain and are physically stored in the brain.
  • Mental health patterns that over time have become toxic habits also affect our brain.

The brain can be regenerated

Cleaning up our mental mess focuses on dealing with the effects of trauma and toxic habits on our physical brain. Obviously traumas are involuntary, and toxic habits are voluntary. Whatever we say and do, is representative of what we’ve built into our brain, which is representative of how we’ve used our mind to respond to our experiences. We need to become more pro-active in managing our minds: intentionally managing how we think, feel and choose every day.

Fortunately, the brain has neuroplasticity, which is the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganisation. When we clean up our mental mess by managing our traumas daily, and dealing with our bad mental habits daily, we can rewire and regenerate the brain. Our past experiences remain part of our story, but they can be reframed: they can be changed from having a draining effect, to having an energising effect. Through mind management, we can change the negative electrical and chemical energy in our brain to positive energy.

Healthy versus toxic thought trees

Every time we think, feel and choose, the brain reacts with 1,400 neurological responses on an electrical, chemical and genetic level, and we create a thought. Thoughts are real things that occupy mental real estate: a physical structure made of proteins that look like a tree. Initially these ‘thought trees’ are built very quickly, so they are very weak (a short term thought). As we spend more time and attention on it, however, it becomes a long term thought. We therefore create healthy or toxic thought trees in our physical brain, which are made up of information, memories and emotions.

When we become dominated by a toxic thought, it influences how we function: the toxic habit starts to negatively affect our mental health, and starts to control our lives. When trauma controls us, our day-to-day life becomes difficult: our suppressed immune system makes us vulnerable to disease, our ability to focus and think clearly decreases, we become impulsive, and we lose the ability to make good decisions. What we focus on matters. The brain is incredibly sensitive to what we are aware of, and this is revealed in our words and actions. When our reactions become extreme, it shows that our mind is really battling to cope with our experience: our depression or anxiety becomes an emotional warning signal.

Three steps to cleaning up our mental mess

When we manage our minds we build healthy thoughts, when we don’t manage our minds we build toxic thoughts. What is going on in our minds needs to be dealt with: we cannot change toxic thoughts by avoiding them, or by numbing them through medicine.

We need to face our toxic thoughts if we want to clean up our mental mess:

  • The first step to accept that the trauma happened. Embrace it. This does not mean that we approve of what happened, but the reality is that we cannot change something if it’s shoved down into our unconscious mind, where it keeps causing all kinds of chaos and damage. Acceptance refers to becoming aware of (and owning up to) our emotions and behaviours.
  • The second step is to process it. People can be quite good at saying, “I feel scared.” Or, “I am angry.” But processing doesn’t mean we get stuck on the emotion, or endlessly ruminate on the experience. Processing refers to the very specific and detailed analysis of, “What does this mean? What is my perspective on what happened? Why do I feel this way? What story am I telling myself? Who can help me with this?” There is a real benefit and resilience in processing our trauma within trusted community.
  • The third step is to reconceptualise, which means we redesign how we think, feel and choose. We look at the trauma from a different angle, “I can’t do what I used to do. I can’t keep crying or shouting or throwing endless tantrums, how do I move forward?”

We have to acknowledge that if we’re detoxing trauma, it’s not going to take four days. We’ve built strong thought trees over a long period of time: we’ve formed toxic habits, and sometimes even automatised this way of functioning. Cleaning up our mental mess takes time and effort.

Therefore the aim is to become self-regulated in our thinking, feeling and choosing as a preventative mental self-care tool. Thoughts are real things, and cause real, physical reactions in our brains and bodies by impacting what we say and do. When we learn how to self-regulate and design our own thoughts in response to trauma (or just daily life), we can choose the kind of reactions we want to have, and the lives we want to live.

This talks was presented at Nation Builder’s 6th annual In Good Company conference (September 2020) which looked at “building back better.”