Dr. Selena Bartlett has agreed to once again visit with us. Today we will hear more expansively about the amazing concept of neuroplasticity.
Selena is a neuroscientist who started her career as a pharmacist and then went back and did a PhD in neuropharmacology, because of her sister’s struggle with schizophrenia. She thought naively – there had to be a better way- if only we understood how the brain worked. She took up a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship in neurobiology and went onto to be trained as a neuroscientist. She put her focus on developing medications to help with alcohol addiction.
Unexpectedly, after a decade of raising kids and running a big lab at UCSF, Selena found herself in a depression so deep that she could not get out of bed. A physician prescribed meds and Selena made a monumental decision based on her research that she had done to retrain her brain to become more resilient rather than taking the medications or seeing a psychologist. She fathomed that the brain had wired itself to become stress reactive had in the process had learnt to be “depressed” and now she would teach herself to be more resilient. Her research had shown that the brain is extremely resilient and very strong. Even though Selena is a pharmacist and sees the benefit of medications for people, she decided that medications would not fix the life situation she found herself in. She reasoned just as the brain wired in the stress, with practice and effort, she could wire in more resilience to combat the stress.
Her depression did not fall upon her at once. It evolved. With each negative experience, where the brain was becoming in control, that is, the brain was not being shown alternative healthy ways to handle the stress, her brain began to see life as dark, dreary and that there was not a lot of point to living. Just as a person who learns how to drive needs to initially keep in mind the hand position, the foot on the brake, and look in the mirror, and they feel at the first time of learning to drive, how am I ever going to get this right, but it eventually becomes second nature with no thought involved. Driving is now automatic- it is learnt and stores in a part of the brain that stores habits.. The same path is used when the brain learns habits of how we learn to handle stress, whether it is a healthy way that leads to resilience or an unhealthy way that may lead to depression ans anxiety. Repeated negative thoughts lead the brain to think and feel that life is negative and eventually this leads the brain to an automatic response of viewing everything with a negative mindset and then the brain does not like this state as it becomes self-destructive and adepressed state of mind ensues.
Selena explained that there is a section of the brain called the amygdala.
Its function is to protect us from danger. But at times we allow the amygdala to dictate our reaction to a trigger, such as stress. We unwittingly train our brain to react to stress by drinking alcohol, eating sugary foods or carbohydrates when we feel stressed. Or we train our mind to see the world as black and not worth living.
“ I had a moment that was the turning point. I made a decision to go to the waterfall outside my apartment and look at it. Then I made it my daily practice. Water and nature have an amazing healing capacity. Being in or with nature slowly lead to flow on effects in all other aspects of my life. As I started to see blue not grey skies, green rather than brown leaves on the trees, I added some exercise. Eventually this led to my eating healthy foods and eliminating the hi sugar, hi fat foods. Just as my depression did not descend at once, the recovery was a slow but faster than expected trajectory.”
“When I was depressed the sky never appeared blue to me, even if it actually was. My brain had been trained to see it as dark and lifeless. There was a dulling of everything. I was allowing my brain to control me. Slowly I began to take control of my brain. This is the beauty of neuroplasticity.”
“There were generations of wiring that I inherited that contributed to my depression. It wasn’t just a few stressful events. It’s how my brain took in my day to day occurrences. Even as neuroscientist I lacked the understanding that my brain was doing this.”
“Just like a brain learns a new language by repeating words over and over and then you can say them without even thinking – the brain can be taught the sky is grey today, and then the next day and the next, until it just sees the sky as grey. So my brain had taught me to be depressed. Generations ago things occurred that pre-programmed me to be susceptible to depression.”
“I can’t do anything about the past. I can draw a line in the sand and say from now on, I am the boss of my brain. It doesn’t control me. Now I need to teach my brain a new language. Just as a person who suffers a stroke relearns how to walk and talk.”
“I believe that a person who suffers from depression, anxiety, bi-polar or any other mental illness, can rewire their brain, to learn a new way of mental health. A person can rewire, reconnect and make it stronger. It is simple but not easy! Of course, everyone’s brain is different and there is not a one size fits all approach”
“People are not doing it because they aren’t educated about the possibility.
The communication channels in the brain can disconnect and we need to be aware and make an effort to reconnect them with training. If we did daily brain training we could prevent some of the disconnection from happening as a result of stress.”
“Practicing gratitude helps to keep some of those connections together. A person increases the good brain chemicals that strengthen the healthier actions in the brain. Like going for a walk after work rather than having a beer, soda or fries. We need to develop ans practice a brain fitness program. This is my mission on this planet- bring brain health and fitness to as many people as possible”
The all important step is setting the intention. In the morning, stand tall, shoulders back, and move your body. It will get the endorphins flowing.
If you are struggling with weight gain, try skipping a meal.”
“If you experience a ‘miggi’ moment, when the amygdala is taking over, pause. The amygdala is super-reactive to all the negative things that are going on. Allow the top part of the brain to reconnect again so that you can respond rather than react.”
“Each person’s brain is different and has different triggers. One needs to be aware of their individual emotional wiring. Then make it a practice to do something that will bring more positive rather than negative energy. Each morning, before you get out of bed, spend 1-5 minutes bringing in positive energy- like taking a deep breathe for30 seconds and thinking of 3 things you are grateful for.. It’s a process, a new habit being formed. This will lead to more positivity until the negative decreases and fades.”
“It is important to do it daily. Even when you are feeling good. The repetition is training your brain to have positive reactions automatically rather than teaching it a negative mode.”
“Some other things that influence one’s state of mind and health negatively is the consumption of sugar, alcohol, and hi-fat foods. Sugar tells you that you are still hungry by shutting off the mechanism that allows you to know when you are full. It affects your memory.”
Selena is creating an app so that one can keep track of the amount of sugar one has consumed. The normal amount of daily sugar consumption for an adult us 25 grams which equals about 17 teaspoons a day.