Brain-Taming 101

brain taming

 “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”

– Soren Kierkegaard

They say anxiety is a future-focused problem. Depression is past-focused. Some of us are lucky enough to have both at the same time, meaning the present pretty much rolls along without us. We exist like ghosts just waiting to live again, wishing we could take on someone else’s healthy soul.

Too creepy? Well that’s how I felt, anyway. I slipped into a lifestyle where the years blended together into one dismal recurring nightmare. It felt like I didn’t have the right to live.

Humans can withstand lots of things like natural disasters, pain inflicted by others, and even poverty. But it’s a strange and startling struggle when your mind turns on itself. To clarify Kierkegaard’s quote I’d say that anxiety is the dizziness of not being able to handle our freedom. After a few years of freedom mismanagement I woke up, finding myself constantly dizzy with daily stomachaches and a new prescription to heart medication. I would get daily adrenaline rushes from the simplest perceived “challenge.”

As it turns out, our brains can adapt to whatever we tell them. (Even if what we’re telling is insane like, “Panic. The neighbor’s dog is plotting to kill you.”) The amygdala in your brain can actually grow larger like a muscle that works out a lot. This is said to play a role in the formation of PTSD. There is such a thing as too much emotion, or an overactive amygdala that interferes with practicality. This is probably why Van Gogh cut off his ear and Poe raved erratically for most of his life. Both were geniuses, but likely had a serious need to get their amygdalas under control.

We develop these neurotic quirks from our delicate belief structures. The problem is that we might oversimplify, developing beliefs about ourselves or the world that aren’t entirely true. I don’t know what Van Gogh’s belief was, but it must’ve been along the lines of ear betrayal. Mine was, “You’re behind in life. Catch up.” While this led to a ton of hard work and achievement in a short period, it also led to severe mental and physical exhaustion. Not an ideal trade off.

If our amygdalas had it their way, they probably would have devoured the rest of our brains by now, leaving us as nothing more than screaming, babbling bundles of crazy. To keep this from happening, we don’t need to learn anything or do anything. Rather we need to undo and unlearn the negative patterns. It’s actually easier than the original routine, which is like self-torture. Instead, we can avoid stress, sit quietly, think less, etc. Strive for simplicity and enjoyment. Stop every time you berate yourself or act based on a faulty belief structure. This is unlearning.

It’s important to know that mental health is just like physical health in that there’s upkeep. You wouldn’t refrain from going to the doctor for five years (insurance issues aside), yet few people will admit that they’ve been to a shrink even once. Why is that?

Yes, we used to lobotomize schizophrenic people and treat depressed people as social rejects. But for as far as we’ve come, there’s still much further to go in learning how to treat mental illness. If we can recognize our problems and define them, that’s a start. If we can dig around and discover why, that’s half the battle. Then we work to undo the damage through lifestyle changes, talking to people, or whatever works.

Anxiety may be the dizziness of freedom, but simplicity and understanding stop the spinning.

Photo by Lauren Hammond

27 thoughts on “Brain-Taming 101”

    1. Interesting article from a perspective I’d never really considered.

      I’ve always felt anxiety was entrapment rather than the reverse, in the sense that self-consciousness that almost always accompanies and exacerbates the issue strikes me as restrictive rather than liberating.

  1. Hi Brianna,
    Great post. I did not know that the brain grew like muscle, yet I do believe it needs exercise. Thanks for pointing that out. The beliefs can be tricky as you say. We are given many by the consensus with the idea that it is helpful. I have found for myself that most of those “helpful” beliefs” put so many conditions on my love and wound up blinding me from my passions. When I was able to get in touch with my passions, which was really my true self in action, I was able to look at my beliefs and evaluate if they served me anymore. Then I could change them to ones that did serve me better and allowed me to take so many conditions off my desires. I think that is what you are getting at when you say that we can retrain our brain. I also believe that the mind plays a part in this too. For me, the mind is beyond the brain, and is part of our consciousness connection to our Source, which I refer to as the Divine. I mention that because I have found for myself at least, that beliefs are elegantly changed when we can change them on a conscious, sub conscious and unconscious level. For me the brain is the conscious level. I just wanted to add my experience here to further the discussion. I wonder if you were tapping into the sub conscious and unconscious parts of mind when you decided to change your beliefs. Any more thoughts on this idea I put out there to you?

    1. I agree that people having subconscious beliefs, feelings, etc. that are sort of separate from the conscious ones. And I guess there can be a misalignment of those? I think that’s why people can feel or believe certain things but not act accordingly. Thanks for the interesting comment!

  2. Hi, Brianna!

    I work, just like you, to be in the here and now. Being present in the moment is the only place where you can truly live our lives.

    Accessing memories can give us wisdom but only if we look back without regrets and by seeking lessons learned.

    Considering what might happen in the future can trigger our creativity about how to deal with unexpected events. Of course, imagining fearful and/or dreadful events can often lead to self-fulfilled prophecies.

    I like the solutions that you offer in the form of striving for simplicity and enjoyment in life. I agree that everybody should actively pursue a mental hygiene, just as we strive for physical health. Your post is a welcome reminder that we can train our minds to discard the thoughts that don’t produce a happy and productive life.

  3. Thank you for this post, you can come back to this subject any time :)
    Mindfulness has been a great help in lasso-ing my thoughts in and guiding the brain into gentle submission.

  4. Nice piece Brianna. Wanted to keep reading more of your comforting words. You just reminded me how chaotic and pressurized society is and unlearning it all, simplifying, even ‘rejecting’ society’s assumptions, is/can be healthy. Thank you – keep up the good work. We need more of this.

  5. This is great. You just lay bear my feelings and what I’m doing to get back my steering wheel.

    I pray for you a good job.

    Warm regards

  6. Brianna, I love your thoughts and they make so much sense. After suffering with depression for years and years and years, someone steered me to a group called Recovery or The Power To Change. They teach you principles from the father of cognitive behavioral therapy, Dr. Abraham Low.

    It seems that society as a whole still attaches such a stigma to mental health. Would a diabetic not take insulin? Same thing with mental health issues. If we do not get help, we are asking for trouble or a shortened lifespan, or both.

    Thanks for a great article. We can all receive help if we truly desire a balance in life.

  7. First of all, Loved the Start – “anxiety is a future-focused.Depression is past-focused.Some of us are lucky enough to have both at the same time.”

    Very nicely written article. Like they say – “Knowing your enemy is winning half the battle” We should be aware of our negative focus and beliefs. Once they are clear to us, take steps to change them.

  8. Hello Brianna

    Your article is sooo inspiring and very profound . I have been depressed and suffered anxiety between years 2000 and 2005. I can relate what you are writing about. I started practising Nichiren Daishonin Budhism and since then I can tell ,that my life completely changed in better including my entire family .
    it is a practise where we are just ourself and we are developing our human revolutions.
    If anyone interested you can find it online SGI Australia value creating society.
    with regards
    Judith Penak

    1. That’s awesome that you’ve noticed a positive difference. It seems like we (in the Western world) are suddenly starting to become aware of the benefits of meditation. Thanks for sharing the kind that worked for you.

  9. Very inspiratioinal. Have been suffering with anxiety and depression for 3 years. Thank you for your words of wisdom. I have read the piece several times already and it has helped me focus on what I need to change.

  10. Anxiety and depression means too, to lose the direction in own life, and no hope exist in the near future. It is a kind of a abandonment and accept of all mist in own life. It is of course a matter of having the power to “” cleaning thoughts and feelings”” and finally, is a matter of decision. If you decide to change your state step by step, then it happens.
    I know , a proper diet helps too. Gars acid deficiency or imbalance between fatty acids omega 3 and omega 6 can be one of the factors contributing to depression. Omega 3 fatty acids are important for brain function and for the outlook you have on life. They are found in foods such as flaxseede .
    Vitamin D deficiency or deficiency of zinc, folic acid, chromium and iron are causes which may increase depression.
    Deficiency of iodine: thyroid needs iodine to run correctly. Thyroid, is one of the major endocrine system glands of the body. Function of thyroid gland affects the body, influencing body temperature, immunity and brain function.
    I hope there are some informations that can help in improving the health of the body and brain too.

  11. All this leads to the philosophy: thinking about thinking is the greatest business. We need schools for kids from age 5 or 6 that teaches thinking. We start thinking from an age, when so much of beliefs have made patterns in our mind already. And to change those patterns is a tough task, almost impossible. Restructuring school education to make kids think about thinking needs to be attempted at so that issues like anxiety, depression can be handled better. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that genetic issues also do have a large say in these matters. It is a complex issue.

    1. That’s an interesting point. I don’t know exactly how that could be carried out, but I agree. More can be done to make kids aware of their mental health at a younger age.

  12. Hi Brianna, felt much needed comfort in your soothing words.we cant exercise control over our past and future but atleast we should not let our present slip by without living it to the fullest.we may be knowing these things ourselves,still we need someone to make us aware of these facts. Keep up the good work . looking forward to reading more of your posts

  13. Lovely, empowering post, Brianna~
    I was struck by your comment that our mental health needs upkeep just as much as our physical health. Plus, it was inspiring to realize this is often easier than we realize since it is a practice of grounding, mindfulness and self-care. I find working with anxiety can be a struggle because it can infiltrate my experience in sneaky ways. However, it has been helpful to me to pay attention to my body, the wisdom it holds and take a few deep breaths, come back to the present and move forward more intentionally.

    1. I agree. I’ve read a plethora of self-help books which all reiterate the same thing, and I’m often left feeling, “Do you have any idea what this sensation of anxiety is actually like? or is my anxiety anxiety at all?”

  14. It is so refreshing to hear someone talk about the mind and brain the same way as the body, we know that if we do not maintain our body, then it will decline and health problems may follow. The same goes for the mind and brain, these also need maintenance or the same can happen. By taking the time to work on our minds we discover more about ourselves and our beliefs systems, then we can make the changes we desire to progress in life. Brianna, this is a great article and more people should take the time to discover more about their minds, and brains, and the connection between them and the physical body, thank you.

  15. When I was going through an emotional meltdown 8 years ago I knew I had to change the way I led my life. A book called “Excuse Me Your Life Is Waiting” by Lynn Grabhorn helped me to understand that I kept dragging my past into the future. Once I grasped this and used her principles to turn my life around I have learnt to live in the present being happy and positive which is continually bringing to me more happiness and manifesting the things that I do desire. It feels so good no longer living depressed and anxious all the time. I will never ever go back to that way of living. It is no fun whatsoever.

  16. At one point I had panic attacks every day. Sometimes they were quite severe. Thankfully I learned ways to reprogram my thoughts and behaviour, and now life is really amazing!

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