My original plan was to write about my intensive outpatient program (IOP) experience as it happened, but I quickly realized I am way too emotional to pull that off (surprise surprise). The first few times I attended, I came home so full of emotions. I was buzzing with having just told a bunch of strangers about my shit, the burden of listening to other peoples’ shit, and still not really understanding what I was hoping to accomplish. It was almost inevitable that Brian and I would get in a fight on those days if he was home from work; I was a wasps nest just waiting for someone to bother me. As the days went on and I started processing everything more efficiently that all died down, for which Brian and I were both VERY grateful. Now that I have my head on a little bit straighter, and the official bipolar II diagnosis, I thought I’d start sharing all of the great stuff I keep saying I’ve learned. Ready!?
A lot of this will sound extremely elementary if you’re neuro-typical. But for me it has been life-changing.
The first thing I learned, which I have come back to every fucking hour since I learned it, is about neuroplasticity and pathways. FRIENDS, DID YOU KNOW YOU CAN RE-WIRE YOUR BRAIN FOR HAPPINESS?????????????????????????? Where was this information my whole life?!!!!! I even took advanced psych! It’s entirely possible that I was actually taught this before, but I was probably distracted.
If you know me on a personal level, you know I’m an atheist who really likes to call bullshit. I believe it when I see it. I trust in science. I’ve been to hundreds of yoga classes where they’ve talk about a mind/body connection. I’ve tried to clear my mind and find peace and think happy and show more optimism. While I had heard quips of this “happiness” and how simple it is to get there, it wasn’t until it was presented in a scientific way that it started making sense. It’s not just your “mind,” it’s actual biology.
Neural pathways are connections formed in the brain by neurons. They communicate stuff. They form habits. The more you exercise them, like your muscles, the stronger they become. The more you worry, the more inclined you are to worry. The more you think negatively, the more it becomes a habit to only see the bad. When you talk down to yourself repeatedly, it just becomes truth - literally.
It takes 21 DAYS to form a new habit. The average major depressive episode is 20 WEEKS!!! Some women with PPD can suffer anywhere from 1-3 years. So of COURSE those thoughts will become engrained. This shit is real. It is NOT your fault that it happened. But you CAN help turn it around.
Start paying attention. Pay attention to your thoughts, both intentional and intrusive/unhelpful. When they’re negative or antagonizing, challenge them. Ask them why? Where’s the evidence? Make them prove it. There’s a solid chance they won’t be able to back up their claims. And every time you defeat them, you make them weaker. The pathways become less prominent. Every. Time.
I like to imagine a little grumpy old man named Cranky Blanky (that’s what Brian calls me when I’m in a mood) walking along my brain grooves like a dirt road; every pass making a deeper and deeper rut. This is how my habits are formed, and also how habits are changed. Your neurons don’t care what they’re communicating, they don’t filter by what is true and what is irrational. So after all of these years of depression and anxiety (a solid 15+years), I had quite the maze of deep, negative, and irrational paths that Mr. Cranky Blanky had trod.
But - how amazing is it that we can change this? I’m only three weeks in on my journey to change my brain, but I can already notice a huge difference. When I have my negative or irrational thoughts (literally all of them), I challenge them. I turn that little old man around and send him back the other way. Or I try, at least. But trying counts! Trying is practice, and it takes practice to change habits.
NOW - I’m not going to sit here pretending that this shit is easy. It isn’t. If you’re like me, you need medicine before this can even become conceivable. The first time I went to therapy 2.5 years ago, I wasn’t medicated. Everything had gotten really bad while I was in Honduras 6 months before, and it was my first attempt at help. She tried to have me do cognitive behavioral therapy, which is basically what I’m learning now. Changing your thoughts/behaviors with practical exercises, but I was frustrated because I just. couldn’t. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t reverse ONE thought. It was really bad, and I left soon after to seek a psychiatrist. Meds (for depression) were the key to quieting my mind enough to even consider attempting to change my brain. When your thoughts have been conditioned for so long, they becomes very stubborn. Meds can help loosen them up and become more open-minded (meta af). Sometimes meds are necessary. And that’s okay.
(it’s actually more than okay…..it’s incredible. fucking science!)
It’s also not that easy because it’s intimidating. You’ve been chillin in your depression for so long, and it’s comfy now. Change is scary. But it’s worth it. In my next few blog posts I’ll share what I’ve been doing to help my body and encourage the change. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly not as hard as I imagined. The reward has been worth every effort.
I challenge you to confront an intrusive/irrational/negative thought today! Just one! See how it feels. Look at the evidence. Politely redirect your Cranky Blanky.
Now go take your meds!