Transforming Depression: How Using Courage and Thinking Skills Can Change Brain Rewiring

by Dr Angel Adams and Dr Patricia Papciak

“I saw the different things you did,
But always you yourself you hid.
I felt you push, I heard you call,
I could not see yourself at all.
O wind, a-blowing all day long,
O wind, that sings so loud a song”

– Robert Louis Stevenson

Mark Twain once said that “Life doesn’t consist so much of facts and events. Instead, it consists mainly of the storm of thoughts blowing endlessly through my mind”. What thoughts do we allow to blow through our minds? Some people feel like they don’t have a choice when depressive, negative or intrusive thoughts arrive without invitation. It is our belief that we all have a choice in how we relate to our uninvited thoughts, emotions and pain. Most of us are simply doing what we have learned to do to survive dark moods, but we can also learn the tools to help us relate to them differently.

Neuroscientists have shown us through their research that we can actually rewire our brains. Traditionally it was thought that the brain was hard-wired and therefore the impact of accidents, strokes and other medical conditions were seen as permanent and untreatable. Now we know that the brain is actually malleable. Neuroscience calls it “neuroplasticity”, which means that our brains have the capability to form new neural pathways. For example, a stroke patient can be rehabilitated by another part of the brain which adapts by taking over the functioning for the affected limb.

We can also rewire our brains by what we choose to focus on, what we tell ourselves, how we see ourselves and others. In this same context we can attempt to rewire our own brains. We all know that when we practice a sport or a musical instrument, we get better at it. The physical structure of the area of the brain responsible for the skill we practice actually changes. The more we practice, the more the brain changes and the better we become at each skill.

Although this is something we are very familiar with in such activities as sports or musical skills, it is not as easily recognisable in day to day thinking. For example, people who suffer from depression often consistently compare themselves to others resulting in negative feelings about themselves. They often only observe people who can do things better than themselves, hence their thinking results in a negative attitude about themselves. We all know that there are people who are better than us at many things, but some people forget that they are better at many things when compared to others.

If this sounds familiar, it is incumbent upon you to train your brain to think more positively about yourself by consciously observing others who are not as competent as yourself in certain areas. In doing this, you will see how fortunate you are and how capable you are. Like learning any new skills however, you must spend time on using your new skill. When you practice thinking constructively and positively, you develop a skill which can train your mind to control your brain.

As we work on these new patterns in our minds, we are in a sense reinventing ourselves. We are working towards letting go of our old patterns and changing our direction towards something that opens up new worlds before us.

We can also apply this to children who have neurodevelopmental disorders. When we teach them new skills by repetition and rehearsal there are changes that occur in the functioning of the brain. Jeffrey Schwarz, author of The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, discovered that his patients were making lasting changes in their own neural pathways by actively focusing their attention away from negative behaviours and toward more positive ones. Norman Doidge author of The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumphs from the Frontiers of the Brain Science, has many examples of how remarkable achievement involving courage, skill, or strengths can change brain rewiring. His book describes the used areas of the cortex growing disproportionately large. (E.g., a study of London cab drivers’ brains showed that they tended to have a larger hippocampus – important for navigation – and a study of violinists’ brains showed that the four fingering digits of the left hand get a disproportionate amount of neural space).

The book entitled Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves by Sharon Begley is a great book to read to help the lay person understand the concept of neuroplasticity. Begley discusses this model in relationship to the treatment of depression and for recovery from stroke and other traumas. This is also a must see video about Dr Jill Bolte Taylor’s (a Brain Scientist) study of the brain from the inside out as she talks about her experience of a stroke and her courageous recovery.

Children, teens and adults can rewire their brains to decrease and diminish their depression and fear to form new brain connections that guide them to joy, passion, well-being and accomplishment. It is helpful to visualize Mark Twain’s image of the wind blowing though the mind. One might extend his metaphor to see that we actually have the power to change the weather forecast. We might focus on soft, warm tropical winds, dramatic and voluminous clouds and sun that warms us and keeps us safe. We might imagine feeling vibrant and full of exuberance like this turtle here swimming in the sunlit clear waters.

Image: A turtle swimming in the seaIn doing this we protect ourselves from harsh winds or tornadoes that might swirl and confuse us.

This process involves the imagination and our thoughts rather than the physical experience of improving a skill to change and improve the way we think about ourselves. In other words, we are using internal stimuli rather than external stimuli to cause the changes. A known story of how powerful visualization can be is the story of Muhammad Ali when he fought and knocked out Sonny Liston and became the heavy-weight champion of the world. Muhammad Ali was quite young and although he was showing great talent, no one expected him to defeat such an experienced boxer at such an early age. When he was asked about what he thought helped him to achieve this momentous moment, he said that he had visualized himself winning, that he had boosted his own confidence through positive thinking and imagining himself strong and agile in the ring with his “mind games”. Likewise, Olympic athletes often spend just as much time visualizing their performance as they do practising. They know that we can train the body through the mind, once again responding to internal stimuli as well as external stimuli.

As we work on these new patterns in our minds, we are in a sense reinventing ourselves. We are working towards letting go of our old patterns and changing our direction towards something that opens up new worlds before us. If we don’t use the old negative connections in our brains, they will eventually disappear from lack of use. We can continue to use and develop those connections that lead us towards a healthier existence.

Nature provides a good example of turning something negative into something valuable. When a grain of sand gets inside an oyster’s shell, it causes irritation and pain. The oyster’s response is to form a protective layer of material to insulate tender tissue from the source of pain. The result is something beautiful, the pearl.

JK Rowling is a person who reinvented herself. She suffered from a severe depression, and she has publicly stated that she has “never been remotely ashamed of having been depressed. I went through a really rough time and I’m quite proud of the fact that I got out of that”. The characters that she wrote about in Harry Potter and The Prisoner Of Azkaban were called the “Dementors”. They were based on her dark feelings during her episodes of depression. They were dark hooded creatures that suck out their victims’ personalities by identifying their secret fears. She described her depression as a “numbness, coldness and an inability to believe you will feel happy again. All the colour drained out of life.” She turned to writing where she made a pearl out of her pain.

In honor of Depression Awareness Week 2009 (20 – 26 April), please visit the website of Depression Alliance, which is the leading UK charity for people with depression. We also include the thoughts of a parent who has experienced loving and living with a depressed child below:

“Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?” we are often asked during pregnancy. “I really don’t mind as long as they are healthy and happy”, most of us respond. The “happiness” element of this phrase, however, is usually taken for granted by a parent. If we love them, nurture them and provide for their emotional and physical needs, then happiness is a given – isn’t it? Sadly, for many families it is not. A growing number of children and teenagers suffer from depression. Whilst adult mental health issues are becoming increasingly discussed in the media, childhood depression has not to date attracted the same attention and many children and their families are struggling to cope with its impact on a daily basis.

What does depression look like in a child or teenager? It may take time to identify as all families make allowances for childhood “phases”. The following behaviours should, however, alert a parent to a potential problem. Children and teenagers do not necessarily show all of the symptoms listed below as they change in age group and circumstances.

  • Sleeping problems – going to sleep, staying asleep throughout the night or waking too early.
  • Agitation – for instance, an inability to sit still, sluggishness, slowed thinking ability, speech or even muteness.
  • Attention and memory problems – for instance, the inability to focus in class or when doing homework.
  • Irritability – that may manifest itself in the child becoming whiny, stroppy, broody, and angry at minor things or for no apparent reason at all.
  • Isolation – The child may spend more and more time in their room, or staying at home away from friends, or begin school refusing.
  • A negative self-image – Depressed children and teenagers often have a very poor self image. They feel their hair is not right, their clothes are awful and no one likes them etc. They may begin to say derogatory statements about themselves. “I am ugly, stupid, fat, etc,” which are totally erroneous thoughts or perceptions.
  • Feeling unworthy – for instance, unworthy of being loved or not valued by others.
  • Appetite changes – which may manifest itself in eating too slowly, too much, or too little.
  • Lack of enjoyment – For instance, not enjoying activities which used to be sources of pleasure and rarely smiling and laughing.
  • Exaggerated emotions – for instance, feeling excessively guilty or self-blaming.
  • Self-harm – such as head banging, cutting and other forms of self-harm.
  • Ruminating or having obsessive thoughts.
  • Crying spells.
  • Psychosomatic problems such as stomach aches and headaches.
  • Loss of energy and fatigue.
  • Suicidal thoughts or recurring thoughts of death. If there is a thought out plan of suicide, you need to take your child to your nearest emergency ward or an urgent appoint with your GP and get help immediately.

The lack of understanding and knowledge of depression in children and teenagers increases the isolation felt by parents. Parents who are already coping with the challenges of living with a depressed child, must also deal with the following difficult and emotionally demanding tasks:

  • Getting a diagnosis.
  • Finding the right treatment (which may take time to identify and/or to take effect).
  • Managing the relationship with the child’s school.
  • Managing their child’s relationship with their friends who are unlikely to understand the changed behaviour that the child is exhibiting.
  • Explaining the situation to the affected child’s siblings and ensuring that they also get adequate parental attention and time.

Thus, what positive steps can a parent take to help the child and themselves through this difficult time? However hard a parent tries to convince themselves otherwise, a parent of a depressed child or teenager will always carry around a sense of blame and inadequacy. It is difficult but vital to accept two key facts: (1) you cannot “make” another person happy however hard you try and (2) you can only do your best and you will sometimes get it wrong. Accept that you are living under an immense strain and make sure that in response you take care of your own mental and physical well-being. Eat well. Be kind to yourself. Make sure that you take time out for you. An hour away from the problem walking or running around a park or treating yourself to a new hair cut really helps.

Tell friends and family. The more you are open with other people, the more they will feel comfortable discussing the problem with you. Most fellow parents will be very sympathetic and supportive. Be open with and communicate regularly with the child’s school. Work as a team to keep schooling going forward. This may mean reducing the school week or the length of the school day but it helps to follow a pre-agreed plan rather than struggling with an unrealistic schedule.

Try to stimulate your child’s pleasure in life by encouraging them to spend time doing what they enjoy e.g. sport, art, music etc. Maybe help them to keep a journal of the pleasurable things they are doing in their life or mood board of happy photographs, inspirational pictures and positive images. Help them to be come more aware of the negative thoughts that they hold about themselves and help them to get skilled at transforming these self-limiting thoughts into healthy constructive ones.

Nurture your relationship with your child. Keep the communication lines open, answer questions, resist making false promises and above all tell them how very much they are loved even on their darkest days. It is important not to try and cope alone. Reach out for professional help. Depression is a complex illness and there is no one size fits all treatment.

For a more in-depth look at helping and supporting your depressed child or teen, and to read from a parent (who wishes to remain anonymous) who co-authored an e-book with Dr Adams entitled How to Help Your Child Beat Depression, click on the book title link.

Thanks for taking the time to read this Monday’s Motivational article.

Please feel free to send me any comments or your own stories you wish to share, or post them on this site by leaving a comment below.

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