Archive,  Mental Health

Four Barriers to Overcoming Mental Ill-Health and Fixing Them

Dr. Caroline Leaf – Mental training via deep thinking and understanding to build memory and learning actually increases the numbers of neurons that develop in the brain, particularly when the training goals are challenging.

Everyone seems to be talking about mental health these days, and what we should do about it. Many of us have personal experience, whether our own or that of a loved one, of mental distress we are human, after all. No one said that life would always be smooth and happy.

Yet mental ill-health does not have to take over our lives. Our minds are incredibly powerful we can change the way we think, and how we live our lives, by changing our thinking.

But how? What are some of the main barriers to overcoming mental ill-health? And how can we fix them?

• The lack of knowledge. Today, many people assume that mental ill-health is solely biological: this person has a chemical imbalance, for example, so they behave in this way. Notwithstanding the lack of conclusive scientific evidence for the chemical imbalance theory, which I wrote about in a recent blog, many people still tend to medicalize the human condition by locating the cause of mental distress inside the person’s brain rather than as part of that individual’s unique life story. It is not so much about trying to help someone deal with what is going on in their life as it is numbing their symptoms, which leads people to overlook the root cause of the distress. The actual cause or causes (such as abuse or poverty) of the person’s mental anguish is often left to fester, causing more damage in the long run, alongside the negative side-effects of psychotropic drugs, which include sexual dysfunction and suicide. We need to stop seeing people as biological machines that are broken, and start seeing people as human beings that have unique experiences, which result in unique reactions to those experiences. This is incredibly important if we want to start helping people who are going through incredibly difficult times. The first step to overcoming mental ill-health is to focus on someone’s story, not just their biology.

How can you do this? Practice listening to others in a nonjudgmental, loving, and supportive way as often as you can. In fact, make this your modus operandi: look at the person and just listen until they finish, then ask, “How can I help you? What do you need?” Try to understand what they have been through, and always assume the best first. Create positive energy, or “loveness.” Don’t jump to conclusions and assume the worst about a situation or person before getting to know them.

It is also important to stay informed about current developments in mental health! Check out my blogs and podcasts, as well as Mad in America, which is an online community of professionals, academics and patients seeking alternatives to the current system of mental health.

• The lack of motivation. It is very hard to be motivated to deal with a difficult period in our lives if we do not know who we are, or if we think that there is something wrong with us. As I spoke about in my blog last week and I talk about in my book The Perfect You, mental health labels can often lock people in, making them believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with them that this is “just the way things are.” When people take on this identity, the nocebo effect kicks in, and what someone starts believing about themselves often comes true in this case with very negative results. On the other hand, when people begin to see how powerful their minds are, and when they begin to realize just how amazing they are, they are encouraged to fight for the person they want to become the person they are at their core. When this happens, they start to realize that it is not just about “stepping outside of the box”; it is about realizing that when it comes to human potential, there is no box.

In my book the Perfect You, I have included the cutting-edge, evidence-based neuroscientific, neuropsychological, quantum physics and other research, which I used in my clinical practice over the years to teach people how to find their identity again. I outline, in a practical way, the importance of understanding your identity and how to develop a lifestyle of finding and developing your Perfect You – who you are at your core. I meld together spiritual, psychological, and physiological research to help you choose to live a life of love and purpose. The Perfect You can help you understand the science behind your character, that is your capacity to think, feel and choose in a way that aligns with the unique design of your brain. And, once you begin to understand who you are, you can improve the way you process and reconceptualize the issues of life, your decision-making, your relationships, how you cope at work, school and at home, your sense of joy and purpose, and ultimately your mental health, which will enable you to function in and contribute to society.

Interested in learning more? This month we are tackling the issue of identity and mental health in my PERFECT YOU book club!

• Fear. We often fear what we do not know, or what we do not understand. For many people, labels like “bipolar” or “schizophrenia” tend to conjure up frightening images of dangerous, psychotic people. We are struggle with our mental health from time to time – it is a part of life. And when we let fear dominate our relationships, we create toxic thinking patterns in our own brains, which, in turn, affects our mental and physical health!

As I spoke about in my blog last week, mental health labels tend to dehumanize people suffering from mental ill-health, to “other them”, and stop us from asking questions about their past, or seeing their distress as a unique and human response to their experiences. When it comes to mental health, we need to constantly remind ourselves that we are not talking about machines – we are talking about people like us, yet people with different experiences, and people who see the world in a different way. Fear can often stop us from helping people, but compassion and love are the foundation for change. We are wired for love, and when we reach out to help others, we help ourselves as well!

Want to learn more about the current mental health system and how we can use love as therapy? Listen to my podcast with mental health advocate and psychiatrist Dr. Peter Breggin.

• The lack of mental toughness. When it comes to mental ill-health, few people focus on the importance of learning for developing mental resilience and improving cognitive health. In my book Think, Learn, Succeed, I talk about how building the brain occurs when we think deeply and intentional. When we do this in the correct way, we increase our intellectual capacity, cognitive clarity and mental flexibility, which improves our physical and mental health and our memory. When we do not build memory correctly, on the other hand, we build toxic structures into our brains, which can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety, intrusive chaotic thoughts and even psychotic breaks. The 5-step learning technique I have researched and developed over the past 30 years, which I discuss in the book, is a productive, knowledge-gaining process that enhances the information we receive in a successful way for whatever purpose we need it for, including managing mental distress. This goes beyond mindfulness and other mind-management processes, and thus requires significant time and effort. However, the effort that is worth expending because of the process’ positive impact on our mental and physical health.

How can you can start building your mental toughness? Challenges can bring out the best in us. Getting to the other side of a challenge brings a sense of happiness in the achievement, toughening the mind and setting the stage for the next challenge with the addition of the new skills you have gained from the challenge. Mental training via deep thinking and understanding to build memory and learning actually increases the numbers of neurons that develop in the brain, particularly when the training goals are challenging. This growth of neurons with their dendrites (where memory is actually stored) means long-term, useful, and meaningful memories are formed, thereby toughening the mind and forming the basis for success. So choose to do something every day that challenges your mind, whether it is reading a book, learning a language, or studying something that interests you. Plan ahead and choose something that will help you expand your knowledge base and help you develop mental resilience.

My new mind detox app SWITCH also focuses on helping people overcome mental distress, anxiety and depression through dealing with, overcoming and reconceptualising their experiences. Based on 30 years of research and clinical practice, I developed this program using my 5-step learning process mentioned above, which is a practical, step-by-step technique that helps individuals work through traumatic thought patterns over a period of 63 days, which is roughly how long it takes to build a new thought habit. For more information see

Further Reading:

Think, Learn, Succeed
The Perfect You
Switch on Your Brain
Why Mental Health Labels are Dangerous
The Chemical Imbalance Myth
How to Build Mental Toughness
You are Not a Victim of Your Biology
5 Myths About the Brain

For more articles by Dr. Leaf click here.

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