How I Got Through a Major Mental Health Crisis
Dr. Caroline Leaf – I recently watched the Disney movie Soul with my family. If you haven’t yet watched it, I would definitely recommend that you do. There was a lot that touched me about that movie, so much so that I intend watching it again, and you will hear me referring to it often!
The closing line of the movie was for me one of the most striking parts and spoke directly to me. The main character says, after being given a second chance at life, that “I don’t know how [I am going to do life], but I know I am going to live every minute of it”.
First thing that struck me was that it’s kind of hard to do this, especially when we have had such an awful year…I mean where and how do we even begin? For myself, besides the mess that is COVID-19, with its health and financial challenges and disastrously disturbing politics, we, as a family, have faced several scary physical and mental health challenges.
What I have really come to realize now is that, at the end of the day, life is uncontrollable and uncertain. And, after such a year, many of us, if asked, may also say something like “I don’t know how I will do life”. What I want to tell in you in this podcast, based on both my professional and personal experience, is that what we can do, and help others do, is learn to control our own reactions to do life—to “live every minute of it”.
As I mentioned above, as a family we have suffered some extreme and traumatic events this past several years, including some very recent events just this past year. Why couldn’t I, with all my knowledge, and experience be able to fix this? What am I doing wrong? What have I missed?
It was at this lowest point that the very idea of making any new year’s resolutions seemed like ridiculous motivational nonsense. My mind drifted back to the Soul movie and the closing statement and I thought: “I don’t know how I am going to do what life has just thrown at me, but I am going to try to live through this the best way I can…but, how on earth am I going to do this? How will I live in this minute?”.
I am a researcher and a mental health professional, which means I am trained to think objectively in extreme situations. But sometimes this is easier said than done! When I was at my lowest point, I started a thought experiment, on me. I started doing a NeuroCycle, a scientific tool I have researched and developed and applied clinically over 38 years. It’s a 5-step process that takes you deeper into your mind in a way that influences brain and mind health and changes brain structure. It is designed to increase resilience, and help develop clear and flexible thinking in tough situations.
I use the NeuroCycle as a lifestyle, so it comes naturally to me now—although it is something I still have to intentionally practice at times, especially in an acute situation like the one I found myself in in this past year. I was losing control and starting to succumb to despair—I was losing mental oxygen fast. So, I forced myself to start using the NeuroCycle process, even though I wanted to just sob and scream in a panic.
Here is what I did:
- I gathered awareness of the dread in the pit of my stomach: the feeling that I was already dead from the shock of what had just transpired and the layer upon layer of bad news that just kept coming. I felt sick; my chest was sore and I was overwhelmed. I kept thinking, “This cannot be happening…just 24 hours ago this person was smiling.”
- I reflected on this awareness, realizing that this situation was out of my control and I couldn’t fix it. I felt totally hopeless and useless, like I had failed my loved one. I felt despair because of their pain. I wanted to absorb it all, so they wouldn’t have any of it. I was desperate. As I probed my thoughts and feelings, I had to admit to myself that I didn’t know how to protect my loved one.
- I took out my phone and started putting “my brain on paper” by writing these thoughts and feelings into the Notes app on my phone. I felt slightly calmer at this point–I could slowly feel the chaos in my mind, brain and body begin to recede as I organized my thinking.
- As I rechecked what I had written, I saw the words: “I can’t cope; this is too much; I don’t know what to do anymore; I am going to fall apart and have a breakdown. What happens if…I failed because I didn’t prevent this…”. Seeing these statements written down made me realize that I was spiraling into this a toxic thinking cycle that would get me nowhere and would not help me, my loved one or family. So, what would help us? I had to review this situation to influence/change the outcome. I asked myself this question: “What do I need right now to reconceptualize/reimagine this situation?”. I discussed this with myself and realized I needed information and advice from peers who knew more than I did about managing this particular situation—people who could help me put together an action plan and support me and my family through this. I couldn’t really think clearly in my shocked state, but with their advice, I knew I would know how to best manage this situation. This calmed me down and I suddenly had remarkable clarity and a sense of peace. This exercise even enabled me to do a few breathing exercises to help my brain.
- I immediately launched into a series of actions I call “active reaches”, which included texting and phoning my peers (who are also my friends) for the advice I needed at that moment in time, which I could then discuss with my family, so that we could think clearly and make good decisions. This set up a series of events that gave me a feeling of autonomy and control, which prompted me to do another active reach, which was to remember the previous traumas we had gone through as a family and how we had somehow got through—we were stronger than we thought! Then I did a third active reach, where I looked at my loved one and visualized them smiling, and I hung onto this each time my mind started pulling me back to the point of the trauma. And, finally, I made peace with the uncertainty of the situation; this is life, and we will find a way through. We will find a way to live this minute, and the next minute, and the next minute.
At this point in time, I calm enough to do and say the right thing—I realized my experiment had worked, because I was no longer stuck in a “frozen panic” mode. I was back in action! Even though I was still tearful, fearful and didn’t know the end result just yet, I knew that I was going to get through this, taking it one moment at a time. I was then able to give the necessary emotional “oxygen” to my loved ones, and we all felt a bit more hope.
I don’t want to make light of this crisis, or any crisis, by saying the 5 steps of the NeuroCycle will solve it all. I am painfully aware we cannot control events and circumstances of life, and that we cannot wrap the people we love in bubble wrap and protect them from the evil out there.
Yet the one thing we can do is control how we react to all the uncertainties and tragedies of life, the good and the bad and the in-between, and find a way to “live each minute”, like the main character is Soul said. Having a mind management technique in place like the NeuroCycle allowed me to control my reactions in a crisis, so I wasn’t a useless mess and no good to myself or the people that needed me. When I started managing my mind and my reactions, I could be their advocate and the support they (and I!) needed. I had become strong in my pain. I found a way to live through that moment, and you can too.
After this experience, I decided that the best New Year’s resolution I can make is to further develop this skill of self-regulated mind management and help as many people as I can use it as well, because we all have stuff we must deal with and we all need help at times. I have always felt this, but this year has highlighted the need for mind-management strategies to help people cope.
You may have thought you were hardwired to be like this or that, to fail or to be bad at life, but the reality is that your mind is much more trainable and malleable than you think it is…that you are more resilient than you think you are. You can learn to be in the driver’s seat of your own mind through practice and mind-management skills like the NeuroCycle. This won’t make the pain of life magically go away, but it will help you make it through the pain to experience all life has to offer—to live each minute and live them well. You are lot stronger than you realize (speaking from experience!) and, when you harness this strength by training your thinking, you can deal with whatever life throws at you!
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