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5 Steps to Managing a Messy Mind, with Dr. Caroline Leaf

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

When it comes to the subject of mental health, too much of the discussion is based on the fear factors associated with brain disease and destructive conditions. This negative bias led Dr. Caroline Leaf to write her new book ‘Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess’, which helps people to understand and train their minds without all the intimidation. In this first episode in a four-part series with Dr. Leaf, she and the Amens give an overview of her 5-step method to gaining control over your thoughts.

For more info on Dr. Caroline Leaf’s new book ‘Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess’, visit https://www.cleaningupyourmentalmess.com/


Daniel Amen, MD:

Welcome to the Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast. I’m Dr. Daniel Amen.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

And I’m Tana Amen. In our podcast, we provide you with the tools you need to become a warrior for the health of your brain and body.

Daniel Amen, MD:

The Brain Warrior’s Way podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we have been transforming lives for 30 years using tools like brain SPECT imaging to personalize treatment to your brain. For more information, visit amenclinics.com.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

The Brain Warrior’s Way podcast is also brought to you by Brain MD, where we produce the highest quality nutraceuticals to support the health of your brain and body. To learn more, go to brainmd.com.

Daniel Amen, MD:

Welcome, everyone. We are here with our friend and co-crusader for [crosstalk [00:00:58].

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

I like that.

Daniel Amen, MD:

[inaudible [00:00:59] Dr. Caroline Leaf, who’s a communication pathologist, a cognitive neuroscientist with a Master’s and PhD in communication pathology. She’s from South Africa. She’s a best-selling author. She is, like me, and a huge believer in neuroplasticity. And she has a brand new book called Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess: Five Simple Scientifically Proven Steps to Reduce Anxiety, Stress, and Toxic Thinking. So, my goodness, we are living in a society of toxic thinking.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Boy, are we ever.

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

[inaudible [00:01:49].

Daniel Amen, MD:

So, welcome, my friend.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Yeah, welcome.

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

Thank you so much. So lovely seeing you both again.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Absolutely.

Daniel Amen, MD:

So, why this book at this point in time? It seems like it’s coming out at a perfect time, when the incidents of mental health problems is skyrocketing.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

And I asked her this, because I know how long it takes to write a book, I asked her this on my Instagram interview. She did not know, just like we didn’t know, that there was a quarantine. If you believe in coincidence, but I would love to hear why you chose to write it when you did.

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

Well, it was a long time coming, but as you say, I didn’t know about the pandemic and that was when I had actually allocated a bunch of time, just before the pandemic started, was when I was going to finish writing this because I had just finished the clinical trials. And I just finished doing the analysis, and I said, “Well, now I’ll sit down to write the book,” and thinking, “How am I going to do this?” because I’ve traveled 70% of the month. And then the pandemic hit, so I actually had time to sit and write the book. And it was just incredible because I really had the results and that kind of thing from the trials, and I’d been doing this for so long. And I wanted to bring in this whole, as we say, the narrative that all three of us share, against what currently is happening in mental health. And it’s made it such a negative thing and it’s made it so out of people’s…

People are so frightened of their minds. They’re not understanding it. And I really wanted to bring to everyone into the hands what it means to have a mind and what it means to be human again. And as a human, we in life experimenting, and we don’t always make the right decisions. And we make a mess, and that’s okay. If you feel depression and anxiety, it’s part of being human. So, I wanted to get away from the narrative of constantly, the scary brain disease story and that you don’t have control, back to, “Hey, listen, we are humans. We can train our mind. Our mind is this trainable thing. And it’s not your brain, and it can work through the brain, and the brain is [inaudible [00:03:46].” And it was just so appropriate that it came out at this time.

But I think it’s [inaudible [00:03:50] in fact all of our work, it’s always timely because mental health has always been an issue. And it’s something I’ve been saying in all my interviews, is that from the beginning of time till now, we’ve will been battling with our mind. Just each generation, there’s just something else that we’re dealing with, and we happen to be dealing with technology and pandemic and that kind of thing. But mental health is not something new, and I just wanted to make people feel less frightened and have more accessible understanding of mind and brain and the autonomy. And that’s why I put the clinical trials in and did it the way that I wrote the book.

Daniel Amen, MD:

And you talk about five steps, so let’s talk about step number one in this podcast. What is the first step to reducing anxiety, stress, and toxic thinking?

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

So, the first step… Well, if I can just quickly backtrack a few seconds. The five step system is what I developed over 38 years ago, initially, in a very therapeutic sense, for people with traumatic brain injuries and severe trauma, war trauma, Alzheimer’s, autism, they’re kind of learning disabilities. Then I adapted it into the education system and corporate and government. And then, eventually, I started saying to myself, “But this is something all of us need to understand and know how to do. And what is it? It’s all mind. We need to understand mind.” And there just was not enough research around mind. And there was so much research, as we know, the neuroscientific explosion has been amazing, but it’s made us very focused on the biological that we’ve forgotten about the interaction with mind.

So, I really wanted to hone in on mind and understand mind what it is. What are thoughts? What are emotions? What is mind? What is the brain? And how can we use our mind to change our mind, to clean up the mental mess to direct the neuroplasticity in our brain? And I started that back in the ’80s when they still told us… You remember, Daniel, they were telling us the brain couldn’t change in the ’80s. And I remember one of my professors saying this to me, not my neuroscience professor, and I said, “I don’t see this, because we’re always changing as humans. We’re always experiencing different things.” So, they said, “Well, that’s a ridiculous question if you think the mind can change, the brain.” I said, “Okay, well give me the worst population, and I’ll do research.” And they said, “Okay, work with traumatic brain injury.” And I started, and I did some of the first work in my field showing that if you deliberately and intentionally manage your mind, you can change your brain.

And out of that was burst the five steps, because I was trying to take complex neuroscientific principles and therapeutic principles and all of this stuff and trying to make it into an accessible way of, “How can I help someone deliberately and intentionally change their mind?” So, the very first phase of it was working with people with learning disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, and so on. And it was very much helping them to restore function and to go back to like if they were at school and they’d lost that ability to get back to school, get back to work.

And the five steps, then, just grew, and it’s a systematic way of deliberately and intentionally driving your mind to be able to then improve how you’re functioning in your mind, which obviously then changes brain and body. So, over the ensuing years, I developed [inaudible [00:06:54], developed this theory, did clinical trials. And I still do research, and as you saw in the book, I’ve put a summary of the recent research showing the importance of the mind/brain into action, even down to the level of telomeres. So, that’s kind of the background. So, the five steps has got a nice long history, and it’s been simplified over the years.

And it’s basically, our mind has got two [inaudible [00:07:15] zones, for want of a better word. And I always explain it in a very simple analogy would be, if you imagine yourself in a helicopter, but it’s a time machine and you are the pilot and you’re the copilot. And the pilot’s the messy one, like all over experimenting, flying, learning to fly kind of thing, and the co-pilots the wise mind. And we see neurobiologically that we are wired for love, and we know that there’s an optimism bias in it. So, our whole being is drawn towards a balancing imbalance. That’s why we have the immune system, it’s getting rid of the virus. Same thing with toxic thoughts, it creates an imbalance.

So, our wise mind’s this deep inner wisdom that we have, and that’s the copilot. And what we don’t listen to in our busy world is we don’t really listen to our co-pilot. We don’t tune in sufficiently to that. So, the first step to gather awareness is for us to train our messy mind, which is actually not a bad thing, our messy mind, the pilot, is what’s very actively conscious when we’re awake. we don’t know what’s coming up. Life happens, and we’re responding. From the time we wake up till the time you go to bed, the [inaudible [00:08:18] the emails happen, the conversations, the work, and we’re constantly responding.

And if we don’t self-regulate that and manage that, the mind’s working anyway, the mind never stops, and it’s the mind that’s processing that into the brain. And the mind is how we think, feel, and choose. And if we don’t manage that, it’s very messy, and that’s okay to be messy, but [inaudible [00:08:37] supposed to manage messy. So, we do experiment. I’ve always said that our conscious mind, the pilots in the helicopter is a very messy kind of experiment of, “Okay, I’ve got irritated today, now I’m fine here. So, it’s regulating yourself, it’s experimenting. But we’ve got to train ourselves to listen more to the copilot.

So, gather awareness is the whole five-step process of the neuro cycle, is all about self-regulation. It’s all about mind management, managing our mind, which is 99% of who we are. And it’s always working, regardless of… You wake up with your mind, you eat with your mind, you drink with your mind, you talk with your mind, you go to sleep with your mind. It never stops for three seconds. So, therefore, we need to manage it, and the five steps is how we manage our mind. For the big stuff like the traumas, like you talk about in your book, and then for the day-to-day stuff that you’re dealing with in terms of just basic dealing with imposter syndrome. If you’re looking at something [inaudible [00:09:29] watching social media, which is such a huge thing with imposter syndrome, especially with our Gen Z, and just the little things that can happen on a day-to-day basis.

So, what I bring to the table with the five steps is how can I actually be consciously, deliberately self-regulating my mind all the time? And that begs the question of how often can you do it? So, neuroscience shows us we can do this every 10 seconds. It doesn’t mean we watch our clock every 10 seconds, it means that we can be very deliberate and conscious of, “How am I thinking? How am I feeling? How am I choosing? How am I expressing myself? What’s my body language? What was my reaction? What was the impact of my reaction?” We can do that in the moment, and in doing that, we can also see our patterns. What are the patterns in our life? What are the addictions? What are the cycles? What are those things that are holding me back?

So, then that you then would take the neuro cycle into a deeper level where you would do it daily for 15 to 45 minutes over the 63 day cycle. So, that’s the two applications, the moment by moment, and then the big stuff, the traumas and so on and the toxic habits, the established stuff that you would do in cycles of 63 days, which is also part of the research that I just recently did. Because we all think that it takes 21 days to build a habit. It doesn’t. It takes 21 days for reconceptualization to happen, which means you can convert a toxic thought to a healthy thought, but it takes another 42 days to stabilize that. So, behavior change won’t happen unless you work in these cycles. So, the five steps is basically used on those two different levels.

So, the first step, very quickly, because I know that we’re running out of time with the first segment, is to gather awareness. So, it’s just start the process of getting very self-regulated. And I chose the word specifically gather because gather implies you have agency and control. So, if you think of a huge, big apple tree that’s full of poison apples and it’s this big, ugly apple tree, and here you are the pilot and the copilot, and you’re flying over this massive forest which are all your thoughts, because thoughts look like trees. So, that’s the scenario, this huge, big forest, and you’re flying over. Most of it’s green. Through the middle, there’s this dark strip of dark green trees that are perfect, and that’s your wisdom mind, which is really what the co-pilot has access to. And then [inaudible [00:11:34] messy mind, and you’re flying over this forest and you’ve got this tree, this smoke signal, from this big lot a lot of dark trees, and those thoughts look like trees. That’s why I use that analogy.

And you make the decision to gather awareness of that signal. What is that signal? The depression, the anxiety, those addiction patterns, whatever it is, those may be just getting all the time or getting irritated, whatever it is that’s the most dominant thing blocking you at that moment-

Daniel Amen, MD:

[inaudible [00:11:58] we have to go off to the next segment. But if I understand right, it’s actually getting a bit of psychological distance from the noise that [inaudible [00:12:11] in your head, and just become aware and separate yourself from it.

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

Absolutely. Exactly that, but it’s gathering this… That’s kind of the preparation phase for the whole five step process where you create that distance and these different techniques, I talk about doing that. But then to gather awareness is where you actually land the plane. You pay attention to the signal, depression, anxiety. You land your little helicopter, and you get out and you stand back. And you don’t stand under the apple tree so that… We often get into life and we just get overwhelmed. We just throw ourselves in and we just get overwhelmed and don’t know what to do.

So, the first step is to stand back, create the distance, create the space. It’s called the multiple perspective advantage. And like you pick apples off a tree, you control it. You have agency, you can reach out and pick the apples off the tree. And you would look at different signals, so you’d look at your emotional signals, like depression, anxiety, frustration. You look at your physical signals, like your body, what your body [inaudible [00:13:07], GI symptoms, or whatever they may be. Your behaviors. What are you doing? How are you showing up in the world? And then your perspectives. So, you’ve gathered those, but you have agency. You’ve taken control. And that’s very important with the gather awareness portion of the first step, which is a very quick overview.

Daniel Amen, MD:

So, when we come back, we’ll summarize that a little bit, and we’ll talk about two. So helpful.

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

Perfect.

Daniel Amen, MD:

The issue of psychological [inaudible [00:13:32] is critical so you don’t believe every stupid little thing.

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

Exactly. As you say, the dragons.

Daniel Amen, MD:

Stay with us.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

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Daniel Amen, MD:

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