Can You Treat Mental Illness Without A Doctor? with Dr. James Gordon

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

If you suffer from a mental health condition and decide to seek treatment from a psychiatrist, you may have an underwhelming experience. The truth is that most psychiatrists don’t give their patients the proper time and attention needed to discover the best methods of treatment for a particular patient. Luckily, there are some things you can do to diagnose and treat these issues on your own. In the second episode of a series with Dr. James Gordon, the Amens and Dr. Gordon tell you how.

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Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome to the Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.
Tana Amen: 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.
Dr. Daniel Amen: 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
Tana Amen: 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
Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome back. We're here with psychiatrist, Dr. James Gordon. We're honored to have him on the Brain Warrior's Way Podcast. He's the author of the brand new book, Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma. So let's just jump right back into it and talk about some of the symptoms, or how would people know? Because what I've found is a lot of people will diminish or even deny the trauma.
I published a big study on 21,000 people looking at SPECT scans we do here at Amen Clinics on the difference between PTSD and traumatic brain injury. They show up very differently on scans. For emotional trauma, we actually see heightened activation of limbic structures in their brain, anterior cingulate, medial thalamus, amygdala, basal ganglia, and it looks like a diamond pattern. And that showed up in the studies, as well. With traumatic brain injury, we see decreases, because those circuits have been damaged.
What I noticed was I'll see the diamond, but I don't see a history of trauma, and sometimes you just see the diamond and there's no history of trauma, but sometimes when you ask them they'll go, "Oh, I was almost molested but I really wasn't." And it was a terribly traumatic situation for them. And like people forget they've had traumatic brain injuries ... That's one of the big lessons we've learned from imaging ... they can forget or repress as a psychological defense mechanism against trauma.
Tana Amen: And don't you think that, though, sometimes people do that as a way to survive and they don't want to be messed up, they don't want to be broken, so they will do that as a way to cope?
Dr. James Gordon: So first of all, I want to see that study and read that book because that's really interesting to me. I think you're right that a lot of people suppress the trauma because it's too overwhelming. And we know that when trauma is overwhelming, one of the responses is amnesia, and people simply don't remember. And that is a way of protecting themselves. That's part of what we called the freeze response. When we deal with a challenge in our life, and the challenges, we react to emotional challenges as if they were physical threats to our life, our lives. That's part of our evolutionary history. That's the fight or flight response. But when the trauma is overwhelming and inescapable, fight or flight doesn't do the job. It doesn't protect us. And so we have to go into what's called a freeze response, which is a kind of total shutdown.
Now, both fight or flight and freeze are designed evolutionarily to be quickly turned on and quickly turned off. The problem is not with the responses. The problem is when the responses continue long after the trauma is over. So the people you're describing who experienced some kind of trauma likely went into fight or flight for a while and then when the trauma was overwhelming, they went into this freeze response. They shut down emotionally. They're putting out and endorphins to protect themselves against the pain, and they're removing themselves psychologically from what they experience. Sometimes people will say, "I was outside of my body watching myself get beat up or watching myself get raped," and they also forget.
So I think one of the ways that we ... To come back to your original question, one of the ways we begin thinking about the trauma that might be there is the one that you pointed out. Symptoms are happening. Things are happening that we can't really explain. And then if we give people a little bit of time to reflect, perhaps teach them some meditative techniques that allow their minds to open, decrease the anxiety, then they may begin to remember some of these things that have happened to them that are causing fears that are otherwise and explicable. "Why am I so nervous about being close to people or being in a tight space? What's that about?"
Tana Amen: What do you think about EMDR for doing that?
Dr. James Gordon: I'm sorry?
Tana Amen: What do you think about EMDR therapy?
Dr. James Gordon: I think EMDR, what I've heard from people who have experienced it is that it's sometimes very helpful for people. We don't know exactly how it works, but it's a way of deconditioning some of these memories. It works very well for some people and not so well for others. It's not a topic. I mean, I covered it briefly in The Transformation, what I'm focusing on in The Transformation or all those techniques that we can do for ourselves.
Tana Amen: Oh, interesting.
Dr. James Gordon: EMDR requires a therapist. And again, the research literature is pretty good showing its effectiveness. So what I encourage people to do is to adopt the kind of comprehensive approach to self-care that I'm teaching as foundational, and then to explore other approaches that seem like they might be interesting and might be promising. EMDR is one of them.
Dr. Daniel Amen: If we stair step, and so I published a study on EMDR in police officers who were involved in shootings and they all went off work because of the emotional stress of it, and they all had the diamond pattern I talked about and they all ended up going back to work. In their followup scans, the EMDR had calmed down their emotional brain.
Dr. James Gordon: Interesting.
Dr. Daniel Amen: But what I liked is if you been traumatized, well, what are the things you can do? Because ultimately that is mental health, by you taking some control, not just randomly giving it to a professional who's giving you 15 minutes every six months to, "Here, let me refill your medication," which happens way too often. I had a patient just this week, that was the issue. So what can I do, which you talk about in The Transformation, and then, well, what are some therapeutic things that you can do before you try medication?
Tana Amen: I love that because one of my favorite words is responsibility. It's the ability to respond, right? So I love ... That's taking personal responsibility and becoming your own advocate, which then puts you in a position of power and if you do need more help than that, I think you're more able to access it and reach out.
Dr. James Gordon: Yes. The way I approach it is the beginning is bringing ourselves back into the biological and psychological knowledge. And essentially, the two first techniques that I teach, one is the antidote to the fight or flight response and the other the antidote to the freeze response. The antidote to the fight or flight is that I teach is simple, slow, deep breathing with your belly soft and relaxed and the eyes closed focusing on the breath, on the word soft as you breathe in, belly as you breathe out, and on the feeling of relaxation in your belly. That's the antidote to the fight or flight response. It decreases blood pressure, decreases heart rate, decreases activity in the amygdala that you were talking about, that center of fear and anger, mobilizes activity in the frontal cortex, areas of judgment and self-awareness and compassion that had been shut down by the fight or flight response to trauma, and also increases activity in cranial nerves that make it easier to tune into other people and be connected. So that's the first piece.
The second piece is I get people up moving their bodies and the techniques I use or technically called expressive meditations. Slow, deep, soft belly breathing is a concentrative meditation. You're focusing on the breath, the words soft and belly, and the feeling of relaxation. Concentrated meditations or part of all the world's major religious and spiritual traditions. Expressive meditations, which can be fast, deep breathing, jumping up and down and shouting, shaking and dancing, whirling, many more of them, these are the oldest meditative techniques on the planet. All of our ancestors did them. All indigenous people do them, and we need to bring these back into our current system.
Dr. Daniel Amen: I actually used that with a patient. I read that in a summary of your book, and I used that with the patient on Monday and it was very helpful.
Tana Amen: It's so funny you guys are talking about that. I never intended to get one black belt, let alone two and a second degree in one of them. It's because martial arts does that for me. Practicing martial arts feels empowering. For that hour of intense focus, I'm not thinking about anything else except for I feel really good, and so it does that, and so eventually you just go far enough.
Dr. James Gordon: I want to make a bit of a distinction. Martial arts is fabulous. Martial arts is meditative. There's no question. We can bring mindfulness to any of those physical activities, and those are centering and also energizing and relaxing. The expressive meditations are not organized in the same way, so the shaking and dancing is deliberately breaking up fixed patterns, so next time-
Dr. Daniel Amen: It's state. It's what Tony Robbins would say, "Change your state."
Tana Amen: Right.
Dr. James Gordon: All you need to do is stand up with your feet shoulder width and start shaking from your feet up for your whole body for five or six or 10 minutes-
Tana Amen: Oh, interesting.
Dr. James Gordon: ... and then relax for a couple of minutes and then let your body move to music.
Tana Amen: Okay.
Dr. Daniel Amen: All right. When we come back-
Dr. James Gordon: Okay.
Dr. Daniel Amen: We're going to talk more about this. It's so helpful, so practical. Diaphragmatic breathing's something I've been teaching my patients for so long. It's so helpful. I think they should teach it to every second grader. Stay with us.
Dr. James Gordon: Yes. Absolutely.
Dr. Daniel Amen: We will be back with Dr. Gordon, the author of Transformation. It's out now. Pick it up.
Tana Amen: If you're enjoying The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast, please don't forget to subscribe so you'll always know when there's a new episode. And while you're at it, feel free to give us a review or five star rating, as that helps others find the podcast.
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