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How to Find the Roots of Your Psychological Troubles, with Dr. Caroline Leaf

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

This week’s series of The Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast features our guest and good friend Dr. Caroline Leaf, who outlines some of the major takeaways from her new book ‘Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess’. In this episode, Dr. Leaf explains the second step in her 5-step process to cleaning up your mind, which is reflection. Dr. Leaf and the Amens give you practical tips to go deeper into your mind to explore and define the roots of your psychological issues, which is a vital step for learning to control 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 BrainMD, where we produce the highest quality nutraceuticals to support the health of your brain and body. To learn more, go to brainmd.com.

Welcome back. We are still here with our friend, Dr. Caroline Leaf. She’s written an amazing book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. It’s five simple, scientifically-proven steps to reduce anxiety, stress, and toxic thinking. And in the last segment, we talked about gaining distance and also being able to sort of step back and look at the problem, and having agency, being able to choose, correct?

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

Absolutely.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

So we want to jump into step two. What is step two of Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess?

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

So once you’ve gathered awareness, as we’ve mentioned, you’ve gathered, then you’ve taken control. So that’s why it’s gather, not just let it fall on your head. And you’re very specific. Let’s say it’s day one… Because you always work in cycles of 63 days. You may only have the energy or the mental space just to focus on one or two of the signals. So you don’t have to rush the process, and that’s really important. With gathering, you keep control all the time.

And we see from neuroscience that the minute that you’re aware, which is this gather awareness is so important as you move into step two, is that when you are aware of something, the toxic thought literally… Now, I always use a lot of trees… The toxic thought literally moves into the conscious mind and it becomes more malleable. And that means it’s more changeable. So it’s about gathering awareness. We now are swapping from being controlled, where it’s suppressed, to controlling. And that in itself is quite painful. And that’s why I always say with these five steps, when you’re working with them, with the big stuff, the toxic thoughts and the traumas and those kind of things, you’re not going to do it for long. You just do 15 to 45 minutes a day. So you gather awareness. If you’re doing 15 minutes, you’d spend just three or four minutes on that. And then you would go to your reflect.

So step two is the reflect and reflect in… By the way, I always use the trees as thoughts, because thoughts look like trees in the brain and, like trees, they’ve got branches and roots, and so do thoughts. So the roots would be the source. So the origin that would be the trauma experience, all the roots of it, and then that would manifest in your interpretation of the trauma. So this is how you think and feel about yourself. So maybe sexual trauma, like in your case, and maybe there’s the whole perspective of, “I’m not good enough” and shame and all that kind of thing. And that’s how you show up in the world in terms of behavior.

So when we do the five steps, you’re being a thought detective. You literally are looking at the signals in the plane, landing the plane, and gathering awareness and checking back to find out why am I doing it? Because the overarching thing is we don’t just show up for no reason. However we show up has a reason, and those reasons are what we need to underscore, find out and embrace process and reconceptualize. So we’re not just going to chop the head off the weeds in the garden because it’ll just grow back. We have to do the work. And that’s hard. And we all talk about that. The three of us talk about that all the time. There’s no quick fix. We live in a world that wants to give us quick fixes, so we’ve been kind of trained in the last 40 years for quick fixes. But it’s not a quick fix.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

I really like that. I want to make sure we say that again. Because it sounds simple, but it’s really important. However you show up has a reason. We’ve got to get to that root cause. So it’s really important to look at the root cause. And sometimes people really avoid that. Something that we try to avoid the most is what is that root cause because it’s painful. But however you show up has a reason and that’s important. I just wanted to sort of highlight-

Daniel Amen, MD:

I talk to my patients a lot about going into the pain rather than going away from the pain.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Me, too. Right.

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

No, that’s so good.

Daniel Amen, MD:

So, step one, awareness-

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

Gather awareness, yeah-

Daniel Amen, MD:

Gathering awareness is to-

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

It’s reflect.

Daniel Amen, MD:

To reflect on it. So how do people do that, practically?

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

So, reflect. Basically that’s where you ask, answer, and discuss. If you think of a light shining through a prism, it goes in one color, it comes out the colors of the rainbow. So there’s a depth to reflection. That’s why I chose the word reflect. It’s got an enormous depth to it. So where you ask, answer, discuss, and you’re exploring, and you really are finding out why do I have those feelings, those warning signals of depression? And I say specifically, you’re reflecting on what you’ve gathered. What’s in your basket? You’re reflecting on the emotional warning signals, the physical warning signals, the behavioral warning signals, the perspective warning signals. Because all of those are telling you… They’re warning signals. They’re messengers. They’re telling you something.

To go to your point that you made a moment ago, they’re telling you something about this, and your whole objective in terms of the analogy with the five steps is to actually get to the point where you actually dig up the sand around the roots, uproot this tree, and reconceptualize it into a new healthy thought. And that new healthy thought, as you’re going through the gather, reflect, and the five steps is if you look deeply inside the tree, you’ll see there’s dark leaves and there’s light leaves. And I did this on purpose because reconceptualization doesn’t mean that once you find the root cause that you eliminate… your story goes. It’s there, like you tell your story in your book. And we all have our stories.

Basically your story is just reconceptualized. So now the green part is how you’ve chosen to live your future not chained to the past and that the light leaves are the story, but it’s changed. And that’s what you’re getting to. That’s where healing will come. Healing will never come if you just chop the head off and it’ll grow back like the roots in the garden. So reflect is then the process of, “Why am I feeling that emotional warning signal of anxiety and depression?” And then you answer yourself, “And I’m feeling it, I think, because of…” And then you have whatever your answer… “Why?” And then answer again. So you’re going through this process of very deliberate and intentionally digging deeper.

With each of these stages, what I showed with my research is that you’re creating more coherence in the brain. I mean, I’m speaking to the brain doctor. So you know exactly what that means, but the vital importance of… I look at more at the alpha, beta, delta, gamma, theta, those waves. And what we saw was that as people start going deeper with the reflect, where you start asking, answering, and discussing, we created a beautiful… starting to create a beautiful flow between the two sides of the brain and you’re starting to create introspection. So alpha will increase across the front part of the brain, which helps you to dig deeper. And then as you’re reflecting, that information that you gather, it’s very systematic. This process is very systematic. You don’t blend it all together. You don’t grab one signal and then unpack it. You grab the signal and then you stick to the next step very systematically.

So reflect is very much ask, answer, discuss. Ask, answer, discuss. That discuss portion is extremely important, because you want to start taking yourself and introspecting and going as deep as you can to find out why. Now this is really hard work and what I showed in my research is the treatment effect, that things will get worse before they get better, which is what we said. And what was interesting is that, I put two case studies in the book with the little brain images and things with the… in color. I don’t know if you guys got the hard copy, but we put the QEG in color.

But this particular subject was interesting because this subject was offline depression. Basically the subject said, “I am depression.” They tried everything clinical. They had the label, they had done the medication, the treatments, and they were about to give up on life. Work, family, sleep, everything was just gone. And by the time they reached 21 days of doing these five steps, they had the brain had gone to a grey level, which is what you want. Obviously grey is different for everyone, but it’s basically showing that there’s a balance in the brain. And what that said in terms of the narrative is they’ve gone from being, “I am depression. I am hopeless” to “I now know why I have depression.”

And that’s the point I want to make. So by day 21, they were seeing part of the roots. The comment was, “I’ve seen part but I know that there’s more work to do.” But by day 63 of continuing the five steps daily, which included the gather and the reflecting, you’re going to do the other steps as well, is that they were saying, “Okay, it’s now showing up in my behavior.” So not only, “I’m not scared of depression, I know what depression… It’s telling me something, it’s a helpful messenger and I now know how to manage it.”

And I also just want to say up front, this is not replacing therapy. I’m totally for people going for therapy. Therapy is vital. Coaching, therapy, counseling. But no one can fix you and you can’t… No therapist can fix a person. We can only facilitate the process. I know that having practiced for so long, and you know that yourself, Daniel. So this doesn’t replace. All I’m doing, and you can do any technique, any therapy, I mean, EMDR, anything, it’s simply, how do you live with yourself between therapy? If you have therapy two days a week or whatever, you’ve got to live with yourself 24/7- [crosstalk [00:08:52].

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

You need tools. You need tools in your tool chest.

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

Daniel Amen, MD:

Preview for us, and then we have to go up to the next one, steps three, four, and five.

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

So then once you’ve reflected and gathered, you’ve done a lot of footwork. Now you need to capture that and write that down. And you only write at this point because you don’t want to… because you want to the systematic process of the brain going deeper and deeper, and you going deeper and deeper. So the writing, at this point, is a very… rain on paper, messy process.

Daniel Amen, MD:

I think we’ll talk about that more in the next one.

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

Oh, okay.

Daniel Amen, MD:

Four and five is-

Dr. Caroline Leaf:

So four and five are write steps. So the third step is to write, but you write in the form of a metacog, and in the fourth step is recheck, which is also writing, and then the fifth is an action step. It’s called an active reach. So they’re just kind of seals… like a full stop at the end of the sentence. So those are basically the three steps that you use systematically in a timeframe. And you can use them in five seconds to catch yourself in the moment. But when you’re doing the hard work of detoxing established traumas, that you do daily, 15 to 45 minutes over the 63 days.

Daniel Amen, MD:

So when we come back, we’re going to talk about writing and rechecking, and active reach. Stay with us.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

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Daniel Amen, MD:

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