Mark: What has helped the most with taking care of your mental health?
Kianni: I think the thing that’s helped me to take care of my mental health is being aware of how the brain works. I believe I was able to really move forward in taking care of my mental health with a combination of three things that reinforced that: Your videos (Everybody Has a Brain YouTube Channel), Jeffrey M. Schwartz book, “Brain Lock” and last but not least, my church. About four years ago or so is when I stumbled on all three at once, which reinforced each other.
- Your videos helped explain mental health in a way very few people seem to be talking about it and how anxiety works, how one should tackle compulsions, not obsessions, and so on. Not only that but really highlighting the fact, even within the name of the channel and as I’ve heard you state many times, that everyone has a brain and so everyone has mental health, just like physical health and we need to take care about it. Just that awareness in and of itself, I think is a key piece in being able to take care of one’s mental health, because if you don’t know it exists you can’t address it.
- In Jeffrey M. Schwartz book, he explains the mechanisms within the brain that are believed to cause OCD and in general. It is not that they just happen though, but he also explains what we can do to better or worsen our own mental health and essentially rewire our brains.
- In my church, there is also a large focus on thoughts, or what they might call “the world of the heart” and where they come from. When I look at it now, I realize it is basically like CBT or ACT. You recognize where your thoughts are coming from (In a church perspective it would be God or Satan), decide if it aligns with your values (faith), and if not then you throw it aside and go forward in your value/ faith despite what that feeling or thought may say. Later on I read Dr. Ian Osborne’s book, “Tormenting Thoughts and Secret Rituals” and noted how pre-Freud, most mental health issues like anxiety and OCD were dealt with within the church (For instance, Martin Luther is said to have had OCD) and used basically what could be seen as CBT or ACT.
Mark: Nice Everybody has a Brain product placement! It’s often the case that recovery requires multiple supports so it’s much more convenient when they show up at the same time. It’s great you brought up your church, too. When I’ve been working with people that have a religious practice, although they might have been struggling with intrusive thoughts about God at first, understanding how to use their faith as a support and how to work on that relationship with faith in a healthy way is always a big help.
You mentioned reading about brains and I know you’re reading another book about brains right now that you’ve kindly agreed to review for the site, so what’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about brains so far?
Kianni: I don’t know if it would be the most surprising thing, but a good quote comes to mind that I got from reading the Around the Dinner Table Forum, which is “Life would be easier if people remembered that sometimes organs malfunction and medical help is necessary – the brain is an organ and sometimes it malfunctions too.” A lot of times, or at least as far as I have noted, people often view mental illness as some sort of moral failing or personal flaw, and not really viewed like other physical medical conditions.
I think just realizing that having mental health, or illness isn’t a terrible character flaw, and that the brain can change, empowers people to start making healthy changes. Learning about how the brain works, neuroplasticity, directed mindfulness, and how the brain can actually change, I think takes one from feeling like a victim at the mercy of one’s brain, to being empowered in learning how to take control. More so, I am starting to realize that so often you see people saying things like, “brain health” or “cardiovascular health” “kidney health” etc. when really, it is all holistically combined. We have one body, one brain that is part of that body and what we do constantly has an effect on it some way or the other.
Mark: There were a ton of great points in there. It is amazing how changeable the little balls of mush in our skulls really are. Has there ever been a time when you’ve been making changes in your life and you noticed how your brain had changed or was changing?
Kianni: I have definitely noticed changes in my brain! At least three years ago, my life 24/7 was controlled by anxiety. My whole day was one giant compulsion and never-ending worrying about getting the next part of it done. I would wake up to do this whole giant ritual, only to go to sleep and start it all over again. At times I would go to sleep at night wanting to cry but couldn’t because I wasn’t allowed to since I had to go to sleep right at a specific time; not to mention I was exhausted from the whole day! I used to want to stop and breath and be able to plan “how” to get out of these compulsions and rigid schedules, but then realized I wouldn’t be able to without breaking the 24/7 compulsion itself. If I wasn’t at a specific place at a specific time, doing exactly what I always did, everything would start looking and feeling surreal, and anxiety would overwhelm me. It was practically down to the minute if not seconds. To make it worse, since I always felt rushed and anxious to make sure I was on time according to the OCD rules, I ended up feeling like I always had to feel rushed and anxious, other wise I would not get it done on time. In the evening time, there would be a few hours where I would just “get stuck” and anxious, frozen unable to do anything. That became part of the ritual itself as well.
It wasn’t easy, but now, I am so much freer. Before, everything I did was rigid and tense. I was overwhelmed completely in fear and not able to even speak or think, or move around without feeling constrained physically and mentally. People who knew me from then said I always looked scared and as if I was in my own little world. My schedule which used to be rigid by the clock and consumed with mental rituals, now has so much more leeway. I don’t feel like the world is going to end if I get stuck somewhere and it is five minutes or half an hour past when I was “supposed to” do something. It has definitely been a progression from being terrified to do certain things, to trying it (and still being terrified) and then, on some things now, not really even caring. I remember the first time in the evening, where I would usually “get stuck” and anxious worrying about who knows what for hours, and just being at my desk bored. It was such an odd sensation but I remember on some level being glad that I could be bored!
Honestly when I was stuck in all of my compulsions, the fear seemed so overwhelming and the things I did seemed so “real” in that they seemingly had to be done (lest the world blow up), it often felt like there was no way out of it, and yet here I am. I remember it feeling painful, and even now it can feel painful, however I think what is changed is my perception of it. Instead of just seeing it as pain, I can realize that it is basically my brain changing and reacting to new stimuli with the possibility of making it stronger in the way I want. Everything I do, every new thing that goes against old habits is forging new neural pathways and breaking down the others. So you can kind of see it like when people do physical exercise and start to like that “good burn”. So when I go forward challenging things now, all the anxiety I feel in my brain part of me thinks “Oh good!” in that my brain is getting healthier, rather than something to avoid at all costs.
Mark: Congratulations on being free to be bored! Learning to experience that anxiety as similar to sore muscles during exercise was very helpful for me, as well, but how did you make that transition and change your perception of it?
Kianni: Well when I first started off, my day was one gigantic compulsion and I was anxious all of the time no matter what I did. It was exhausting just to get through the day. For a long while the idea of changing anything felt like it would just be even more pain then there already was, which seemed unbearable. There was also the fear that changing something might actually make things worse; so more pain continually with no relief or escape. At some point though it seemed like I just got frustrated or it felt like I had to take the risk of moving forward. In a sense it was sort of “Well, everything feels terrible all the time anyways, so the same perpetual pain to no end or a different pain, with the possibility of a better outcome? And if I die or things go bad, who cares because I don’t want to stay like this anymore.” At first when going through it, it wasn’t a conscious decision. I was just frustrated and wanted to do stuff and just went through the anxiety. I knew nothing else, just existing was anxiety provoking, so I if I was going to feel terrible all the time, may as well try and make something of it.
I think what really helped for me to shift my perception was for one, was definitely your videos. Particularly the ones where you talk about mental health being like physical health and pain not being the problem. Around that same time I was also reading “Brain Lock” and it started to click. In the book, Dr. Schwartz talks about Hebb’s law, “Neurons that wire together fire together”, and how through self-directed mindfulness one can actually change neural pathways, literally changing the brain. That every time we do something, it either reinforces or weakens a certain neural pathway. When we do something new, contrary to our default patterns, it is literally forging, building a new neural pathway. In that sense it had me think just like someone trying to build muscle. In some sense it feels like literally sculpting the brain. It also put this odd little image in my mind of miners with pick axes forging their way through a granite mountain bit by bit. It’s not easy, but eventually it can happen. Changing the brain is not like getting TNT and blasting through a mountain all at once. Just like with physical health, it is an accumulation of habits and actions we do bit by bit. They also had me recall a poster from high school, which one of my teachers had, which likened an athlete to a scholar. How an athlete expects to sweat and struggle, and that it is the same with learning.
It started to make sense that if I am going against what I normally do, my brain’s default, it would protest and scream. It also helped to not view the massive anxiety that would seemingly flood my brain as happening to “me” but rather to the OCD or ED. I was doing something, and then they were reacting. I wasn’t welcoming them anymore, or listening to their rules like I once had and they didn’t like that, but that wasn’t my problem. It could actually be a bit fun at times when you feel that part of your brain react in panic, once your values have shifted from feeding and placating compulsions, versus purposely choosing to do otherwise. It’s kind of like watching a con-man get caught and squirm, trying to get out of their lie.
Lastly, I’m probably not the first person to Google, “Can anxiety kill you?” The answer is no it can not. It might feel like it can, or that you want to die because it seems like it may never end though, and your worst fears will occur as a result. Having experienced times where I was inadvertently facing situations that made my anxiety sky-rocket, despite trying my best to get out of them, I think I actually primed my brain in some ways to know through experience that even if it feels unending, it does dissipate and can make one stronger for it.
Honestly when I was stuck in all of my compulsions, the fear seemed so overwhelming and the things I did seemed so ‘real’ in that they seemingly had to be done (lest the world blow up), it often felt like there was no way out of it, and yet here I am. I remember it feeling painful, and even now it can feel painful, however I think what is changed is my perception of it. Instead of just seeing it as pain, I can realize that it is basically my brain changing and reacting to new stimuli with the possibility of making it stronger in the way I want.
Mark: It’s so true that changing the brain is not like blasting mountains with explosives. It would be a quicker way to create change if we could blow up the parts we don’t like, but we’d also quickly run out of brain to change.
This is shifting the topic a bit but you mentioned something that’s become a ubiquitous presence in most journeys into or out of mental illness: Dr. Google. Has your relationship with the Internet changed over the past couple of years?
Kianni: I’d say it definitely has, in terms of how I use and perceive the internet. Before, I think I used to just use it as a constant reassurance check, or to feel like I was doing something to alleviate the anxiety or whatever it was I felt without actually making progress. I used to post on forums before basically asking the same questions as a hundred other people all asking for reassurance, and by now I have spotted that behavior and thought in myself when I get the urge to do so, as well as noting when it seems others seem to do so. I find it better in the long run to disengage from those things.
The internet is a double edged sword, just like most things I suppose, as it depends in how you use it. I could spend hours feeding into the anxiety trying to find what was “wrong” with me, in that the real reason I felt bad was some other sort of disease or disorder. One thing, in some sense I think all the amassing of those hours did though, was when I looked critically at things, I would notice how all these “quick fixes” or theories, would often contradict one another. It lead me to be more skeptical in a sense and really look at what was being said.
I think at some point though, I stopped trying to look for something that would prove my anxiety’s fears as true, and more towards just looking for what the actual truth was, whether or not it aligned with what I originally felt or thought, or hoped “should be”; probably because all that ever lead to was being exhausted and nothing as a result but more confusion and anxiety.
Times when it has helped me to search though, is when rather than searching for something to try and see something my brain wants to worry about is “real” or not, is searching to see if it is an OCD theme; though by now, I don’t really even have to do that. For instance, I had previously read a pretty comprehensive list of “common” OCD themes, then one day after having just broken one very long lasting OCD obsession, the day after or so I started getting two new fears pop up. They were new, so they were startling, but since I had knowledge that these were OCD themes, and was pretty sure they were on that list, I just searched online “fear of being gay OCD” “fear of being pedophile OCD” to confirm it, as to know that I had to just not engage them and accept the uncertainty and go forward anyways, as frightening as that might be. I knew that since they were about two days old, if I squashed those obsessions right then, it would be much easier than if I let them grow.
By now, when I am on the internet, just like in everyday life I suppose, I try and look at what is driving it. If it is feeding into that part of my brain that is driven by anxiety and compulsion or not. It is kind of an odd sensation to explain, but generally it is like I can feel which part of my brain is lighting up as a reaction to doing something, and deriving pleasure from it. When it feels like that unhealthy disordered part of my brain starts to light up, I generally take that as a sign to critically look at what I do, on or off the internet.
Kianni is a 24 year old whom has a brain that currently resides in Southern California. She is pursuing a degree in Sports and Rehabilitation Therapy, and working to better her mental health every day, rather than letting her brain call the shots as it has for years prior, trapped within the poor mental health of an eating disorder and OCD. Through experience and knowledge, she hopes to also help others overcome challenges and improve their own well being.
5 Questions is a regular series of interviews on everybodyhasabrain.com with people that have mental health. We start by asking: “What has helped the most with taking care of your mental health?” and the interview continues from there for four more questions. If you’d like to participate, become a contributor to Everybody has a Brain by clicking here to submit your info.