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92. Strategies for Improving Your Mental Health
Hosted by Chris Castle, with guests Dr. Mireille Reece and Adam Stacoviak.
Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are not permanent states of being. There are techniques you can employ to rewire your thinking and begin the process of healing. Dr. Mireille Reece, a practicing clinical psychologist, and Adam Stacoviak, founder and editor-in-chief of the Changelog, introduce listeners to the process of forming new and healthy habits.
Dr. Mireille Reece is a practicing clinical psychologist and, along with Adam Stacoviak, editor-in-chief of the Changelog, they run Brain Science, a podcast exploring behavior change and mental health. Chris Castle, a Developer Advocate at Heroku, continues a previous conversation with them on how to take care of one's mental wellbeing. Their discussion centers around the neuroplasticity of the brain, how new habits can be created and formed.
One of the best antidepressants is exercise. Adam advises that it's not necessarily about physical fitness, but rather that your brain really needs that motion. It can serve to provide one with a different perspective. As well, activating any of your senses--smell, touch, and so on--can bring on a calming effect. Other suggestions include meditating, which can bring on a greater sense of self-awareness, and journaling, which can be helpful in tracking your thoughts over time.
Dr. Reece advises that keeping tracking of your moods can help hone in on the source of negative emotions. It's all about cause and effect. For example, if you eat a lot of fried foods, it might taste good, but ultimately, there are long term health affects associated with it. It's not that our actions are bad or good, but about recognizing the effects of them. Once we hone in on unfavorable consequences, we can start the process of adjusting our behaviors away from their sources.
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Chris: Hello and welcome to part two of our mini-series on mental health. I am developer advocate Chris Castle and I am here today with guests Dr. Mireille Reece, practicing clinical psychologist, and Adam Stacoviak, founder and editor-in-chief of the Changelog and co-host of The Brain Science podcast. So let’s jump in.
Chris: So we, in the previous part, we talked a lot about therapy; talking to someone, using the supportive and educated people that understand this stuff. But sometimes that's like too much of a hurdle for people and they need to take a baby step in some direction.
Chris: What are some other things Mireille, even maybe that you recommended to clients or things that you would share with people to help them work on themselves on their own, like the homework maybe?
Mireille: Well, one of the things I think that is super helpful for people to start with in terms of understanding is that emotions fundamentally are energy. So it's much more helpful when we imagine sort of moving or bartering them. In the same way like money... We think about where we spend our dollars or whatever currency you have, but that you go, "I need to exchange." And so, if I'm anxious, one of the best things I can do is sort of move or sort of upset that internal homeostasis.
Mireille: And the same thing with depression, I mean, sort of the best antidepressant to some degree is exercise because of the way it helps both our brain and our body. One of the things with people who struggle with depression that can be really challenging is sort of cognitive rigidity or this binary all-or-nothing thinking.
Mireille: Exercise by its very nature actually helps with neuroplasticity. So it helps your brain. It's like yoga for your brain.
Mireille: You can see things and contort your perspective better just by moving your body.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Mireille: I know people are going to be like, "Oh, I don't want to move."
Chris: Right. Well, I mean, I've always felt that sense, but I never fully understood it. I was like, is it... I just went for a run or a bike ride. Do I feel better because my body just produced whatever, like the hormones are that make me feel good. Or is it because I've focused on something different, right? Like I've been focusing on the pursuit of running or biking or whatever it is rather than ruminating on something or is it something else? I never fully understood it. So that was interesting.
Adam: It's kind of all that. We did a show on that in particular, like stepping away to get unstuck and that's kind of what it is. You need that gap even with rumination. You would just sit there and mull over it and just all these... And you'll start to make up different scenarios that just aren't true or are true and they're just far more severe than they really are.
Adam: And exercise alone, and we're not saying, and I think Mireille, too, is not saying like, it'd be great to have this exercised body and do all these different things. It's not even about your body. It's about just getting out there and just moving beyond just simply your desk or just taking a walk, just being active in any sort of way; not so much to be physically fit or any of these things.
Adam: Just more so just because your body and your brain really thrive when you do so; one, physical health, but then two, your brain really needs that motion. And as you mentioned, Chris, you probably feel better because you stepped away and you focused on different things and you gave your brain that opportunity to think about different things and come back to whatever it was you were struggling with, with a different perspective.
Mireille: Yeah. And Adam, you're spot on. It's not even just strenuous exercise. I mean, like just not being sedentary. I mean, one of the ramifications in my life from COVID was really just not moving. I mean, there aren't that many steps throughout my home. I'll leave my phone in the other room so it doesn't count them, but my step count is nowhere near the range it was before.
Mireille: And you know, really just walking is a two-fold gig. And being outside, you have access to upset the homeostasis and here in the Pacific Northwest it can be challenging and especially in certain months when it's a little dreary or rainier, et cetera.
Mireille: I always encourage people to just gear up and be like, you just need to be outside. And so again, if I'm going, "How do I make the sort of goal so small that it doesn't really feel hard?" It would be like, "Can I just put two feet outdoors?"
Mireille: I don't need to walk, but I'm more likely to walk if I'm outside my doors than I am inside my doors. So I'm just going to try to get outdoors and then just move and like, "Oh my gosh." There went five minutes and I felt better. I was exposed to other air, oxygen, and other sensory data that upsets the internal homeostasis, too.
Chris: Yeah. So I was going to ask about that. So in prepping for this podcast, I asked my mom like, "Hey, what do you do for mental health?" And she said, "Go for a hike in the woods. Go look outside and look at the stars," if you're not in an urban area where the stars are completely obscured.
Chris: What is it about nature? And maybe this isn't true for everybody, but I know it's true for many people. What is it about nature or being in the woods or being among trees or a big open field or something like that. Do you know what that is, Mireille? Why is that is helpful or useful?
Mireille: Well, I don't know exactly, but I can project a couple of things, One, there is an actual electrical charge or current to our earth. So being outside changes things. But also too, if you just think of it from a sensory perspective of going, "I've got the visual data with being outside, tactile, smell."
Mireille: Smell is a really interesting sense because our olfactory bulb is located right next to our hippocampus, which is what's responsible for memory. So information doesn't have to go very far for a scent to take you back or take you to that place.
Mireille: Since senses are all live, I'm not remembering what something smelled like. In that moment, I could be remembering something else, but I'm actively smelling and taking in that sensory data. So it's really sort of this mindfulness and distraction and different electrical current sort of thing.
Chris: Is that true for you, Adam? Would you say, are there certain places, I guess, maybe outside of your home that are soothing or helpful for you?
Adam: Yeah. Even my backyard, on the electrical, chemical being thing. And so there is this phenomenon of being able to step out into grass or earth and have your physical feet, not your shoes, but your physical feet touch the earth. There is something that happens physiologically as a result of that. And so I thrive there.
Adam: That's why I love to mountain bike. It's a lot of different mental challenges. It's physical challenges. There are so many things that I like about that particular practice because:
Adam: One, It's physically challenging. Two, I get out into nature.
Adam: I think I like to disrupt my days by going out into the world and not just like sitting here in my studio because that's pretty easy. It doesn't require much effort. It's about 30 to 40 steps from my bedroom to my studio. You know, it doesn't take much to get to where I'm at. So if I just wanted to do this, it would be easy to just do this.
Adam: But definitely going out in nature for some reason... There's something, too, when your mom mentioned stars. That's actually not that funny because it just shows you that you're in this big world and there's more than just simply what you're experiencing today.
Adam: I think what Mireille says about the senses, because talking about mindfulness and grounding, you know that your senses are alive. You taste, you smell, you see all these things are alive. It's not past memory, it's not rejiggered memory or something changed my emotions. These things are live.
Adam: So I think you kind of reconnect with where am I? Who am I? What am I doing today, right now? Because you can change tomorrow and even the moment you're in now. You can't change yesterday.
Adam: So as a human, we travel through time. And so that reminds me that what I have an opportunity to change is right now and tomorrow, not yesterday. So all I can do is move forward. It's a reminder of, I guess, our humanity.
Mireille: Yeah. And so with that, one of the other really helpful strategies that people can do is mindfulness, which mindfulness is really just orienting to the here and now, not whatever I'm imagining.
Mireille: So for people, I can take this even a step further when people are really struggling with anxiety or panic, it's what we call grounding. And because those senses are all real time that you actually sort of name three things you could see smell, touch, taste, or hear. So that's like, "Oh, not all of this tornado that's going on in my head. This is actually what's happening now."
Mireille: So my brain is not fast forwarding or rewinding imagining the past or imagining the catastrophic future, but like, no. Here, now. We need to just do this.
Mireille: Sort of a support to that is also meditation. You know, there's lots of different ways we can do this, but there's guided imagery. There's focusing on breath. There's a myriad of options, but luckily there's fantastic apps nowadays. And especially in the COVID era, a lot of these are offering them free. So I want to say there's like Headspace and Calm are two of the best ones that I've found to help people.
Chris: Yeah. I've found that having some guidance is super useful. There's kind of like a ritual to it. There's like listening to this person's voice kind of gets me back into the state of mind that I'm trying to get in or helps me focus.
Mireille: Yeah, because it's really just providing a sort of guardrail framework and the purpose is to sort of lower your overall threshold. So instead of waking up and starting your day at an activation level of eight out of 10, that you're like, "All right, I'm more like at a five or a four," which gives you so much more space for the challenges of the day.
Chris: Yeah. Can you describe activation level? What you mean by waking up at that activation level?
Mireille: Well, sort of like where you're energized and sort of, it can be like negative emotion, be it anxiety, be it overwhelmed. One of the things that's really important as you sort of learn about yourself is to be able to have a repertoire of vocabulary. We always say over in brain science, and other neuropsychologists are clinicians have said this before, is "Name it to tame it." And that the more I have of vocabulary to define what's going on internally, it better helps me choose how to respond to that emotion.
Mireille: So activation is just sort of, what's my emotional charge and sort of positive or negative level of distress. Some clinicians talk about SUDS as an acronym, which stands for subjective units of distress.
Chris: Yeah, I think of it. So when you first said that, the first thing I thought of was more like my reactivity level. So I tend towards anxiety internally.
Chris: So for me, I like to work on not immediately reacting to everything I'm feeling or thinking right away. And someone described it well the other day; it might've been one of you two, actually. It was like responding to something instead of reacting to something. Respond implies or has connotations of like a more thoughtful, purposeful action as opposed to reacting is like, "Oh, I touched the stove. It burned. I jumped away." Right?
Mireille: Yep. And that's really a big difference because that gets at that sense of agency and self-control of going... Things are going to be upsetting. I was listening to someone compare even how we see a heartbeat appear on a monitor as up and down, which ironically is indicative of life. Right? If I have a heartbeat I'm living; whereas flatline, we don't want to be.
Mireille: And yet I think people try to constrict-restrict their bandwidth of their emotions, which looks more like a flatline. And it's like that isn't what we're trying to optimize for. It's being able to navigate the ups and downs as they come, instead of pushing back and resisting against fluctuations in our mood.
Adam: What you're speaking to is that feedback loop.
Adam: Right. So when we lose that feedback loop, even with pain, with fear, with positive or negative emotions, it's all feedback. And as you said, Chris, how do you respond or react? It's indication is data. If we can think rationally, all incoming things are data.
Adam: So if you just suppress your fear, suppress your anxiety, suppress all these things that it's a feedback for, and even the body's way of telling you something's right or wrong to which degree, because you need that feedback to make a choice.
Chris: The point is not to suppress that feedback, whether it's positive or negative, but to-
Adam: Understand it, get curious. We always say, be your own scientist.
Adam: Right. Take notes of those things. That's an important thing around journaling even, and people can journal every single day or they can journal once a month. Just basically being aware of how you feel, when you feel, whatever might be important to you.
Adam: Being your own scientist is capturing your own data, and these feelings and these things are just simply data and feedback for you to understand you better and to do you better by making different choices.
Mireille: I'm so glad you brought that up with the journaling, because I also would say tracking. There's so many great things out nowadays. If you just look online for mood trackers, because I can imagine back to how I've been feeling, but I'm doing that today. And today I'm not feeling what I was two days ago because that was two days ago.
Mireille: So to capture the data as I go about my days or at the end of the day really goes, "Do you know what? I really didn't feel as bad as I thought I did. Here was my rating system or coloring system so that I have an idea in 30 days or even just a week to start. This is the template of mood that I tend to fluctuate through and through.
Chris: Yeah. It's hard to sometimes like zoom out and be like, "Oh, how have I been feeling over the past month?" But if you have taken some notes or written some thoughts down, that can help a lot.
Adam: I can give you a concrete example of this, too. I used to use Day One, which is an app that essentially it's like a personal journal for just you. It's like blogging just for you essentially.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Adam: I used to be far more diligent with it and I was actually really impressed with old Adam. Like I was like, "Dang dude, you had some cool thoughts, man." That was a fun dream. We've never done that in this whole we, because we are we.
Adam: It's you and me, it's we.
Adam: And we have the sort of inner dialogue and I asked Mireille once, I'm like, "Is that us being crazy when we'd speak to ourselves?"
Adam: And you know, I was speaking to my old me essentially, or just like having this internal dialogue like, "You weren't crazy. This was a fun thought. That was a fun idea." You know?
Adam: It reminded me of "Hopeful Adam"... A time when I had maybe more resolve, more resilience or a different train of thinking. I think that's what journaling can offer. And I don't do it diligently; even though I've had that payout, I'm still not a habitual daily journaler. However, I can see the benefit in it because I even wrote this one... I think I might've shared it on a podcast, Mireille.
Adam: I wrote to future me and it was amazing. I read it back to myself and almost came to tears. Old me... Five, six years ago, whatever, was talking to me today, reading this old journal entry and I was profoundly moved by it. It was amazing.
Adam: So there are payouts and that's something that was personal and interesting to me. It did have that payout. And I was like old Adam had hope and he had great ideas and I'm still that same Adam.
Adam: It reminded me that I'm still me. I'm still capable. You know?
Mireille: You know, one of the things that I think is interesting tagging off that too, is recognizing the value of visualization. Our brains don't necessarily know the difference, whether or not we sort of imagine something or we're actually doing it. It still has to run the same neural network, so to speak.
Mireille: This is why in athletics, a lot of sports teams, athletes use this to enhance their performance because it still activates the same sort of muscle memory. So picturing yourself and going, "Where do I want to be? How do I want to feel? What do I want to be doing when this mental health issue is no longer an issue in the same way? How will I find freedom and what will my life look like and how will I be able to function?" That is super appealing.
Chris: Yeah. So there's two other things I wanted to chat about. One is intake. So like food and drink impact on mental health. And then the last one was sleep. So yeah, let's chat about food. How can that impact positively or negatively my brain, how I'm feeling, how I'm acting or behaving?
Mireille: Big time. Again, this is where people are like, "Come on. I just want to be able to eat whatever I want and still feel good." I'd say like, "Well, you can, but like all things, there's a cause and effect and all of our bodies are designed differently. So being your own scientist and paying attention, like, "I don't feel good after I eat dairy," or "I don't feel good after I have gluten." It doesn't matter that I'm not celiac. Or am I eating a ton of processed foods or drinking regular consumption of alcohol of sorts?
Mireille: It just affects us. It's not good, it's not bad; but recognizing that your intake could produce or contribute to some of the mental health issues you're navigating.
Mireille: I mean, for example, in one of our shows we had on a caffeine expert and going, "If you struggle with anxiety, I'm not sure you want to be drinking a ton of caffeine." And she said, "It's not bad, but how can you be deliberate and utilize that sense of agency and choice to go, what works for me?" And I would ask you, "Is it worth it? Is the cost you pay to indulge or enjoy that? Is it worth it?"
Chris: I had one of those days, a couple days ago where I had too much coffee and that night I was lying in bed at midnight, unable to get to sleep, ruminating about something that happened at work that was getting me worked up. And I tried to stop thinking about it, but it just kept coming back up.
Adam: Yeah. Your comment though, Mireille, "Is it worth it?" reminds me of what are you optimizing for? And back to what you said about knowing yourself and what you value and what you're trying to do, because we all have goals, right? And we understand what maybe sleep or food intake or lack thereof may do to us and that whole is it worth it, that means you have an understanding of who you are, who you want to be, who you're striving to be better at; the values in which you hold to get there so that when you make these choices, "Well, should I drink that third or that cup of coffee at three in the afternoon?"
Adam: I like coffee, so maybe yeah. But is it worth it because I'm trying to optimize for a day tomorrow that's full of stuff and I got to get good sleep tonight.
Adam: So maybe the choice, and I'm not criticizing you Chris, but like, that's what I mean. If you understand what we're trying to optimize for, then that's clear to you. So for us, it's like: what is clear? Expectation and clarity.
Adam: If I have that for myself and others, I can navigate my choices, my values, the things I'm trying to do more easily, because, well, if it was super clear to me of what I expected of myself tomorrow, and I know that a 3:00 PM dose of coffee or caffeine or whatever your choice may be, impacts my sleep, I may choose differently because I'm optimizing for; because I have an understanding of who I am and what I value to make a different choice.
Mireille: Yeah. And so I want to bring back sleep and go, sleep is significant. I've looked at people who've come in with one issue or another and realizing that their sleep is really out of whack and going, "You're probably going to need to follow up with your medical doctor about some of these things, because I suspect that the issues you're struggling with are connected to that."
Mireille: So a mental health issue could present and say like, "Hey, it's anxiety, depression, stress." But let's make sure we rule that out that that is not a contributing factor.
Adam: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mireille: And ironically, there are even therapies too, for insomnia as an actual issue to go help improve in that way. That's a behavioral strategy, and not necessarily a medication, although medications are often used for insomnia.
Adam: And like anything too... An athlete performs rituals daily to compete at the highest level. So every day, Michael Phelps won; but he didn't just win at the Olympics. He won every day because that's how he practiced.
Adam: And similarly, we do certain actions, whether it's at work, whether it's at play; and maybe with sleep, it's a ritual of some sort or some sort of common thing. Like for me, I have those things.
Adam: If I'm off my beaten path, I'm probably not sleeping as well because I have certain habits I do that get my brain into motion. There are certain chemicals that get released in your brain as a result of that. And caffeine inhibits that sleep neurotransmitter to take place. It numbs it, essentially. Those kinds of things, those patterns can be very helpful.
Adam: Like for me, maybe a shower in the evening before I go to bed or certain things that kick me into gear to say, "Okay, Adam. It's time to get into rest mode." And if I don't do those things, it's like, well, it's kind of like a broken record. Like it just doesn't play right.
Chris: Yeah. It's like, you've been bounced out of your happy path.
Adam: Exactly. Not in the groove is where that terminology comes from. It's from records, not in the groove. Or "I'm in the groove."
Adam: Because a record needle is in the groove necessary to play the right soundtrack.
Chris: So there was an acronym that I think you mentioned or wrote down here in our notes Mireille, HALT?
Mireille: Yes. My favorite.
Chris: Can we finish with, what does that mean and how do you apply that?
Mireille: So HALT is significant because it doesn't matter your age, your capacity, competency skills, et cetera. These four things will always affect how you respond throughout your days. And that is:
Mireille: Are you hungry?
Mireille: Are you angry?
Mireille: Are you lonely?
Mireille: Are you tired?
Mireille: HALT. And if one or more of those things are true, that likely is going to influence your perception and how you manage yourself and your work responsibilities and relationships. Right?
Mireille: I mean, that's why we hear things like hangry, right? Because I got the hybrid of being hungry and angry and going, "Look. We are electrochemical beings." I mean, I wouldn't expect to go get in my car if I had an empty gas tank. So why in the world would I expect that without food as fuel, I can actually do my day?
Mireille: And you know, anger just can be, my car is in park and I'm spinning the wheels, revving the engine. So it just is too much energy as opposed to going, "What can I do?"
Mireille: And that's why asking yourself questions is one of the best places to start. And like, what do I notice about myself? Where do I get stuck? What's challenging? Why is it whenever I leave that manager's office or this family friend's house, I don't feel so good.
Mireille: So be investigative, because when you ask questions, it actually prompts that process of discovery.
Chris: Yeah. Even if you don't come up with the perfect answer in your head, it's still helpful.
Mireille: It is because it moves you in the direction to get more illumination around where does the problem actually lie? And this is why I love talking in the tech community with people who are thinkers and problem solvers because I'm sure you guys never get stuck in your work.
Mireille: And you never have to ask questions or go back and undo, right? But this is the same process. In my line of work, we're trained around recognizing that the tool that we use to do our work is ourselves, but that's true no matter what job you do. You always bring yourself to the work. And so when you care for yourself, you're actually caring for the work and outputting more of what it is you want to add to world.
Adam: My key is off of my favorite chapter and one of my favorite books, which is Essentialism and it talks about protect the asset. And in there, it's about sleep and the importance of it, but more so being you, because you can only do you and be you, if you're you, right?
Adam: He's talking about sleeping and taking care of yourself primarily. But back to that point, if you're not who you want to be, you can't be who you are to the people that matter to you, whether it's work, whether it's relationships, it's family, et cetera.
Adam: And so Protect the Asset is one of my favorite chapters of that book. It speaks to me so well and helped me understand how important it was to take care of me so that I can be me.
Chris: That's great. Well, let's finish on that. This was a super useful conversation just for me. I hope it was illuminating, useful, or at least interesting to the listeners out there. But thank you very much for spending your time with us.
Chris: In the show notes, you mentioned lots of your own podcast episodes and other resources, or like the book Essentialism. So we'll link to all that stuff in the show notes so other people can check it out after they've heard you mention it. But yeah. Thanks again for chatting about mental health.
Mireille: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the opportunity and just care about other people having access to the information.
Adam: Thanks, Chris. It's been awesome.
A podcast brought to you by the developer advocate team at Heroku, exploring code, technology, tools, tips, and the life of the developer.
Director, Developer Advocacy, Heroku
Chris thrives on simplicity and helping others. He writes code, prototypes hardware, and smiles at strangers, helping developers build more and better
Dr. Mireille Reece
Co-host of Brain Science, Clinical Psychologist, Changelog
Dr. Mireille Reece is the co-host of the podcast, Brain Science, and has been a licensed clinical psychologist for over 10 years.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Changelog Media
Adam has been designing, developing, and leading products in addition to podcasting since 2006. Currently he hosts Brain Science and Founders Talk.
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