The Worrier Warrior: Working with Depression through Brain Training

Frank walked into my office and said, “I was in therapy for 15 years, know my ‘issues’ inside and out, but I’m still taking an anti-depressant and an anti-anxiety med when I have to do any major presentation at the firm.  It’s like my baseline is off.  It’s great for being a lawyer.  I’m always hyper-vigilant—looking out for the next danger, working very hard to stay on top of everything.  But when I get into bed at night, my mind is racing and I feel this sinking feeling.  Still, after all this therapy.  What can you do for me?”

Frank doesn’t have a motivation problem, or a lack of insight problem.  Frank has a brain problem.

Frank had come into my office after having done research into the benefits of neurofeedback for depression and anxiety.  I see clients like Frank everyday and I call them my “Worrier Warriors”.  Their nervous systems are in a state of ‘activation’ where the flight/fight/freeze brain is always in go-mode.  And he’s right—it serves a law firm well.  These brains are habitually trained to be on the watch for danger.  Add a good analytic mind to that mix and you’ll have a highly successful lawyer who protects his or her clients well, but at a high cost of health and happiness.

We’ve come a long way in our understanding of the brain and brain functioning in producing the symptoms we call anxiety and depression.  In the mental health field we used to think of them as ‘mind’ problems, but now we’ve come to understand that they are also brain problems.

We all know we are ‘creatures of habit’ but what that really means is that the brain is prone to habituated rather than fresh responses. The brain functions to be most efficient and effective in use of its energy to protect and maintain the body.  The flaw in this system design is that the brain becomes efficient by using cues to approximate the present situation and then uses an old response pattern, which leads to misperceptions of the present moment and less than appropriate responses.  We’ve all seen someone “lose it” and respond with an angry outburst when the situation warranted concern or a firm voice.

A dramatic and sad illustration of this principle is the war vet who comes home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from his years of service.  As a soldier he has been trained to respond to danger with ‘fight’ response.  But now he is home from the war and is walking down his hometown street when a car backfires.  The brain is habituated to “loud sound equals danger” and the vet’s brain goes into fight mode—yelling, pushes someone or becomes highly irritable and later starts a fight with a loved one.

An important piece of information to know about the part of the brain that operates the fight/flight response: it does not take orders from anyone.  It is a part of the brain that needs to be able to respond in milliseconds, so it doesn’t take in information from other, more rational and analytic parts of the brain.  As a result you could say to yourself, “I really shouldn’t get angry and fly off the handle.”  But the part of the brain that decides that action, acts without input from our rational, willful self.  It takes in sensory input and then makes a snap decision.

Why are lawyers so prone to anxiety, depression and anger outbursts?  Their brains are habituated to the flight/flight/freeze response (anger/anxiety/depression) response.  For whatever reason, and their could be many, they experienced a threat or threats at some point in their lives that were significant enough to habituate the brain to being in this activation mode.  A quick way to find out if you are is to ask yourself this question, and answer quickly without thinking:  Is the world a safe place?  If the answer is ‘no’ then chances are your brain is habituated to thinking that you are in danger when you aren’t.  It makes you a perfect candidate to become a lawyer where you always have to be thinking about what the risks are in any situation.  Or to be an ENT or an emergency room doctor.  Your brain is habituated to perceive risk.

Now what to do about this habituated brain?  Here are some tips:

  1. Breath.  Seriously.  The breath, slow and deep breathing are ways we can “tell” the brain that we are safe and it can go into a state of relaxation and regulation.  Slow deep breathing for 5 minutes where you work your way up to counting to 5 on the inhalation and 5 on the exhalation will do wonders to communicate to the brain to come out of flight/flight and into calm awareness (the state of a regulated and balanced brain.)
  2. Understand: Help yourself by having a good and clear conceptual understanding that your anxiety and depression and anger outbursts are a brain over-reacting, not an accurate assessment of the present moment’s situation.  Your brain is reading a newspaper that’s 20 years old and acting as if it’s the here-and-now news.
  3. Get exercise: I recently had a neurologist tell me that if the positive effects of exercise (increased heart rate 30 mins 5 times a week) were a drug, it would be considered a “miracle drug” and would generate billions of dollars a year in revenue.
  4. Get enough sleep.  Studies are now coming out showing the detrimental effects of chronic sleep deprivation—5 hours a night or less—on the development of chronic conditions.
  5. Train the brain with neurofeedback.  Neurofeedback trains the brain to optimize its functioning through allowing the brain to ‘see’ its unhelpful response patterns.  And the brain learns to use the present moment to decide it’s next action rather than using those old habitual response patterns.  As a result the trained brain sleeps better, is calmer, is better able to focus, and is more cheerful.  And as one client said, “I have the same problems, they just don’t get to me anymore.”


Natalie Baker, MA LMHC, works as a psychotherapist and neurofeedback trainer in private practice in New York City.





9 Holiday Depression Busters

It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year–but not if negative emotions take hold of your holidays. So let’s be honest. The holidays are packed with stress, and therefore provoke tons of depression and anxiety. But there is hope. Whether I’m fretting about something as trite as stocking stuffers or as complicated as managing difficult family relationships, I apply a few rules that I’ve learned over the years. These 9 rules help me put the joy back into the festivities–or at least keep me from hurling a mistletoe at Santa and landing myself on the “naughty” list.

1. Expect the Worst

Now that’s a cheery thought for this jolly season. What I’m trying to say is that you have to predict bad behavior before it happens so that you can catch it in your holiday mitt and toss it back, instead of having it knock you to the floor. It’s simple math, really. If every year for the last decade, Uncle Ted has given you a bottle of Merlot, knowing full well that you are a recovering alcoholic and have been sober for more years than his kids have been out of diapers, you can safely assume he will do this again. So what do you do? Catch it in your “slightly-annoyed” mitt. (And maybe reciprocate by giving him a cheese basket for his high cholesterol.)

2. Remember to “SEE”

No, I don’t mean for you to schedule an appointment with an ophthalmologist. SEE stands for Sleeping regularly, Eating well, and Exercising. Without these three basics, you can forget about an enjoyable (or even tolerable) holiday. Get your seven to nine hours of sleep and practice good sleep hygiene: go to bed at the same time every night, and wake up in the same nightgown with the same man at the same time in the same house every morning.

Eating well and exercise are codependent, at least in my body, because my biggest motivator for exercising is the reduction in guilt I feel about splurging on dessert. Large quantities of sugar or high fructose corn syrup can poison your brain. If you know your weak spot–the end of the table where Aunt Judy places her homemade hazelnut holiday balls–then swim, walk, or jog ten extra minutes to compensate for your well-deserved treat. Another acronym to remember during the holidays is HALT: don’t get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.

3. Beef Up Your Support

If you attend Al-Anon once a week, go twice a week during the holidays. If you attend a yoga class twice a week, try to fit in another. Schedule an extra therapy session as insurance against the potential meltdowns ahead of you. Pad yourself with extra layers of emotional resilience by discussing in advance specific concerns you have about X, Y, and Z with a counselor, minister, or friend (preferrably one who doesn’t gossip).

In my life with two young kids, this means getting extra babysitters so that if I have a meltdown in Starbucks like I did two years ago–before I knew the mall was menacing to my inner peace–I will have an extra ten minutes to record in my journal what I learned from that experience.

4. Avoid Toxic People

This one’s difficult if the toxic people happen to be hosting Christmas dinner! But in general, just try your best to avoid pernicious humans in December. And if you absolutely must see such folks, then allow only enough time for digestion and gift-giving. Drink no more than one glass of wine in order to preserve your ability to think rationally. You don’t want to get confused and decide you really do love these people, only to hear them say something horribly offensive two minutes later, causing you to storm off all aggravated and hurt. (This would also be a good time to remember Rule #1.)

5. Know Thyself

In other words, identify your triggers. As a highly sensitive person (as described in Elaine Aron’s book, “The Highly Sensitive Person”), I know that my triggers exist in a petri dish of bacteria known as the Westfield Annapolis Mall. Between Halloween and New Years, I won’t go near that place because Santa is there and he scares me with his long beard, which holds in its cute white curls every virus of every local preschool. Before you make too many plans this holiday season, list your triggers: people, places, and things that tend to trigger your fears and bring out your worst traits.

6. Travel With Polyester, Not Linen

By this, I DO NOT mean sporting the polyester skirt with the red sequinned reindeer. I’m saying that you should lower your standards and make traveling as easy as possible, both literally and figuratively. Do you really want to be looking for an iron for that beautiful linen or cotton dress when you arrive at your destination? I didn’t think so–life’s too short for travel irons.

I used to be adamantly opposed to using a portable DVD player in the car to entertain the kids because I thought it would create two spoiled monsters whose imaginations had rotted courtesy of Disney. One nine-hour car trip home to Ohio for Christmas, I cried uncle after six hours of constant squabbling and screaming coming from the back seat. Now David and Katherine only fight over which movie they get to watch first. If you have a no-food rule policy for the car, I’d amend that one during the holidays as well.

7. Make Your Own Traditions

Of course, you don’t need the “polyester” rule if you ban holiday travel altogether. That’s what I did this year. As the daughter/sister who abandoned her family in Ohio by moving out east, it has always been my responsibility to travel during the holidays. But my kids are now four and six. I can’t continue to haul the family to the Midwest every year. We are our own family. So I said this to my mom a few weeks ago: “It’s very important that I spend time with you, but I’d like to do it as a less stressful time, like the summer, when traveling is easier.” She wasn’t thrilled, but she understood.

Making your own tradition might mean Christmas Eve is reserved for your family and the extended family is invited over for brunch on Christmas Day. Or vice-versa. Basically, it’s laying down some rules so that you have better control over the situation. As a people-pleaser who hates to cook, I make a better guest than host, but sometimes serenity comes in taking the driver’s seat, and telling the passengers to fasten their seat-belts and be quiet.

8. Get Out of Yourself

According to Gandhi, the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others. But that doesn’t necessarily mean holding a soup ladle. Since my name and the word “kitchen” have filed a restraining order on each other, I like to think there are a variety of ways you can serve others.

Matthew 6:21 says “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In other words, start with the things you like to do. For me, that is saying a rosary for a depressed Beyond Blue reader, or visiting a priest-friend who needs encouragement and support in order to continue his ministry, or helping talented writer friends get published. I’d like to think this is service, too, because if those people are empowered by my actions, then I’ve contributed to a better world just as much as if I had dished out mashed potatoes to a homeless person at a shelter.

9. Exercise Your Funny Bone

“Time spent laughing is time spent with the gods,” says a Japanese proverb. So, if you’re with someone who thinks he’s God, the natural response would be to laugh! But seriously folks, research shows that laughing is good for your health. And, unlike exercise, it’s always enjoyable! The funniest people in my life are those who have been to hell and back, bought the t-shirt, and then accidentally shrunk it in the wash. Humor kept them alive–physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Remember, with a funny bone in place–even if it’s in a cast–everything is tolerable.

By Therese Borchard

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