What is Mindfulness?

As a blog focused around promoting mental health awareness and mindfulness, I came to the realization that I had not yet written an article about what mindfulness is. So, what is mindfulness? There are many definitions on what mindfulness is, but the definition that I’ve always preferred is “moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness”, which was coined by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Mindfulness, as we understand it, stems from the Buddhist practices of vipassana, an insight into the true nature of reality, something I consider objective analysis through subjective perspective, satipaṭṭhāna, embracing mindfulness in one’s day-to-day life and anapanasati, mindfulness of breathing, also known as meditation. These three Buddhist practices make up the core concept of mindfulness. It was popularized and introduced in Western society by a man named Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which aims to help in the management of mental illness. Mindfulness is useful in coping with thoughts, emotions and feelings throughout an individual’s day-to-day life via awareness and analysis of the present moment, something researchers and proponents of mindfulness have called “concentrated attention” or “mindful attention”. In this regard, mindfulness is often viewed as a mental state or a set of coping skills and techniques.

Through the use of mindfulness, individuals can focus their attention on their present situation in a non-judgmental but responsive manner, allowing them to view situations or external stimuli affecting them in a calm and collected manner. It’s often easy to respond in an emotional manner in relation to an external stimulus, but through mindfulness, individuals are able to attain a level of objective analysis in relation to their subjective experience of the world.

Mindfulness in everyday life isn’t easy to obtain, especially when one is stressing constantly. It is suggested that to become mindfully aware, one should begin with mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation can be done in a variety of ways, but is often performed by sitting cross-legged on something comfortable, with their back straight and eyes closed. Once this has been done, the individual should focus their attention on breathing in and out through the nose. Thoughts will inevitably come; when they do, an individual should focus their attention back to their breathing, allowing one to recognize that their thoughts have wandered, but in an accepting yet non-judgmental manner. Through this process, if applied daily for 10-20 minutes a day, an individual can begin to apply this to their thoughts and emotions, as opposed to their breathing, allowing them to cope with and manage their stress effectively.

For individuals who are suffering from a mental illness of some sort, a combination of mindfulness, medication and therapy may help treat their mental illness and allow them to live happier throughout their day-to-day life. Mindfulness of all things in relation to an individual can be very beneficial, such as the substances we put into our bodies and the interactions we have with other individuals of varying perspectives. Unnecessary stress, called distress, can be taxing to both the body and mind. We all want to be happy in life, but until we can analyze the stimuli that stress and impact us daily, it can be difficult to do so. Mindfulness, if properly used, may be of great help in coping with and managing day-to-day stress, allowing us as individuals to live happier and more harmoniously with the world around us.

Exploring the Science of Schizophrenia

Blanket Embroidered by Someone with Schizophrenia
Too often the general public relegates mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia to just that, mental illness, diseases of the mind. However, with modern science, we are beginning to see more and more the folly of this simplistic viewpoint. We are now seeing the science behind these illnesses;  the changes in brain form, function, and chemical balance that alter how our brain functions and perceives the world around us.  In the “Exploring the Science of…” mini series, I will be talking about how what happens in our brain impacts what happens in our mind.

In this, the last of the “Exploring the Science of…” miniseries, I will be talking about schizophrenia, perhaps the most studied and scrutinized of all mental illnesses.


What is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a complex brain disorder that affects everything from perception to cognition. Symptoms vary, but include positive, negative, and cognitive symptoms. Positive symptoms are things added on by the disease, such as hallucinations and delusions. Negative symptoms are characters or traits removed by the disease, such as facial expression and enjoyment of activities, both of which can be hindered by schizophrenia. Finally, cognitive symptoms affect the persons ability to think, for example, people with schizophrenia may be unable to concentrate or organize their thoughts the way healthy people can. For more on schizophrenia itself, feel free to check out my post “Understanding Schizphrenia” here.

Mind Matters

Ventricles of a healthy individual (left) and an individual with schizophrenia (right) showing difference in ventricle size.
One very noticeable difference between healthy individuals and those with schizophrenia occurs in the region of the brain called the ventriclesVentricles are fluid filled cavities in our brain where no actual brain matter is found. However, in some people with schizophrenia, these ventricles are not of a normal size. Instead, they are enlarged. Scientists are not quite sure what that means in terms of cause yet, but are in the midst of studying the phenomena to learn more about what it could mean.

Brain Drain

Perhaps the most stark change that happens in schizophrenia occurs in our grey matter, the stuff we use to think. In some individuals with schizophrenia, there are subtle, yet concrete, differences in the amount of grey matter in the brain. Loss can be extreme, in some cases up to 25% of grey matter is lost. Furthermore, the more grey matter is lost, the more severe the schizophrenia. Scientists believe that some symptoms, such as some individual’s lack of awareness of their illness, may be caused by this loss of brain matter and the effect that loss has on cognition. Untreated schizophrenia can result in loss of grey matter, but the good news is that there may be a solution. Some scientists now believe that the loss of grey matter may be reversible with treatment, and that is great news for those with the disease.

Just Think About It

It doesn’t stop at grey matter and ventricles either, that’s just the beginning. Individuals with schizophrenia also show differences in activity levels in different regions of the brain. One of these regions is the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain reserved for organization and self evaluation, both areas of deficit in schizophrenia. The prefrontal cortex in those with schizophrenia is less active than in healthy subjects. This difference helps to explain why we see some of the symptoms we do.

Listen

Auditory hallucinations, or “voices” and other noises, are by far the most common form of hallucination found in schizophrenia, and are experienced by approximately 75% of those with the illness.  As someone who suffers from prodromal schizophrenia, the early stage of the disease, the voices were always the most interesting and horrifying part of my symptoms. But far more interesting are the mechanics behind those “voices”, or auditory hallucinations.

When we hear a sound, a region in our brain called the temporal gyrus activates. The temporal gyrus is responsible for handling external audio, makes sense right? That’s not interesting though; here’s what is. When someone experiences auditory hallucinations, that same region of the brain activates, just as if the person were hearing a real voice. More than that, scientists have found that people with schizophrenia also lose brain matter in the temporal gyrus, and the more brain matter lost, the worse the hallucinations.

Transmitter Troubles

Like the other diseases we’ve talked about in the “Exploring the Science of…” series, neurotransmitters are again implicated in this disorder. Like most disorders it’s difficult to know exactly what is going wrong with these transmitters; we just know they are causing a problem. Two of the neurotransmitters involved in schizophrenia are dopamine and glutamate.

Dopamine is a very important neurotransmitter which has a variety of functions, the most prominent of which is its role as a “reward” neurotransmitter. You know that feeling you get when you win a game or get something you’ve always wanted? Dopamine. Most all antipsychotics work by blocking dopamine receptors to effectively reduce dopamine levels in the brain, which more often than not helps to alleviate symptoms.

Glutamate is more boring, but also extremely important. It is involved in just about every aspect of our brain and central nervous system, so it’s not to be overlooked. We don’t know why or in what exact way these neurotransmitters are related to schizophrenia, all that we know is that they are.

The Takeaway

This article is very near and dear to my heart, since I myself suffer from prodromal schizophrenia, the early stage of the disease. Given my diagnosis, I have about a 50/50 chance of developing the disease that I’ve already shown you can have such disastrous effects on the brain and mind. The good news for myself and so many others is that treatments and drugs for schizophrenia are constantly improving, in no small part because of research such as that which I’ve shown you in this article. As for the causes, effects, and treatments of schizophrenia, for all we know there is much more still to be discovered…


Sources:

PsychCentral

Schizophrenia.com

BrainBlogger

Matsumoto, H. et al

The Psychiatric Times

The Neurotransporter Group

Psychology Today

Exploring the nature of relationships

Every day we form and end relationships. Ending relationships may seem impossible at times and can vary depending on who’s involved, the type of relationship and how much of our time we’ve invested in the relationship. We can have relationships with anything in life – other individuals, substances (such as food, drugs, etc.), as well as the world around us. Today, I would like to focus on relationships with other individuals. Before we can fully understand the basis of a relationship, we must be able to define what a relationship is. According to Dictionary.com, relationships are “the mutual dealings, connections, or feelings that exist between two parties, countries, people, etc.”

It is often easy to lose sight of how relationships affect us as individuals – specifically, we may feel too invested in a particular relationship to end it, or have a feeling that there is no coming back from the loss of the relationship in question. This type of rationale when approaching relationships is fallacious in nature, called a sunk-cost fallacy. When an individual maintains this fallacious thinking in regard to relationships, it potentially hinders individual growth. There may be no improvement to the relationship, yet individuals continue to try to remedy it. We as individuals have to be able to determine whether or not a relationship is toxic in nature.

When we start to think about relationships with other individuals objectively, we can begin to analyze whether or not it is conducive to either parties growth; specifically if one party is manipulative, but the other is acting selflessly. Relationships that are manipulative in nature are much more likely to be toxic than those based upon sacrifice, but, that is not to say that relationships based upon sacrifice cannot be toxic in nature.

Relationships with other individuals should not be based around manipulation unless it is an agreed upon mutual manipulation, such as the type of relationship businesses have with with their clients – offering services in exchange for something else. It is very seldom in today’s society to see businesses engage in selfless agreements with their clients. These relationships that are built around manipulation can be beneficial for the parties involved, but seldom amount to anything more than that. When approaching relationships with other individuals, such as friends and family, the manipulative intent of one party can be detrimental to one or both parties and typically does not allow for a true loving relationship to be formed. Loving relationships, or love in relationships, stems from one thing – mutual sacrifice between the individuals; not acting with your own interests in mind.

Identifying whether or not a person is acting manipulative or sacrificial in a relationship can allow individuals to determine whether or not the relationship is toxic. If one party is acting manipulative and the other sacrificial, there is bound to be a degree conflict in the relationship, such as the latter party becoming upset when the other individual in the relationship acts in a selfish manner. There are many factors when it comes down to determining the intent of individuals, but we can generally determine if an individual’s intent is manipulative or sacrificial by their actions.

If we feel particularly distraught by the actions of someone in a relationship, the best way to see whether or not the relationship is toxic is to view it objectively. Determining whether or not a relationship is toxic can be difficult when we have already invested a lot of our time in it, but, if a relationship is causing distress on a continual basis, it is time to reflect upon the relationship – specifically the actions and intents of both parties involved. We may not want to know the truth of the situation, but ignoring and prolonging a toxic relationship will increase the distress of the individuals involved.

Guest Post: Carousel Conversations

“Today I would like to present to you all a poem from a spoken word artist born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan. The following poem sheds light on their experience with mental illness after having received a diagnosis and starting dialectic behavioral therapy – a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. This poem is a great representation of how difficult life can be for those combating mental illness.”

Forney_Marbles_MoodCarousel

Carousel Conversations

By: Cat Abenstein

(The following is inspired after achieving a diagnosis and starting Dialectic Behavioural Therapy.)

How can you hide from your thoughts?

The kind that probe and dig and break and demand and maim…

Thoughts like a leaky faucet,

drip, drip, drip,

steadily.

Some small and quick and mostly painless.

Gone before they’re even registered.

Others are big fat globs of water droplets that splash

down into the sink,

sending water flying up and around in

equally spaced,

equally wet,

runway lines of water.

“Remember your self soothing techniques we worked on.”

My therapist’s voice pops in my head.

She’s soft spoken,

and trained so well.

She nods and validates and leaves space for my words and doesn’t judge my actions,

but empathizes with how they make me feel.

She says things like,

“That must be hard.”

And,

“Do you think these rules you create are fair to you?”

And,

“You described your anger as feeling hot and tight. What else can make you feel hot and tight. Arousal? Exactly. Arousals not bad, is it?”

No, doc.

Arousal isn’t bad.

Turning my all too familiar rage into a watered down versions of itself,

is helpful when I realize my body reacts in just a few ways to so many different emotions.

My body feels the same when it’s angry

as it does when I’m horny,

as it does when I’m stressed,

as it does when I’m excited…

And knowledge is power.

Knowing is half the battle.

But now these answers:

Major depressive disorder

Borderline personality disorder

Leave me with so many questions.

Overwhelming

Grief inducing

Lip quivering

Shoulder heaving

Bargaining types of questions.

Like:

“Please. Not again. Why again?”

And,

“Make it stop. Will anything make this stop?”

And,

A splitting calm of dried tears tie these words to a bitter acceptance:

It won’t stop.

“It’s never going to end. I can literally never see a life without this pain. Even though I have more good days than bad, the bad far outweigh the good. This will keep happening. All the progress I’ve made will crumble under the weight of my expectation. I will constantly flip back and forth between enthusiasm for life and crawling on my living room floor, watering the floor boards with my pathetic tears. Begging like a stray for love scraps.”

Stop those thoughts.

Stop those thoughts.                            Stop those thoughts.

Stop those thoughts.

At what point do your suicidal and self harming thoughts become too much?

After the first thought? The first cut?

Even though you’re (pretty) sure you actually wouldn’t…

I used to hide from my thoughts

With cocaine

Speed

MDMA

…uppers that pulled me out of delusion into drug induced fantasies of superiority

Success

Friendships.

If not that,

Then sex

Shoplifting

Red line driving

Going bankrupt

Severing ties

Feeling alone.

So alone.

Now I embrace these thoughts.

Give faces to the impulses,

Call out the delusions…

But it doesn’t necessarily make it easier

every time I find myself back here.

I forget how hard the trip is.

How confusing this carousel ride is.

I hate how my seat stayed warm.

I hate my old shadow friends and how eager they are  to pick up where we left off, regardless if I can name them now, or not.

Spinning

Take me out

Spinning

Get me off

Spinning

Get me out

Spinning

And take me away.

Exploring the Science of Bipolar Disorder

Melancholy_2

Too often the general public relegates mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia to just that, mental illness, diseases of the mind. However, with modern science, we are beginning to see more and more the folly of this simplistic viewpoint. We are now seeing the science behind these illnesses;  the changes in brain form, function, and chemical balance that alter how our brain functions and perceives the world around us. For the next month or so, in my “Exploring the Science of…” mini series, I will be talking about how what happens in our brain impacts what happens in our mind. In this post, I will be talking about how subtle changes in the brain can lead to bipolar disorder.


What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder consists of hyperactive episodes called “manic” episodes, as well as episodes of depression called “depressive” episodes. During manic episodes, a person may feel unstoppable, stop sleeping, and generally feel extremely happy, active, and outgoing, sometimes engaging in high risk behaviors. Depressive episodes are similar to those found in depression, and the person may feel tired, in slow motion, or hopeless for extended periods of time.

There are several sub-diagnoses within bipolar disorder. These include Bipolar I, categorized  by full blown manic episodes, as well as Bipolar II, in which depressive episodes and more mild manic episodes are present. Other diagnoses include Cyclothymia and Bipolar Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (BP-NOS).

It’s All in the Genes

Like so many things, mental illness is often impacted by genes. This has been shown through familial studies for mental illness, along with ever helpful twin studies. These studies give a strong case for mental illness having a genetic component, helping to explain why mental illness so often runs in families. Bipolar disorder is no exception, in fact over half a dozen genes have been implicated in the formation of bipolar disorder. These genes affect everything from your biological clock to how your body handles neurotransmitters like serotonin. Mutations of these  genes can cause anything from anxiety, to depression, to increased chance of alcohol abuse, and leaves the person at a higher risk of developing bipolar disorder.

Those of you who have extensively studied mental illness may have noticed an underlying similarity between the symptoms of many disorders. For instance, psychosis can be present in schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and sometimes even (in milder forms) extreme anxiety. Similarly, some of the gene mutations in bipolar disorder are the same gene mutations implicated in schizophrenia. Furthermore, mutations in specific genes cause the same symptoms across both disorders. For example, a mutation in a certain gene causes hallucinations in both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Think On It

As mentioned previously, often people with bipolar disorder engage in high risk behaviors during manic episodes. With modern technology, we are now getting a glimpse into why this might be. The (potential) answer lies in two parts of the brain, and their function relative to healthy subjects. These two parts are the medial prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision making and memory, and the anterior cingulate gyrus, correlated with emotional response and control.

In those with bipolar disorder, the medial prefrontal cortex is under active compared to healthy controls, while the anterior cingulate gyrus is overactive. This basically means that less energy is going into decision making, and more into emotion. This difference, however subtle (we’re talking about minor differences in tiny parts of the brain), may lead to clues about the poor decision making often found in bipolar disorder.

Tick Tock

Sleep is an integral part of our mental health, especially so when it comes to bipolar disorder. A decrease in sleep is almost always correlated with an increase in bipolar symptoms, and a return to a normal schedule is usually met with decreased symptoms. But what explains this phenomenon? What exactly is going on in our brain when we go without sleep?

The most important change that happens when we forgo sleep happens inside our amygdala, the brain’s center for emotion. Without sleep, the amygdala becomes overactive, meaning it is more sensitive to emotional stimuli. Remember when we talked about overactivity in the anterior cingulate gyrus which also controls emotion? Now imagine that plus an overactive amygdala. That spells trouble. It’s no surprise then that going without sleep worsens symptoms in those with bipolar disorder.

The Takeaway

Bipolar disorder is a complex disease that is just beginning to be understood by scientists. As we begin to learn more about this disorder, we may find clues into the treatment and early identification of the disorder. With this information, we can help better the lives of millions who have bipolar disorder. Also of interest is bipolar disorders link to other disorders such as depression and schizophrenia. Already scientists have discovered similar genetic roots for these disorders, and who knows what the future holds.


Works Cited:

PsychEducation

The National Institute of Mental Health