What Makes Me, Me?

This week on Exploring Mindfulness, we are privileged to share this guest post titled ” What Makes Me, Me?” by Max.

Max is a consultant for Point Above, a mindfulness and leadership consultant agency that aims at helping people and businesses with development into a more focused and productive entity. Through various courses and seminars, any person or company can be a more mindful leader. For more information, please check out www.pointabove.com!


 

What Makes Me, Me?

“It’s not about what it is, it’s about what it can become.” – Dr. Seuss

Is it my nature, or is it my nurture?

Is it when I am the happiest, or is it when I am most sad? When and where does true learning take place? What makes me, me?

From my experience, being in close relationships with different people helps teach you about yourself. Spending a lot of time with someone can help you figure out for yourself what you are alright, great, and amazing at. They may even flat out tell you how and what they accept of you. I am talking about both sexual and platonic relationships. Friends, families, lovers, all of them can help you on your quest to be the best you.

Before I get into the meat of what makes you you, I must say this. I have no answers.

There is no quick fix to figuring out who you are. It is a lifelong journey; just try not to judge yourself along the way, because if you want, you can grow.

Who you are, is how you change, and more importantly, why you change. If you want to change for someone else, or to please other people, your “why” is not aligned properly with what you actually want in the end. You must want to change, for the sake of growing more knowledgeable about yourself. As Dr. Seuss said, it is not about what it is, it is about what it can become. What it can become is the part I am expanding on.

So how do we know what we can become?

Through knowing our strengths? Our weaknesses? Our fears? It is all of these, but the one that stands out most in my eyes is our vulnerabilities. How we change, is opening up our vulnerabilities to people, and hopefully, if they accept them, growing with them.

What makes you, you, is not only your vulnerabilities, but how you communicate them. Being open enough to say, “I am scared,” “I need help with something,” or even saying, “I’m sorry” is a way of saying that you have vulnerabilities and that you are open to share and change. This also means that you have trust in that person. How you deal with those vulnerabilities when they involve interacting with other people involves a lot of trust.

One’s level of vulnerability and transparency are key elements in who a person is.

If you are truthful with yourself about your vulnerabilities, and transparent to other people about them, people will find trust in you. This trust, will allow them to open up their vulnerabilities to you. When someone opens up their vulnerabilities to you, they are asking for help in return. Help to overcome what is holding them back from being fully open with themselves and with others.

My vulnerability, or at least my willingness to open up my vulnerability to people can backfire. Sometimes, I open it up to people who are actually unable to help me grow, unappreciative of the situation, or unreciprocated in being open. These times can be hurtful; for we lose trust in people we once thought were there for us. At the same time, it proves who is actually there for us, the ones that care and are willing to spend time helping you understand yourself more.

One cannot be too phased by rejection of acceptance. You must accept this and move forward with life. Although these are methods of dealing with others who don’t accept, there are no answers here that can be applied universally. Figuring oneself out is a natural process of humanity.

We must learn from our fears and vulnerabilities, and allow other people in, for the sake of growing.


 

 

Stress: A Situation of Symptoms

First and foremost, I must apologize for my recent disappearance. I’ve been experiencing some unpleasant symptoms related to stress, but, having said and experienced the aforementioned, I would like to take the time today to elaborate about the physical, mental, cognitive and behavioral symptoms of stress in addition to the causes.

With having talked about stress in a previous article, we can understand that certain stress can be labeled as good stress (eustressors) or bad stress (distressors). Both types of stress stem from an external stimulus of sorts. The type of stimulus that is triggering the stress response is key to identifying whether or not a stress is good or bad. If one is being stressed by a job to do well, that type of stress can potentially motivate an individual. Stress of this nature may be considered as eustressors. When a stress is negative in nature, such as the stress of job loss, debt, personal conflict with an individual, we may classify that stress as distress.

Stress, depending on the nature of it, may present itself with a series of physical, mental or cognitive symptoms. Typically stress is temporary, but it is occasionally left to stew in our subconscious. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to suppress it, it lingers, waiting until another stressful event happens to “attack” in full force. The symptoms of stress vary per individual, but are generally put into four categories: physical, mental, cognitive and behavioral.

Physical Symptoms

  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension or general pain through the body
  • Chest pain ranging from a dull ache to a sharp pain
  • Changes to an individual’s sex drive
  • Upset stomach, including diarrhea, nausea and constipation
  • Sleeping issues (such as insomnia)
  • Frequent colds or infections

Mental Symptoms

  • Anxiety, depression
  • Radical changes in mood
  • Feeling like you’re losing control of life
  • Low self-esteem
  • Recluse-like behavior

Cognitive Symptoms

  • Excessive worrying
  • Intrusive/racing thoughts
  • Forgetfulness
  • Disorganisation
  • Extreme pessimism
  • Inability to focus

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Appetite changes – either excessive eating or not eating at all
  • Extreme procrastination or avoiding general responsibilities
  • Increased use of drugs
  • Demonstrating more nervous behaviors, such as fidgeting, biting nails, pacing around, etc.

All of these symptoms may seem very intense for something that most people brush off easily in day-to-day life, but there is a lot of medical evidence backing the symptoms of stress. With the advent of the internet and ease of access to resources for all, it’s very easy to become anxious when trying to figure out what is wrong. I know this from personal experience – I’ve tried to scour the myriad of resources available to figure out the cause(s) of my symptoms. I would drive myself to the brink of insanity trying to figure out what fits.

There are many causes of stress, but they are generally put into two categories: personal issues and social issues. Some personal issues that could lead to stress are: one’s health, emotional problems, major life changes (such as the birth of a new child, moving to a different city, or death in the family) and relationship problems (issues with friends, family or lovers).

Social issues that may lead to stress are: Environmental issues (such as crime in one’s city, state of one’s country, a noisy neighborhood), social situation (living in poverty, being unable to make ends meet, loneliness, being discriminated against), unemployment, or one’s job (such as being unhappy with work, or finding that work is too demanding).

In closing, stress can be very taxing to the well-being of individuals. It is important to be able to identify and manage stress before it is allowed to linger in the subconscious for too long and become something unmanageable. There are many ways to combat stress, such as exercising, living within one’s means, adjust one’s standards in relation to the stressor, express emotions instead of keeping them inside, strengthen relationships with friends and family… the list goes on and on. Managing, and if possible, removing stress is key to a healthy body and mind. Prolonged stress does nothing for an individual; it causes a variety of unpleasant symptoms, as previously mentioned. If you find yourself struggling with stress, please take a look here for tips on how to manage stress in relation to your life.

For more information (and publications used for referenced information), see the links below:

http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/stress-management-causes-of-stress

http://www.webmd.boots.com/stress-management/physical-stress-symptoms

http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987

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 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

Giving Thanks: Appreciating What We Take For Granted

black-and-white-person-woman-girl

This week is one of the best I’ve had in a long time. No, I didn’t win the lottery, or get a surprise inheritance, or even get a piece of really good news. I am happy because, for the first time in 6 months, I have gone an entire week being able to study whenever I want to. It was amazing, and I am so terribly happy. I won’t lie, I even started to tear up with joy when I finished reading that first chapter.

But now, of course, I’m sure I’ve confused some of you. After all, since when is studying worth celebration? Well, when you’ve been through what I have, it’s worth a full on party. You see, about eight months ago, I had a problem. That problem was that I simply could not study. I am not talking about lack of focus or not wanting to study. I literally could not understand the words I tried to read, my textbooks suddenly became unreadable tomes before my eyes, the words indecipherable. I would try to do math problems and instead end up sitting there staring at the paper for thirty minutes, unable to do something so simple as adding two numbers together. Chapters of reading piled on as I was unable to keep up, unable to understand the words on the page in front of me.

This went on for hours a day, every day, as I struggled in vain to get my mounting schoolwork done. Nothing I did worked, and I felt useless and stupid for my perceived failure as a student. In addition, voices haunted me at night. When things were at their worst, I found myself frozen, immobile, and thoughtless, a state called catatonia. Even with these frightening symptoms though, the inability to process was still the one I found most troubling.

After weeks of being this way, some days being unable to do so much as read a sentence, I reached out for help. Even after I took the first step to fix my problem, it took months to get the right diagnosis, and to get me on the proper medication. With the cognitive setbacks, catatonia, and auditory hallucinations, the diagnosis I was given was rather dark; prodromal schizophrenia (which I talk more about here), the early stage of the disease.

It took four long weeks for my medication to take full effect. The entire thing was a crapshoot. There was a chance that the medication would not even help ease my symptoms, or the side effects would be too severe to tolerate. There were even chances that I might die or suffer permanent nerve damage due to rare reactions to the atypical anti-psychotic I was on. During this time I eagerly awaited signs of improvement. Slowly they appeared as I was able to study longer and longer each week, and the screaming, tormenting voices subsided. Luckily, I suffered no adverse reactions, and my symptoms were much improved. I was unbelievably happy.

Two weeks ago now, the dosage for my anti-psychotic was raised to help manage my symptoms even better. With the increase of the dose, my ability to concentrate has also increased, and my other symptoms have all but disappeared. I credit my medication, amazing mental health workers,  and my strong family support system, for my recovery. Looking back from where I am today, I can see that I was one of the lucky ones, my psychosis is not severe, I did not have to be hospitalized, and I have a supporting family with the will and means to get me the help I need. Many in my shoes are not half so fortunate.

Through all I’ve been through, I think my favorite memory is, and shall remain, that first time after starting the anti-psychotic that I could actually sit down and study. It’s easy to take something like this for granted, something so simple as reading a book or answering a question. You never expect to lose something like that, something so base and fundamental as thinking or understanding. I know I never did. We all take things for granted. But nothing lasts forever, and what you have now may not be there tomorrow, even life is not a sure bet.

I encourage everyone reading this to take a day, just a day would suffice, and set it aside to think of the things and people that you may now take for granted, and to take the time to appreciate them in a way you may not have before. Take time to appreciate a walk in the park, the sound of a bird singing, the warmth of a fire, the comfort of a good book. Especially take time to appreciate the people in your life; they mean the most of all.

Remember that the current is only a snapshot in your life, and it is a beautiful one. To truly appreciate the current is not to take anything for granted, and that’s something that’s as important for me as it is for anyone else.  I’m not sure what my future will bring, I might get worse, I might have a breakdown, I might end up spending my entire life in a mental hospital. That doesn’t matter right now, because in the current, I can pick up a book and study as hard as I damn well want, I can do things that please me, and I am happy.  That is the current, and that is what matters the most.