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Mental Health & the Brain

Happy Mental Health Awareness Month!

Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC with a horse

My name is Carissa Weber and you can find more about my blog here. For the last 10 years, I have worked as a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and a clinical substance abuse counselor (CSAC). I have always been drawn to mental health, especially ways to help us feel better. While I was in college, I studied nursing and how the brain works. This absolutely fascinated me. Ever since, I have been interested as to why our brain works, and why it sometimes doesn’t work. Through many years of education, training, and real-life experience, I have found many people struggle to seek out help for their mental health because of a lack of understanding of how everything works upstairs. Even in my own practice, I have had people doubt their own experiences because “mental health is just in your head.” Over the years, I have slowly integrated explaining what is happening in our brains when we are experiencing mental health. Through this explanation, people have felt more connected and relaxed about what they must do to take care of their mental health needs. It is my hope that through this blog, people will start to understand that this “thing in their head” really has some biological factors, and the skills that many therapists suggest have biological factors as to why they work.

Not only does this topic have meaning to me professionally, but it also has personal meaning. Throughout my life, I have struggled with anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. For years, I thought the skills my therapist gave me were just a distraction from what was really going on. As I started to understand more how the brain works, and what the brain needed, I started to feel a connection to my coping skills. This really changed my life as it opened my eyes to the changes my brain was making versus thinking I would be stuck forever with these debilitating (and annoying) symptoms.

Now, as I wear multiple hats in my life (wife, mom, therapist, and aspiring equestrian), I want to share with the world the reason coping skills work. This is not just for prosperity’s sake, but for the understanding that if we use these coping skills, and demonstrate their use on a regular basis, we may slowly impact those around us in a positive way. This means we may change how we think about mental health. Thank you so much for reading and I hope this blog inspires you on your journey of emotional wealth!

What is mental Health? Green brain.
So, What's Actually Going on Upstairs?

We've all heard of anxiety and depression, but have you ever given it much thought as to how it actually works in your head? Today, I want to arm you with the knowledge of what's really going on upstairs, in your brain, when anxiety and depression are kicking your ass.

Know Your Brain

First, let's talk about the basic players in your brain that have the most impact on your mental health. Collectively known as the limbic system, these parts work together to:

- Regulate our emotions

- Plan out our actions

- Process the information around us to make a game plan

- Prepare us to react to any threats

When mental health is present, the limbic system is a bit, well, off. But what parts of the limbic system really throw us out of wack? You can blame the walnut-sized area called the amygdala for that. Centrally located in our brain, the amygdala is responsible for those crazy, racing thoughts that amp up our anxiety and deepen our depression. Fueled by the stress hormone, cortisol, the amygdala can turn an everyday situation into a fight-or-flight response.

Where is the Glitch?

Now, if your brain is wired correctly and working, your prefrontal cortex comes in and tells your amygdala to "chill the fuck out" because it uses facts provided by other parts of your brain to disprove the need to fight for your life while responding to an email. The prefrontal cortex (located directly behind your forehead), is the calculated part of your brain that tries to plan for things using the cold, hard facts of what you are experiencing. It takes a few minutes to kick in sometimes, but when it does, you can be sure that it knows how to make the amygdala behave.

In the case of mental health, the prefrontal cortex is not as assertive as we would like it to be. This means the amygdala gets to rule the roost and create a made-up shitstorm based on minimal information. Don't believe me? Science can show you this is the case in MRI scans.

So now that we have the basic know-how of what's going on upstairs, how do we keep our limbic system on track?

Maintain a Routine

Did you know that your brain thrives on routine? it's true! When your brain, primarily your amygdala and the prefrontal cortex can rely on knowing what is going to happen, something cool happens: Your stress and anxiety decrease!

Starting to create a routine doesn't need to be over-planning your day with no free time. Start small, like with a little routine you can do. For example, start with a routine you have when you wake up. This can include everything from eating, showering, and brushing your teeth to little things that meet your individual needs.

Don't Slack on the Nutrition

So many of us struggle with nutrition when our mental health isn't being a douche canoe, let alone when it is. There is a strong correlation between the brain and our guts. Prime example: the feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin. This happy little chemical is responsible to help our brain feel good and chill the fuck out. But, is it made in our heads? Hell no!

Serotonin is not manufactured in our brains but in our digestive system. Seriously! Want to know the coolest fact? Serotonin cannot be produced unless you have real food in your gut. I'm talking bananas, peanuts, fatty ocean fish, avocados, dark leafy greens, and poultry. These things produce something called tryptophan which is the amino acid found in these foods that create serotonin.

Sleep and Rest Without the Guilt

There is no secret humans need rest in order to recharge and be productive. But what do you say to yourself when you are resting? If the script sounds like "I have things that need to get done!", or "I'll rest when my to-do list is done," or "I wish I could just sleep," chances are you are guilting yourself instead of resting.

When we slow down and recognize rest is needed, our brain releases a chemical called GABA. GABA is required to not just shut down the production of stress hormones, but also:

- Allows your brain to create melatonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for sleep

- Decreases muscle tension throughout your body

- Reducing overall levels of stress and anxiety

So put that guilt aside and allow yourself to actually rest like you need to!

Help is your Friend

There is such a stigma surrounding self-care, mental health, and freely talking about our struggles. When we do talk about what is eating us, we are validating what we are experiencing. This has a profound effect on not just your brain, but also the people around you.

When you offer a listening ear (or someone is present for you), your brain creates a neurotransmitter called oxytocin. This is the neurotransmitter that helps you feel connected to the people around you (as well as animals, plants, and essentially the world). What's so freakin' neat about just being there to listen to your friends is this action releases oxytocin for the both of you. Listening quite literally is improving everyone's mental health.

Make Self-Care Work for You

Now before you start gagging about the idea of self-care, hear me out. So many people have this idea that self-care needs to be bubble baths, mindfulness practices, or meditation. Self-care is more than that. Self-care is the thing that you do that gives you energy for your day. If that is rocking out to your favorite punk rock band, do it! If it is engaging in Primal Scream therapy into your favorite pillow, go right ahead and do it! If spending time alone with your favorite animals helps you unwind, snuggle those animals closely!

We tend to put self-care on the back burner because we feel like we have to earn it. why the fuck do we have to earn the right to take care of ourselves? We don't! We deserve self-care just for simply existing in this dumpster fire we care about our world. Now that you have a basic understanding of what's going on upstairs when your mental health being a shithead, you can take a breath and remember you can change it with a few simple acts. Go forth and keep rockin' like you've been doing!

If you liked what you read, and want more, remember you can access my blog, or my facbook community.

As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you. Funds go to furthering the reach of Mental Health.


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1 Comment

Vidya Tiru
Vidya Tiru
May 09, 2023

Thank you for this post Carissa. With my own teen feeling and dealing with the stresses she is today, I have been doing a lot of reading on metal health and your posts have helped provide a lot of insight (I think I came upon your blog for the first time about a couple of years ago).. In today's post, especially found the gut-brain connection useful and will need to make a note of it to my teen as well so she can be better equipped to deal with everything.. - vidya

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