Do you struggle with repetitive or intrusive thoughts? What about depression and anxiety? Maybe no one has “diagnosed” you with a mental health disorder, but you find yourself constantly living in the past or negative thought patterns.
First of all — if this is you, there is hope! Your brain isn’t broken — it’s just stuck in a loop. And second of all, you’re not alone. Almost all of us will find ourselves stuck in negative thinking or behaviors at some point in our lives.
The truth is, we’re creatures of habit. When we have the same thought over and over again, it becomes a pattern. Think of it like this — imagine every thought makes a little trench in your mind. When you have the same thought over and over again, that same trench gets bigger and deeper. Suddenly, that little trench has become the central highway your thoughts operate on! Whenever your mind starts wandering, it automatically returns to that thought pattern because it’s familiar and accessible.
But here’s the good news — we can fill in those trenches and create new ones that are positive! It takes consistent and mindful practice, but it is more than possible for all of us.
My guest for today offers an alternative way to handle mental conditions that have affected the lives of many. She is a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist specializing in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology. She’s a strong believer that the brain can change with any directed input. I’m so glad to have Dr. Caroline Leaf with us in this episode!
In this interview, Dr. Caroline and I dove deep into the topic of how mismanagement of mental health and not mental health issues is on the rise. She also shared her five-step neuro cycle process that will surely change your life. Lastly, we also focused on how you can protect your mental health particularly if you’ve undergone painful and traumatic experiences in your life. I was blown away at everything I learned about the mind-brain connection, neuroscience, and other topics related to mental health.
This episode is close to my heart — I truly found inspiration and wisdom from listening to Dr. Caroline. If you’re someone who also has experienced (or are experiencing) painful and traumatic experiences in your life, then this episode is for you. I’m so excited to share the valuable learnings that I got from Dr. Caroline, so let’s begin!
Dr. Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist with a Masters and Ph.D. in Communication Pathology and a BSc Logopaedics, specializing in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology. Since the early 1980s, she has researched the mind-brain connection, the nature of mental health, and the formation of memory. She was one of the first in her field to study how the brain can change (neuroplasticity) with directed mind input.
During her years in clinical practice and her work with thousands of underprivileged teachers and students in South Africa and the USA, she developed her theory called the Geodesic Information Processing Theory of how we think, build memory, and learn. Using its principles, she came up with tools and processes that have transformed the lives of individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), learning disabilities (ADD, ADHD), autism, dementia, and mental ill-health issues, like anxiety and depression. She has helped hundreds of thousands of students and adults learn how to use their minds to detox and grow their brains to succeed in every area of their lives, including family life, university, and the workplace.
Dr. Caroline is also the bestselling author of Switch on Your Brain, Think Learn Succeed, Think and Eat Yourself Smart, and many more works. She teaches at academic, medical, and neuroscience conferences, churches, and to various audiences around the world. Dr. Caroline is also involved in the global ECHO movement, which trains physicians worldwide on the mind-brain-body connection, mental health, and how to avoid physician burnout.
Dr. Caroline is currently conducting clinical trials using the five-step program she developed while in private practice to further demonstrate the effectiveness of mind-directed techniques to help relieve mental ill-health problems such as anxiety, depression, and intrusive thoughts. The primary aim of these trials is to make mental health care more affordable, applicable, and accessible worldwide and to reduce the stigma around mental health.
It was truly an honor to have her on The School of Greatness podcast to share her knowledge with all of us!
It seems like when people hear the words “anxiety,” “depression,” “anger,” or “stress,” there’s an obsession not only by medical experts but also by everyone to label them as mental diseases and immediately advise to get medications. Dr. Caroline explained that contrary to popular opinion, these emotional states are just our body’s way of responding to painful experiences.
“Despair, anger, depression, anxiety. These are all completely normal responses. They’re very helpful. They are helpful messengers and warning signals as opposed to being scary illnesses. They are not neuropsychiatric brain diseases.” – Dr. Caroline Leaf
This is different from what we’ve been taught all along. Most of the time, these conditions are not illnesses, not diseases, and are not simple chemical imbalances in our brain. They are signals of an underlying cause, which should be the true focus of what doctors are trying to manage through medications.
“Mental health is not on the rise, what’s on the rise are the cases of its mismanagement. There has been an increase in the number of people dying from despair. This is a lifestyle disease, which means that it’s mind-driven. It could be preventable. What we’re currently doing, however, is we’re diagnosing it, labeling, and treating it with medications.” – Dr. Caroline Leaf
To hear a neuroscientist talk about these conditions related to mental health is fascinating! What she’s saying is not just challenging us but the whole mental health community to reflect on its current ways of handling mental diseases.
“Chemical imbalance is not the cause of anxiety, depression, and all these other scary ways our mind responds to life’s traumas and challenges. What needs to be done is to shift our focus on the way to handle it. It’s important to focus on the story and the person’s experience. Acknowledge that the person might be going through something, which is the reason they’re acting this way. So it’s important that taking in all these medicines is not the only way that we can handle them.” – Dr. Caroline Leaf
Interesting, right? But it’s only the beginning. Dr. Caroline shared so much more of what neuroscience has to say when it comes to mastering our thoughts and ultimately our lives as well.
Whenever faced with our darkest secrets or life’s daily difficulties, some of us might respond by denying that they exist, some of us cry ourselves to sleep, while others of us turn to distractions to get rid of the pain even temporarily. However, Dr. Caroline believes that these quick solutions won’t work. The mind is complicated, and in order to properly heal, there should be a specific way of dealing with all these negative emotions. In her decades of research and study, Dr. Caroline was able to come up with the concept of the NeuroCycle.
NeuroCycle is an alternative way to manage our mind’s response to traumatic memories or painful experiences. She believes that the power of the NeuroCycle lies in our ability to get our minds under control. To understand more about how it works, Dr. Caroline emphasized these points.
“In a tremendously acute traumatic state, you have the options of going into two zones. The first is the mental mess that you’re in, wherein you are the pilot. … However, you also have the zone of the co-pilot, which is also you. The only difference is that your co-pilot can see from a more objective point of view. It has its wisdom because inside each of us [are] our survival instincts.” – Dr. Caroline Leaf
What Dr. Caroline is saying is that the co-pilot state is necessary for us to prepare ourselves for the NeuroCycle process. Once we hand the control over to our mind’s co-pilot, then we can proceed to the five-step process below.
Dr. Caroline believes that for us to take control of our minds, we need to know where to start first. She suggested that the best thing to do is to be aware of the “apples” to be picked while experiencing the traumatic state.
“You need to gather awareness. You need to be aware of your emotional warning signals. Are you feeling despair, anxiety, or panic attack? You also need to look and study your physical bodily response. Are you experiencing tension, a gut-wrenching adrenaline surge, or what? Then look at your behavior. Evaluate what you are saying, and what you’re doing. Lastly, gather your perspective on what’s happening. Do you tell yourself that the situation is terrible? That it sucks? Or [do] you tell yourself that it’s okay?” – Dr. Caroline Lea
Once you get to know all this information, you can better understand why you’re reacting in that way. This is the start of how you can be in control of the situation.
According to Dr. Caroline, when your mind is in a mess, this means that the left and right sides of your brain are lacking coherence. It also means that blood and oxygen are not properly flowing in the various parts of the brain. This makes us impulsive, and this could be the reason why many of us take drastic measures such as taking our own lives whenever we experience situations like the loss of our loved ones or losing our jobs. Dr. Caroline explained why reflection is a crucial part of the NeuroCycle.
“By reflecting, you are taking control of your mind. You take a step back and see despair, anxiety, and trauma to be mere messengers of what the mind is undergoing. So you can start asking, why are you having these reactions, etc. What is your behavior? In this case, you will be able to get meaning to how your mind is trying to respond.” – Dr. Caroline Leaf
Dr. Caroline emphasized that by reflecting, you can respond to your fears or whatever you’re feeling in a way that you can control the emotion. By discussing your emotions, actions, behavior, and perspective, you’ll be able to find patterns in your life and come up with better solutions on how to deal with them.
Dr. Caroline believes that it’s important to put down your thoughts and feelings into writing. She talks about the technique called Metacog, which is one of the best ways to process emotions and thoughts.
“Metacog is a pattern form of writing that stimulates. It looks like a tree. You start in the middle, work on branches, and you put words, and you don’t write whole sentences. You just pour [out the] information, and you let it just come out in this patterned format. But each one of the key things should be grouped. As a thought comes up, you put it in one area, and if there’s something else that comes up, you put it wherever. You’ll end up with these clusters of information that drags the two sides of the brain together.” – Dr. Caroline Leaf
By allowing yourself to write down every emotion, every thought you’re feeling, you’ll be able to dig deep into the underlying cause of everything that’s happening. You’ll be surprised that you’ll find more insights than you could ever imagine!
Doing steps one through three will help your mind weaken the negative energy built over the years by the trauma. However, it shouldn’t stop there. For Dr. Caroline, an important step is to have these traumatic memories reconceptualized. She uses the Kintsugi Principle to explain its importance.
“The Japanese have art to deal with shattered vases. They don’t sweep the pieces away. What they did was they collected every piece and they rebuilt it with gold, lacquer, and platinum. So now you have this beautiful new vase with all the gold and platinum” – Dr. Caroline Leaf
When we undergo a traumatic experience in life, everything gets shattered into pieces. This doesn’t mean though that our life’s meant to be thrown away.
“Through reconceptualization, it can help us put back the shattered pieces of our lives together. Reconceptualization is not forgetting the trauma that took place in your life. It’s about embracing life’s most painful and scarring moments or events and taking a different perspective out of it. It’s like giving yourself the chance to rewrite your story. It weakens the tie that you have with either your past abuser or a painful experience to allow you to finally have that release.” – Dr. Caroline Leaf
Just like the cracks in the vase, your scars will stay with you forever. But you have the power to reconstruct these experiences in a way that they can enrich who you are as a person. In this way, they can beautifully represent everything you’ve gone through before you were able to transform yourself into greatness.
Think, feel, choose. The mind is always taking an action, but that action doesn’t need to be big though. It can be as simple as taking a deep breath or giving yourself an affirmation to anchor yourself back in the moment.
These are the five simple steps in the NeuroCycle process. Again, Dr. Caroline emphasized that it’s not a quick fix — she believes that it takes a minimum of 63 days to start seeing changes in your life. Sometimes, if the trauma is so great, it might even take longer. But by starting to engage in NeuroCycling, its benefits can bring you wonders! You can claim back control over your mind, and that’s powerful!
As a sexually abused child at the age of five, I know the feeling of trying to confront the painful memories that would continuously resurface throughout the years. When I finally dared to undergo therapy, I thought it would be easy. But I was wrong. Unpacking those piled-up emotions of anger and pain, of all these negative emotions I’ve had over the years, was scary and hard. It almost felt like dying. I doubted if I could ever feel loved now that everyone knew about my dark secret.
However, according to Dr. Caroline, what I went through was the proper way of getting to the road of healing and improving my mental health.
“It’s normal to feel all of these emotions as you start opening up on your vulnerability. But as you talk more about it, it weakens the chemical bonds, protein bonds that these traumatic events have formed inside the brain. This will allow you to embrace and look at all these negative emotions you’re feeling more objectively and finally be able to conceptualize so [that] you can change your narrative.” – Dr. Caroline Leaf
The road to changing our narratives is not easy, but it allows us to manage our minds in more constructive and helpful ways. Again, this starts from leaning into our mind’s co-pilot. This is the wisdom living in each of us. You just need to permit them to take control of what’s happening, particularly when the trauma of your past starts disrupting your cocoon system and breaks it apart.
Once you start permitting your mind’s co-pilot to take the reins, it’ll be easier to fight that urge to come back to that dark place. To stop the cycle, Dr. Caroline gave us these last two steps.
“Learn how to self-regulate. Aside from that, engage in brain building. Take the five steps of NeuroCycling to learn new information” – Dr. Caroline Leaf
Dr. Caroline explained that every morning, new cells are born, just waiting for us to use them. If we don’t, they become toxic waste and affect our brain negatively. There are many ways to build the brain, like reading, studying, and even doing physical activities. By allowing your mind to engage itself in thinking, you can build your mental and physical resilience, take control of the urge of going back to that deep dark place, and transform your life altogether!
So remember that changing your narrative, leaning to the power of your co-pilot, self-regulation, and engaging in brain-building activities are all powerful tools to help you improve your mental health. All these tools are within you waiting to be mastered so that you can heal from the past and start your journey of helping others!
Guys, everything that I’ve learned today is not just amazing but beyond inspiring! To think that you can be able to heal your mind and improve your mental health! It’s a strong reminder of our powerful capabilities as human beings.
Everything that we’ve learned today is included in Dr. Caroline’s book entitled, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess: 5 Simple, Scientifically Proven Steps to Reduce Anxiety, Stress, and Toxic Thinking. If you think that everything that she talked about today is fascinating, there’s more science-based wisdom that’s included in her book, so please make sure that you pick up a copy! You can also learn more about Dr. Caroline’s work by going to her website or social media accounts. She’s on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube, too. She also has her podcast, Cleaning Up The Mental Mess, where she makes use of concepts in neuroscience in handling anxiety and life’s stressful events.
If you find everything that we talked about today valuable, please tag Dr. Caroline @drcarolineleaf and me @lewishowes on Instagram with your key takeaways. Please also go to Apple Podcasts, give it a five-star rating, and don’t forget to subscribe.
Before I leave, let me share Dr. Caroline’s definition of greatness,
“My definition of greatness is when you start getting to grips with understanding how you think, feel, and choose. You start seeing greatness because there’s something you can do that no one else can do. And when you recognize that there’s something that you can do that no one else can do, which is your mind and your perception, then there’ll be no jealousy. There’s no desire to be like someone else. There’s no competition because you can’t be competed with because no one can do what you can do.” – Dr. Caroline Leaf
Such an inspiring and impressive definition of greatness! I believe 100% that there’s no way to achieve greatness if your thoughts have control over you.
If you’re ready to learn how to master your mind and improve your mental health make sure you don’t miss Episode 1,079 with Dr. Caroline Leaf on the School of Greatness!