Linda Poindexter said, “One small crack does not mean that you are broken. It means that you were put to the test and you didn’t fall apart.” And Dan Millman said, “You don’t have to control your thoughts. You just have to stop letting them control you.”
My guest today is Dr. Caroline Leaf. She is a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist 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 neuroplasticity and how the brain can change with directed mind input. She’s also a speaker, podcaster, and the author of multiple best-selling books with her latest being Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. She has created an app called neuro cycle, which has a five-step process to help you take back control over your thoughts with scientific research showing it reduces anxiety, depression, and toxic thoughts by up to 81%.
In this episode, we discuss how important food is when detoxing the brain, how to get your messy mind under control (and what happens if you don’t), and why you should do an identity check on yourself once a year. Our conversation was so powerful that I split it up into two episodes, so make sure to listen to part two which you can find here.
Trigger warning: We do briefly discuss recovering and healing from sexual abuse.
Dr. Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist with a Master’s and Ph.D. in Communication Pathology, and a BSc in Logopaedics from the University of Cape Town and the University of Pretoria in South Africa. She specializes in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology.
During her years in clinical practice and her work with thousands of underprivileged teachers and students in her home country of South Africa, as well as in the USA, she developed her theory (called the Geodesic Information Processing theory) of how we think, build memory, and learn. In doing so, she’s created practical guides and tools that have transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands 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.
Dr. Leaf’s podcast, Cleaning Up The Mental Mess, YouTube videos, and TV appearances have reached millions globally. She has been featured on Elle, TED, Bustle, Medium, Huffington Post, The O Magazine, Thrive Global, Something You Should Know, Getting Curious, and many other media outlets. Most recently, Dr. Leaf has been working on her app, Neurocycle, which uses a scientifically researched and revolutionary 5 Step Process to help you take back control over your thoughts and your life, with scientific research showing it reduces anxiety, depression, and toxic thoughts by up to 81%.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Leaf back on Episode #1,079 on how we can heal our minds and overcome trauma. It was such an insightful and helpful interview, that I knew I had to bring her back! Remember to listen to part two of more insightful discussions about our brains!
Let’s jump right in!
When we are looking to detox our brains, choosing the right foods is so important. However, it’s also important to know this interesting fact: Our mind controls our digestive system! Think about how much stomach pain and digestion issues we seem to have when we’re stressed and anxious. For our gut to function and digest our food properly, our mind has to be in the right place.
“Most people don’t think about it like that, but if you are eating a really healthy, organic, sustainable, farm-to-table real food, [but you are] in a mood, or perhaps not dealing with a relationship issue as you’re eating — you could lose up to 86% of that nutrition just by the state of your mind.” –Dr. Caroline Leaf
Being worried, anxious, or simply not dealing with a fight you had with someone is going to impact your digestion. This is how people become bloated or even start having gut issues like leaky gut, because of constantly not dealing with our negative emotions. Dr. Leaf talks to patients about how important the mindset behind the meal is, as opposed to just thinking about our food and diet.
This isn’t to say that you can simply eat bad foods with a good mindset around them and process those foods in a healthy way. If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering whether you can have a healthy body without always having the best food as long as the mindset is positive.
“You need both. Eventually, junk food is going to accumulate in your body, and we know that will eventually create a [negative] environment for our brain and body to operate in. The brain and the mind are affected physically by junk food, processed foods, and excess chemicals. They [can] cause leaky gut and do [damage] to the cardiovascular system. There’s so much research around that — so it’s both.” –Dr. Caroline Leaf
Understanding the power of how we think about the food we eat as well as how our state of mind affects digestion is really powerful. You could eat the healthiest foods all the time and be thinking toxic thoughts or staying in the wrong relationship, and those healthy foods won’t do much for you — you can still create inflammation or have a leaky gut because of the mindset.
Dr. Leaf calls this the difference between having a “messy mind” and a “wise mind.”
Many of us are trying to manage a messy mind, where we feel unsure or we react poorly to something someone says to us. It might be waking up and immediately complaining all the time and just feeling irritable. These all fall under our messy minds. Dr. Leaf says that instead of dismissing it, we need to be friends with it.
“Feeling discomfort [where] something just [doesn’t feel] right, feeling irritable, or any of these emotions are totally fine — if they’re managed. We need to own them and give ourselves permission to experience them because you cannot grow unless you understand what they feel like. So get irritated! Now, I’m not saying choose to get irritated, but if you get irritated — own it and then say, ‘Okay, well, why did I do this? What can I learn from this? How can I grow from this?’ That’s a managed mind. We’re not designed to be these perfect toxic positivity creatures.” –Dr. Caroline Leaf
It’s refreshing to be reminded that all emotions are safe and normal, and shouldn’t be dismissed. In fact, rather than trying to be happy and positive all the time, it’s actually healthier and better to get frustrated — as long as you use that frustration, listen to it, and let it teach you how to improve yourself. This is the wise mind.
“Wise mind is the ability to recognize that I don’t know everything and I need other people. I recognize it’s okay to cry, to be sad, to be depressed. I recognize that anxiety and depression are signals and when my body aches, that’s telling me something. It’s the wisdom to stand back and see another perspective by having deep discussions like this, exploring philosophy.” –Dr. Caroline Leaf
Wise mind is all about learning to ask for advice, talking to our partners and children when something happens, and asking them, “What do you think?” It gives us the grace to make mistakes instead of the toxic positivity out there that, if you’re not dealing with the root of the issue, is like putting a bandaid on a bullet wound.
One of those ways to get to the root is doing an identity check once a year.
When we’re going through something as traumatic as the end of a relationship, we can wake up feeling a little sadness and not know why. I went through this recently while chatting with a friend after a transition in my relationship. Even though I’m grateful for the lessons and the process of moving on from this relationship, I can still be sad for the loss of something. After about 30 minutes I decided, I don’t need to stay here. Staying in sadness won’t support my joy, authenticity, and vision of helping people, but I also don’t want to reject this range of emotions.
“[Lewis] just did a neuro cycle! You gathered awareness of your sadness and embraced it. You were okay with it and you gave yourself permission, and it’s good because it’s really okay if you are sad. You then reflected on why you [were sad] … and then you reconceptualized that you’re moving on. You grieve the loss, and that’s part of it.” –Dr. Caroline Leaf
First, you accept it, then you embrace it. Eventually, you reconceptualize it to understand it as part of the bigger picture. Pushing it down is the worst thing we can do because whatever you suppress gets bigger and permeates into other parts of your life.
“Every emotion is telling us a story, but then there’s certain emotions that make us tired. Our brain is a conscious mind [running] on limited energy, while the non-conscious mind is unlimited in energy. An unconscious mind will keep driving us to keep going. We have to discipline or create disciplinary boundaries between the conscious and the nonconscious.” –Dr. Caroline Leaf
It’s okay to recognize a moment of sadness because we’re grieving. We’re training our mind to discipline itself, not to stay in something that will drain you, but rather make it work for you. The fact of the matter is, you can’t change what’s happened to you — but you can change what happens in you.
If we choose to push down our issues or emotions, they can begin to manifest in physical problems too.
There was a time when I was going through a challenging scenario where I knew that the relationship I was in needed to end. I stayed longer than I should have, and about the same time, I started getting eczema breakouts on my skin. I started doing all the allergy tests, but nothing came back conclusive. I cut out certain foods like dairy, but nothing worked. Eventually, I came to accept that I might have to live with this forever.
But once the relationship ended? The physical symptoms disappeared! The eczema was gone.
“Many studies have found a link between unmanaged mind, unmanaged stress, and the impact on our body. You were going through this relationship that was not good for you, but hadn’t dealt with these issues properly. You go for the allergy tests, but it’s not allergies because we immediately think purely physical, but the physical is dominated by the mind, and the eczema was your body saying, ‘Hey Lewis, please pay attention, there’s something in your mind that you need to deal with.’” –Dr. Caroline Leaf
I hope that you enjoyed the first part of this two-part series. This fascinating conversation kept me glued to the end and helped me understand so much about the mind and how our experiences live inside the brain. Be sure to listen to the whole episode to hear all the valuable information I couldn’t fit in this post. Remember to listen to part two next!
Guys, if this episode of The School of Greatness was informative, inspiring, and valuable for you, then please do me a favor and leave me a five-star rating and your review on ApplePodcasts. I would also really love it if you could tag me @lewishowes and @drcarolineleaf on Instagram with a screenshot of your greatest takeaways from this episode.
Today, I want to leave you with this quote from Abraham Maslow who said, “In any given moment, we’ve got two options: To step forward into growth, or to step back into safety.”
I cannot emphasize this enough: The mind and the way you think will dictate your behaviors, your actions, and your life. That is why we’ve got to be willing to learn how to master the mind. You can start right now. You were born to live in harmony to experience love, to experience fulfillment. And if you’re feeling anxiety or stress or frustration or overwhelm in your life, then I hope these tools offer you an opportunity to start down a more harmonious path.