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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

Can Understanding Neuroscience Free Us from Downward Spirals?

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 5th 2013

depressIt may just be that when life gets too overwhelming the brain makes a decision to shut us down. Like a helpless limp mouse inside a cat’s mouth our nervous system decides to numb us to the current situation and anticipated pain to come. Understanding this neuroscience perspective can be a key to getting unstuck. 

When we bring the brain to mind for many people it seems to take the shame away from falling into these maladaptive reactions. 

“It makes me think that it’s not my fault,” said a client of mine recently as we looked at her depression from this angle. 

“It takes the shame away from it and I feel a bit freer,” she followed. 

The fact is when it we’re reacting or falling into subconscious traps, the brain is making decisions for us based on its understanding of what will keep us safest so we can survive. It’s not concerned with our happiness, it’s concerned with survival. 

It’s up to us, our conscious minds, to understand that this will be our default unless we wake up and choose a different response. 

The brain inclines us toward isolating because it is safer than the dangers of rejection, but it’s also what breeds that feeling of aloneness which spirals depression. 

At times isolating may be the kindest response to ourselves when we’re completely emotionally overloaded and need a break, but often times it’s a form of self sabotage that keeps us depressed. 

When it comes to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Jeffrey Schwartz, MD, author of Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behaviorcoined the phrase, “It’s not me, it’s my OCD.” This gives us the ability to objectify the experience and by doing this, it takes the shame away and gives us perspective and choice for a more adaptive response. 

Bringing the brain in mind does the same thing. 

Consider this the next time you feel hooked into a depressive or anxious reaction and ask yourself, “What do I really need right now?” 

As always, please share your thoughts, stories, and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from. 


Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Understanding is Key - KM - Mar 27th 2013

I am bipolar.   My greatest accomplishment in managing this, has been learning how to recognize and separate myself from the emotions.   When I am manic, I acknowledge the mania as an emotion and then I avoid the common pitfalls that cause issues.  I know what they are.   I have a mental list from past experience.  I face them with knowledge and logic and refuse to follow through, as the emotion would lead me.  I place myself in calming environments until it passes.   Depression is also acknowledged and for me, naps work best.  I need time to heal something.   I am not the mood/emotion.   It is simply a state of being that I am experiencing, which is more powerful than ordinary and requires extraordinary attention.    I do believe that the more we know of what is happening biologically, the better we can manage it.

Thank you - - Mar 6th 2013

I began referring to the information you post to help my clients have a better understanding of their illness.  Throughout the teaching process I became the student.  you have opened my eyes to a world I didn't want to acknowledge.  You are making an extraordinary difference with your blog.  Thank you!

I understand the process ... sort of ... - - Mar 6th 2013

When I suffered from post-partum, it really helped me to know that it was a physiological thing, not a soul-centered thing. I was wandering the halls of the hospital wondering how I was going to be able to cope with such a life-altering event and look after this other, very vulnerable human being, and a nurse, who twigged onto my distress, explained that what I was experiencing is what many new mothers experience, that it was normal and not uncommon at all. The understanding that it was my body that was cleansing itself of hormones from gestation and giving birth gave me some degree of control. I was able to let go of the fear, anxiety and tension, and resolve to cope with each situation as it came up, instead of being overwhelmed by a bunch of unknowable things.

I just wish I knew how to make this happen with the everyday grief spiral.

Not sure - Shawnee - Mar 5th 2013

How can depression be a protection from overwhelming emotions when depression leads to suicide if not cared for properly? 

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