Welcome to Joy Lab!: Welcome to the Joy Lab podcast, where we help you uncover and foster your most joyful self. Your hosts, Dr. Henry Emmons and Dr. Aimee Prasek, bring you the ideal mix of soulful and scientifically sound tools to spark your joy, even when it feels dark. When you're ready to experiment with more joy, combine this podcast with the full Joy Lab program over at JoyLab.coach
Henry: Hello, I'm Henry Emmons and welcome to Joy Lab.
Aimee: And I'm Aimee Prasek. Here at Joy Lab, we infuse science with soul to help you uncover joy. And we're doing that over the next lots of episodes, by guiding you through some of these fundamentals of mental health. We're walking you through this course and in this next lesson, so if this is all not making sense to you, go back to episode 78. That might help, give you a little bit of context for what we're doing. Dropping these episodes Wednesdays and Saturdays, it's kind of a bit of a format change for us.
So in this episode, right after Henry and I are done, Henry will walk us through a lesson about the science of hope. And I'm absolutely here for it. As I sort of shared a little bit in episode 78, when I was stuck in my depression and given my family history, I actually had a psychiatrist didn't tell you this part that told me that my depression would certainly be a lifelong shadow and that there would be nothing I could do with the exception of maybe, maybe a medication at best to get some relief from it. Which is false. And I told you so, doctor I won't say your name publicly. I told you I disagreed and I was right and you were wrong. And that feels good. But it's not just me. I am not an outlier. Our understanding of the brain has evolved. I'm so competitive, I can't stand it. That was part of the reason why I went on that mission.
Nonetheless, back to science. Our understanding of the brain has evolved. Even though we don't know a whole lot about the brain, even yet, it has evolved in such a way that there is one thing that is very true, and that there is so much room for change. Our brain is a pliable creature, um, and it is possible to create so much more healing and change than I think we once thought.
Henry: Yes, and I love the phrase, the science of hope, because it seems to weave together those elements that we, we value so much here. And I think it really does give the message that this is not, you know, buck up and things are going to get better. There's, validity, to the notion that everybody can heal and can feel better and can get to a higher level of wellness and wellbeing.
And, and so this is, this talk is going to be hopefully a way of inspiring you, even if you've been feeling stuck for a very long time, or like Aimee was saying, if you've got a family history that's just rife with something like depression or anxiety. It's still possible for healing to happen. And, you know, I think some of the most inspiring and resilient people that I have met are patients who have experienced that very kind of thing, and then keep trying, keep working at it, and eventually get to a much better level of feeling good and being able to live their lives the way that they really want to.
Aimee: Yes. The science of hope. So remember to check your show notes for the main page for this course where you'll find that link so that you can go to that main page, find everything that we're digging into. Uh, and we'd love to have you join us over at the Resilient Community as well for some extra resources and support.
So, enjoy this lesson on the Science of Hope.
Henry: Welcome back. I wanna talk now about what I call the science of hope. This is my way of framing this and, and really talking about how we change. How can we really change the dynamic of this problem called depression.
So I wanna start with a quote by Margaret Mitchell who wrote, " Gone With The Wind." And she wrote that "Every problem has two handles. You can grab it by the handle of fear or the handle of hope." Depression is a big problem. And I realize it's very hard if you're in the middle of depression, it's really hard not to let fear creep in. If you have been there before and then you get depressed again, it's really natural to start feeling like this is never going to go away. I wanna assure you that that's not true. Everything changes. It never stays as is. But I understand the feeling. But let's really talk this through. How can we understand what the science tells us about change and about what we can do, what is within our power to do differently that really might make a difference in whether depression comes back again, and how often, and how severe.
So in my view, the goal here, in terms of, overcoming and working with depression, of course, it's to get back to your baseline. Of course, we want to do that. We want to get rid of symptoms, essentially. And we can do that in a lot of different ways we'll talk about in the upcoming sessions. But also I think it's really important to talk about what can we do to prevent this from continuing to happen.
This is really crucial, especially if you really do suffer from major depression, clinical depression, because that does have a tendency to come back. And so what are the factors that really make a difference in that?
And then I wanna even take it a step further. I wanna talk not just about getting back to baseline or taking measures to try and prevent this from happening, but I want to talk about what might it take for you to thrive in such a way that there's just less room in your life for the factors that contribute to depression. So I think all of those things are possible and I want to talk about this in these three scientific realms.
The first of them is called epigenetics, where we're gonna talk about how genetics are not the final say in whether you have an illness or if it keeps coming back. I also want to talk about neurogenesis, which really refers to the brain's ability to repair itself or replace some of the cells that have died.
And then thirdly, we'll talk about neuroplasticity, which is really a lot about change. It's change at the level of the brain, but also this has an impact on, on us in a much bigger way.
So let me say this first before I launch into these three things. I want to give you a framework for how long I think it takes for you to change things enough that you will have a different brain than you do right now. I believe it takes between six and 12 months of doing something in a really concerted way. It doesn't have to be perfectly, remember, but it has to be done repeatedly and often enough that you're making the healthier choice most of the time.
If you do that, I really believe, that six months from now and a year from now, you are gonna have a different brain than you do today. Think of it this way, the choices that you make today are going to show up in your life and in your brain six months from now. You want to be choosing things that will give you a better future. That will make depression or anxiety or whatever it is, less likely to continue showing up.
I think we're confronted with a thousand of these choices every day. And remember, you do not have to do it perfectly well. You just have to do it most of the time. Making that choice that takes you more in the direction of health. So let's talk about some of those choices.
Epigenetics refers to a relatively new understanding of how DNA and the genetic blueprint really works. So DNA, as most of you know, you have a concept of this double helix. And we all know that the DNA is something you get from your parents and it really doesn't change much throughout your lifetime.
It actually does change a little because as we go through life, things do tend to go haywire a little bit. Um, you know, little, the ends get clipped off some of these, uh, this genetic material and mutations can happen. But by and large, DNA you're, you're sort of stuck with. But DNA is only the blueprint.
It is not the building itself, it's just information that every one of your cells uses to do its job. And the cell's job, basically, is to create proteins that help the cell do what it needs to do. Whether that's producing energy or moving a muscle or creating, um, memories in your brain. Every one of your cells has to do its job kind of on its own, through the information that it's given. And the DNA is that sort of permanent blueprint.
Now, depression as an illness is not anything that's tied to a single gene. There's many genes that influence, they don't exactly create it as a given. So if you got some of these genes for depression, it's not a given that you will develop the illness.
It just makes it more likely than it would for somebody else. That's really important for you to remember. But also, what we now understand is that the DNA and the gene blueprint is not the final answer. There's a series of channels or switches that go from the DNA into the inner workings of the cell, and it's these channels, whether they get opened or closed, that really determine whether that gene shows up in your life or not.
So let's say you do have some of the genes for depression. And let's say that because of certain circumstances those genes have even become activated. So you've got depression. Then our job and your job, is to find the keys that close down those gateways so that the gene gets turned off again.
So genes do get turned on and activated, even if they're illness genes under certain conditions. But it is possible, at least in some instances to turn them off again. If you've got an illness, you want to find out what do I need to do to turn that off? So here's the some of the things we know that activate these illness genes. And they're familiar to you.
It's things like alcohol and tobacco. It is things like the toxins or the pollutants that are in food and water. it's things that affect your hormones, uh, your endocrine system, and those might be included in even in foods you think are healthy like milk or dairy. If it's got hormones in it from the animals, if they've been kind of pumped full of hormones, well you're getting them too.
And that has an impact on your hormone system. So all of these factors can impact your own genetics. Also, stress. Long-term, intense stress clearly has an impact on activating illness genes. And that's probably not a big surprise. But it's just another reason why we have to address the sources of stress and improve our ability to withstand it or react to it.
But there also are things that have a really positive effect that might help prevent these illness genes from being activated or even help to turn them off once they've been activated. Those include the really healthy aspects of diet. Including the bright colors, the phytonutrients they're called, which show up as bright colors in fruits and vegetables.
It also, helps to not eat too many calories. Not having excess calories that get quickly turned into blood sugar, because that's a stress on, this epigenetics. And then, uh, movement. Having some kind of, of exercise or movement, which we're gonna talk about separately in, in the future, that has a big impact on these illness genes.
So, all of these factors are within our control to a large degree. And there's one other one that I haven't mentioned yet, which is really important, and we're gonna spend quite a bit of time on it later in the course. And that is that kind of the opposite of stress and unhealthy emotions is that we have the capacity to create healthy, positive emotions.
It takes a concerted effort to do so for most of us. Doesn't always just happen naturally. But it is possible to engage in practices that create the healthy emotions that help turn off these illness genes.
The second thing I want to talk about is called neurogenesis. A lot of you probably remember from science classes or biology or something, even in, in high school, I remember learning something like this, and that is that we're born with a lot of brain cells. I think the number nowadays is a hundred billion brain cells.
That's a lot of cells. And then I remember learning that over time as we age, a lot of these brain cells die. You know, we do things, we drink alcohol or we we're under too much stress, or we do something and we lose these brain cells. And of course, just with age, our bodies do in fact deteriorate to some extent as we age, and so does the brain.
However, what we didn't know until relatively recently is that while we lose cells, we also replace some of them. That there are stem cells that live in the brain, right in the memory center, the hippocampus, and these stem cells can be turned into brand new brain cells that can have a healthy protective function for us.
So the brain, just like most of the body, is capable of repairing itself. And here are some of the things that make that more likely. There is a chemical called brain derived neurotrophic factor. You don't need to know that name. It's called BDNF for short. I think of it like miracle grow for your brain.
It's like fertilizer for these new brain cells. If you've got a lot of this chemical in there, these new brain cells are much more likely to grow longer, to have more branches, kind of a richly, branch structure. And they're much more likely to connect to other brain cells. And that's what they have to do to survive.
That's interesting, I think, that individual neurons have to be really well connected with other neurons in order to survive very much like us human beings. So this miracle grow is influenced by these six things.
One of them is exercise. And in this case, uh, a lot of the research was done on lab animals, mostly lab rats. And I do you think it's important to acknowledge that there's a big difference between lab rats and human beings. And that is that when you put one of those treadmill devices, those circular cages in a rat cage, they actually use it. Human beings not so easy, I realize. but if you do that, the rats will run and run and run and that is really helpful at promoting this miracle grow for the brain cells.
Really, really helpful. So exercise or movement, incredibly important. Diet shows up again here, very similar list to the epigenetics list. And so it's getting the phytonutrients, it's getting you know, foods that don't have a lot of kind of, uh, empty calories and not overeating. And also it's getting a lot of omega three in your diet. Those are the things that help in diet.
Also it's really important to have what's called an enriched environment. We need to be challenged with new things that we haven't yet mastered. We need to play and we need to have others to play with. So exercise , diet, an enriched environment, um, serotonin turns out is really an important factor in how well this BDNF works, and we'll talk quite a bit about serotonin later.
And then the fifth factor is connection. And again, with lab animals it's pretty simple. You give them a companion in their cage and they've got connection, at least by that definition. Human beings, it's much more complex, but it's a really important thing for us to focus on. The sixth factor is age, and yes, again, it's true as we age, we don't have as much of this miracle grow stuff. We don't make as many new brain cells. But we're still doing it right up until the last breath that we take. And so we want to figure out ways to enhance this as best we can. So which of those six factors do you think is most important at promoting growth of new cells?
It's actually connection.
Connection trumps everything else. Even the exercise, which is really important in this case. Having good connections, meaningful connections, good relationships in your life, covers a lot of other things.
The third thing I want to talk about is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity, as I think of it, uh, refers to our ability to create new pathways in the brain. And again, this is something we do our entire lives, not just when we're young, but right up until our last breaths. We are creating new pathways, whether we know it or not.
And unfortunately, this is something we do, all of us do, unconsciously most of the time. And people with depression, this is a real key. So let me describe how I think this happens. Or how, just an image that I use to understand this.
Imagine yourself standing in front of a grassy meadow that nobody has walked across before. Long, tall kind of streaming grass. And then imagine that you walk across that just one time. If you look back, you can see very, very faintly where you have been. That's like what happens, I think, the very first time that we have a certain thought about ourselves. Or maybe the first time we learn a dance move. Or maybe the first time that we go through an episode of depression. That we've created a pathway that at this point is very faint.
And if you don't ever go down this path again, it's just gonna disappear. It won't ever really become a path. But then imagine that you take this same path again, and again, and again every day. Maybe many times a day. Before long, you have a real path. And it's so clearly a path that anybody who comes to this meadow is probably going to walk the same pathway, because it's a path.
I think that's very much like what happens when we develop a certain kind of unhealthy, unskillful way of dealing with something in our lives. Or maybe it's, maybe it's that you think poorly of yourself and you repeat these things again and again and again. Before long it really becomes a path.
And then any number of other things can happen in your life and it'll take you right down that same path 'cause it's so well worn. I think this is really true for repeated episodes of depression. One of the reasons we want to do everything we can to avoid going through depressions again and again because you don't want that path to become really well set.
But I want you to imagine then that you have become aware that you've created a path and you don't want it. It is not a good, healthy path for you. And so you've decided that you're just going to stop reinforcing it. Easier said than done, but we're gonna talk about how you can do that later.
But just imagine for a moment that you decide you're not going to walk that pathway anymore, at least not very often. Before long it starts to grow over. And if you give it enough time, for all practical purposes, it'll disappear. Now, it might still be there. It could easily be kind of brought back to life, so to speak, if you did the walking down that path again. But it's nearly gone. It's not a factor in your life anymore. And that's an image for how you can learn to recognize, you have to have consciousness, you've got to be able to see what you're doing and how it's harming you, we'll come to that, but if you do develop that conscious awareness, you can learn to refrain from continuing down that path and essentially remove it from your life.
Now, there is a flip side to this. Imagine that there's a path you don't have now that you want in your life. Maybe it's that you want to be more grateful or you want to be more generous. Or more compassionate. Or just more loving. All of those things would really help you develop a greater sense of connection, which we just talked about, how important that is at getting out of and preventing depression.
So imagine you, let's just say it's, it's generosity that you want to develop. You could choose to think uh, generous thoughts to think well of people. Think about things you could do or give to help other people. And you could take it beyond thought and into action so that you're repeatedly doing things that in fact are generous actions.
Even if you don't feel it at first, even if you're doing it kind of begrudgingly, if you keep doing it, you're going to create a new pathway of generosity. And it's going to be really good for you. It's gonna change how you think and feel about yourself and your world. So we can use that knowledge to our advantage.
Try to get rid of some of the paths we don't want and try to create new ones that we do. Again, these are things that we need to do repeatedly. We don't have to do it every single time we're confronted with a choice, but we do need to do it repeatedly with conscious awareness. And then, if you can do that, over enough period of time, I can almost guarantee you are going to have a different brain, a different heart, a different life in six months to a year than you do now.
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