7 Oct 2020

Combatting the dark thoughts in our brains

From Nine To Noon, 11:36 am on 7 October 2020

What's going on in our brains when we experience dark or negative thoughts, and how can we combat them? Lance Burdett spent 22 years in the police and was the national advisor for all police negotiation teams.

His time as a crisis negotiator saw him deal with a range of volatile situations. He used his personal experience with depression, and the loss of his teenage niece to suicide, to write a new book explaining what's going on in our brains when we're anxious, stressed, depressed and suicidal.

Dark Side of the Brain: Adapting to Adversity touches on many of the techniques he employed to overcome his own adversity

“You don’t see it coming. My depression was caused by burn-out. Always doing things and never resting.”

He tells Kathryn Ryan understanding the physiological effects of flight or fight responses in the body is key to addressing negative thoughts and lack of balance.

Some of the simplest techniques and changes to bring balance were the most effective, he says. One being time spent with his partner.

“Looking at my own life, when I first started the business I was flat out trying to build it and she’s still got a job. She was having breakfast and I was going to do my emails and then I’d come out and have breakfast and she’s already gone to work and I’m like ‘that’s doesn’t make sense’.

“So, I came out, emails can wait, and just have a cup of tea with her. Now that simple thing changed my life. It really is the smallest things.”

Another simple technique overlooked is breathing.

“Breathing is the first thing that disappears when we go into flight or flight. It becomes short and shallow. We are going through fight or flight more these days than ever before because life is just so just and coming at us from all different angles and no more so than during covid.

“We are creatures who look forward based on our past. So, we have nothing to refer back to, that’s why a lot of us are struggling to keep up with things and events during Covid.”

Sighing is particularly useful, as the intake of oxygen through the nose and sharp exhale through the mouth helps the brain in function in the way it should, he says.

“I use it a lot to bring people back to the moment… you can think of anything after you sigh. So, the science around that is the alveoli collapse inside our lungs and that’s how oxygen gets absorbed. When we’re shallow breathing we're not taking oxygen in like we once did and oxygen clears the mind… It’s just a little recheck across our day.”

Long deep breaths also help to reset the body and prepare it for deep sleep, he says.

But changing habits is also necessary to addressing mental adversity.

“We like to run in neural pathways, so patterns of behaviour and these are very difficult to change. It was once said that it takes 21 days to break a habit. We now know that’s not true. It might be if it’s a small habit but it can take as much as 80 days.”

Addressing underlying worries remains key and many people never address the root cause of these, so that one worry is simply subsumed by a bigger, more immediate worry, leading to tension and anxiety as worries get stored up in our physiology.

“We are creatures who have worry to keep us safe and worry is looking forward to the future based on our fear so we can be ready for it. It’s a risk-management tool that’s got out of hand," he says.

Introspecting and figuring out what the worry is and determining ways to practically address it is a way to lessen it. Burdett recommends writing up a list afterwards and numbering it one to 10, addressing the easiest worries first. This gives us momentum, he says.

“We know through science that when you tick something off a list you get dopamine, which is a positive motivator. So, we tick off a little thing and it gets us excited and helps us to bring a little more effort because we want that buzz again."

He says writing lists, validating worries and working through these worries practically, amounts to self-induced neuro-plasticity.

“What we’re doing is using the brain’s natural positive chemicals to start working on things that were worrying us. We can do two things – work on worry or work on what’s worrying us.”

Busy-brain syndrome, as Burdett calls, it is when the brain works too hard at resolving worry, becoming overwhelmed, leading to lack of memory and concentration in the present.

People are born with a negativity bias, he says. We naturally look for danger to survive. Hyper-vigilance and negative thoughts can be reduced by also writing a list of what made you happy during the day.

Looking back further is also important, to heal the past, to look at the good things, but also to see how far we’ve come, Burdett says.

“We don’t do that enough… Have a look at what you’re doing now that you never did before.”

Spirituality and balanced, consistent exercise also protect us and relieve stress, inducing positive brain chemistry.

On the flip side, rumination is another dark thought process that compulsively replays the past and is based on feelings of regret. When methods of dealing with this fail, seeing a professional psychologist is necessary, he says.

“The way to get over that is to make up for what’s you’ve done and maybe you could compartmentalise it if you can… We still have to deal with the past and that’s why I’m a believer in psychology. We still have to get some professional help when we’re really struggling… It is about finding what is right for you.”