Saturday, July 19, 2008

Mirror Neurons and Positive Thinking

(pyramidal neurons - picture from UC Regents Davis campus)

I've had a really good response to my post this week about my not happy/happy list. The very same day I made that post came across an article about how to be happier. Read the article, then come back. I'll wait.

In a nutshell, it's cognitive behaviour therapy. I've already written briefly about that subject and recommended a book about it but it's worth writing about again.

Cognitive behaviour is simply "thinking therapy". All the thoughts we have floating around our heads influence how we see the world. Instead of just letting those negative thoughts float around, we have to corral them, examine them, and "build a case against them". We have to think about what those negative thoughts mean to us and the people around us.

Some of us scoffed when a recent study came out about how positive events can have a positive influence on those of us with MS and depression. We (including myself) all said, "Well, d'uh!" because we know that instinctively. Just like all of us knew that stress can have a negative impact on our disease. But we actually need these types of studies to support continued research into MS and depression. We "know" that positivity can have a positive effect on our minds. The bigger questions are why? and how?

In the human brain it is believed that we have "mirror neurons". These are neurons that fire in the corresponding part of our brain when we observe someone else's behaviour or emotions. This is a very young theory about the mind and a lot of research is being done in this field right now. However, it makes a lot of sense to me. If you see someone else feeling sad, you feel sadness for them. When you see someone laughing, you feel happy and perhaps even laugh with them. Why? You feel these things because the right neurons are firing in your brain, telling you that sadness or happiness is appropriate. When we pin down these "mirror neurons", I believe a whole new method of treating depression will open up.

Many people are disabled by their thoughts rather than by MS. I have met a number of physically disabled people in the past 10 years who I honestly can't think of as disabled. Some are blind or are in a wheelchair because of MS or are struggling with ALS, but I don't think of them as disabled because they don't exhibit the physical side of their disability with their actions or their thoughts. They continue to participate in life as best they are able to. Those are positive thinkers.

On a personal note, I try to eliminate the negative stressors or negative people from my life. There are some people who just sap the energy from you. I simply will not tolerate them in my life. Avoidance of stressors sometimes is not possible, so we have to reduce the stress or find another way to deal with it. I can't change the colour of my eyes any more than I can change the fact that I have MS. So I do what I can to support research and education about MS.

Last weekend, I had set up an information booth about MS at a fairly large outdoor event. I talked to dozens of people about MS including a nursing student. It was a long, hot day but it was definitley worth it and I felt that I had done some good. Yesterday, I was visiting some co-workers at head office and they had a few questions for me about MS. There was another opportunity to educate that I jumped at. Having MS has given me a different sense of purpose than what I had before. Yeah, it makes me tired and gives me pain and weakness sometimes, but I have found some good in it as well. Let's not forget all the cool things I've learned, too.

Anyway, I will stress again the importance of cognitive behaviour therapy to anyone with a brain. It really does help if you're having problems with negative thinking. And you don't have to go to a therapist either. There's lots to read on the subject and if you're reading this then you have access to the internet and the ability to look things up. Or click on the links I highlighted above and this one, too. Call it self help. Now go learn something!



Denver Refashionista said...

I studied psychology as an undergraduate and I absolutely validate what you are saying. In yoga, we work to control our thoughts by being present with them as they come up. When I notice negative thoughts I try to just notice them, not indulge them. Sometimes, I even briefly indulge them like in my post on this week's Carnival but mostly I focus on the fact that I have lived to see another day. I try to remember regularly that I am truly blessed. I have a great life, great supports, two jobs I love and at the moment, lots of free time. Staying positive helps me remember my blessings.


Shauna, I certainly gain mirror benefit from your positivity. Thank you.

Bubbie said...

I couldn't agree more! great post.

Shauna said...

Ladies! Thank you for your comments....I'm on the right track I suspect.


Charles-A. Rovira said...

Actually "cognitive therapy" is a "state of knowing" your self (not the "me" but he "ME".)

Its part of my constant transcendental meditation.

I enjoy thinking deeply and introspectively like that. (Where else and how else can I get to try and ask myself what the Hell I think I'm up to :-)

Joan said...

Nah! I'm much happier when I'm cranky, right Baby?

Shauna said...