“Can you burn out a brain?”
That was my question to my therapist on Tuesday. He just leaned back and knowingly stared at me. Dammit, but why won’t he just give me a straight answer for once?!
Have you ever felt like your brain has decided to just stop processing information? I do not mean a depressive episode. He actually quizzed me on my “symptoms”. No, I do not feel sad. I am not crying for no reason. I hardly cry at all unless I’m premenstrual (sorry for meeting that stereotype, but it’s true). I’m not failing to practice basic self-care or anything else that might meet the criteria for depression. It’s like my brain suddenly became a blank slate, and it’s happy about it. I have zero motivation to do anything, and I feel troubled by that because I feel absolutely no motivation to do anything about my lack of motivation. Were it up to me, I would do nothing. Eating is even questionable.
This is the polar opposite of my inborn personality, and it’s freaking me out. It takes a Herculean effort on my part to accomplish anything. Making my bed feels like climbing Mt. Everest. Getting dressed and leaving the house feels like winning the Ironman. Reading…anything feels like earning a PhD. So, I asked him a second time:
“Can you burn out your brain?”
Maybe I have a dopamine deficiency, I posited. That’s a real thing. I did all sorts of research (yes, that’s me earning my PhD). He shook his head at me and explained why that wasn’t possible based upon what I was describing.
“What’s wrong with me? I’m a mushpile! I’m not…me!”
Again, he sits back and makes his thinking face except he looks a little smug. A bit like what your opponent in Trivial Pursuit looks like when they’re reading the question card to you, the answer being fully available to them, while you have no clue what it is.
It was a therapeutic tête-a-tête. Was he really going to sit there looking like the Sphynx, or was he going to help a girl out?
“What if your brain is perfectly fine? The brain knows how to heal itself. What if your brain is actually regenerating right now? What if it is, for lack of a better word, lying fallow because it needs to heal, and your experience of the healing process manifests itself as feeling as you do in this moment?”
The last four years have been characterized by incessant, inconceivable intensity. The last year capped off the last four years with quite the flourish. There wasn’t a break. There was little support. There was some trauma. I’ve burned out my body in a sense. I’m perpetually exhausted physically and trying to rebuild my health. What of my brain? How do you heal a brain?
“Can you go with it? How hard would that be for you?” he asked.
Oh, that advice was like fingernails on a chalkboard. Just sit with this feeling? Accept it?
“What if I get stuck? What if it never goes away?”
Then we talked about what that might look like–symptoms of getting stuck in my current state of being a mushpile with no motivation. It almost feels like cognitive inertia mixed with ambivalence. Just make all my decisions for me. Tell me what to eat, where to go, what to wear (well, maybe not what to wear. I’m still in here somewhere), and what coffee to drink. I don’t know that I would mind. I just want to sit somewhere and do nothing. My mind wants to go blank and think on absolutely nothing. Until it doesn’t. This phenomenon makes me feel panic. I don’t feel like myself.
I had to go home and think about it. I came back with a metaphor that made sense to me. “Am I rebooting? Sort of like when you update the operating system on your machine? The update can take freakin’ forever because you’re dealing with the kernel. Then, the machine has to reboot, and that can take a while, too. It looks like nothing is happening, but a lot is happening. The entire system is undergoing an upgrade. Ideally, you are actually going to end up with a better machine, less bugs, and new features. Before you get to access any of that, however, your machine has to reboot. Does the brain go through anything like that?”
The Sphynx liked this analogy. A lot.
“You are rebooting. Don’t fight it. Your brain is actually healing from the intensity you faced with your daughter and her illness, enduring the abuse in your marriage, and doing the hardest thing–getting out of that while protecting your children–not to mention in the middle of it you sent your oldest child to college and helped her make that transition while helping your two highest needs children make the middle school and high school transitions which did not go well. Plus, you got very sick. You need to go through this now. Allow it. Let yourself be upgraded, debugged, and, then, rebooted.”
Okay, but how? His most basic advice was to begin with mindfulness which is the buzzword in our culture right now. It made the cover of TIME magazine last year, but mindfulness has been around for centuries. If this is indeed what is happening, then I in no way want to fight this process. This is necessary. I’m a very mindful person as it is, but how could I upgrade that?
“Give your brain a task,” he said. “A brain without a task will either 1) drift to the past and ruminate 2) go to the future and worry and perseverate or 3) obsess about something in the present. The brain needs a task in order stay present in a healthy way.”
This is true. From my experience, this is not opinion. This is fact. My mind does this all the time.
“Focus on one thing at a time in order to practice not engaging in multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is corrosive to the brain. Pick any one thing. Breathing is a helpful thing to focus on because you are always breathing. Simply tell your brain to focus on your breathing as you do things that do not necessarily require its attention. If your brain wanders, don’t judge it. Just bring it back to your breathing.”
He said that this is one way in which we build a mindfulness practice, and it’s one way to begin to see the value in The Reboot. Neurons that fire together wire together. To heal a brain, it’s vital to build new neural connections. Practicing being present and disciplining the mind by not allowing it to run to and fro, chasing every rabbit down every hole, creates opportunities for those new neurons to fire together. That is the one benefit of a mindfulness practice–practice being the operative word.
It does not work to say, “I won’t think about my ex-boyfriend anymore,” or “I will try not to linger in the memories of my past trauma for too long today.” You have to give yourself another option so that when, for example, the Giant Rabbit of Trauma hops through your mind, tempting you to chase it down, you know what to do. You have a task lined up for your brain. “Let’s do this now instead, brain.” Being able to gracefully move into mindfulness during moments like that is the result of practicing it. My therapist is asserting that my current state of mind is a perfect time for an extended practice in mindfulness. It’s time to allow my brain to let go of some things while providing space to build something new. There is no problem here. It just feels problematic.
Perhaps some of you might find this helpful particularly if you feel aimless, lacking in motivation, or just existentially fatigued. All is not lost. You may be “rebooting”.
Resources for Your Reboot:
It might be weird, but coloring is a great way to build a mindfulness practice. There are myriad adult coloring books on the market now, and some of them are almost works of art. Like these:
Mindfulness is also a foundational principle in the therapeutic approach Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) as well as a component of EMDR, a highly effective therapeutic approach used in addressing trauma-based memories. There are many reasons to pursue a mindfulness practice particularly if you are looking to pursue deeper healing in the future.