You’ve heard about your brain so often — you’ve lived with it all your life — that it can be easy to grow a little numb to what it actually is. We sort of understand what it does (thinking, feeling, making decisions, zoning out, etc) but what it is is an organ. A big pink organ sitting in your skull that determines an enormous part of your allotted spins around the planet. So it would stand to reason that if you want your life to be lived well you should want your brain to be healthy. And that’s something Tana Amen is passionate about helping you do.
This article is part of a fall wellness series RELEVANT is producing in partnership with Unite Health Share Ministries.
Amen an author, speaker, neurological trauma nurse (and a multiple black belt!). She’s become an expert about thinking of the brain not just in terms of the usual mental health vocabulary but also how the choices we make and lives we live have an impact on our brain itself. She believes that if we understand that better, we can understand what it means to be holistically healthy — psychologically, relationally, physically and spiritually. She sat down to tell us about her new book The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child and how she wants to change the conversation around mental health.
Maybe you could start by telling us a little about who you are and what you do?
I’m the vice president of Amen Clinics. I’ve written ten books, but my new book, The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child is very different. It’s a memoir. Never thought I would do that. If someone doesn’t like the nutrition advice you give, not a big deal. If someone doesn’t like your personal story or they criticize it, that’s a little more painful. But I just felt like it was time. I felt like I was being called to do this, so here I am.
Amen Clinics, we look at people’s brains and we connect their brain health to their behavior, and it’s very interesting when you begin to do that, because you realize that behavior is complicated. It’s easy to call people bad. It’s harder to ask why. So my new book looks at behavior and past childhood trauma through that lens.
Maybe we should define some terms here. What do you mean when you talk about brain health?
I’m a neurosurgical ICU nurse so, for me, it was science. I didn’t want to deal with any sort of mental health issues before I met my husband. I wanted them sedated and intubated. That was just easier for me.
I didn’t realize how much that was really a testament to me burying my own past. I really didn’t want to dig into some of that stuff. At Amen Clinics, we actually have done so many studies that show that even minor brain injuries affect behavior, they affect the decisions you make, they affect the outcomes in your life.
But as a neurosurgical ICU nurse, I thought brain injury meant you cracked your skull open. Not true. Even minor injuries affect a lot of things in your life. So when you begin to see mental health through the lens of brain health, it changes everything. So this idea of free will. I believe in free will. But what if free will is affected by things? We know it’s affected by substances. So if you go get plastered, it’s going to affect your free will because it drops frontal lobes. Your frontal lobes are the part of your brain that actually is responsible for judgment, forethought, impulse control. You can do things today that are going to make that stronger, or you can do things today that make it weaker. So, hitting your head in a car accident, that’s going to affect it.
Now we have a conversation that’s a little tricky, but it gives me more empathy. It’s a hard conversation to have. But it does de-stigmatize it and it make you begin to start to ask questions, even uncomfortable questions.
Like what? How does empathy change that conversation?
It’s interesting. When you’re talking about someone like me, past childhood trauma is a big part of why we end up being so judgmental. For me, it’s the reason I just could not deal for the longest time with working with addicts. We would label them as addicts, as opposed to seeing them as people with addiction. But that’s because there was so much pain in my childhood, so much pain in my family. At first, I was like, “Wait, do I really want to start having more empathy? Because now I have to change how I feel about these people. I have to change how I feel about this entire group of people, how I’ve been thinking about things my whole life.”
But what I came to understand is this: Just because you have empathy for the fact that maybe behavior is more complicated than we thought it was, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences. It just means that it begins to de-stigmatize it so we were able to have honest conversations about how to build bridges, not walls; so we can get proper treatment for people. Because guess what? Most of them are going home eventually. So why do we not want to start to rehabilitate and understand, so that we can help prevent? But if we don’t understand it, we’re not going to do that. We’re just going to say, “Their problem, not mine.” But it’s not. It’s all of our problem.
I think a lot of people can relate to some of those old traumas. Especially those of us who’ve been quarantining over the course of the year — it’s surfaced a lot of bad memories.
You’re so correct. These times, during this pandemic, triggered so many people. So some people actually did really well during the quarantine. If you were an introvert, if you’re a sort of a loner, you like to be a hermit, you did fine during the quarantine. I did OK during the quarantine.
But I have a teenage daughter who is so social and she became severely depressed. Some people did fine during the quarantine, some people did not. But we know that depression has tripled just since quarantine started. It was at eight percent, now it’s at over, I think 27 percent, so it’s more than tripled. But what we saw that was so interesting is that the quarantine was only one part of it. So while some people did OK during quarantine, when the social uprising, when all of the social issues happened, that was a whole separate effect. People who did well during quarantine didn’t necessarily do well during that phase of activism and all the politics.
That was me. I got triggered because of how unsafe my childhood felt. It wasn’t even what was happening in the world. It was seeing stories of unrest and thinking, “Wait a second, my house had been broken into multiple times.” I felt “This is unsafe, just like that.”
Something you hear from some people is this spiritualization or even overspiritualization of mental health issues. What do you say to someone who says “I’ve got my pastor and my Bible, I’m good.”
Well, for some people, they’ve got their pastor and they’ve got their Bible. They are good. Other people aren’t.
I would say that if you’re still struggling, it’s time to look and see if there’s something going on with your brain. That’s one of the reasons I focus so heavily on brain health.
My husband and I are both Christians. We went to Christian colleges. My husband went to a Christian medical school. I went to a Christian nursing school. So this idea that there needs to be a separation between religion and science, I’ve never really understood that. That wasn’t the truth where I went to school. It wasn’t the truth where my husband went to school. In fact, the more that I learned about science and religion, the more they fit together. I’ve never understood that friction.
What I would say to that is at Amen Clinics we treat people through four lenses: Biological. What’s going on with your body. Did you have a head injury? Do you have a thyroid imbalance? Did you have Lyme disease? Do you have some other infection that’s affecting your mental health?
Psychology. What is your thinking like? Are you controlling and managing your mind? That is where prayer and the Bible are so wonderful and your community. I mean, the Bible talks constantly about managing your mind. About prayer. So that’s really important.
Then there’s the social circle. Who you hang out with matters. Not going to church has been really hard for a lot of people. It’s been hard for me losing my church circle, so I joined a Zoom prayer group, because that was really helpful, because who you hang out with matters. If you’re listening to the news all day and that’s who you’re hanging out with all day, it’s going to be very different than if you’re hanging out with people on Zoom praying. The outcome is going to be very different. People are contagious.
And then there’s the spiritual circle.
Now at Amen Clinics, we treat people according to all of those. And we understand not everybody has our Christian belief system, but it’s still important to understand what gives your life meaning and purpose. Purposeful people live longer. They do better. They get well faster. It’s really critical. So at our clinics we believe that you have to treat people with mental health issues through all of those circles. We don’t think they should be separated. If you had a heart condition, would you say, “I’m going to ignore it. I’m just going to pray.” We would still want you to pray, and we would want you to go get your heart treated. If you have a brain issue, we would want you to pray, but we want you to get your brain treated.
If you’re not raised to think of your health in that holistic sense, it can be very difficult to re-train your thinking that way.
I like to think of those four circles — bio-psycho-social-spiritual — as four tires on a car. You need all four of them for that car to drive right. Yes, they’re individual, but they’re all necessary. You need all of them to be healthy and well filled for that car to drive right. If one goes flat, the car will still drive for a little while. It’s not going to drive well, but it’s going to drive. If more than one of them goes flat, the car’s going to flip eventually. It’s going to crash or it’s going to flip. My car flipped. There’s a point where I wanted to die. My depression was so bad I actually thought if there’s a God, he doesn’t love me. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. It’s a miserable place to be.
The interesting thing is, I think people assume that when they come into a psychiatric clinic they’re going to be labeled as defective, they’re going to be put on heavy medication. That’s the assumption. The truth is, if you’re going to a functional psychiatrist, we want to get to the root cause. What? Is your thyroid off? Do you have some sort of a nutrient imbalance? Our best testimonials are from getting people’s food right, getting them moving, getting them exercising. Those are our best testimonials. And people are like, “Wait, I thought…” Some people like that and other people are like, “No, I just want a pill.” But we want to teach skills, not just pills. We want people to have tools, because we want you to have power, not just a bottle. But there are some people who need a little more help. If you’re suicidal, we’re going to do what we can to get you under control and then start working on the rest of it.
You can pre-order Tana Amen’s The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child here.