The Best Brain Hacks
Quick Fixes for Anxiety, Depression, and More
In the first article in this series, The Promise of Prozac Without the Pill (see disclaimer there), I discussed how to fix a broken brain in 7 minutes a day, but cautioned that the results were not immediate, rather it usually takes a few months to see the full benefits.
In the meantime, those suffering from mental anguish need something to help them right away, preferably something that is not habit-forming and has no adverse effects.
That’s where this article comes in. I’ve tried all of these and they work great at easing symptoms immediately, giving you some room to breathe, and offering some respite until your symptoms hopefully dissolve away over the coming months and all these hacks become superfluous.
Just Gimme a Pill!
For those who really aren’t going to do anything but maybe pop a pill (you know who you are) we have natures Ativan: lavender essential oil – 2 to 4 drops in an empty veggie capsule 4 times a day as needed for anxiety and depression.
Studies show this can mimic the efficacy of benzodiazepines – the short-acting drugs like Ativan and Xanax that bring immediate relief of anxiety.
It has also been found effective for depression – not surprising since both conditions are often two sides of the same coin.
You can also try 1 drop mixed with a teaspoon of olive oil by mouth, but this can irritate the mouth if done too often, so get the capsules long-term. This is sold in stores and online, but for the very best quality and the best effect, make it yourself from organic essential oil and empty veggie capsules. You can even buy a handy capsule maker to speed things up.
A ready-made version is by Nature’s Way and called CalmAid.
Reviewers note that: “the effects are comparable to a low dose of Ativan, but without the drugged feeling”, and that it creates a “ (t)tremendous sense of calm. It’s very hard to get upset or agitated or anxious while under lavender’s influence.”
Ashwagandha is famous in Indian Ayurvedic medicine as a general-purpose anti-inflammatory rejuvenating tonic. It is classed as an adaptogen meaning it helps the body deal with stress in any form.
Again the cheapest and most effective option is to buy the organic powder and make tea or make your own capsules.
Taking it as a tea is most effective – 1 tablespoon in warm water in the afternoon. This is preferable as the taste enhances its effects vs taking capsules without that experience.
Cannabidiol (CBD) oil
CBD is one of the dozens of chemicals found in the hemp and marijuana plants. It does not have the psychoactive effects that THC has and is legal to purchase in nearly all jurisdictions with some minor technicalities in a few states.
Some of the CBD sold has trace amounts of THC in it, but you can also find it without any THC.
Some people react poorly to CBD and it can rarely trigger a paradoxical anxiety reaction – so as with any new supplement it’s best to start low and go slow while increasing the dose gradually.
It is taken by mouth and does not require a capsule, though you can encapsulate it or buy it in capsules if you prefer.
Despite the occasional bad reactions studies show that for the majority of people CBD oil is safe and can work well for anxiety, autism, depression, PTSD, and even seizures.
Lazarus Naturals provides the best bang for your buck.
Not a favorite of mine for long-term use when the side effects become troublesome, but it can work wonders short term. There are different varieties to experiment with. As with any chemical, intervention uses the lowest effective dose if this is needed and tries to wean off eventually.
On the Horizon
Not for everyone, but these can be life-saving interventions for patients who are severely ill. Psilocybin from mushrooms, IV ketamine (available at some clinics now), micro-dosed LSD, and other fringe approaches are being actively studied now and there have been some very promising early results.
Get to the Point
Similar to acupuncture, which is worth a try if you can get it, acupressure uses your own hands or a partner’s to provide moderate pressure to certain spots on the body that can trigger relaxation and an antidepressant effect.
Yintang or the 3rd eye: located midway between the eyebrows.
Heart 7 or Shen Men in Chinese which translates to Spirit Gate. It is located on the underside of the wrist (palm side) at the wrist crease along the pinky finger side, on the elbow side of the bony prominence there, and just to the thumb side of the tendon, you can feel there that connects to that little bony outgrowth.
Spleen 6 or Sanyinjiao: Not to be used during pregnancy, but give it a try during labor. The point is located in the inner side of the leg four fingers above the upper edge of the ankle bone in the depression under the shin bone.
You can super-charge all of these with Lavender essential oil. Rub a drop of the oil on the below spots then spend a few minutes pressing them hard and moving in small circles while breathing in deeply through the nose and out through the mouth: 6 seconds in, 7 seconds breath-hold, and 8 seconds out. Do this for 1 – 10 minutes 2-3 times a day.
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
EFT is based on the principles of Chinese medicine and utilizes a tapping technique on acupuncture points. It seems a bit esoteric and silly to some, but regardless of its appearance, it is highly efficacious for a good portion of people.
Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.
If you can identify a particular offending thought, fear, etc then you can do EFT for it, if you can only identify a sensation in your body like shortness of breath or heaviness in the chest, etc, you can do EFT for the sensation. Once you learn it, it can be done in about a minute to relieve most negative emotions.
Here is a brief explanatory video on how to do EFT:
Cold & Hot Hydrotherapy
Towards the end of your hot shower, tomorrow morning brace yourself and turn it all the way cold for 30 seconds, shiver your way through your one thousand then go back to hot briefly until you calm down and then towel off.
Keep track of how you feel and over the next few days experiment with longer or shorter periods until you find the maximal benefit for the least discomfort.
Many people with chronic debilitating anxiety and depression report that cold hydrotherapy like the above is the only thing they need to do to keep their symptoms at bay, but some people need a bit more cold than others and you will find people who pour ice into their bathtub or go jump into freezing lakes every morning to get their fix.
You can also try hot baths daily for anxiety, depression, and stress relief, which would work best at night to wind down and get ready for bed:
Hot bath – submerge your chest and belly in the water and do any deep belly breathing exercise for 5-15 minutes. If you use bath salts, wash them off in the shower with warm water rather than cold afterward. Effects are often deep, immediate and can last for hours to the whole day. Be careful getting out and go slowly as some people can feel weak for a few minutes when getting out of such a bath.
One Mississippi, two Mississippi
There are FDA-approved medical devices that work by increasing the activity of your vagus nerve in order to relieve anxiety and depression, but you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to accomplish this.
The vagus nerve is your rest and digest best buddy. It’s the parasympathetic nervous systems wandering monk traveling somewhat randomly around the body from brain to bottom.
Whereas the sympathetic nervous system gets you riled up and ready for fight or flight, the parasympathetic helps you slow down, calm down and recover from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, not to mention the sea of troubles that we call daily life.
The amazing thing is that we have direct access to this slow-down system through our breathing and by regulating our breathing we gain indirect access and influence over all our internal organs from the heart to the kidneys, from the brain to the bowels.
Using vagal activating techniques dispels anxiety, distress, depression and boosts immunity while supporting proper functioning of every body system.
Diaphragmatic Breathing – adapted from the Sufi tradition.
(1) One clearly intends the benefits one is attempting to attain, feeling certain that it will be achieved, then sits back on their heels, or however, they can comfortably, keeping one’s eyes as still as possible or even closed, breathing through the nose.
(2) Then one breathes in deeply and slowly (filling the lungs from bottom to top), first filling the bottom of the lungs by lowering the diaphragm and pushing the belly out; then the middle part of the lungs with an expansion of the lower ribs, then breastbone and chest; then the highest point of the lungs up to the collarbone, lifting the chest and upper ribs and slightly drawing in the stomach – all in one smooth, continuous motion, not three – then breathing completely out. This is done three times. (To see if one is doing the diaphragm breathing correctly the first time, one may wish to lie on one’s back, put a book on one’s stomach, and try to “lift” it with each breath until one succeeds.)
(3) Then one “watches” one’s breaths, breathing quietly, regularly, deeply, and without strain; as one breathes in, making oneself totally empty with a feeling of neediness, and as one breathes out, feeling absolute contentment. This is done ten times. It is best when possible to hold one’s palms about two centimeters above one’s thighs, and beginning with the little finger of the right hand, lowering the fingertip to the thigh as one breathes out, and lifting it off with the other fingers as one breathes in, then lowering the next finger to the thigh with the next breath out, and so on until one finishes the last breath with the little finger of the left hand.
(4) Then one does the deep abdominal breath a final time with a sense of profound peace, love contentment, and gratitude filling the heart.
(5) This should be done at least once a day on an empty stomach, whether in the morning, midday, or night, though it may be done as needed, up to five times.
There are also a number of effective yoga breathing exercises. Here are two of the best:
6-7-8 alternate nostril breathing up to 15 minutes 2-3 times a day:
Close the right nostril and breathe in through the left nostril for 6 seconds, then close the left nostril and hold your breath for 7 seconds then breathe out through the right nostril for 8 seconds, then breathe in through the right nostril for 6 seconds, then close the right nostril and hold your breath 7 seconds then breathe out through the left nostril for 8 seconds. This is one cycle, always complete a cycle before stopping.
Another is to simply breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, breathing in for 6 seconds, holding it for 7 seconds, and breathing out for 8 seconds. Repeat 10 times, or continue as long as necessary to feel better.
You can also automate this by downloading “The Breathing App” for your phone – set it to breath 6 seconds in and 4-6 seconds out for 10-20 minutes twice a day. It’s best to close your eyes and relax but if you have no time at all you can even do it while you are doing something else like driving, eating, watching TV or using the computer.
Another yoga technique that is simple and powerful is the breath of fire from kundalini yoga – a breathing technique that dissolves stress and gives you nerves of steel. This is described in blogs, books and wouldn’t you know can be found on youtube.
Finally here is a great Chi Kung technique to immediately relieve symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, and more:
Sunlight is about more than just vitamin D, it also boosts our serotonin levels – the happy hormone – as well as our immunity.
Get outside daily – it doesn’t work through a glass window, which blocks the UV rays. You also need to get sun on the skin without sunscreen. Don’t let yourself burn or even get close to pink, but spend a bit of time outside daily with exposed skin – no more than ⅓ of the time it would take to start burning.
This can get addictive – as tanners will tell you – but don’t let it get out of hand, there’s no need to look like burnt toast. With the sun a little goes a long way.
Move It to Lose It
I saved the best for last, or is it the worst?
Ongoing exercise is amongst the best-studied interventions for all mood disorders and addictions. A good place to start is by reading John Ratey’s book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.
The trouble is getting started, especially if depression is the issue. Committing to reading a book is a good way of building up the impetus to get going and after that, it can be indispensable to join a class or otherwise do it socially.
But during bad attacks of symptoms try short bouts of intense exercise like burpees, sprints, kettlebell swings, deep air squats, etc. With air squats, you should get a broom or a long rod and hold it with outspread arms above your head and keep your back straight and erect while squatting. These all have an immediate effect to uplift the mood and dispel anxious, obsessive thoughts.
If you can get yourself to exercise at least every other day for 6-12 weeks you’ll find that your body yearns for that exercise hit when the time comes and it gets easier the longer you do it.
Sometimes we just need a quick pick-me-up. All the above are worth adding to your bag of tricks for dealing with troublesome thoughts and feelings.
Next up will be an article discussing some of the broader lifestyle changes that can help clear up the brain blues and some of the underlying causes of anxiety and depression that a functional medicine physician can help you uncover.