Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Neurochemical in Focus - Serotonin

In a previous Neurochemical in Focus piece we looked a bit at dopamine, its pathways and its affects on our moods and behaviours. Today we're going to look at another very long overdue neurochemical and topic - serotonin.

Neurochemicals and their roles in brain functions are the very foundation and core of pharma-psychiatry's "chemical imbalance" theory for "mental illnesses" and are the basis for every prescription written to treat depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, OCD and ADHD.

The initial focus of this blog was to take apart and demolish the chemical imbalance theories of mood and psychiatric disorders but I don't want to get into that too much here today. My aim for this piece today is to build towards a better understanding of serotonin and its roles in brain behaviours (and thus our moods and behaviours) and look into how popular drugs for depression are alleged to work. 

While I've since done a good deal of my own reading and study into our topic today, I owe a great debt of gratitude to Robert Whitaker and his landmark book Anatomy of an Epidemic for not only spurring and inspiring my interest in neuroscience, but for introducing me to the understanding of attempting to treat psychiatric and mood disorders at the synapses of the brain with the use of drugs. 

I'd come across his book early in 2013 and then had the great fortune to attend a lecture he was giving in Vancouver where I was able to meet and talk with him at some length. It was that talk and that meeting which led to a great deal of what Taming the Polar Bears would eventually become. Robert's high integrity methods to his research and writing and his early encouragement of my efforts were very instrumental in my approach to understanding and writing about science and the brain as well as my research methods. He very patiently read and critiqued some of my early efforts (along with the famed (and somewhat rebel) psychologist Bruce E. Levine) which greatly aided in steering me in the right direction. 

As with all neurochemicals, the roles of serotonin in the brain and body are greatly more complex than that presented by the pharmaceutical industry in their ads and narratives for the antidepressants they market.

Let's have a bit of a look. 

Serotonin or 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) is biochemically derived from tryptophan. Serotonin is a monoamine neurotransmitter primarily found in the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), blood platelets, and the central nervous system (CNS) of animals, including humans. It is popularly thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness
Approximately 90% of the human body's total serotonin is located in the enterochromaffin cells in the GI tract, where it is used to regulate intestinal movements. The serotonin is secreted luminally and basolaterally which leads to increased serotonin uptake by circulating platelets and activation after stimulation, which gives increased stimulation of myenteric neurons and gastrointestinal motility. The remainder is synthesized in serotonergic neurons of the CNS, where it has various functions. These include the regulation of mood, appetite, and sleep. Serotonin also has some cognitive functions, including memory and learning. 
- Wikipedia (with some editing for clarity and brevity)

That's a very basic introduction into serotonin. Now, let's unpack that a bit and look more into what's relevant to us mental health peeps. 

The discovery and genesis of the understanding of neurochemicals' roles in brain function took place in the mid-fifties. Synapses and their basic functions had just been discovered yet it remained unknown how exactly information was "handed off" between communicating neurons at the synaptic level. Some argued for an electrical basis (which is partially correct as we'll see) while others proposed that chemicals were involved. As noted science historian Elliot Valenstein characterized it, it was "a war between the sparks and the soups". 

Further experiments were conducted which discovered that synaptic communication was indeed carried out by chemical messengers and subsequently a number of them were identified and further experiments showed that the "moods" and behaviours of animals could be altered or affected by introducing drugs that in some way modulated the levels of these neurotransmitters (as they would come to be known). 

And it was from these seeds that the "chemical imbalance" theories for mood and psychiatric disorders began to emerge with dopamine, monoamines (including serotonin) along with a third major neurotransmitter called norapinephrine being identified as the lead "culprits".

As noted in that Wikipedia excerpt, serotonin is part of a group of neurotransmitters in the class of monoamine. Some of the earliest pharmaceutical produced antidepressants were based on attempting to modulate monoamine and were called monoamine oxidase inhibitors or MAOIs and new variations on those are still prescribed and used today. 

Later research, primarily carried out or was funded by the pharmaceutical industry, isolated serotonin as having more specific effects on our moods and with great fanfare, SSRI antidepressants were introduced to the world with the release of Prozac by the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly in 1986.

If you walk into a doctor's office today complaining of depression or are admitted to a psychiatric facility to be "treated" for depression (a word I use very loosely), there is a very good chance you will be prescribed an SSRI antidepressant. 

SSRI stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. As our goal in this blog is to better understand our mental states, the reasons behind them and how they can be treated, a better understanding of this is going to be very pertinent to us. 

First of all, let's take a closer look at serotonin pathways in the brain and a little bit about what those are all about. 

That gives a pretty decent idea as to where the pathways originate and some of the destinations. I liked this particular illustration because it gives a rough brain view plus that little "flow chart" at the bottom helps give us a better idea. 

As we learned in the post on dopamine pathways, none of this works in isolation. As with dopamine originating in specialized nuclei called the Ventral Tegmental Area (or VTM), serotonin has an originating nuclei (or group of specialized neurons) that is responsible for sending out serotonin related signalling. Serotonin pathways originate in the raphe nuclei. These are located in the brain stem, a very old (and original) part of our brains in evolutionary terms and indeed serotonin plays key roles in many life forms, even the humble round worm (C. Elegans, a favourite of neuroscience types to poke and prod and experiment with). 

As for the destination end of things, we have the thalamus and hypothalumus, two key nodules that we briefly visited in the introduction to the stress response system, then the caudate neucleus which plays key roles in motor and non-motor functions and as such is of keen interest in Parkinson's and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The hippocampus is also a destination (this sea horse shaped pair of nodules (one in each hemisphere) plays the role in episodic memory formation) and then we go up into the frontal lobes of our fancy neocortex and other areas of the cortex (the very outer layer of the brain). 

The cerebellum as a destination is quite interesting, I believe. We've touched on the role of this very ancient bit of brain hardware in Neuroanatomy 101, where we saw it was greatly responsible for much of our physical movements and coordination and in An Introduction to Music Therapy where we learned that more recent research shows that it is involved with the coordination of all kinds of higher cognitive functions and is very involved with both the playing and appreciation of music. 

For reasons I could not say, not in that illustration or chart as a destination is the nucleus accumbens, a rather significant region that has much to do with cognitive processing of aversion, pleasure, reward, and reinforcement learning.

Still with me? I hope so! We're getting to the crux of the biscuit soon. 

Okay, so what does serotonin do? What does any neurotransmitter do for that matter? We probably have all heard the narrative that serotonin is responsible for feelings of happiness and well being and that a depletion of serotonin makes us "depressed" and hence the need for pharmacological aids to "increase" levels of serotonin which in theory "treats" our depression. 

Well, I hate to break it to you but serotonin - or any neurochemical for that matter - doesn't really "do" anything, or at least not in the sense of the narrative that we've been told in regards to "moods".

Let's have a look at what I mean by that. 

Once again, let's revisit some basic brain anatomy. We'll call this diagram A.

Look first to the left side of the illustration. If you've been following along (and somehow I suspect nobody really follows along with all of these, but on we forge), you'll see we have some cell bodies (neurons), axons and dendrites. Axons carry signals near and far to other neurons and dendrites that receive incoming signals. This is one way (though only one way, I must emphasize) in which neurons communicate to do all the myriad things our brains do like call up a memory (of how to do something or a face or almost endless so on), feel and process emotions, form the "moving picture show" that is our sight and vast amounts of etcetera.

It is in the neurons that stuff is stored and happens and neurons communicate their little micro bits of stuff with tens of thousands to millions to billions of other neurons to make up bigger bits of mental, cognitive, emotional, etc stuff that makes us what we are or controls what we're doing, thinking or feeling, or initiating and controlling every single physical movement we do. 

So it's the neurons, or more accurately, groups and networks of neurons that do stuff, not neurotransmitters. 

But - but! - the neurons can't do their thing with billions of other networked neuron buddies if neurotransmitters don't do their thing so let's take a closer look at this thing neurotransmitters do.

At the point where axon (sending) meets dendrite (receiving), we have a synapse. I have a better illustration for serotonin related synapses here (diagram B):

We have a transmitting, or sending, neuron represented in yellow above (which is actually the very end tip of an axon) and receiving in green below (which, in this case, is actually the tip of a dendrite). Where it says "synapse" with that large bracket is more often known as the synaptic cleft, a gap that is a mere 20 nanometers across. 

There are some really key bits to that illustration for us to understand here. There's no need to look into those items listed in the sending end of things (unless you're a true neurobiology geek of the chemical bent - but briefly, it's just the process for creating serotonin). What we want to learn here is the vesicles containing serotonin (represented by the little red dots) on the sending side and the receptors on the receiving side. 

A given neurochemical (serotonin in this case, or dopamine, or any of a hundred or more other neurotransmitting chemicals) is like a key and the receptor is like a lock. The lock won't receive if the key isn't right and the key won't fit if the lock isn't right. (Very important for understanding not only neurotransmitting chemicals, but also how both many prescription drugs and pain killers and so called street drugs work.) The neurotransmitters crossing the synaptic cleft and fitting into the receptors is what completes the communication between neurons. 

So while they don't actually "do" anything in themselves, neurotransmitters are obviously an essential part of the process of coordinated neuronal activity of all kinds.

Let's quickly review what's involved with inter-neuron communication. (diagram C)

So we have some neurons with some exciting info they want to spread around. If the info is exciting enough the neurons doing the sending will reach a level of excitement called action potential which will then send a series of electrical pulses down the axon. It is these electrical pulses which stimulate those little balloon like sacks (the vesicles) of neurotransmitter chemicals so they travel across the synaptic cleft to fit into the "locks" or receptors in the dendrite, or receiving, end and thus the "info packet" will get handed off to other neurons (and hence the electrical theory of synaptic function (of the "sparks vs soup" battle we looked at above) proving partially correct). 

To give an idea of the scale of these bursts of nano-activity, recall that we have somewhere in the neighbourhood of two hundred and fifty trillion synapses performing these infinitesimally intricate transactions the firing of each of which is measured in hundreds of a second. With every thought, with every move, with every sense processed, with every action your brain must perform, billions upon billions upon billions of these synaptic functions must go smoothly in order that billions of neurons at any given mili-second can do their jobs smoothly. 

In the case of serotonin, again it doesn't "do" anything in creating mental states or mental processes. what it does do is play a critical role in the firing of key brain regions in coordinated ways so that they can do things. If we look back at the brain regions in the serotonin pathways, it's the functioning of those regions that are critical for creating mental states and processes and not only the individual regions, but that they are working properly within larger brain-wide networks. 

I think it's not hard to imagine that such fine transactions that need to take place trillions of times per mili-second may not always go all that smoothly, thus networked brain regions and nodules may not go smoothly and thus we will not always go that smoothly. 

Now we get to the crux of the biscuit regarding serotonin, moods and SSRI antidepressants. ::reaches out to gently nudge readers awake from their slumber:: (I've ten years experience in the classroom, I know how this works)

If you go back and look at Diagram B, you will see in the sending side of synaptic cleft what are labeled serotonin reuptake transporters. (There are reuptake transporters for all the various neurotransmitters in the synapses of their relative pathways.) 

These are one of the "recyclers" of the brain. You see, not every little molecule of serotonin (or other neurotransmitters) in every burst of communication gets used - it doesn't all fit into the receptors - so some will always be left floating around in the synaptic cleft. So what the repuptake transporters do is sort of "vacuum" up the excess neurotransmitter molecules for future use. Very clever, what?! (Though other excess neurotransmitter material will get gobbled up by special waste disposal enzymes)

This is all an almost unfathomably complex set of transactions that evolved over literally billions of years. But for reasons that I will have to leave to explain elsewhere, modern researchers and scientists figured they could be more clever than the brain itself. 

Because it was proposed that serotonin was "responsible" for feelings of pleasure and well being (and presumably thus "happiness") it was further proposed that a depletion of serotonin was responsible for "depression" - you know, being unable to experience pleasure, well being (and presumably "happiness"). So researchers and scientists (who just so happened to be in the employ of multi-billion dollar transnational pharmaceutical companies whose shareholders were giving them grief about their bottom lines) got to doing some tinkering around. What they came up with was the idea that "hey, maybe the problem with "low moods" is that there isn't enough serotonin in the synaptic cleft to create pleasurable and happy feelings". From there they looked into the reuptake transporters and thought, "hey, what if we blocked these reuptake transporters so that there'd be more serotonin in the synaptic cleft and this will make people happier and less depressed?". (Yes, I know I am being breathtakingly and somewhat dismissively brief but it really did go something along those lines.)

These lines of thought, and others, were part of the reasoning that went into "chemical imbalance" theories for mood and psychiatric disorders. The "imbalance" proposed here was that serotonin was in short supply (and thus out of balance), these imbalances were creating mood disturbances, and if we (psychiatrists and medical doctors) could just restore this balance, normal (whatever "normal" is) moods would return. In the case of serotonin, the process of blocking the reuptake transporters would restore the balance by leaving more serotonin in the synaptic cleft to do its thing. 

And thus Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors were born.

What all antidepressants in the SSRI class do is in some way hinder the reuptake pumps or transporters from doing their jobs. This is the entire premise of these class of antidepressants. 

Which sounded pretty good in theory, I guess (you might sense my skepticism ringing through). 

The idea of the "selective" part is that SSRI drugs would only target a certain type of receptor in serotonin pathways (the 5-HT system). 

But there have always been a great number of problems with both this theory for depression and the process of tinkering with something so highly evolved and as complex as neurotransmitter activity that takes place trillions of times per mili-second for every second you draw breath. 

Let me outline a few.

Firstly, in Anatomy of an Epidemic (pages 79-81)Whitaker describes in great deal how investigators found that drugs like fluoxetine (Prozac, Sarafem, etc) designed to block reuptake pumps (or SERTS - Serotonin Reuptake Transports) greatly altered both pre and post synaptic function and their very structures with profound - and unintended - affects resulting in abnormal functioning.

Furthermore, neurotransmitters are but one aspect of synaptic function. If you look back up at Diagram C, you will see mitochondria represented there. As I outlined in part three of "Bipolar, the Brain and Energy", mitochondria plays extremely critical roles in axon and synaptic signaling functions. If mitochondria is damaged and cannot function, which we also established in that series as a possible result of chronic stress, then inter-neuronal communication is going to be impacted all along the axons and at the synapses themselves thus affecting inter-neuronal communication brain-wide. So what could be happening with poor synaptic functioning is that it is a result of mitochondrial dysfunction. 

Grossly overlooked is synaptic pruning and growth that we first looked at in An Introduction to Neuroplasticity. As we learned there, synapses are in constant flux for both good and bad. It is blazingly obvious to point out that no communication between neurons can take place if synapses for some reason are not there. If we look at what's related to mood in relation to synaptic functioning within specific brain regions and we view this with the understanding of the basic neuroplasticity principle of "use it or lose it", then we might well propose that regions of the brain related to mood are not functioning properly because synapses have been pruned back and thus these regions are not communicating strongly within other brain networks contributing to our moods.

As well, not all brain activity and coordination is conducted through axons, dendrites and synapses. Neurons and groups of neurons also use brain waves to communicate and coordinate activity. Neuroscience is just scratching the surface for understanding this critical form of brain activity and how, for example, the hippocampus uses specific brain waves  to transmit memory information to different regions of the brain. 

Aside from this is the fact that of the total amount of serotonin in the brain and body, only a small percentage (less than 5%) is involved in the brain's serotonin pathways involved in "mood" as well as what we looked at above - that serotonin destinations involve many critical and widespread functions aside from "mood".

But perhaps more importantly, is what we first looked at in the piece on dopamine pathways. Like dopamine pathways origins in the Ventral Tegmental Area, serotonin originates in the raphe nuclei. And like the VTM, the raphe nuclei are part of vastly complex feedback networks. If there is a serotonin depletion (never conclusively proven) and this depletion is affecting mood (definitely never conclusively proven), then we should also consider that this depletion is happening at the nuclei of origin and not at the end synapses. Perhaps it's a question of what's happening in feedback networks to the raphe nuclei and that this nuclei are receiving insufficient stimulation and thus under performing serotonin pathyways.  

Looking into these questions and problems in more detail will have to wait until we begin to investigate the disaster that became vastly widespread SSRI use, a good deal of it "off label". These problems include long term inefficacy, extremely dangerous side effects not the least of which was greatly increased suicide risk and completed suicides and wildly changing behaviour. 

All this being besides the fact that there are numerous, numerous and enormously complicated processes in the brain that affect our moods, mental states, and behaviours besides neurotransmitters alone (which I have touched on in numerous posts in this blog). 

Today, however, I just wanted to give a brief and simple introduction into what all this business about the now famed serotonin is all about. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Taming the Polar Bears in Focus - Taming Empathy

Content removed until further notice

Support Taming the Polar Bears


If you enjoy or benefit from the information you gain from this blog, or see the importance of it for yourself or for others in understanding and working on your/their mental health conditions or if you're in the mental health professions or otherwise see the importance of the work done and presented in this blog, please consider donating and supporting it. 

All the writing and research is done by a single individual - Brad Esau - who himself has been disabled due to the long term effects of his condition and who lives on a very minimal pension and thus has great difficulty supporting himself. 

For a one time donation, you can simply follow this link and instructions there -

Don't have a PayPal account? No worries, getting one is fast and free. 

Your donation goes to a fund controlled by a third party team who support Brad and his Taming the Polar Bears project (Gregory Esau is his brother and the fund bank account is in his name). 

Or if you'd like to make a regular small monthly contribution, please contact this email address - and include in the subject line: monthly donation with the amount you wish to donate on a monthly basis. 

Please state your paypal address and name in the email. 

Thank you so much for your support!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Flower in Darkness

The darkness descends
Envelopes you
Takes you
You resist it not and sink into it
Down and down
Until there feels to be only one escape
From the blackness
That has sucked out your light, your life

But you are not the darkness
You are the beauty, don't you see?
You see the world's pain
You feel the world's pain
You see the unfairness,
The unjust
The evil
The darkness is the pain of the world

But you are not the pain
You are the beauty the world needs
You are the flower
A pained world needs

Do not take yourself
Do not let yourself stay in darkness
Where the world cannot see your beauty
Don't you see?
The world needs flowers like you

You are not alone
Only in the darkness are you alone
But there are others like you
Together there could be a field of flowers

To allow yourself to succumb to the darkness
Would allow the world to become dark
And more people would be in the dark

It is hard, I know
But with beauty can come courage
Bring your flower into the light
Let it blossom
Let your courage and beauty bloom

You are a flower for a reason
Delicate, yes
But within your delicate petals
Is a beauty and courage
That the world needs

Do not succumb to the dark
And make the world a darker place
For your absence 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Positive Difference Making Fundamentals in Focus - Staying in the Now

Content removed until further notice

Support Taming the Polar Bears


If you enjoy or benefit from the information you gain from this blog, or see the importance of it for yourself or for others in understanding and working on your/their mental health conditions or if you're in the mental health professions or otherwise see the importance of the work done and presented in this blog, please consider donating and supporting it. 

All the writing and research is done by a single individual - Brad Esau - who himself has been disabled due to the long term effects of his condition and who lives on a very minimal pension and thus has great difficulty supporting himself. 

For a one time donation, you can simply follow this link and instructions there -

Don't have a PayPal account? No worries, getting one is fast and free.

Your donation goes to a fund controlled by a third party team who support Brad and his Taming the Polar Bears project. 

Or if you'd like to make a regular small monthly contribution, please contact this email address - - and include in the subject line: monthly donation with the amount you wish to donate on a monthly basis. 

Please state your paypal address and name in the email.

Thank you from the Taming the Polar Bears Team!

(1) I don't, by the way, expect most readers to follow the links to complex articles or research pieces. Many of my readers are of the academic bent and it is mostly for them that I often include links to outside sources. Which is not to say I am discouraging anyone from further study, but it is not necessary either.


Monday, March 7, 2016

More Positive Difference Making Fundamentals in Focus - Self-Compassion

I'm pretty humbled sometimes by the success of Taming the Polar Bears. I suppose it's because almost everyone has some sort of "bear" (AKA inner demons) to "tame". 

While the page views run into the tens of thousands, the "likes" and "plusses" into the thousands, I can have no real idea how many people really read my posts and get value from them (probably I've put no small number of people to sleep with the length of some of them) but I do get a fair amount of direct feedback and occasional emails or private messages. And such was the case this evening, from someone I know to be a regular reader. 

It went,

Dear Brad,

 Regarding the post on Spirituality and Compassion, a question:
Would you please add some examples on exactly how to
practice self-compassion? How to catch yourself being too
harsh on yourself and then replace the self destructive
thoughts with more compassionate ones??!

Thank you :))

Actually, it didn't start off with "dear Brad" but I thought it'd be fun to give it a "dear Abby" tone. Maybe that should be a regular thing. 

Anyway, this of course is a great question (two actually). 

I talk to and have talked to a lot of people about "all this". Plus, in various online forums and communities I belong to or have belonged to, I have followed the personal stories of probably at least a hundred people. And I can tell you that for the great majority of the people whose story I've come to know and are suffering mental health problems in some way, that self-hate, self destructive thoughts and beating oneself up inner dialogue is distressingly common. Turning these things around and learning to practice self-compassion and better inner dialogue can be tremendously difficult.

I think most people just become okay with self-destructive inner language and mindsets. There will be times when it feels things in life are going better and one is feeling better that it will go away or diminish. Then something will go wrong - one of many possible triggers - and it will come flooding back; the fury with oneself, the self-blame, guilt, remorse, intense feelings of stupidity and inadequacy hit like a hammer blow then all the familiar beating oneself up dialog sets in and they will beat themselves up in every way about their appearance, their intelligence, their abilities, about their very being and place in this world, you name it. And what this will almost invariably create is this powerful vacuum that sucks us down into this dangerously dark depressive place we are all too familiar with. 

The fury of this tires out after while, it slowly ebbs away and for a while we may feel "okay" again. One can actually feel "better" after getting this all out of their system. The inner voice is still negative and unrelenting, we feel dark and down but it's "okay", it's tolerable. It just becomes part of the furniture or a kind of background noise, the darkness a part of our "reality", something we sort of learn to accept. Some may sort of learn to tune the inner nagging out or try to ignore it. 

Until the next trigger and go around, of course. 

That's the normal pattern. 

For me it was somewhat different. 

I don't want to get into the details of my story again, but for me it was extremely simple; change - or die. I mean that very literally and seriously. I know many people have or experience "suicidal thoughts", but a bipolar mind - and especially a male bipolar mind - unleashes these with a terrifying fury and power, will and drive to do something about it that is quite different from the vast majority of the population (this is all quite well documented in regards to the difference between bipolar and unipolar "depression"). 

For a variety of reasons, I knew I could not allow this to happen. Yet it kept happening. And with a violent suddenness and fury that was ... terrifying, once it passed and I looked back on it. 

When I started studying the brain and the power of thoughts, beliefs and mental states and the neurobiology of them and how they change the very make up and "programming" of our very neurons and then how our thoughts could - in the very literal sense of the word - be toxic, I knew I had to change how my mind works. 

It was either die a long slow death or a quick one. 

So for me there was never any choice. It was change - or die. 

Not many people have that same motivation. 

The other side of the equation was in all the studying I did, I found that it was simply not possible or reasonable to blame myself for everything my mind did or what I had become and the things I had done to become so angry with myself. Brains do a lot of weird - and wrong - things for all kinds of reasons that lie below our conscious control. That's why I write at length about all that. That's how I learned to forgive myself (though NOT forsake responsibility) and be more compassionate towards myself. 

But that's not what the reader asked - to hear more of my story or for more blah-blah-blah science explanations. 

So let's try a different angle. 

In talking to people who have a lot of self-destructive thoughts, I can't help but notice that many of them are full of anger, hate and blame in general. Things are wrong in this world and their lives and somebody has to be to blame for this. People, I've found, can be astonishingly vicious towards others. 

As anyone who's been paying attention can attest, this is all too common. What I've found with those suffering mental health problems, however, is how this can turn inwards. When this pattern of blame and anger turns in towards oneself is where we see what we looked at above. 

Violent emotions will be the root of any vicious and hurtful language. This I also learned (in my blah-blah-blah science way). I also learned this in the (pretty excellent) group therapy sessions I attended in the winter of 2014. 

So I knew I had to work on my emotions not only about what went wrong in my life but as well about the world around us before I could work more on self-compassion or else the violent inner outbursts would never truly go away. 

It has to start there then, I'm afraid to say. We can train ourselves to speak to ourselves in a kinder language, and that is essential too of course, but without taming our "emotional polar bears" in general, we will always be prone to ambush from our own very thoughts. 

Most of my work on my emotions I did with the daily sessions I created for myself for Mindfulness Meditation CBT, in which I learned to question my emotions. 

"Is this <insert source of the anger> really worth getting this angry about? What difference does getting angry and upset about this make?" And many questions along these lines. And if I came up with "reasons" - which were really just rationalizations - I questioned those too. 

And when I questioned myself enough and taught myself not to accept lame reasons or rationalizations for the basis of my negative emotions, I realized there wasn't a single good reason for getting angry or that it was ridiculous to think that getting angry would change any of the things in the world, or within my world, that were really outside of my control. I realized - and this is a universal truth that can be found in millenia old philosophies - that all I could really control was my own mind and my reactions to life around me and within me. 

Then I would remind myself of another very real core truth - that feelings of anger and bitter hate were literally killing me from the inside. And then this saying (1) would sear into my consciousness - 

Because it really is like that. Trust me. This can be explained in excruciating neuroscientific and body biology detail and it ain't pretty. As it just so happens, when brushing this piece up recently I came across this brief introduction and handy infographic that outlines this. This is exactly what I mean when I say that our reactions plus the thoughts and language we use for them are literally toxic and making us sick.

In the mindfulness CBT sessions, we also examine and work on our core values. So the question you have to ask yourself is this: "Is this really how I want to be? Is this <insert negative emotional state and its source> really what I want as a core value for myself?"

And when we really put it to ourselves like that, it sounds ridiculous. Nobody wants an angry, bitter, hateful person with venomous language to be our core self, for that to be part of our core values. I'd also bet dimes to doughnuts that there will be times when people have flashes of recognition about this and beat themselves up about this too.

So what would we like to be in place of that?

Personally, I think having as a core value being a kinder, more compassionate and gentler person in general would be awesome.

But I know what you're thinking - that's "wimpy". 

And that, my friends - and pardon the language - is bullshit. Complete and utter hogwash. Nonsense. 

For what I have also discovered is that emotional responses filled with hate and anger and bitterness are what's actually wimpy. These are the hallmarks of weak people. 

True strength lies in kindness and compassion - towards others, and our selves. 

So looking at becoming stronger through compassion and gentleness as becoming part of our core values begins to sound pretty awesome. We begin to look at it as growing into becoming a stronger person. We can look at it as building our "superpowers". For it is always better to build towards something than to just trying to leave something behind. 

So first we begin by learning the process of chosing different emotional responses. We begin that by questioning the basis for our emotions and especially anger and bitter blaming of others and our selves. For in fact, blame changes nothing and only hurts one person and one person only - you. 

Or it hurts those closest to us and that comes back to hurt us as well. 

Once we begin and establish a beachhead by questioning and then building better emotional responses, we can then begin to retrain our inner thoughts and dialogues. 

Now about those emotional responses. It is not reasonable or realistic - or even desirable - to expect us not to have emotions. Negative emotions like anger are a natural part of us, a natural reaction to what we feel is unjust (speaking very generally). We're not going to stop feeling it or having it triggered and while learning to stop beating ourselves up and learning better internal language are critical, what we also need to learn is how to better channel negative emotions when we do feel them. This is a whole different conversation for a different post but another strategy is learning ways to channel powerful emotions - AKA our "passions" - into something more positive and constructive. People sometimes ask me how I can take on such a big project as everything that goes into this blog and put so much into it. That's the answer - I took all the powerful feelings I had about all the wrongs and injustice I found in the world of mental illness plus the enormous empathetic pain I felt for everyone and I channeled it (and continue to) into all the research, writing and work I do.

I don't recommend taking on a project this big (though nor do I discourage it) but you too can find positive constructive ways to channel your passions and sense of injustice.  

These things like any habit change, we start with a larger goal - a want, in this case becoming an awesome kinder, gentler more compassionate strong superpower person and finding ways to channel our energies. Then each time we catch ourselves with beating ourselves up language we practice "won't" - stopping it. Then we replace with a better "will" choice. (I have a more detailed post for retraining our "inner critic" coming soon, I hope) 

We learn to do that with others, then ourselves - or ourselves, then others. It all has to work together.

Another trick I taught myself for cutting off negative thoughts and dialogue at their roots was that I set up all kinds of "police - do not cross" tape in my mind. I just took all kinds of really shitty stuff that was sure to bring feelings of pain, remorse, guilt, shame, humiliation and so on and put it all behind those "do not cross" barriers. I trained myself every time that shitty stuff came up in my mind to say to myself - "do not go there", and I literally visualized it behind that police tape. I put all the crap in territories of my mind that were strictly "off-limits". This really helps in preventing oneself from dredging up painful shitty stuff from the past. (I would later find this to be quite a common strategy)

I also worked hard daily to create things to feel good about. I tried daily to do positive, productive things and tell myself - "atta boy!". Seriously. This is how it works. This is how we slowly retrain our minds and thoughts and dialogue. 

It's hard to train our minds to think and talk to ourselves differently without "mentors" or examples. You have to seek what gentler language sounds like. You have to seek and read and hear and soak up examples. This also probably means cutting out half the crap you read and listen to (something I am getting to in more detail in a coming Positive Difference Making Fundamentals post on changing "data input"). 

It helps to practice daily - that's what I created my Brain Training Exercises for. 

The road to learning true self-compassion and changing our inner dialogue and thoughts is not perfect nor will you be perfect. It's a daily thing. We just try each day to be a little better at it. Some days will not go well. When you've had a bad day - and these invariably will be when we're tired and worn down and our "willpower" to resist natural urges depleted - we just let that go and try get a good night's sleep and try again the next day. Rinse, repeat. 

And slowly it will change.

So to start, ask yourself - look ahead a year, two years, three years, five years. Do you really want to still be like this then? Think and imagine hard on that. I know you all have very vivid imaginations for things like this. If you do this right, it should hurt. Really hurt. 

Good. Now imagine that pain again and again year after year and waking up five years from now and being even more bitter and angry and full of self hatred - and very likely more physically ill. 

Then understand that the only alternative to that is to be a kinder, gentler, more compassionate - and truly strong - person. 

Can you do it? Goddamn right you can. 

But as with thoughts and inner dialogue, we need examples and mentors. So find some. What does compassion look like? Sound like? Model that. 

The reader asked what I did - that's what I do. 

Then - then! - even more powerful - be a mentor and model for others. That, my friend, is when this will really begin to take root.

That's how you tame the polar bears of destructive self language and learn self-compassion.  

(1) though popularly attributed to Buddha, this is actually not so - it holds up, nonetheless

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Neurochemical in Focus - Dopamine

Content removed until further notice

Support Taming the Polar Bears


If you enjoy or benefit from the information you gain from this blog, or see the importance of it for yourself or for others in understanding and working on your/their mental health conditions or if you're in the mental health professions or otherwise see the importance of the work done and presented in this blog, please consider donating and supporting it. 

All the writing and research is done by a single individual - Brad Esau - who himself has been disabled due to the long term effects of his condition and who lives on a very minimal pension and thus has great difficulty supporting himself. 

For a one time donation, you can simply follow this link and instructions there -

Don't have a PayPal account? No worries, getting one is fast and free.

Your donation goes to a fund controlled by a third party team who support Brad and his Taming the Polar Bears project. 

Or if you'd like to make a regular small monthly contribution, please contact this email address - - and include in the subject line: monthly donation with the amount you wish to donate on a monthly basis. 

Please state your PayPal address and name in the email.

Thank you so much for your support from the Polar Bears team!

(1) Contrary to the belief of some (or many, who knows), I do not randomly make this up. I have very solid and world renowned go-to sources for everything I write, and I am merely taking their findings and reporting it to you, the reader, often in very similar ways to how they explain their experiments and findings. 

(2) In a future more academic version of the posts of this blog, I will include many more source citations for segments like this. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Positive Difference Making Fundamentals in Focus - Habit Change

Content removed until further notice

Support Taming the Polar Bears


If you enjoy or benefit from the information you gain from this blog, or see the importance of it for yourself or for others in understanding and working on your/their mental health conditions or if you're in the mental health professions or otherwise see the importance of the work done and presented in this blog, please consider donating and supporting it. 

All the writing and research is done by a single individual - Brad Esau - who himself has been disabled due to the long term effects of his condition and who lives on a very minimal pension and thus has great difficulty supporting himself. 

For a one time donation, you can simply follow this link and instructions there -

Don't have a PayPal account? No worries, getting one is fast and free.

Your donation goes to a fund controlled by a third party team who support Brad and his Taming the Polar Bears project. 

Or if you'd like to make a regular small monthly contribution, please contact this email address - - and include in the subject line: monthly donation with the amount you wish to donate on a monthly basis. 

Please state your paypal address and name in the email.

Thank you so much for your support from the Polar Bears team!

Friday, February 12, 2016

Endorsements from Professional Associates and Readers

The world of mental health, both clinical diagnosis and treatment, is bewildering at best. Complicating the picture further are the stereotypes imposed on those who most need support from their families and communities. While well meaning community leaders, scientists and mental health practitioners can press forward with changing the quality of lives for those challenged by the extremes of mental experiences, it takes the honesty, bravery and intellect of someone like Brad Esau to bridge the gap for those in need of understanding and guidance. Brad isn't a trained scientist or clinician. Brad is a compassionate and intelligent individual who can speak directly to the experiences of some diagnosed with a mental illness. Whatever your diagnosis or lack thereof, there's something about the raw honesty and well thought out advice in Brad's conversations that will help raise the quality of your life. I recommend that you add Brad's work to your reading regimen.

Jeffery Mercer,
Clinical Psychologist

I came across Brad and his blog about two years ago (fall of 2013) and have known him and followed his blog since then. From the enormous creativeness of the blog's name to the meticulous and well worded prose translated from very difficult science content, there is nothing not to love about Brad Esau's blog, Taming the Polar Bears.

Working with neuroscientists on a daily basis, I've been taught to distinguish the real from the fake and to appreciate the enormous abilities it requires to sort through the paths of the mind as well as searching for the truths that explain many of our lives. 

Brad explores bipolar and other mental health disorders with a rarely seen authenticity of mind, spirit and scientific integrity. In my opinion, his material is worth archiving and you can't get any better than that.

Christy Johnson, Business Manager, Society for Mind and Brain Sciences

Brad Esau is one of the most remarkable persons in the neuroscience scene dealing with mental health disorders. It's his personal perspective and experience, powered by a tremendous amount of neuroscience knowledge, that invite the reader to walk in his shoes and to better understand what so-called mental health disorders are and what they mean.

It's not primarily a scientific interest to understand the matter. Brad's "Taming The Polar Bears" is first and foremost written based on the burning desire to understand what's going on in his brain and to develop and share principles and models how to live with those mental health disorders.

Brad's unique perspective of neuroscience, knowledge, experience and expertise, and his wisdom from walking the path - leveraged by his passion for writing - make a huge difference and create a very specific value for the readers of Taming The Polar Bears."

From my first interactions with Brad in early 2013, I could sense his passion for neuroscience.  Over the last several years I have seen him take that passion and blend it with an unmatched discipline to delve deep into the world of understanding the brain, its functions and human behaviour.  Brad leverages his own personal history of bipolar disorder as a resource as he takes readers on a first person tour of the working of the mind on his blog Taming the Polar Bears.  He has done years of meticulous research into the disorder and other aspects of neuroscience through a combination of reading research articles and daily conversations with the leading minds in the field.  I continue to be impressed with his insights and daily diligence and look forward to his continued contributions to the field.

Mani Saint-Victor, M.D.

I heartily recommend Brad Esau's wonderful and courageous blog full of wisdom, insight, compassion, and brilliance. We all struggle with something or another in our lives. Brad lays bare his own journey so that we can learn and grow alongside him. I am moved to the very core of my being by Brad's courage and generosity. 

One of the things that impresses me most about Brad is the inexhaustible personal integrity he brings to his struggles and his efforts to understand them as fully and deeply as possible. Brad plumbs the depths of neuroscience literature, consults experts, and subjects conventional pharmacological treatment approaches and his own thought processes to equally fierce scrutiny. He is unflinching in his honesty, unflagging in his persistence, and deeply committed to sharing his hard won understanding of the complex, interconnected biological and psychological processes that drive bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and mitochondrial disease. 

Rebecca McMillan

Founder, The Brain Cafe

Senior Editor | The Creativity Post

Founder & Ambassador, GHF Online

It's difficult to translate the complexities of the brain to layman's language so I read how different people do it and get ideas on how to frame things in the classroom to make it understandable. Yours (Brad's) is a good approach. So many people - smart people like yourself - are brought into the neurosciences because they wrestle with depression or something that affects them and I pay attention to their interpretation because they are motivated from the heart instead of some obscure, even academic interest. You are closely linked to understanding neuroscience and your passion shows. I encourage you to continue on your path and share your thoughts with the world.

Gerald Paul Kozlowski, Ph.D., BCN                                             
Board Certified Senior Fellow in Neurofeedback
Department of Clinical Psychology, Saybrook University

Brad Esau and Taming the Polar Bears

I have been a reader of Brad Esau’s essays in Taming the Polar Bears since he began the project. I myself am trained communication scholar with a Ph.D. Though while not a psychologist, I feel very capable of evaluating Brad’s work. In reading his work I have learned a great deal about the brain, human behaviour and mental health and have constantly been impressed with the thoroughness of his scholarship and growing expertise in the subjects he tackles. While Brad certainly has his own standpoints, he is also careful to take into consideration other evidence and present balanced views. I can recommend Brad's “Taming the Polar Bears” approach to anyone wanting a better understanding of mental health issues and how to deal with them.

Jim Parker, Ph.D

Brad Esau generously shares his knowledge, experiences, and wide-ranging research with the world at large both through his excellent blog and and also through his presence at the Google+ network, which is where we first connected years ago. Thanks to all that Brad shares online, I am able to reshare what he has learned with my students, helping them to better understand their brains, their emotions, and the ups and downs of their complicated and often stressful lives. And it's not only Brad who has been helping: his intrepid cat, Mrs. Bean, is well known to my students too! I've made memes with Brad's gorgeous photographs of Mrs.-Bean-in-the-wild that encourage my students to practice mindfulness, fearlessness, and empathy. My online classes have benefited from Brad's contributions, directly and indirectly, in so many ways, and I am deeply grateful.

  • Laura Gibbs, Ph.D., Online Instructor, University of Oklahoma

Your posts are excellent, informative, well written and honed to your audience.

Jon Lieff, M.D. Yale, Harvard, author of top ranked neuroscience blog, Searching for the Mind

TAMING THE POLAR BEARS by Brad Esau is a great mental health education blog.

This post gives an outstanding introduction to brain science, Brad! It's a great piece of writing for an intelligent general audience, and it is directly relevant to people's lives. The figures are very cool and exactly the right ones.

I've written two college textbooks on cognitive neuroscience with Nicole Gage, and we constantly try to bridge the gap that you are navigating so well.

It takes a lot of work and talent, and I appreciate your ability to reach out with it.

--- Bernard J Baars, PhD
Affiliate Fellow
The Neurosciences Institute
La Jolla, CA