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Elisha Goldstein Reveals Secrets to Rewiring your Brain in his New Book, 'Uncovering Happiness'

Depression acts as a roundabout that draws people in, Elisha Goldstein writes, but there are ways to avoid going in circles.
LOOPTY LOOP: Depression acts as a roundabout that draws people in, Elisha Goldstein writes, but there are ways to avoid going in circles.

In his new book, Uncovering Happiness, Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., provides a fresh, reliable strategy for creating an antidepressant brain. Grounded in mindfulness and self-compassion, the book seems different than many other books on depression.

He talks about weekly walks he used to take near Shoreline Park in Mountain View. "During one walk," he writes, "I had just learned that someone close to me had passed away, and I was feeling great sadness and grief. My energy was sapped from the heavy emotions, and so I chose to sit down by a lake. As a sadness grew louder within my being, it seemed almost like a child yelling for my attention."

Mindfulness was already a part of his life, so from there, Goldstein was able to find peace in the moment, visualizing the little boy still stuck inside him, the one crying from the loss of his own family when his parents got divorced. But instead of letting the depression overwhelm him, he was able to acknowledge that little boy, put his arm around the kid and alchemically merge the sadness with compassion for the experience, to achieve an aha! moment.

Goldstein is the author of The Now Effect and co-author of A Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Workbook (with Bob Stahl). Throughout Uncovering Happiness, and based on his own work, Goldstein writes that it's better to understand depression as a circular process: an automatic loop, instead of a linear series of events. It's almost like a traffic circle. Just as various roads lead you into the traffic circle, the depression loop has four entrance points: thoughts, feelings, sensations and behaviors. Any one or all of those can lead you into the loop. Once there, your mind circles around and around, struggling to get out of it. It's not linear. It's circular.

But therein lies the hope. If one understands how this depression loop works, one can avoid it altogether. If you're driving down the road, Goldstein says, and you see the traffic circle, you don't have to enter it. You can bypass it. You can rewire your brain so that you don't automatically get overwhelmed when the depression hits.

As a result, the book offers simple formulas, plans and everyday strategies for self-compassion, all in order to head off suffering and fear—head 'em off at the pass, so to speak. Just as the brain can be conditioned into making the depression loop an ingrained habit, the brain can also be conditioned away from it. Sounds impossible, especially if you've been there, but Goldstein's methods in the book really do help. Honest.

It's just a matter of befriending the negative thoughts, becoming acquainted with the bad habits, knowing one's cues, identifying the routines, and, especially, figuring out what particular reward the habit is trying to achieve. The change your routine with something healthier that achieves the same reward.

Goldstein even supplies a little bit of the neuroscience behind all of this, in simple, easy-to-grasp language. The amygdala (a-mig-da-la), for example, is the part of one's brain that regulates memory and emotional reactions. Sometimes referred to as the "fear circuit," the amygdala is often enlarged in a depressed person's brain, suggesting we are more sensitive to fearful triggers.

Located right next to the amygdala, the hippocampus, conversely, is often smaller in a depressed person's brain. The hippocampus is what draws on memories to enable constructive choices and allow you to contextualize situations and develop perspectives on how to deal with stuff in the heat of fear and anxiety. If the already enlarged amydala perceives danger, it cuts off access to the hippocampus, which subsequently prevents one from adequately coping in the midst of overwhelming depression.

Uncovering Happiness goes on to articulate five natural antidepressants, all as part of a toolkit to turn your brain around: Changing your brain through mindfulness, nurturing self-compassion, living with purpose, simply going out and playing, and finally, just learning to get better while you develop a sense of control over your situation. Included at the end are even more tips, tools and strategies.

"The only way to ultimately remove [the] thorn that drives the depression loop is to practice a 180-degree shift of approaching it with curiosity rather than with avoidance," Goldstein writes.