Typically, the mental wellness field views DSM diagnoses as behavioral or biochemical in orientation and the treatment is generally a combination of talk therapy and psychotropic medications. Dr. Daniel Amen adds another layer to the mix. His experience informs his perspective that the ways in which our brains function play a role in behavior, addiction, anger, cognitive decline, and learning challenges. His approach destigmatizes these conditions since when viewed as a brain disorder they can be compared, without shame, to other medical diagnoses.
“Your brain is the organ of your personality, character, and intelligence and is heavily involved in making you who you are,” he says.
Dr. Amen, Director of Amen Clinics is the author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Life “coined the term ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts) in the early 1990’s after a hard day at the office, during which he had several very difficult sessions with suicidal patients, teenagers in turmoil, and a married couple who hated each other.
When he got home that evening, he found thousands of ants in his kitchen. As he started to clean them up, an acronym developed in his mind. He thought of his patients from that day — just like the infested kitchen, his patients’ brains were also infested by Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) that were robbing them of their joy and stealing their happiness.”
In addition, Dr. Amen has written Memory Rescue, and The Brain Warrior’s Way. His newest book, The End of Mental Illness: How Neuroscience Is Transforming Psychiatry and Helping Prevent or Reverse Mood and Anxiety Disorders, ADHD, Addictions, PTSD, Psychosis, Personality Disorders, and Morestrives to revolutionize the way we think about the conditions for which people seek relief.
As part of a functional medicine approach, he also recommends fitness activities, nutritional awareness and cognitive restructuring. His smiling visage has been seen on numerous television screens and on YouTube videos as he simply explains how our brains are more than the three pound organ nestled in our skulls.
Edie: What drew you to the field of psychiatry?
Dr. Amen: When I was in medical school someone I loved tried to kill herself and I took her to see a wonderful psychiatrist. I came to realize if her helped her, it wouldn’t just help her but also later, her children and grandchildren as they would have been shaped by someone who was happier and more stable. I fell in love with psychiatry because I realized it could help generations of people.
Edie: How would you define mental health?
Dr. Amen: The ability to use your brain and mind to create the life you want.
Edie: What, in your mind, constitutes mental illness?
Dr. Amen: I am not a fan of the term ‘mental illness’. These are brain health issues that steal your mind.
Edie: Throughout your career what trends have you noticed in rates of depression and anxiety?
Dr. Amen: They are dramatically increasing.
Edie: What do you attribute them to?
Dr. Amen: Many societal factors, including poor diets, digital addictions, tox products we put on our bodies, obesity, increase in concussions and a lack of sleep.
Edie: As this article is coming out, we are in the midst of one of the most intensely trauma-inducing times in recent history; COVID-19 and the quarantine that we are under. Have you noticed an uptick in depression and anxiety?
Dr. Amen: Yes, significantly, including suicidal behavior.
Edie: What suggestions do you have for people responding to the major changes they are faced with and the uncertainty with regard to the duration?
Dr. Amen: Mental hygiene is as important as washing your hands. Get a routine that serves your health rather than hurts it.
Edie: How does trauma change the brain?
Dr. Amen: Both emotional and physical trauma change the brain but in opposite ways. Emotional trauma activates the brain’s limbic circuits, while physical trauma damages circuits.
Edie: How do you differentiate between the brain and the mind?
Dr. Amen: The brain creates the mind — get your brain right and your mind will follow.
Edie: Please describe Brain SPECT imaging.
Dr. Amen: It is a nuclear medicine study that evaluates blood flow and activity. It basically shows three things — good activity, too much or too little.
Edie: How do you work with people who have symptoms of dementia?
Dr. Amen: We evaluate them clinically and also with SPECT. Then we use that information to work toward repairing the damage in their brains by preventing or treating the 11 major risk factors that steal their mind.
Edie: Does improving brain health help people with learning challenges? As a therapist, I work with children, teens and adults diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia.
Dr. Amen: Yes, it the first thing to do after a proper diagnosis.
Edie: Is attitudinal change part of what you encourage?
Dr. Amen: Yes. Love your brain. Become a brain warrior, where you are armed, prepared and aware to win the battle for your brain.
Edie: Is resilience a factor?
Dr. Amen: Yes, I like the term “brain reserve,” which is the extra function to deal with whatever stress comes your way.
Edie: What is Brain Fit and how does it benefit those who use it?
Dr. Amen: Brain Fit Life is our online and mobile program that helps people have brain health in their pocket and purse. They can test their brain, work their brain and engage with brain healthy habits.
Edie: How do addictions respond to brain change?
Dr. Amen: Drugs, alcohol and marijuana can damage the brain, but it can often be repaired. Our SPECT work also taught me that there are six different brain types of addicts. Impulsive, compulsive, impulsive-compulsive, sad, anxious, and traumatic brain injury. Knowing your type is essential to getting well.
Edie: Have you found that PTSD can be treated with success?
Dr. Amen: Yes! But it starts with enhancing the brain. I also a fan of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).
Edie: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Dr. Amen: With a better brain always comes a better life. My new book called The End of Mental Illness will begin a revolution in brain health.