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Ep. 120: Finding Hope and Healing in Mental Illness Interview with Dr. Christina Bjorndal

Robyn Openshaw - Feb 20, 2019 - This Post May Contain Affiliate Links

"Ep. 120: Finding Hope and Healing in Mental Illness with Dr. Christina Bjorndal" at Green Smoothie Girl

Today’s episode addresses some issues that often tend to be shamed and silenced in society. But not by Naturopathic Dr. Christina Bjorndal and also Robyn herself, who both open up and get real personal about some of their own struggles with various mental illnesses. By facing these issues openly and honestly and sharing what they have done to overcome them, they bring hope and healing here for any that may be struggling themselves or know of a loved one who struggles with a mental illness. Be it depression, anxiety, eating disorders, Bipolar, ADD/ADHD, or any other dis-ease of mental health, there is hope, there is help, there is healing.  As you learn to love yourself and make some simple yet powerful changes in your lifestyle, you and your loved ones can enjoy true physical, emotional and mental health, and live a life full of peace, hope and happiness.


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Robyn:                                Hey everyone. It’s Robyn Openshaw and Welcome back to The Vibe Show. Today we are talking about the subject of mental health specifically. Mostly we’re focusing on anxiety and depression. We also talk a little bit about our interviewee’s challenges where she was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder type One. She’s a naturopathic physician and she also struggled with an eating disorder. She was so very honest with me in the course of this interview that I shared two things that I don’t think I’ve ever talked about before on a public platform. I must be getting really comfortable with you because I share things about my family history that just offer up to you that we all have trauma in our background and we get to decide whether we rise out of that and we become more and we become strong and we live without shame and we shine a light on things that we struggle with rather than sweeping it under the rug.

And that is what this doctor Christina Bjorndal shared with us. She’s very honest about her struggles with clinical depression, anxiety and eating disorder or bulimia that was taught to her in ninth grade by a peer. And most significantly her struggle with Bipolar disorder type One. So she completed her doctorate in naturopathic medicine from the Canadian College of naturopathic medicine in 2005. And she’s one of the only licensed naturopathic doctors in Canada who is considered an authority in the treatment of mental illness. Dr. Chris Bjorndal lives in Canada with her husband and her son, and she has published three books on mental health. Today we are talking about her book “Beyond the Label: 10 Steps to Improve Your Mental Health with Naturopathic Medicine”.

So welcome to the Vibe show Doctor Christina Bjorndal.

Dr. Bjorndal:                      Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

Robyn:                                You have a fascinating story because you’re a naturopathic physician, but you have had some major challenges to overcome and they’ve led you a different direction probably then you would have gone as a physician. Tell us about the origins of your own mental health struggle and what led you to this becoming your professional mission.

Dr. Bjorndal:                      So, you know, it’s interesting, I open my book with a discussion about how the neurological and emotional imprinting can happen in utero. And so in my case, I’m adopted and I think that when a woman has to be making a decision about whether or not to continue a pregnancy or, or to give up a child for adoption, it creates stress obviously. And when I came out of the womb, I was already an anxious baby. Um, and when my parents adopted me, I had a hard time sleeping and it was very difficult for people to be, you know, with loud voices to be in the room with me. So I think things started then.

But because I was raised in a very loving family, I continued into my early years and into elementary school and on to junior high with, you know, relatively few problems, until I got to junior high school. And I was hanging out with a friend after school and we ate a lot of junk food and then I heard her go to the bathroom and she ended up purging, which was really alarming for me. Um, and out of concern for her, I asked if she was all right and she just made an offhand remark that that’s what she does to maintain her weight and I might want to think about doing that as well. So I started that behavior. I started being a bulimic in the ninth grade.

But an interesting side note, I’ll just make here, was prior to that I actually did a year of antibiotics for acne, and we know now that that disrupts the gut flora and there’s a great, you know, connection between the gut and the brain. We didn’t know that back then, this was in the early 1980’s. So anyways, I started with the eating disorder and I think because I was adopted, I had this, this core belief that I wasn’t wanted. And so what I did with that is I became an overachiever. So I was a top student and a top athlete and I really pushed myself hard to keep my place in the world, so to speak.

So then that served me well until I got to University. And then I crashed and burned pretty much in my third year. And I found myself in a place really unfamiliar to me. You know, I hadn’t experienced depression I would say up until that point, I didn’t even really have, I understood that word in the economic sense of the word, not the psychological sense of the word. And so I had been experiencing suicidal ideations and out of concern for me, a friend had made an appointment for me at the student services. Um, and I went and it was then prescribed an antidepressant, which I started.

Then a few months after that I had a week of little to no sleep and I spun into a delusional psychotic manic episode. They took two police officers, two paramedics, my mom and my boyfriend at the time, uh, to wrestle me into a straitjacket. And off I went to the psychiatric ward where I was left in a rubber room, injected with Haloperidol and was left to come back to reality. And when I came back I was then diagnosed with Bipolar disorder type One. And just so people understand there is a differentiation between the Bipolar disorder type One and type Two. And the main differences in type One you actually experience a psychotic event. In type Two you experience more of a high in your mood and it can, and it’s considered Hypomania, but you don’t actually have the delusional psychotic events that are associated with type One. So that’s the differentiating factor.

And so what I did with that is I basically stuffed it in a corner that I dare not look. And I had a lot of shame around that and I didn’t want anybody to know about what had happened to me or that I had that label. And I pretty much just continued with my overachieving behavior, but all the while wearing the mask that everything’s okay on the outside. But meanwhile I’m really struggling on the inside and I really felt I had to maintain this persona that I had it all together. And when I graduated I ended up working in the corporate world. And within a few years I climbed that ladder and reported to a CEO.

But I did have a suicide attempt in 1994 which left me in a coma with kidney failure on dialysis. And I was told I would need a kidney transplant. And I can tell you when I came out of that coma, I was not happy that I was still here. And you have to remember, I’m an overachiever. And so here I am trying to, you know, trying my best to leave and exit this life and I didn’t succeed. And I felt that I was left in a compromised position with my kidneys not working and having to go for dialysis. It was, I was not happy.

But the same friend that had made the appointment for me several years prior when we were in University gave me a book to read called: “A Return to Love” by Marianne Williamson. And in that book there was a quote about surrender, which goes along these lines, surrender is the decision to stop fighting the world and to start loving yourself instead. It is a gentle melting into who we really are. And that’s all God needs is just one sincere surrendered moment when love matters more than anything. And so I had that moment of surrender and shortly thereafter my kidneys made a recovery. And it’s been since that point in my life that I have begun the work that I continue to this day, which is figuring out how to love and accept myself because I really didn’t at that point.

Eventually I made a career change after asking myself one question, which was, if money didn’t matter, what would I be doing? And it wasn’t doing what I was doing, even though I was very good at that job and I had a great income. It just wasn’t fueling me on a soul or spiritual level. And so I ended up going back to high school at 33 to get the science prerequisites to then go on to naturopathic school. And this is all also, I’ll just add as well, because I had started seeing a naturopathic doctor shortly after that suicide attempt and I had started taking supplementation and learned about diet and nutrition and managing my stress. And so things kind of unfolded from there. So now here I am today working in the same capacity as the doctor that I went to see, so that I could also help people regain their mental health. So that’s the journey in a nutshell.

Robyn:                                Well, your story is, it hits a little close to home for me in the fact that I think I’ve maybe mentioned this once ever in my entire life online as the Green Smoothie Girl with the podcast and the blog and the public speaking tour. I think I’ve said this once. So I think it’s unlikely that hardly anybody knows this. My grandmother killed herself at the age of 33. And the story is that, um, and there are some family details that are sort of shocking and just out of respect for my other cousins, brothers, sisters, parents, I won’t go into great detail, except to say that there were some things going on in her life that were tragic. And she was about to be committed to the state mental hospital the morning that she put a gun in her mouth, with her six year old daughter around the corner and my father a few blocks away in the crosswalk as a crossing guard.

She was supposed to be committed that day to the state mental hospital for depression. And I didn’t realize things were as bad as they were still in the 1980’s because as you probably know, um, and all psychotherapists know the history, they, you know, decentralized mental health and they cleaned up what was a total mess where people in the 1950’s when this happened with my grandmother, um, who by the way, her mother also committed suicide. So both my grandmother and my great grandmother committed suicide at the same age, 33. My great grandmother jumped off of a bridge.

And so it’s meaningful to me personally, not only because of the mental health struggles in my own family that took two people who I should have been able to meet and who should have been there to help raise my father. And you know, the marks on him and on our whole family are a legacy there, they’re generations long. And so I’m very, very glad that you stuck around. You are a mother, you’re a professional, you’re doing great work. The other thing that’s meaningful to me, besides that being personal. I did my first year of practicum in graduate school as a therapist in the same mental hospital that my grandmother was going to be committed to the day that she killed herself.

And I just want to thank you for being willing to be transparent because even now in 2018 there’s a lot of shame, like you said, a lot of stigma. I think it’s a lot better than the 1950’s. But tell us how you came to a place where you’re willing to talk about your struggle with depression, anxiety and eating disorder and Bipolar disorder type One. I want to get into how is life for you now? What are some of the things that made a difference for you? How you do your work with any clients and why you wrote the book? But I also want to know how you see the stigma issue. Is it getting better? What is your goal to do so that people can be more open talking about it?

Dr. Bjorndal:                      Well first I want to acknowledge you and thank you for sharing because I think that the stigma of mental illness, it’ does leave a scar on people. And it’s just, I’ve always looked at this mostly from my perspective, which has been the person who’s been in pain, the person who’s been struggling. But I’ve recently been considering this and acknowledging the aftermath and the suffering that the ripple effect that this has on everybody else that loves that particular individual.

So I think the stigma is still, I think it’s still there. I think we have come a long way from the 1950’s through to the 1980’s but I can tell you when I was diagnosed, there was no conversation going on. There really was no conversation. This, I think is something that between those 30 years, from the 1950’s to the 1980’s it was something that was hushed. It was something that if this happened in your family, this was not a public display. Whereas now there’s definitely more support, been more conversation for sure, which is great. But I think the rates of suicide have not changed. In fact, they’ve gotten worse. So we need to shift from just talking about this, to actually, what are we doing to help people?

And this is where, what my offering is to the world really is these are the things that we need to be doing. What I discuss in the book, these are the steps we have to be taking. And it goes beyond just taking an antidepressant. I’m not against medication. I can say for myself, medication has saved my life. Absolutely. But I thrive in my life because of a holistic, naturopathic approach. So I’m not saying that it’s this or that form of medicine, it’s this and that. And I think we need to use both depending on the individual’s situation.

But really what’s going to help the stigma is more people standing up and not being afraid to say, you know, this has happened to me. This is what I’ve done. This is my offering to help. And extending that hand in grace and compassion. So it’s taken me, I was very public about the depression, suicide, anxiety, or, sorry, bulimia, I was very public about that. But it’s only been in the last year that I’ve come out about Bipolar disorder. I did not want anybody still to know about that because I felt, I still feel that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about that condition. And I guess for myself, I didn’t want, I wanted people to know me for me, that I wanted people to be able to say, “Really? What mental illness?” Versus, “Oh yeah, you know, that explains it.”

So, I had to do a lot of work of bringing that, what I’m going to call that shadow side of myself or this part that I really wasn’t loving, um, into the light and be okay with it. Now I don’t really resonate with that label anymore because I feel like the experiences that I’ve had of psychosis, and I’ve had six manic episodes in a total of 30 years, and I think each one of those was necessary to bring me to the place of healing.

Robyn:                                That’s not very many and many sufferers with Bipolar are cycling within days or weeks. And my heart breaks for them because you know, along with the stigma, there’s just less compassion. There’s just less compassion. You know, if you say I have fibromyalgia or if you say I have cancer, everyone’s arms are around you. But the stigma is we’ve used words like crazy to apply to people who have mental health disorders. I mean if we’re going to get really plain about talking to it, and I think honestly because of your bravery, I’m going to say something on my show that I’ve never said on a podcast and not to take your story and hijack it because your story is amazing and what you’ve gone on to do to help others with it.

But you know, yesterday I had someone reach out to me on Facebook messenger and not for the first time, it has probably happened half a dozen times and it’s like they needed my permission or they needed someone who they respect, who is deeply educated in all things holistic for permission to get on an SSRI. And so I’m going to say this out loud that I have struggled with generalized anxiety disorder my whole life. There were times that it was crippling. And at one point in my early thirties where it had a baby suffering with extreme health issues, I literally thought that this child might die. I was in a terrible situation with my work that I didn’t know where it would end. I didn’t know if this business I had invested in would end in bankruptcy. It was more than I could handle. And that tends to be when my anxiety instead of becoming fuel for me to get a lot done and to accomplish a lot, and the slight amount of fear is kind of positive in my life for the most part. Occasionally when things situationally get out of control, I have twice in my life, it is bottomed out.

And two different times in my life I have gotten on an SSRI. Um, it was Zoloft. I don’t say that to suggest someone should or shouldn’t have gotten on it, but I want to say that the reason I talk so much on my platform about alternatives to antibiotics and alternatives to SSRI’s or the drug approach to mental health is that even though two times for a year each, I was on an SSRI and I will say this on the record, it was a lifesaver both times. And also getting off of it, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It cannot be the only answer. I have no judgment towards people who use medications, prescription medications for their various disorders. This cannot be about shame. This cannot be about judgment. But we have to go deeper because an SSRI is not actually solving the underlying issues. Would you agree with that?

Dr. Bjorndal:                      Yeah, absolutely. I think the thing is we want to look at these medications, again if you need them, if you’re a 10 out of 10 depressed and ready to, you know, really suicidal or if you’re paralyzed with anxiety, then you can use these medications to get yourself on solid ground. But look at it like a cast. If you broke your leg, we would cast that leg and we would leave that cast on for three weeks, six weeks, however long it takes for the bone to heal. With antidepressants, what we do is we go on them and sometimes we’re told you need to stay on them for life, which is not true.

So you know the steps that I talk about in “Beyond the Label” are the foundation here of health is diet, sleep, exercise and managing stress. And when we talk about, you know, in your case Robyn, you’re saying, you know, I had a child who was in really a life or death situation, there’s business stress, I mean the key there is looking at which macro system is involved and probably your adrenal system was the one that was being taxed. But in mental health we only focus on the neurotransmitters. So we want to understand that there’s three macro systems within each of us and we have the neurotransmitters, but we also have our hormonal system and then we have our organs of detoxification. And all of these macro systems are working within the one vessel that is your body.

So sometimes we need the support. I think nowadays with the Internet and everybody being able to Google, there’s, I find there’s a lot of misinformation out there. But I think what we want to sort of shift our belief around these medications that they’re a temporary solution to help us feel better. But once we’re feeling better we can work on all the steps that we need to work on and figure out what was the root of this problem.

Robyn:                                I agree. And you, you were talking about when you had your first mental health break, uh, you mentioned that you were eating a lot of junk food. Now, I wouldn’t say to anybody that the root of all mental health disorders is diet. However, I think it’s a contributor in many if not most cases. What role in getting to a point where you feel well, because six manic phases in, I think you said 30 years, that as Bipolar disorder goes, which you want to distance yourself from that, but I understand you also want to talk about it openly for the sake of encouraging others to talk about it. Cause you know the things we ignore and sweep under the rug get worse.

Tell me what you discovered about diet. What kind of diet do you eat now that you find manages it? For me, I’ll just say as a side note for me, if I eat corn syrup, I will wake up with a panic attack the next morning. Any candy, anything with Corn Syrup in it. It’s a guarantee and I’ve just learned that. Any refined sugars are very bad for my anxiety so it helps me stay off of it. But Corn Syrup is just trouble.

Dr. Bjorndal:                      That’s right. Yeah. So it’s interesting. So my diet was not great. I had a lot of cracks in my nutritional foundation. I was a vegetarian and I was not a very good vegetarian. There actually weren’t very many vegetables in my vegetarian diet. So basically I had some nutritional deficiency. So I was low in B12, Iron and also Tryptophan which is an essential amino acid. So what people have to understand is the main neurotransmitter that is involved in depression is one called Serotonin and that is made from Tryptophan. And that is an essential amino acid. So what that means is nobody in the current version of the human being can make Tryptophan. We have to get it from our diet. And if you aren’t getting enough Tryptophan, you probably will not be able to make Serotonin. And there’s other co-factors, nutritional co-factors involved in this pathway of converting Tryptophan to Serotonin.

Also, I want to add that when Tryptophan comes in the body, if you are under stress and a lot of people are that Tryptophan will get tripped down a different pathway in the body called the kynurenine pathway to make something called quinolinic acid and you will be more depressed because you’re never going to be getting to Serotonin. So this is the pathway in my body that was supported initially when I went to see, a psychiatrist that I went to see in 1999 and doctor Abraham Hoffer, he was a student of Linus Pauling who won two Nobel prizes for his work with Vitamin C and cancer. And both these doctors feel that all mental health conditions can be traced to nutritional deficiencies, whether it’s in the essential amino acids or whether it’s in these nutritional co-factors that I’m referring to, that support this pathway to make Serotonin.

So that’s where it started for me was with the supplements. But eventually, when I went to medical school, we had to analyze our diets and I looked at what I was eating, analyzed it, still wasn’t eating super great on a student budget. Still the only essential amino acid I was deficient in was still Tryptophan. So from a root cause, we have to understand that sometimes even supplements are going to be a bandaid, if you don’t deal with the root of the problem. And if you’re not giving yourself the nutritional substrates, then you will be dependent on supplements.

I’m really for food first. In my book I talk about a mental health diet, which I’ve broken out into another little book called “The Essential Diet. Eating for Mental Health”. And what it is, is it supports all these, making sure that you’re getting all these nutritional co-factors. So these pathways can work in your body. That’s really where I started and that served me well for many years. But eventually I was bumping up against these core beliefs. I was bumping up against my thoughts, my thoughts of worthlessness and my thoughts of insecurity, my feelings of not feeling adequate, my emotions. And I had to go and do some more work to work through all of that. And these are the steps I talk about in the book. So that foundation is again, diet, sleep, exercise, managing stress.

But then I think we have to look at the second floor of the health house, which is your thoughts and your emotions and how you behave and react in the world. The environment from three perspectives, quality of air, food and water. So again, the food that we’re eating, a lot of it can potentially be laden with chemicals and these chemicals can block receptors. So we tend to think of depression as a deficiency problem. So for example, you’re not making enough Serotonin, but what if you are? But they just can’t get in the cell because there’s something from the environment blocking the receptor. So that’s something to bear in mind.

The second part about the environment is the concept of genetics versus epigenetics. And because I’m adopted, whenever I ask the question why, why is this happening to me? The party line I would get from the medical professionals was this is genetic. There’s nothing you can do about it. And I never adopted that as the truth because I’m adopted. I couldn’t look to my left or right to verify the truth of that. So I didn’t accept that. And I think when you say to people, you know it’s genetic, a lot of times people become a victim. They stop looking for answers, they stop taking care perhaps of their health. I think we want to be open to this concept of epigenetics. A quote to explain what epigenetics means is: “Genes load the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger.” So your genes will predispose you perhaps but they don’t predetermine your outcome. And this is based on the environmental influences. So that’s the second concept under the environment to be aware of.

And then the third area is the idea of neuroplasticity, which is based on a book by a Canadian psychiatrist. The book is called: “The Brain That Changes Itself”. And what you want to understand is your brain has a bendy or plastic quality to it. These pathways are not fixed. We can create new neural pathways. So this is very important for people to understand. And then the last area that I think is important when it comes to health and perhaps the first place we need to start, is in this place of looking at the sense of love for ourselves, our sense of self-worth, uh, compassion, spirituality. I feel this is ultimately the crux of the problem for a lot of people. So for me it started with putting in those nutritional foundations and working on, you know, diet and exercise and managing my stress. But ultimately I had to learn to love and accept myself.

Robyn:                                Okay. I want to back up just a little bit because you talked about amino acids and specifically Tryptophan that lead to optimal Serotonin levels which are really pivotal for anybody with a depression or an anxiety diagnosis and some of the others as well. And I’m sure you’re going to say that your diet when you started getting well was consisting of organic whole foods mostly plant based. And pretty much, everyone will tell you that about everything unless they, you know, if they’re making money selling the ketogenic diet, then they’re going to tell you the ketogenic diet, but this fad will come and it will go and just like so many others have in the arc of my career that I’ve watched, there will be more that will come in and they’re very, very big business.

But regardless of what anybody thinks about any of those fads, that’s going to be the answer you’re going to tell me, organic whole foods mostly plant based. But I’m trying to think like our listeners are, and they want you to back up, they want you to back up and say, what foods do you eat that provide that Tryptophan since it’s not very well supplied by supplements.

Dr. Bjorndal:                      So what we want to understand is if we’re wanting to use food and we have to understand that these essential amino acids need to come from our diet, we want to be eating a whole foods diet, which means basically shopping around that perimeter of the grocery store. So foods that contain Tryptophan, so any amino acid, it comes from protein. And remember I was a vegetarian but I wasn’t a very good one. So the vegetarian sources of Tryptophan include cashews, oatmeal, avocado. Those are the main ones that come to mind for me at the moment.

And then I did start eating some protein, but I made sure that it was organic. And my diet, now, and I want people to understand, look, I’ve been working on this for a good 30 years, so I don’t expect you to get to where I am overnight, but we want to start making these small changes. You start by increasing the good foods that support you, like the Tryptophan forming foods or foods that are high in B6 and magnesium, and these are going to be your fruits and your vegetables. So most people’s plates, they’re lacking in vegetables. And so that’s what we really need to be increasing in the diet to start off. That’s a great place for people to start.

And I think if you can stop eating foods that are in boxes and packages and containers and cans and do your best to get back to what your grandparents were doing or even your great grandparents were doing, eating whole foods that they were cooking and better yet growing themselves. We have gotten way off track in our society, way off track. And you have to remember the food industry manipulates food by manipulating three molecules so that we’re addicted to it. So sugar, fat and salt. So Robyn mentioned that if she eats high fructose corn syrup, she has anxiety. High Fructose Corn Syrup is like it’s, I mean it’s liquid sugar. And we have to learn to read labels and understand what the different words are for these substances.

So for example, a lot of people know to look for sugar but do they know to look for high fructose corn syrup? And understanding that, there was a research study that was showing that sugar is more addictive than cocaine, so as somebody who’s had an eating disorder, I can tell you I’ve had a really tough relationship with sugar. And because of my eating disorder I’m not about fads. I’m really about ultimately this comes down to your relationship with you. And that’s why I subscribe to eating a whole foods diet that’s organic as much as you can. And I understand that people have perhaps financial restraints but we want to understand that the most important vehicle that you’ve been given is this gift of the life that you have and so you can’t put a price on your health.

I live very modestly and I spend the majority of my income on my food and my health, in terms of self-care, massage, counseling, naturopathic care, versus the other way around for a lot of people, the priority is, you know, our mortgages and things like that. So I just encourage people, it takes time to make these shifts, to make these shifts in your life, but you have to start somewhere and so pick something that works for you. And if we start with diet, start with the next time you go grocery shopping only shop around the perimeter of the store.

Robyn:                                Yeah, that’s a great guideline. I mean it’s not particularly specific, but that’s where the things that we’re going to want the most of go in the shopping cart. Although I would point out that sometimes legumes and other things aren’t quite on the perimeter and there’s lots on the perimeter you don’t want. So it’s a good guideline. Not necessarily super prescriptive. We’ve talked lots about the food. Thank you. We love talking about food on The Vibe Show or at least I do.

Let’s talk about how you went from Haloperidol, you know, bottoming out in the 1980’s to, you described that there was a lot of shame, there’s a lot of fear probably, and it took you many, many years to come out and say out loud that Bipolar disorder type One is something that you had struggled with. And you know, I come from the school of thought as a therapist that we don’t want to do the labels except for half a minute to be able to understand what we’re dealing with. Like very much a love hate, mostly hate relationship with all kinds of labels, especially in mental health. But it is kind of a grouping of symptoms so that we can kind of try to figure out like what are folks who are struggling with this, How are they served? How can we help them?

How’d you get from that place of self-criticism? I mean every young girl, every young girl, every adolescent girl looks in the mirror and finds the things that are wrong and every time they walk past themselves in the mirror, they’re finding the things that are wrong. I can’t, it’s amazing to me any of us are standing up, after all the self-criticism we go through all day long, every day we are harshly criticizing ourselves. How’d you go from that to a place of, I’m sure not perfect, but a lot more compassion towards yourself and being able to live in your skin more comfortably.

Dr. Bjorndal:                      So what I learned was this process that I call the seven R’s of working with problematic thoughts and breaking the thought emotion cycle. So what I want people to understand is, so yes, these labels can be helpful too, like Robyn said, to understand perhaps and give some context to what you’re going through. But if we can just reframe these labels like depression, anxiety, etc., to the fact that perhaps you have what’s called, what I’ll refer to as a thought pathology.

So you have a problem with the way that you’re thinking. And often it’s the voice of the inner critic that has the floor. And if we can learn to, so the first “R” is to Recognize. What is this voice that has the stage inside your head? Is the line of thinking helpful? Is it kind? Is it compassionate? Or is it critical and beating yourself up? And if it’s that, then we have to go to the next “R” which is to Refrain from following these thoughts any further by relaxing into the breath. And then what we want to do with that thought is to find a more compassionate or neutral thought, which is basically cognitive behavioral therapy, where we rephrase what it was that we recognize.

So if it, for example, with me it say the phrase was, I am unworthy than the rephrase would be, I am worthy. Now, here’s what you have to understand, and for me this was really difficult because I didn’t feel like it was true. But what you want to understand is your thoughts affect your emotions, which then affect the next thought that occurs, which then affects the next emotion. So it’s a cycle. It’s a circle with the thoughts triggering the emotions. And what happens is our thoughts create neuropeptides and these neuropeptides affect the hormones that get produced in your body. So this affects in turn how you feel.

So if we want to feel differently, we have to look at the thoughts we’re thinking. And it doesn’t matter if you believe the thought to be true or not, because the thought you think will create a physiological cascade of hormones that will produce the end result, that emotional state within you. Where I started was going neutral with my thoughts because again, like I said, these affirmations for me felt like I was spraying whipping cream on a pile of bullshit. Okay? So if I am unworthy is a common theme in your life and going to I am worthy is too big of a jump, then just go to I am, and don’t fill in the blank. That’s a very neutral statement.

What I want people to understand is most people are living in their heads from the neck up, completely discounting their body. And to bring in the breathing part of this. When we’re breathing, most people are just breathing with the top little bits of their lungs. But your lungs go all the way down to your diaphragm. And when your diaphragm pulls down so that your lungs can inflate fully sitting right underneath your diaphragm is your adrenal glands. And it’s your adrenal glands that respond to the thoughts, those self-critical thoughts that we think that can keep us in this state of the inner critic or even in stuck in fear. They produce cortisol. And this kind of keeps us stuck in this thought emotion cycle.

So again, in order to break the cycle, we have to use our breath, breathing properly so that we engage that diaphragm so we can calm those adrenal glands. So you’re physiologically designed to calm yourself down. But the problem is most people when they get stuck in anxiety, aren’t breathing. They’re constricted and they’re just breathing with the top little bit of their lungs. Uh, for me when I was first taught this, so again, first thing is to Recognize what’s going on. Then to Refrain from following this train of thought any further by Relaxing into the breath, into the present moment. And then the fourth “R” is Resolve. You have to repeat this process. You can’t just do this once. Like we’re, this is neuroplasticity in action. This is how we’re retraining your brain. No one taught me how to think, nobody taught me how to think. This is how I learned how to think.

And then the next “R” is that, Rephrase whatever it was that you recognized. And if the rephrase is too big than just go neutral. It really is just the four R’s. But because again, I’m an overachiever, so then I added these other three, which is the Rephrase, which comes from cognitive behavioral therapy. And then the next one is Reflect. So for myself, listen, I have stumbled so many times, but every time I have stumbled either into the pit of depression or into a state of anxiety or you know, skyrocketed into mania, I look back and I say, which of the 10 steps that I talk about in my book did I stop doing? Because I firmly believe there’s an answer or an explanation for why this is happening to me. And if I want to practice preventative medicine, which step or steps do I have to take another look at? What do I have to Re-visit in my life?

And then the last “R” is Reward. Which speaks to compassion focused therapy. Again, we are, most of us are not high fiving ourselves. You know, as women, I think we’re taught to be submissive. We’re taught to be modest, we’re taught to not be boastful. And I think there’s a difference between really celebrating yourself and being narcissistic. And I think we’ve really fallen through the cracks here with women, not owning who they are. And really stepping into their strengths and celebrating who they are. So every time I go through these seven R’s, I’m celebrating the fact that I did that because it’s hard work to retrain your brain.

Robyn:                                Yeah. And I don’t think that we’re socialized as women to be particularly supportive of each other in singing our own praises. It’s kind of counter to female culture. But narcissism is a mental health disorder that is characterized by a lack of empathy and a feeling of Godlike powers that I am better than, I am different than, I’m above mere mortals. Those are the two hallmarks of narcissistic personality disorder. And we make a big mistake if we see a woman who will own her accomplishments or her gifts unapologetically, we make a mistake if we call that narcissism, because narcissism is an actual personality disorder and it’s really quite rare.

Dr. Bjorndal:                      That’s right. I know for me, I had a hard time, like just celebrating my strength and that might come from, it does, I’m sure it comes from my upbringing, and sort of being told to not out shine anybody. And I think I would dim my light because of that. But anyway, I think the important point here is for people to really understand that there’s two branches to your nervous system. One’s a sympathetic branch, or think stress. And the other is a parasympathetic, think relax. And when we were talking about diet and eating, what we want to understand is certain functions in the body and digestion is one of them, requires you to be in a parasympathetic state. So we need to understand that, so yes, it’s important to eat healthy, whole foods, organic foods, but the state in which you eat those foods is also really important.

And what the seven “R’s” do is they help move you into a parasympathetic or calm state. So when I’m working with patients, I ask them to practice, I go through the breathing with them and how to do the breathing. And this is all outlined in the book or even a short form of this is on my website, just there for people to download. It’s super important to always be taking a couple of deep breaths throughout the day so that anxiety doesn’t have a chance to rise. And you’re always giving your body a mini reset into this parasympathetic state.

Robyn:                                Uh, I read a quote that I still can’t find whoever said it, but it’s been really meaningful to me for many years. That breath turns fear to excitement. And I put that to the test and I’m sure the intention helps. But when I’m feeling anxiety and I’m feeling a pit in my stomach, I realize it’s been hours, maybe even days since I’ve taken deep breaths and I take half a dozen deep breaths and it completely changes my mood.

Dr. Bjorndal:                      That’s right. Yeah. I’ve heard that quote as well. Um, anxiety or fear is excitement without a breath.

Robyn:                                Chris, tell us where we can buy your book and where we can support you and follow you to learn more.

Dr. Bjorndal:                      So online. So Amazon or Barnes and Noble, if in the US. Or in Canada it’s Chapters or Amazon. And my website is So, B j o r n d a Yeah. Feel free to reach out or, you know, I really would encourage people to, if they know somebody who’s struggling or perhaps if you’re listening and struggling yourself to reach out. And just know that you really are here for a reason and to shift perhaps your suffering into the medicine that you need. That you’re going through whatever you’re going through and you will come out the other side. But just know that there’s people out there that can help you, including me, so don’t hesitate to reach out.

Robyn:                                Hmm. Well, thank you so much for that. So it’s doctor Christina Bjorndal “Beyond the Label: 10 Steps to Improve Your Mental Health with Naturopathic Medicine”. Thank you so much for your courage in sharing your own struggle as well as what you’ve learned along the way that will serve others. I really appreciate you.

Dr. Bjorndal:                      Thank you, Robyn. Thank you so much.

3 thoughts on “Ep. 120: Finding Hope and Healing in Mental Illness Interview with Dr. Christina Bjorndal”

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  1. Kim says:

    That was an excellent pod cast!! My question is, can this boom also help ppl who have BPD. Boarderline Personality disorder???
    Please answer— thanks

  2. Rose Butler GSG says:

    Hi Kim, thank you for reaching out. Although I did not hear Dr. Bjorndal speak about Borderline Personality Disorder specifically in this podcast, her book does refer to looking beyond mental health labels. Her book focuses on the whole body and is a blueprint for the steps you can take to find balance in areas like diet, sleep, exercise etc. in order to move beyond the label you have been given. The ultimate lessons in the book are to learn to love yourself, find your inner voice, quiet the unhelpful voices of others, follow your path, live as your heart desires according to the rules you define for yourself. Hope this helps.

  3. Anne Cavallo says:

    Thank you both for agreeing that at times we need to use the allopathic as well as the natural or functional system. I too took Zoloft for awhile, but knew as a psychiatric nurse, I didn’t want to stay on it forever.

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