Can Texting Positively Alter Brain Chemistry?
Featured Guest: Johnny Crowder
In a world of instant gratification, can our smartphones help us build enduring healthy habits one encouraging text message at a time?
We’ll discuss this with positive psychology entrepreneur and founder of Cope Notes Johnny Crowder on this episode of Recovery Unscripted.
Interviewer: All right, well I’m here with Johnny Crowder. Thank you for being with us.
Johnny Crowder: Absolutely, thanks for having me.
Interviewer: Let’s begin by having you tell us a bit about your own personal story. Introduce us to who you are and how you got involved in the world of recovery.
Johnny: Men, I feel like an outsider in every circle but what’s cool about the recovery community that I’ve realized so far is that everyone’s pretty much an outsider [chuckles]. I’m Johnny Crowder, I’m 26 years old. I live in Tampa, Florida and I actually, these often surprises a lot of people, I’ve been sober for my entire life, but I grew up in a house with lots of drugs and alcohol, lots of abuse. It really taught me a lot at a very young age about what this world can look like. That was both good and bad, I grew up very, very quickly.
Interviewer: You saw it all around you?
Johnny: Yes. I think when you grow up in an environment like that, there is two paths you can take. I have two brothers and I’m the only one that remained sober. I think there is this fork in the road where you think this is how it’s supposed to go, or I want to be a total punk and totally upend the system and see how different I can be from this. I think I was fortunate to choose the later.
Interviewer: I read on your website that you have experienced yourself some mental health issues though. Did you want to talk about that?
Johnny: Yes. I think that was the colorful part of my youth. I was diagnosed with a number of mental health issues at a very young age. The most notable and debilitating of which were schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and, of course, the beloved culturally misappropriated obsessive-compulsive disorder. It totally changed my childhood. I think that when you look at– Like at my church, I work with middle schoolers and I see these uninhibited free spirits that are running around and eating cookies off the floor and playing video games, and I’m like, “Men, I totally missed this train due to my mental health issues.”
Interviewer: You feel like it kept you from being a kid in some ways?
Johnny: Yes. I felt like this high powered CEO of my own rituals. Like when you picture a CEO, they think really type A, buttoned up and really stressed and under a lot of pressure and trying to juggle a lot of things. Literally, that was me at 12 trying to make a sandwich. There were so many rules I had to follow, and I had to count my Cheerios and not step on cracks. That, coupled with the abuse in my home and the just general overall lack of wellness in my life, it made me have a midlife crisis before I hit puberty, you know?
Interviewer: Yes. Do you feel because of that environment, and like you mentioned, abuse in your home, do you feel like that fueled some of that? Not that maybe created it but that became a coping mechanism for you?
Johnny: Yes. At the time, I thought they were totally separate. Or if they were linked it was causal like, well, I’m experiencing abuse because I’m so broken and I’m so messed up like I’m defective. I think now, looking back– I did go to UCF for psychology and I learned quite a bit [chuckles] about the way I grew up. I think looking back, you’re right, it was a lot more of a strategy to exhibit some sense of control as a kid. Because if I couldn’t control when or why I felt pain, I could control when or why I touched door knobs, you know?
Interviewer: Yes, absolutely. Then you’ve gotten into music. Was that another kind of outlet, another coping mechanism or how did that come about?
Johnny: Yes, I think a lot of people will ask questions that I think are misinformed when it comes to music. They think like, “How did you get so good at songwriting or how did you get so good at guitar?” It’s like the only reason– I’m not any better at guitar than you, I just played more because I had less friends. Growing up, I didn’t feel included by my brothers. My older and younger brother had a buddy system going on and I was the outlier. If they went to play football or if they were playing video games, I would just retreat to my room and try to write a song.
Over time, it eventually did grow into a career which I’m really thankful for but at the time, it’s like, even when it comes to writing, I do quite a bit of writing and people ask, “How did you start with writing?” It’s like, honestly, I didn’t have anybody to talk to, so I wrote. I didn’t have anybody to hang out with, so I played guitar. All of these things are a product of feeling that solitude and wanting to turn it into something productive.
Interviewer: Just kind of having a language for what you’re going through, what you’re feeling?
Johnny: Yes. This is not a knock to the popular people, all of the super popular jocks who are listening to this podcast [chuckles]. It’s not a jock or it’s not a knock to anybody who was really socially blessed in their school days. Say I was really popular or say I had a ton of friends or I was a hot commodity among the girls in my school, I think that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity or the need to be creative because I would be so socially stimulated, you know?
Interviewer: Yes. It’s just interesting hearing you describe yourself as a buttoned-up 12-year old CEO counting your Cheerios and then to meet you and then you look like a musician. You have tattoos. You’re very believable as a touring musician now. It’s just an interesting dichotomy.
Johnny: My mom does those. Have you ever heard of those true colors personality assessment things?
Interviewer: I’ve not.
Johnny: I did it once and my mom was like, “You are equal parts, all five personalities.” I’m like, “Yes, it sounds right.” I’m like the kind of guy who will tour in a Death Metal Band and shake a bunch of sweaty people’s hands and crowd surf and then floss before I go to bed. I really am equal parts everything. It doesn’t rattle me as much but when people meet me, they think like, “You don’t say curse words?” and I’m like, “No, I just never really have.” They’re like, “That seems so bizarre.” and I’m like, “I know, I’m used to it.”
Interviewer: It’s just who you are.
Interviewer: Let’s get into Cope Notes now. Could you give us an introduction to how you got started with that? How did you get that idea?
Johnny: Yes, Cope Notes is a very refined version of a few previous ideas that were Play-Dohed together. I’ve been doing advocacy for about eight years now, a little over eight years. Just publicly in speaking and getting really involved with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I did a ton of speaking at schools and peer counseling.
When I started writing about these touchy issues in my band’s music, we would write about suicide or addiction or faith or abuse, the uglier things that you don’t hear on the pop radio all that much, I realized that a lot of people who were against the traditional means of mental wellness didn’t really have an option for the alternative punk hardcore community. I started working on some ideas that led to some other ideas.
The Cliff Notes version is I did peer counseling for a while and people could choose– I created something called, Not a Therapist. It was purposely built to be something where it was totally peer support and you could just talk to someone about how you felt and that was it. There wasn’t any prescription and there wasn’t any commitment and you weren’t required to pay a fee or anything.
Interviewer: It wasn’t a therapist, it was just another person?
Johnny: Right. When I was working on that, I had this option where you could choose– I run this for about a year and had an option where you could choose your medium, so people could use Skype or Facebook messaging or a phone call. After a while, everyone just kept to text message. I was learning something from that, like most people prefer text message as a medium for things so they’re pretty touchy. The other piece that really informed, trying to work on Cope Notes, was people would talk in these peer counseling sessions for– Say the session is 75 minutes, they would speak for 74 minutes.
Then right at the end, I would say something just for perspective building. I didn’t really weigh in on how I felt about what they did or anything like that. I would just say something to the effect of, I think it’s really interesting that you didn’t storm out this time because the last three times you told me that happened you stormed out, you slammed the door, and this time, even though you’re frustrated, you stayed in the room and continued the conversation.
Then the next week when we would talk, they would talk for 74 minutes about that last note that I gave. I realized that people really didn’t want to hear from me as much as they wanted to speak. I realized that what helped– Even what helped me the most in therapy was speaking a ton and listening a little bit and then letting that little bit of listening form my next turn speaking. I wanted to create something that would give you one little bit of perspective on a consistent basis to slowly help you develop the habit of spotting that perspective on your own and fostering independence. That’s where Cope Notes really started taking shape.
Interviewer: Just for people who aren’t familiar it’s– How do you describe it? It’s a service, it’s an app, what, how do you describe it on a pitch?
Johnny: The easiest way to explain it is Cope Notes sends you one randomly timed text message every day. Over time, it helps your brain develop healthier habits.
Interviewer: You described how you came up with the idea in general, but how do you come up with the actual text messages because it’s a new text message every day?
Johnny: One thing that I learned when I was probably in my worst period with my mental health was that, all of these different tools promised– Like this one root extract will change your life overnight, or this one webinar will change everything in four hours or do this stretch every morning and say goodbye to schizophrenia. It’s like what the heck is this stuff? Everything promised this unilateral– Basically, people were promising these like magical beans that would cure everything. I realized that the only thing that actually helped me was a little bit of everything. Like 1% of 100 different approaches really built this comprehensive full body strength that I could use to face what I was dealing with.
Cope Notes, much in the same way, we draw content from anywhere you can think of. I’ve seen graffiti that inspired me to write something or I’ve listened to a TED talk or I’ve been at a conference and someone says something offhand that I write down as a note and later turn into something and I read– I’m a big nerd so I do psychology textbooks in my home. A lot of it is just from every different path that you could think of. We take these little tidbits of a concept and we refine them and refine them over time to turn them into something short and quippy but something that doesn’t feel too fluffy or too jargonny. It’s right in the middle.
Then all of that, whether it’s a psychology fact or an exercise or a piece of advice or encouragement, we have all of that reviewed by a panel of HR people and HIPPA people and mental health counselors and professors and doctors. We just have them review everything that we send out to ensure that it’s actually having that positive psychology kick. It’s my job to maintain the creative side and ensure that the content is inspired by lived experience.
Interviewer: Yes, because you wanted to feel real. I don’t know, are you approaching it like this is a friend or like– How do you sum up what the experience is supposed to be like for somebody who is on the receiving end of this?
Johnny: I want it to feel really friendly and human. My goal is to never have people glued to Cope Notes forever. I don’t want people to rely solely on a tool outside of themselves. What I really want to do is foster independence. While I do want these texts to feel friendly and colloquial, and that’s part of the reasoning behind using text messages and not a traditional app, but also I want someone to say– After using Cope Notes for let’s say they use it for a year and then they get into a fender bender and their insurance premium goes through the roof. I want them to think, I know seven different ways I can approach this right now and handle this because I feel equipped.
I don’t want people to turn to Cope Notes and say, what do I do? I want them to know exactly what to do because they’re emotionally and mentally equipped to face that kind of stimulus without breaking down.
Interviewer: Can people respond to the texts? Is there an interactive element to this?
Johnny: Yes. This is where it gets really staying because there are some text therapy apps, and I have read about and firsthand experienced many issues with that structure. What we wanted to do with Cope Notes was create something that was– It’s voluntary. You can choose to interact, but you never have to. We have some users who respond to every text or will text us out of the blue with a big list, They’ll text us 17 times in a row with this big story. Some people have never texted Cope Notes ever, the whole time they’ve had it. I want it to be in this space where interaction isn’t mandatory. Like some tools, if you don’t interact with it, it stops interacting with you which I really want to prevent.
I spoke to a podcaster yesterday, who said that she used a language app that after a week of her not responding to the notifications or her not opening the app, they were like, oh well, we won’t bother you anymore. It’s like, whoa, passive-aggressive. I want to avoid that side that like social pressure/obligation to interact because I know people’s lives are busy, but I also don’t want to let that lack of interaction deter the tool. Say I texted you four days in a row and you didn’t respond, I would probably [inaudible 00:18:08] but Cope Notes will reach out to you every single day forever, and it does not get deterred.
I think that’s the magic. If you choose not to interact or you’re too busy to interact, Cope Notes is that persistent positive stimulus that just provides that backdrop for positive growth even when you’re in a bad mood or you’re on vacation or you wouldn’t think about consciously making that effort.
Interviewer: I read that the text messages also arrive at random times, why is that important for the effectiveness of this platform?
Johnny: We’re about to see which listeners are nerdy and which listeners are normal folks because one thing that I read quite a bit about was something called attentional blindness. Which is you know you walk into someone’s house and it has that smell and you’re like, “What the heck is that?” And they don’t smell it because they live in it. That part of a very non-scientific example but if you grow accustomed to something say, you set an alarm at 10:30 AM every day that says Smile, it’ll work for a couple days and then you’ll totally tune it out because your brain is so good at adapting.
It’s why you have to keep changing your workout routine every couple of months to avoid a plateau. You need to keep your body guessing, and in the same way, you need to keep your brain guessing. Not only does Cope Notes send a different text message at a different time every day, but also we don’t send the same text message at the same time to everyone. If you’ve got a text message today at 7:13 PM, I would get a totally different message at 3:11 PM.
Interviewer: Like two different users together will get that.
Johnny: Yes. Every user has their own sequence of these text messages that is completely randomized so that each person has a totally unique experience with Cope Notes. No two people will have an identical conversation. That is something that is truly– It really reinforces that personal aspect rather than just saying, “This is a robot. This is an app that’s sending a mass push notification to 2 million people at the same time.” It’s like, “No. This text was meant for you right now, personally,” you know?
Interviewer: Yes. That’s cool. I know a big part of the idea that I read on your website behind all of this, is the concept of cognitive restructuring and neural plasticity. Could you start this part of the conversation by unpacking that for us what that means?
Johnny: I love this part of the conversation because people always think that it’s this really crazy sciencey thing, which on one hand, it is but it’s also really simple. It’s crazy that people recognize how often we use it. Essentially, and this is the way I always describe it. I wish listeners close your eyes for a second unless you’re driving and picture my fingers pretty close to each other, like four inches from each other.
The way I always explain this whenever I speak is, these are synapses in your brain and when you think a thought that connects those two synapses, they shoot a charge from one to the other and they grow ever so slightly closer together in order to make that thought easier to have because your brain is pretty lazy. It’s always trying to save itself from burning as many calories. Every time you think that thought, they grow closer and closer together and then when you have an opportunity to think something, your brain defaults, oftentimes, to the shortest path.
Every time we take in some sort of stimulus, we develop this immunity towards breaking away from it and that’s how habits are formed, but we can also use that same adaptation to pull those synapses apart ever so slightly and pull other ones closer together. Over time, we can replace not so healthy habits with healthier ones, but the trick that nobody tells you is that it takes way longer than you think. Everyone says 21 days to develop a habit but they never– If you’ve ever done anything for 21 days, you know that you can’t wait to break the habit. Like if you’ve done a diet for 21 days, you cannot wait for day 22.
I think what we’re arguing is that developing the habit isn’t really our goal. It’s more helping that habit become your new normal. We want to help your brain default to these new patterns that are healthier and that is something that takes- We’ve read research studies saying it can take up to 254 consecutive days for a habit to feel automatic. I don’t know if I’ve done anything that many days in a row. I don’t even know if I brush my teeth that many days in a row and I’m really good at brushing my teeth.
Interviewer: That lays out the challenge before people because if you have been using drugs for 254 days in a row, then that’s going to be a huge challenge. It’s not an overnight flip of a switch to change that.
Johnny: Dude, this is what really grinds my gears and gets me heated, is the way that people speak about recovery, even mental health recovery, because I’ll talk from what I know, people will make it sound like you just do this thing or you just develop that habit, or you just– They make it sound like if you do something for a few weeks in a row, you’re fine and it’s like fine, What about the fallout?
It takes so long to curb that affinity for even– With my OCD, I had these rituals where even though I hadn’t done the ritual for a month or two months, I would still have this voice inside of me that’s like, “Hey, you need to make sure that light switch is off four separate times.” It’s like, “No. The heck I don’t,” and I’m talking years later. Right now, to this day, I still put an uneven amount of deodorant on both arms so all like– I can’t help but count things, so I count deodorant on one arm, swipe down, swipe up, swipe down, swipe up, swipe down. Then on the other one, I’ll do one less or one more to purposely make myself on even. I’m constantly challenging myself to this day.
There’s not like, “Do this 21-day program and you’re free.” It’s like, “Do this 21-day program and then keep up with it.” The project of you is everlasting. I think that that presents an amazing opportunity for people that we ignore when we try to promise these quick fixes.
Interviewer: That gets into some of the misconceptions about recovery in general. How did this concept of building habits, this cognitive restructuring, how did this lead the idea that text messaging could be a new frontier for making that work in a practical sense?
Johnny: I think I was so set on doing a traditional app until I looked at how people interact with apps. So many people will download an app and use it once and ignore it forever, including myself, I do that. Part of it is we have to speak in the language of the user. Sometimes that doesn’t just mean literal English language. That means, we need to bring this to where they are, and we need to meet them where they are. I’ve read so much about how often we text. We text more than we use Instagram or Facebook and social media. The truest form of the social media is directly texting people and I think it is shocking how few people have turned to text in the way of creating tools that can communicate via text.
Everyone wants to create an app because it’s so much cheaper, but they don’t realize that they’re losing out on engagement from people who could truly benefit from their app just because they wanted to pinch pennies. It is shocking that more brands and tools haven’t, and I hope I’m not shooting myself in the foot here, that more tools haven’t realized that text messaging is the one thing we do every day truly. I don’t know anyone who will go days and weeks without texting someone, but we go days and weeks without doing almost anything else without batting an eye.
Interviewer: Even compared to other new digital technologies and ways that this could be implemented, texting might have the best chance of really being able to alter brain chemistry in this way.
Johnny: I think it’s very funny how often, especially people in the tech world, will get super, super psyched about some new tech application that they can use, and they totally bypass what is being used. I think absolutely, there’s always room for innovation in any new tool, but I think a lot of people get caught up in trying to make something new instead of helping an existing community.
Interviewer: Speaking their language as you were saying.
Interviewer: Cool. Then as you have rolled out Cope Notes into the community, as it’s become a thing that people are using, how would you describe how it’s been received by the recovery community, by the healthcare community?
Johnny: I am very pleasantly surprised because I went into this with an idea that I would be rejected as this like fringe punk. For people who don’t know me or don’t know what I look like, I have my hands tattooed, my face tattooed. I am not a doctor and I thought that venturing into this space, I would be rejected immediately. In fact, the reaction has been quite opposite.
I think it’s because a lot of existing tools and resources don’t have a base of peer support. That’s built into anything I do with Cope Notes because any text we send is written by me a writer, yes, but also someone who has lived through things that hopefully no one will ever have to live through after me. I think that lived experience aspect, people in the healthcare industry and in the recovery space have realized that peer support aspect is more valuable than anticipated. Yes, I do have the level of professional oversight necessary and I do have doctors and research teams that I’m working with on trials. Beyond that, I am the person who knows what I wanted to hear and that’s really valuable.
Interviewer: Maybe there hasn’t been as much skepticism out there about it as you might’ve thought?
Johnny: I think initially, there’s always– When I walk into a fundraiser, people are like, “What is he doing here?” until I get on stage. I’m used to that and I tried to use it to my advantage but it’s very calming to see how quickly that skepticism is quelled when I start explaining how it works. I think that there are obviously still hurdles ahead of me and it’s not like I’m some huge bajillionaire famous, that classic tech startup guy driving the Ferrari in Silicon Valley. I think that there is hope for a tool that is this different simply because I’m not encroaching on a current space. I’m entering the space as a supplement or a tool that doesn’t really have any direct competition.
I think that makes me less of a threat and more of an asset to the larger existing players.
Interviewer: Sure. It’s just something that can be an add on.
Johnny: Yes. I have no interest in creating something that replaces therapy or replaces any existing traditional measure for mental health. I, myself, was medicated for quite some time and was in therapy for quite some time and it really made a profound difference in my life. Rather than trying to steam role and push everyone out of a system, I just want to show up and say, “Hey, this would be great for people who are trying to grow in the right direction and having difficulty with the consistency aspect or difficulty with the language and connotation of the traditional means.”
Interviewer: I know like you mentioned you have advisory board and then I know you’ve also started working on some evidence-based trials with the University of South Florida, right?
Johnny: Yes. We are working with–
Interviewer: What can you tell us about that?
Johnny: We are working with Dr. Kiselyk. I hope that I am saying her name right because I’ve known her for months and months. We are basically trying to frame Cope Notes structurally in a way that is certain to have the effect that we’re trying to have. Right now, we have lots of qualitative data from users that have really enjoyed Cope Notes. We have a feedback form and we always incorporate that feedback into the way we run things positive or negative. Now, the next step is doing these larger scale trials to see how Cope Notes affects people over the course of a year. Anyone who has done trials knows how long this process is.
We started working on stuff a few months ago. We will hopefully get the trial started later this year. Really, it’s so valuable to me because on one hand, yes, we can move into this– Have that evidence-based stamp of approval which will be great. But beyond that, we will have a much more tactile grasp on the effect that Cope Notes is having. That’s when you can truly pivot for the benefit of the user. That’s all I care about, at the end of the day, is the user experience.
Interviewer: Because ultimately you want it to be effective. You can think you have this great idea and obviously, you’re getting some direct feedback. I’m sure that’s really valuable to you to have data that says, “Yes, this is working.”
Johnny: Right. They actually had approached me after I spoke at– I do guest lectures at USF every so often and I was approached afterwards, and they pitched these trials to me because they were interested in the idea. I think I’m really thankful because before, I didn’t really understand why a trial would be helpful or necessary. I was out of touch with that aspect. They were saying, we can use all of this qualitative data to inform a study and then we can use the results of that study to inform Cope Notes. Really, all I want to do is– I’d rather be a small tool that works than a big tool that doesn’t, you know?
Interviewer: Sure. What’s next for Cope Notes?
Johnny: Well, we are working on– This year especially we’ve been focusing on integrating Cope Notes into student and employee wellness programs. At businesses for their HR departments or at schools for students to have this as a resource especially during finals or during the first couple months of the school year where you are freaked out and trying to make new friends and are really overwhelmed. Our main goal this year, well we are really trying to do our best to get individual people to experience Cope Notes as well. We are also shifting focus and trying to connect with businesses and schools in that way.
Even life coaches and counselors, we’ve had some requests from rehab and treatment facilities and sober living communities and even some EHR spots. I think that right now I’m realizing something that is sobering and a relief which is that there is a need for Cope Notes. That is worrisome that there is such a need, especially in schools and businesses, that there aren’t really those emotional and mental wellness practices in place.
It’s also a relief to know that we can be of service in those areas because you don’t really know how much is lacking until you dig deep, and you realize that a lot of even much larger businesses and much larger schools don’t actually have any resources in that space because mental and emotional wellness isn’t fully considered as essential as other wellness initiatives in workplaces and schools. I really hope to be a part of that change in the coming years.
Interviewer: All right. We’ll just wrap up with this final question. I know for you could be you’re a writer or a speaker. You could be touring, impacting people with your music or doing any number of other things, but you’re choosing to affect people’s lives one by one through these personal messages. Could we end by having you sum up why this mission is so important to you?
Johnny: Oh, man. I think it’s such a big question. I think that any time you feel pain, it gives you license to communicate with other people who have felt that pain. The extent and the diversity of the pain that I’ve experienced, it has this weight of social responsibility that I don’t do this out of obligation. I do this because I remembered distinctly how it felt and I am reminded of it every day. I can’t skate through life and think, well I worked my way out of most of it, other people should too.
I think that when you feel a pain that deep and profound, you see it all the time, you have no choice but to pick it up and run with it and rally the community that not a lot of people are sticking up for. I think if I died tomorrow, I’d want this to be the last thing I did.
[00:38:53] [END OF AUDIO]