Happiness Is A Skill

6074115915_2f2cfa1c3d_zThe foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.” — James Openheim

Maybe you’ve always thought of yourself as being a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” kind of person.  That’s just the way you were born.  Right?

The popular set-point theory of happiness suggests that a person’s level of subjective well-being is determined primarily by heredity and personality traits set early on and remains relatively stable throughout their life.  Someone’s happiness may get a boost or drop temporarily in response to major life events, such as a promotion, money, marriage, death, divorce, or layoff, but almost always returns to the baseline level as they habituate to the change over time.

You know, people just get used to their current conditions, good and bad, a harsh reality called hedonic adaptation.  Because of this, we find ourselves on what psychologists refer to as the hedonic treadmill – always striving to get the next bright shiny thing in search of happiness.

However, research has proven that people’s happiness levels can change substantially over their lifetimes, suggesting that the trait isn’t predetermined by genes or personality, but is actually a skill that can be learned.  In fact, a significant number of people followed over 25 years saw their happiness levels shift by one-third or more.

Happiness Is A Habit

While some people seem to be naturally happier and some have to work harder at it, everyone can implement practices into their lives shown to elevate satisfaction and joy. Luckily, with all the focus on happiness in the past decade, we have scientific findings to draw from about how to learn the skill of happiness to raise our happiness set points permanently. You can increase your positive feelings by incorporating a few proven practices into your daily routine regularly.

The practice of mindfulness, a mental state of relaxed awareness of the present moment, extending openness and curiosity toward your feelings rather than judgments of them, is a powerful tool for increasing happiness.  Altruism, compassion, and gratitude, all part of mindfulness, have been shown to not only to correlate with happiness, but to cause it.

So, what does this look like in your everyday life?

Happify, an online framework designed to train your brain to build skills for lasting happiness, uses the acronym S.T.A.G.E. to explain the five key happiness skills on their website:

Savor

Savoring is a quick and easy way to boost optimism and reduce stress and negative emotions. It’s the practice of being mindful and noticing the good stuff around you, taking the extra time to prolong and intensify your enjoyment of the moment, making a pleasurable experience last for as long as possible. So whether it’s preparing a meal, pausing to admire the sunset, or telling a friend your good news—the idea is to linger, take it in, and enjoy the experience.

Thank

The simple act of identifying and then appreciating the things people do for us is a modern-day wonder drug. It fills us with optimism and self-confidence, knowing that others are there for us. It dampens our desires for “more” of everything—and it deepens our relationships with loved ones. And when we express our gratitude to someone, we get kindness and gratitude in return. In studies led by Dr. Martin Seligman, people have written gratitude letters to someone they’ve never properly thanked, and seen immediate increases in happiness and decreases in depressive symptoms. Bob Emmons, …a leading researcher in the field of gratitude … believes everyone should try practicing gratitude because: “First, the practice of gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%. Second, this is not hard to achieve. A few hours writing a gratitude journal over 3 weeks can create an effect that lasts 6 months if not more. Third, cultivating gratitude brings other health effects, such as longer and better quality sleep time.”

Aspire

Feeling hopeful, having a sense of purpose, being optimistic. Study after study shows that people who have created meaning in their lives are happier and more satisfied with their lives (Steger, Oishi, & Kashdan 2008). You too can feel more upbeat about your future and your potential. And who doesn’t want that? Genuine optimism is a friend magnet. It also makes your goals seem attainable and your challenges easier to overcome. Bottom line: you’ll not only feel more successful, you’ll be more successful. A person’s level of hope is shown to correlate with how well they perform tasks. Using one’s strengths in daily life, studies have found, curbs stress and increases self-esteem and vitality.

Give

Everything about giving is a no-brainer. Obviously, when you give someone something, you make them happier. But what you might not know is that the giver—not the receiver—reaps even more benefits. Numerous studies show that being kind not only makes us feel less stressed, isolated and angry, but it makes us feel considerably happier, more connected with the world, and more open to new experiences. …[R]esearch shows that when we give of ourselves, everything from life satisfaction to self-realization and physical health is significantly affected. Mortality is delayed. Depression is reduced. Well-being and good fortune are increased.

Empathize

Empathy is a powerful word packed with lots of different interpretations. It’s the ability to care about others. It’s the ability to imagine and understand the thoughts, behaviors or ideas of others, including those different from ourselves. If you care about the relationships in your life—and who doesn’t?—learning the skill of empathy has enormous payoffs. When we empathize with people, we become less judgmental, less frustrated, angry or disappointed—and we develop patience. We also solidify the bonds with those closest to us. And when we really listen to the points of view of others, they’re very likely to listen to ours. …[T]he brain is constantly changing in response to environmental factors, and this also extends to compassion for the self.

Harnessing Technology To Promote Happiness

According to Richard J. Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in an interview with Huffington Post, happiness is the formation of brain networks resulting from the regular expression of compassion, generosity, and kindness.

Your brain is changing its physical form and function all the time anyway in response to your behaviors, emotions and thoughts, an ability known as neuroplasticity, whether it’s to your benefit or not.  Davidson cites studies where training for happiness for as little as 2 weeks, for 30 minutes a day produced measurable changes in the participants brains and suggests that technology can be harnessed to promote happiness by technologically capturing mindfulness.

In Davidson’s opinion, technology can play a pivotal role in helping Americans to embrace the idea that well-being is a skill to be learned.

It is possible to interact with technology in a way which is mindful.  I think it’s a complicated calculus and it would be wrong to conclude that technology is the root of all evil.  I think that we should figure out ways to harness technology to use it for good.

There are plenty self-help applications, like The Mindfulness AppHeadspace, Calm.com, available now for increasing mindfulness, well-being, and happiness throughout your day which remind you to take a deep breath, ways to keep calm, or tips on how to meditate.  One study, with the clever name of “Putting the ‘app’ in happiness,” found that smart phone based interventions significantly enhanced the participants’ well-being,

The bottom line is that happiness is a skill that can be learned.  Just a few minutes a day spent on practices shown to increase happiness and well-being, when performed on a regular basis, can re-wire your brain and help you permanently elevate your level of happiness.  Like learning anything new, this does take dedicated work, but it may be the most rewarding work you’ll ever do.

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/katewares/

What’s The Difference Between Feelings And Emotions?

157345088_2e85840cdd_zAlthough the two words are used interchangeably,  there are distinct differences between feelings and emotions.

Ok.  Big deal.

Well, it kind of is a big deal because understanding the difference between the two can help you change unhealthy behaviors and find more happiness and peace in your life.  Feelings and emotions are two sides of the same coin and highly interconnected, but are two very different things.

Emotions are lower level responses occurring in the subcortical regions of the brain, the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortices, creating  biochemical reactions in your body altering your physical state.  They originally helped our species survive by producing quick reactions to threat, reward, and everything in between in their environments.  Emotional reactions are coded in our genes and while they do vary slightly individually and depending on circumstances, are generally universally similar across all humans and even other species.  For example, you smile and your dog wags its tail.

The amygdala play a role in emotional arousal and regulate the release of neurotransmitters essential for memory consolidation which is why emotional memories can be so much stronger and longer-lasting.  Emotions proceed feelings, are physical, and instinctual. Because they are physical, they can be objectively measured by blood flow, brain activity, facial micro-expressions, and body language.

Feelings originate in the neocortical regions of the brain, are mental associations and reactions to emotions, and are subjective being influenced by personal experience, beliefs, and memories.  A feeling is the mental portrayal of what is going on in your body when you have an emotion and is the byproduct of your brain perceiving and assigning meaning to the emotion.   Feelings are the next thing that happens after having an emotion, involve cognitive input, usually subconscious, and cannot be measured precisely.

Antonio D’Amasio, professor of neuroscience at The University of California and author of several books on the subject,  explains it as:

Feelings are mental experiences of body states, which arise as the brain interprets emotions, themselves physical states arising from the body’s responses to external stimuli. (The order of such events is: I am threatened, experience fear, and feel horror.)

Dr.Sarah Mckay, neuroscientist and author of the Your Brain Health blog explains it as:

Emotions play out in the theater of the body. Feelings play out in the theater of the mind.

Feelings are sparked by emotions and colored by the thoughts, memories, and images that have become subconsciously linked with that particular emotion for you.    But it works the other way around too.   For example, just thinking about something threatening can trigger an emotional fear response.  While individual emotions are temporary, the feelings they evoke may persist and grow over a lifetime.  Because emotions cause subconscious feelings which in turn initiate emotions and so on, your life can become a never-ending cycle of painful and confusing emotions which produce negative feelings which cause more negative emotions without you ever really knowing why.

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While basic emotions are instinctual and common to us all, the meanings they take on and the feelings they prompt are individual based on our programming past and present.   Feelings are shaped by a person’s temperament and experiences and vary greatly from person to person and situation to situation.

Your emotions and feelings play a powerful role in how you experience and interact with the world because they are the driving force behind many behaviors, helpful and unhelpful.  It’s possible to react to emotions and the feelings they evoke which are guided by unconscious fear-based perceptions which you may not buy into anymore, yet you’re living your life, making decision and behaving according to these out-dated tendencies.   Living unaware like this almost always leads to problems and unhappiness in the long run.

Putting The Difference To Good Use In Your Life

By understanding the difference between and becoming aware of your emotions and feelings, determining which is which and their root causes, and then inserting conscious thought followed by deliberate action, you can choose how you navigate and experience the world. Being able to do this means responding or reacting which can make the difference in a calm or chaotic life.

I don’t mean to imply that by becoming aware of emotions and feelings and learning to respond rather than react that life will magically become filled with rainbows and butterflies.  I am suggesting that by learning the difference and changing your thinking and behavior, that no matter what is going on around you, you can maintain your balance, your sense of peace, purpose, and hope and move forward toward your goals.

For example in my 18 year marriage, my ex-husband held all the power and control, was emotionally cruel, and uncaring.  In the years following our divorce, he continued the treatment by harassing me legally as he drug me in and out of court for a decade with false allegations of endangering the children, cohabitation, and more.  I learned to fear him and his actions.  It got to the point where if I just saw an email from him in my inbox, my heart would start pounding, my breathing would become rapid and shallow, and I would actually start sweating.  Then, I would soon feel dread, anxious, and worried.  My body was exhibiting the instinctual emotion of fear followed by the feelings I had learned to associate with him.

During the marriage and for years after, I reacted from this fearful place as the overly emotional, angry victim who fought back.  As the years passed after the divorce, I slowly evolved, began to live more mindfully, and learned a different way.  It took years, but I was eventually able to not knee-jerk react to his antics and to consciously and deliberately choose my feelings and behaviors according to who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live my life.  When I mastered this skill, life calmed way down for me, and I managed to find peace and happiness despite the fact that he continued his attacks on me. (See blog:  Bad Things Do Happen To Good People)

While I was in the process of growing, it would frustrate me to no end because my heart would still pound upon just getting a message from him.  I felt like my body was betraying me while, in my head, I knew better and remained calm and confident.  My body still exhibited the emotion, but I inserted conscious thought and instructed myself as to how I wanted to feel and proceed.

In the gaps between emotion, feeling, and acting, we all have the power to change and direct our lives for the better.  Understanding your emotions and managing your feelings with conscious thinking so they don’t hijack your brain followed by conscious action can actually change your brain through neuroplasticity, the scientifically proven ability of your brain to change form and function based on repeated emotion, thought, and behavior, and change your life.

Note – When researching this article I found that there is much differing, contradictory even,  information out there on the subject of emotions and feelings.  My resources for this post primarily come from the work of Antonio D’Amasio and other neuroscience and mental health professionals.  This is one interpretation of feelings and emotions, but is by no means the only “right” one.

Image Source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/34771728@N00/

The Best Brain Top Five Posts

Happy New Year to you!  Here’s a review of the most frequently viewed posts this past year.   Let’s make the coming  year the best one yet!  :)

 

shutterstock_85544854The Best Brain Advice From The Brain Experts

I recently asked a group of some of the most knowledgeable leaders in the brain fitness movement – I mean these guys are at the forefront of educating us on brain health and using our brains to achieve wellness and happiness – what their #1 advice would be to someone about taking care of their bain.

You might expect their answers would include serious diet modifications, major lifestyle changes, or a rigorous mental exercise program, eh?  But no.  I think their responses will surprise you because every single one is something you can easily do today, on your own, without making drastic changes, or spending money.  read more

 

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

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That quote is attributed to the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.  Actually, he said it much more eloquently: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”  It turns out that he was right.

Studies have shown that some trauma survivors report positive changes and enhanced personal development, called post traumatic growth (PTG).  PTG refers to any beneficial change resulting from a major life crisis or traumatic event, but people most commonly experience a positive shift by having a renewed appreciation for life; adopting a new world view with new possibilities for themselves; feeling more personal strength; feeling more satisfied spiritually, and/or their relationships improve.  read more

 

158618832_ded5988507_zWhat’s The Difference Between The Mind And Brain 

We all know what our brain is, right? It is that three pounds of “convoluted mass of gray and white matter” in our heads “serving to control and coordinate mental and physical actions.”

OK.  Now, define the mind. Not as easy, eh?! You may be surprised to find that there is no single, agreed upon definition of the mind.  The psychiatric, mental health and medical professions each have their own functional definitions.  Equally surprising to me is that, by default, a healthy mind is generally thought of as one with the absence of any symptoms of mental illness.  Really?  I would hope it can get better than that. read more

 

14210299167_b437588882_mTrying To Make Everybody Happy But Yourself

Being a people pleaser of the worst kind, I used to try to make others happy and dodge their displeasure at the cost of my own happiness.  With this mentality, I created a world in which I placed my well-being in the hands of others for them to crumple like a piece of paper.

The flip side of people pleasing is resentment and hostility.  Even if people did respond graciously to my efforts, I couldn’t allow myself to genuinely receive their kindness and, instead, stockpiled animosity.  Because I didn’t like myself, I was numb to most consideration that did come my way.  Compliments slid off of me like a Teflon frying pan.  read more    image source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/113217472@N02/

 

5245470532_7751f61af6Free Yourself From Mental Slavery

It is possible to break free, think clearly, and go beyond the mental slavery of your mind, but you first have to realize how it controls your outlook, speech, and behaviors.

Your progress toward a mind that truly serves your highest purpose will always depend on your willingness to observe yourself.  When you do that, you’ll start to see where you are giving your freedom away in bits and pieces to this or that momentary master.  read more

 

Your Fortune Telling Brain

14840675550_db735e2d84_zWhether you’re aware of it or not, your brain is programmed to try to predict the future, and it specializes in pattern detection, threat anticipation, and storytelling.  In other words, it’s your brain’s job to steer you in the direction of what it thinks of as safety, which to your brain means: stability, certainty, and consistency.  So, it processes information from your past experiences, factoring in your current beliefs, looking to connect the dots to recognize anything that might be viewed as a threat, causing you pain, physical or emotional, discomfort, or hardship.

Now, the patterns and forecasts your brain comes up with can have some truth, of course, but what if it can’t find any?  No problem.  It just makes them up.

Your brain has a natural compulsion to connect experiences, symbols, images, and ideas to make sense of its environment to ensure the survival of the species.  It’s only because your brain is so complex that it can do this and without it, our species would have died off long ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s correct.

In all circumstances, your brain craves a reason for a good reason.

In the harsh world of our ancestors, decoding clues quickly and figuring out, for instance whether the rustling in the bushes was a bird or a big cat, could mean the difference between going home to dinner or being dinner.

Similarly, today your brain is still always trying to figure out someone’s intentions, connect what may be random events, and assign causation.   This hardwired tendency has generally served us well, but it also causes a lot of unnecessary pain and anxiety as our brains jump to assumptions, make something out of nothing, and try to find a cause which leads to placing blame.

While this fortune telling skill may make your brain happy, it doesn’t make you happy.  So, what can you do about it?

First of all, become aware of your brain’s fortune telling penchant.  Then, become aware of your thoughts, any assumptions you may make, and causal relationships you give to events. Practicing mindfulness helps slant your brain back in your favor.

One of the four agreements in Don Miguel’s The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (A Toltec Wisdom Book) is:  Don’t make assumptions.  He believes it is one of the most important basics for finding peace and happiness in life.  Remember that when you do make assumptions, you’re seeing things from your subjective frame of reference influenced by your beliefs and brain which may have very little to do with the actual circumstances or other person.  (See: How Your Brain Creates Your Reality)

In the book What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, David DiSalvo writes:

This is no trivial issue.  People spend enormous time and money investing themselves in complex belief systems built on little more than coincidental toothpicks.  The key is to value our brains remarkable capacity for pattern detection while exercising vigilance about how we apply this ability in our lives.

DiSalvo cites our brain’s wanting to find meaning and causation as fueling the hugely popular self-help and new age trends especially books like The Secret and The Celestine Prophecy. Their “think yourself rich” mantras capitalize on your brain’s fortune telling tendency.

While he may be right from a neuroscientific stand point and while I don’t believe it’s anywhere near as easy as “thinking yourself rich,” I know for sure that your intentions, beliefs, and perspectives have everything to do with your happiness and outcomes in life.

In the blog, Believe It To see It, I write:

However, let’s assume for a minute that there is some truth to the concept [of “thinking yourself rich”].  If you are constantly thinking about how you don’t have enough money and all the bills piling up, how do you think these thoughts are going to influence your reality if they do even a little bit?   If you worry unrelentingly about getting cancer and freak out at every little thing, what kind of energy are these thoughts emitting and subjecting your body to?

Conversely, if money is tight, but you focus on your competence and the abundance that’s present in your life otherwise, how’s this going to influence your reality?

Although I don’t see  it doing anyone much good to make a story board with a picture of a convertible BMW and sit around imagining the wind whipping their hair as they drive it, I know that thinking and acting positively make a huge difference towards achieving goals and finding joy.  It has worked wonders in my own life.  My recommendation here would be to practice mindfulness, detachment, and openness.

You have to become aware of your brain’s biases, your beliefs, and consider the alternate routes and possibilities.  Then pair positive thinking with positive doing.

image source:   https://www.flickr.com/photos/126429452@N02/

Why Your Eyes Look Up And Your Tongue Tenses When You Think

beautiful womanWhen thinking, you often just naturally roll your eyes up and your tongue tenses in your mouth. Ever wonder why you do these things?  There are real physical reasons for both.

Go Ahead…Roll Your Eyes

Rolling your eyes up is an automatic response the body makes when trying to access lost or hidden information because doing this causes alpha waves in your brain. The production of alpha waves is physiologically linked to the movement of the eyes. and if you close your eyes and roll them up, you’ll churn out even more alpha waves.

Making alpha waves is a good thing as they are present in a relaxed state of awareness, such as in a day dreaming mind.  An alpha brain state is between waking and sleeping and provides a bridge to the subconscious mind.  Alpha brain waves allow for vivid, lucid imagery and assist in creativity and insight.

Eye rolling has long been used as a meditation technique because it more quickly leads to an altered state of consciousness and the theta brain waves sought after in deep meditation.

For some creative inspiration, a relaxing break in your day, or a meditation tip, you can kick-start your brain’s alpha waves by doing this simple but profound technique.   Anna Wise suggests specific exercises her book Awakening the Mind: A Guide to Harnessing the Power of Your Brainwaves:

  • With your eyes closed, inhale and gently raise your eyes to look toward the center of your forehead.
  • When you exhale, lower your eyes.
  • Again when you inhale, gently raise your eyes behind closed eyelids.
  • And when you exhale, lower your eyes again.
  • Repeat for three or four more breaths.

It’s the movement of the eyes that causes the production of alpha waves.  So, you don’t want to continuously hold your eyes up.  After a few minutes, the alpha producing quality of this action diminishes, and your eye muscles are delicate and easy to tire.

Thinking With Your Tongue

When people think, they have a tendency to talk to themselves.  Even if you are not consciously aware of this subvocalization, your body, more specifically, your tongue is.  It will tense up when you’re thinking, ready for action.

You may experience this as a general stiffness of your  tongue.  It may lift up off of the floor of your mouth, pull at the back of your throat, move as if talking, or you may not feel it consciously at all. If you relax your tongue completely, it’s very difficult to talk to yourself.

Go ahead, I know you have to try it.  :)

Relaxing your tongue makes it much more difficult to think. 

This simple technique can help stop your internal chatter and quiet your mind when you just need a moment of peace or when meditating.  Relaxing your tongue radically reduces the production of thinking beta brain waves and stills the mind.

Relaxing the tongue is such an effective practice that, in her book, Awakening the Mind: A Guide to Harnessing the Power of Your Brainwaves, Anna Wise writes, “If you take nothing else away with you from reading this book, you will have gained enormously from this one practice. “

She offers the following exercises:

  • Close your eyes and allow your tongue to relax.
  • No one will be looking at you, so it’s OK to let your mouth hang open slightly.
  • Just simply let your tongue go, especially the back of your tongue.
  • As you exhale, feel it let go even more.
  • Exaggerate the relaxation.
  • Exaggerate it again.
  • You can almost feel your tongue floating in the cavity of your mouth.
  • You may feel it shorten some – or thicken.
  • Exaggerate the relaxation even more.
  • Focus on only relaxing your tongue – nothing else.

I can’t help but think of a Labrador Retriever about now.  Maybe we could learn something from them?  They always look pretty happy!

Building A Better Brain

idea ,teamwork and business conceptWhen I woke up from the coma  I’d been in for the past week,  I was barely there.  It was as if the light in the attic had a short in the wiring and was dimly flickering on and off.

I couldn’t focus on anything for more than a few seconds, and my brain couldn’t make sense of what it was seeing.  To my surprise, garbled noises and mutilated words spewed from my mouth when I opened it to speak.  What did come out was disturbingly slow, flat, and mangled. The sluggishness of my speech was an indication of how quickly my brain was working – not very fast.

I’d tried to commit suicide by swallowing an assortment of pills, mostly brain drugs, and although I’d survived, my brain was stuck in a drugged stupor.

Over the year after the attempt, I naturally recovered enough to resume living independently, but was still mentally impaired.  I had short-term memory problems, an inability to focus, aphasia, poor people skills, no math aptitude, and little impulse control.  By then, I’d healed enough emotionally to decide that I did want to live, and I promised myself, “I AM NOT living like this!”

So, I started learning everything I could about how to rebuild my brain and tried anything that might possibly help me from supplements and exercise to alternative therapies and brain training.  The more I learned, the better I got, and the better I got, the more I learned.

After hearing about Posit Science’s Brain Fitness Program (BFP – now offered as part of  BrainHQ) from my neurofeedback  practitioner, I purchased the software and began a daily brain training schedule. The BFP had me begin by doing an exercise to assess my brain’s processing speed which involved listening to sounds that went up or down, called sweeps.

I remember how infuriatingly difficult it was for me to tell whether the sound had gone up or down.  I would have to visualize the sweep in my mind.  Did it go down and then back up like a check mark or the other way around?  At first, I couldn’t tell most of the time,  and as I improved, the software adjusted to continually challenge me.

At the end of the program, I did another assessment and was thrilled to find that my processing speed had more than doubled.  Wow!  I’d discovered something that substantially improved my brain that didn’t require expensive doctor’s visits, medication, or therapy.  It was as simple as sitting at the computer and having fun.

After I saw that the brain training was doing something pretty remarkable, I went through the program again and again until I stopped seeing improvement.  Then, I went on to other brain training products.  However, I would run back through the BFP occasionally to give my brain a tune up.

The brain injury also left me with some slight visual processing deficits which completely resolved after doing Posit’s InSight program for memory, vision, and focus (Also now part of BrainHQ).  For instance after walking the dog one day, I threw the black leash down on the ground among pine needles and leaves.  To save my life, my brain couldn’t pick it out of  the myriad of shapes and colors.  My Dad walked right over and spotted it immediately.

Does Brain Training Work?

Like anything new, the effectiveness of  brain training is still the subject of some debate in the scientific community, and you can find studies for and against it. But there is no debate in my mind. It helped me dramatically and was crucial to my recovery.  But the cool thing is, it can work for your brain too.  No brain injury required.  However, my results may have been so significant because my brain had so much room for improvement.

The article Can Brain Training Work by SharpBrains reads:

Evi­dence is grow­ing that brain train­ing can work….Why do we still often hear that brain train­ing does not work? Because of the dif­fer­ent under­stand­ings of what ‘brain train­ing’ and ‘work’ mean. A machine to train abdom­i­nal mus­cles prob­a­bly won’t ‘work’ if what we mea­sure is blood pres­sure. 

Brain training takes advantage of neuroplasticity, the ability of  the brain to change its form and function based on repeated input throughout your life.  Your brain is changing every minute of everyday as a result of what you do, feel, and think anyway.  Brain training exercises harness and direct this process.  Just as you workout to exercise your body, you can exercise your memory, attention, and other cognitive skills to keep them in top shape.

There are a lot of “brain training” and “brain game” companies out there, and they’re not all created equally.  When looking for a brain training product, it’s important that it be based in and backed by science.  I like Posit’s BrainHQ which has over 70 published, peer-reviewed studies in academic journals that show lasting brain benefits.  Posit Science is led by a leading brain plasticity scientist, Dr. Michael Merzenich, with one-fourth of company employees holding PhDs.

The BrainHQ website puts it this way:

Think of it like a tree
Healthy roots able to absorb plentiful nutrients and water make for a stronger trunk, shinier leaves, and more fruit. A BrainHQ brain exercise strengthens the brain from the roots up. This approach is different from many others, which provide compensatory strategies, teach the brain ‘tricks’ to remember, or drill the brain with memory exercises. Many scientific studies demonstrate that such a focus on caring for the fruit while ignoring the roots has only limited benefits.

BrainHQ is an online brain training service with over 30 exercises to  improve memory, attention, brain speed, people skills, intelligence, and navigation. It is based on the original BFP I did which came as a diskette in the mail back then.  (That was only 7 years ago!)  Now, BrainHQ even has specific exercises to better chemobrain, driving, vision, hearing, and sports performance.  The first levels of select exercises are free, and you can use them as often as you like, for as long as you like.  However, you can access the full range of BrainHQ’s exercises and benefits by subscribing.

The benefits of brain training  include:

  • Faster thinking
  • Better memory
  • Get more things done
  • More receptive to try new things
  • Finding words
  • Sharper listening and vision
  • Quicker reflexes
  • Safer driving
  • More self-confidence
  • Improved mood

Brain training can be an important part of a brain healthy lifestyle.  Along with exercise, nutrition, stress reduction, mental challenge,  and social engagement, brain training can help ensure that your brain stays in good working shape as you age.   With over five million Americans age 65 and older currently living with Alzheimer’s and that number is projected to triple by 2050 according to the Alzheimer’s Association, brain health is a top concern to most everyone….or should be.

The Down Side Of Antidepressants

376335443_7f63ecac35_zOver the past two decades, the use of antidepressants has skyrocketed. One in 10 Americans now takes an antidepressant medication, and among women in their 40s and 50s, the figure shoots to one in four.

Numerous reasons are offered for the increase. Depression is common.  Economic struggles and a fast-paced culture have added to everyone’s stress and anxiety. Television ads promote antidepressants.  Most insurance plans cover them.

There may be another possible explanation: the condition is being overdiagnosed and drugs being over prescribed.

A study, published in April 2014 in The Journal Of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, found that nearly two-thirds of a sample of more than 5,000 patients who had been given a diagnosis of depression within the previous 12 months didn’t meet the criteria as described by the psychiatrists’ bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (D.S.M.).

According to the study, the majority of individuals diagnosed with depression, rightly or wrongly, were given medication which was the result of doctors prescribing and patients demanding the drugs.

According to a report published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, antidepressants work best for very severe cases of depression and have little or no benefit over a placebo in less serious cases.  The success rate of antidepressant use is even less outside of the clinical trials because of real world conditions such as co-existing illnesses.

For some, especially the most severely depressed, antidepressants do work.  In fact, they can be life-saving; however for many, antidepressants fall short.  Regardless, they are prescribed in alarming numbers and taken like candy.

These Are Serious Brain Drugs, People!

The truth is that, just as there is a great deal still unknown about how the brain functions, experts aren’t really sure how antidepressants work.  You might have seen depression explained as a “chemical imbalance” or a “serotonin deficiency.” It’s not quite that simple. We really don’t know what causes depression, how it affects the brain, or what’s a cause and what’s a symptom even.

Many researchers believe that the benefits of antidepressants stem from how they affect brain circuits and chemicals, called neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, that carry signals from one nerve cell to another in the brain.  In ways not totally understood, different antidepressants affect how these neurotransmitters behave, but there’s no test to measure chemical levels in a living brain and there’s no way to  know what a low or normal level  is much less how antidepressants alter these.

Newer research suggests other biological contributors to depression, including inflammation, elevated stress hormones, immune system suppression, abnormal activity in certain parts of the brain, nutritional deficiencies, and shrinking brain cells. And these are just some of the possible biological causes of depression.  Social and psychological factors, such as loneliness, lack of exercise, poor diet, and low self-esteem, also play an enormous role in the condition.

Nonetheless you’ve seen it on ads, read it in articles, and maybe even heard it from your doctor: depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain that medication can correct.  People demand the drugs; doctors prescribe them; and insurance pays for it.  So, where’s the problem?

Make no mistake about it.  Whether they work or not, antidepressants are serious drugs affecting the chemistry of the brain.

Antidepressants And Suicide Risk

For some, antidepressant use causes an increase rather than a decrease in depression and an increased risk of suicide. While this is particularly true of children and young adults, anyone taking antidepressants can experience suicidal thoughts and behaviors. The risk of suicide is greatest during the first one to two months of starting the drug.

The newest class of antidepressants, SSRIs – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, have been associated with an even higher suicide risk.  In 2004, the FDA directed manufacturers to add a “black box” warning of  increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior in children and adolescents taking antidepressant medications and emphasizing the need for close monitoring of patients starting on these meds.  In 2007, the FDA  updated the message to include warnings about increased risks in young adults ages 18 to 24 during initial treatment. Monitoring is especially important if this is the person’s first time on depression medication or if the dose has recently been changed.

When I tried to commit suicide, I had already been on one antidepressant for years and was two weeks into taking a new antidepressant in addition to it.

Contrary to press reports, Robin Williams was on drugs at the time of his death – antidepressants. The particular antidepressant he was on carries 10  international drug regulatory warnings about causing suicidal ideation.  A powerful antipsychotic also appeared to have been recently taken by Williams. While toxicology tests were negative for the antipsychotic at the time of his death, a bottle  prescribed to him seven days prior to his suicide was missing 8 pills. The dosage instructions advised taking one pill per day with the side effects listed as psychosis, paranoid reactions, delusions, depersonalization, and suicide.

There Is No “One Size Fits All” Solution

Antidepressants can help treat depression, but come with serious risks. Untreated depression and psychiatric illness carry significant risks too.  Untreated depression is far more likely to result in someone’s suicide than someone who takes an antidepressant.  This is not a simple, black and white issue. There are lots of gray areas.

The one simple, right-thing is the need for people to be informed about depression, its probable contributing factors, and possible treatments BEFORE taking an antidepressant. And when a medication is decided as the way to go,  the person  needs to be monitored by a professional initially and beyond.

In cases of severe depression, medication may be one part of a balanced treatment approach. However,  effective solutions are going to be as varied as the individuals with depression. Some other treatments proven to lessen depression in some cases include talk therapy, exercise, meditation, dietary changes, or other mental health tools which don’t have the side effects and risks of medication. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), where a patient speaks with a licensed mental health counselor, reduces the risk of repeated suicide attempts by 50%.

I did CBT for two years after my attempt, and it was life changing for me.  The therapy helped me to totally alter my way of thinking, emotional reactions, and approach to challenging events.

So while drug treatment can be beneficial and certainly has its merits, it’s by no means the only answer. There are other effective treatment approaches that can be taken in addition to, or instead of, medication. It’s up to each person to inform themselves, evaluate their options, and decide what’s best FOR THEM. 

IMPORTANT! This information is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice. If you are taking an antidepressant, do not change your dosage without consulting your physician.

image source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/pave_m/

Sources for this article:
http://www.webmd.com/depression/features/are-antidepressants-effective
http://www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/antidepressants-depression-medication.htm#how
http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db76.htm
http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/10/20/141544135/look-around-1-in-10-americans-take-antidepressants
http://www.carlatbehavioralhealth.com/free_articles/cognitive-behavioral-therapy-versus-medications-depression-how-do-they-compare-free
http://www.webmd.com/depression/how-different-antidepressants-work
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3313530/
http://www.cchrint.org/2014/11/10/robin-williams-was-on-drugs-at-the-time-of-his-death-antidepressant-drugs/
http://www.drugwatch.com/ssri/suicide/
http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/2004/ucm108363.htm
 

Where’s The Thanks In Thanksgiving?

shutterstock_228542401Although I rarely read magazines of any kind, I was gifted a subscription to one.  Because it had landed on the top of the stack of reading material on the kitchen table, I flipped through it as I slurped my spaghetti squash, spinach, mushroom, zucchini, and tomato sauce (made from prime specimens out of my garden) concoction for dinner.

Now, I do realize that I’m not your average American with my vegetarian, label reading, mostly unprocessed diet,  daily yoga or exercise, meditation, and other alternative lifestyle habits. Some may even label me extreme.  I know my kids are more than tired of hearing my sermons, as they call them.

But, surely I can’t be the only one disgusted by what I saw in the magazine.  And it was one of the better ones!

The main focus of the issue was Thanksgiving recipes.  Although the dishes did sound and look delicious, (No matter how much I will them not to, my taste buds still like the not-good-for-me stuff.) I couldn’t help but cringe at the the thought of how bad for me “Pumpkin Tart with Whipped Cream & Almond Toffee” or “Pepper Bacon Fried Turkey” had to be.

As I flipped through the pages, an insanely attractive woman on what had to be expensive Egyptian cotton sheets promised me that her product would make me “sleep  like a baby.” Who looks like that when they are going to bed?  Certainly not me.  Know what else can help you sleep like a baby?  Physical exercise.  Learning to calm your mind. Relaxation and breathing exercises.

On another page, I learned that an oversized glass and bronze light fixture costing $1260 could make my small dining space feel bigger.  So, that’s what I’ve been missing all this time!  (No matter that I don’t even  have a dining room.)  For that kind of money, I could almost add one, make a big dent in my monthly bills, or make a big difference in the life of someone less fortunate or the life of many animals.  One light fixture?  Really?

Next, Julia Roberts flashes me  her pearly whites and tells me that “Life is beautiful” with the “fragrance of happiness.”  The page has one of those panels oozing the scent.  Just smells like the cosmetics section of a store to me.  I’m willing to bet that the perfume doesn’t have any essential oils known to actually elevate a person’s mood.  Smelling that for too long would put me in a bad mood and give me a headache.

To the magazine’s credit, there was a politically correct ad for a bank with a woman in a wheel chair, an ad for a stevia sweetener, and 4 pages of salad recipes.

The dream life is just that…a dream

Like so much of the media we’re inundated with everywhere we turn, the magazine left me feeling inadequate, not happier than before opening its cover, and promoted unhealthy lifestyle habits.  And here’s the kicker:  these things are pushed on us as the standards that we are  supposed to aspire to and end up comparing ourselves to!

If I didn’t make and serve the right dishes for Thanksgiving dinner in a stunning dining room on a fabulously set table, I wasn’t living up to the standard of the hostest with the mostest.  If I had trouble sleeping, all I had to do was down a magical sleep inducing elixir and problem solved.  According to the  magazine, happiness could be found in a bottle of perfume.

Decades ago in another life, I used to buy into this illusive crap and would spend hours planning and preparing a Thanksgiving meal, decorating my home the “right way,” and trying to look like the women in the magazines.  While there is value in these things, I did them for all the wrong reasons from a sense of lack and needing approval.

Although I did cook some fantastic food, if I do say so myself, created a comfortable home for my family, and kept in shape out of vanity, you know what my efforts ultimately got me? Depressed, unhappy, and exhausted.  Despite my good intentions, I  never even came close to achieving a life like the ones in the magazines and never could because it doesn’t exist!

Now that I know better, I do better.  I cleaned up my eating habits, exercise and do yoga for my health and happiness (OK, maybe a little vanity still), have greatly simplified my lifestyle, and minimized my needs while  finding gratitude for the small joys that I previously took for granted.

All of these practices are proven to increase well being and happiness.  And you know what? They’ve worked for me.  After decades of depression culminating in a suicide attempt, I’m the happiest and mentally healthiest I’ve ever been.

On their deathbed, I’m pretty sure no one ever thought, “I should’ve gone with a neutral in the living room instead of that green.” or “I should’ve fixed the cranberry salad with the pistachios for Thanksgiving that year.”

When put like that, these things seem trivial – laughable even – because they are when looking at the big picture.

Gratitude is good for your health

It’s been shown that unhappy people  make more frequent social comparisons than happy people and a materialistic mindset has been linked to unhappiness and other negative emotions. Ironically, the more a person pursues happiness, the less happy they become.  The Huffington Post article, The Key Ingredients You Need To Be Happier, quotes June Gruber, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder as saying:

If your spotlight is so strongly focused on how you can become happy, that actually backfires, paradoxically, and people report feeling less happy the more they try to pursue it. Don’t focus on the pursuit of happiness; focus on other people, things you’re grateful for and doing things for others as opposed [for] yourself.

Living with gratitude and mindfulness improves health and increases happiness.  For an in-depth look at proven ways gratitude benefits you, visit The 31 Benefits of Gratitude You Didn’t Know About: How Gratitude Can Change Your Life.  For easy ways to work more gratitude into your life , visit 14 Creative Ways To Practice Gratitude.

I love this blog  on the Momastery website, Give Me Gratitude Or Give Me Debt.

Seems to me that Thanksgiving – and everyday for that matter – should be about appreciating the good that’s present in our lives, not about the perfect dish, dining room, or light fixture.  I can guarantee you that we’d all be happier and less stressed if we adopted this philosophy.

So, this Thanksgiving instead of the holiday being a four-day weekend food-fest that marks the kickoff to the frenzied holiday shopping season, treat your brain, body, and mind with kindness and respect and find gratitude and joy in the details of the life that you have right now: family, friends, a good laugh, sunshine, a walk in the woods, the companionship of a furry friend – and maybe even the same old light fixture in the dining room.

Happy Thanksgiving to you.

How Your Brain Creates Your Reality

2444155973_3a25ca4b72_zAt the most basic level, your world is constructed by your brain. Making sense of the world and its happenings is nothing more than our individual brains’ interpretation of the signals it receives as we go about our days interacting with our environments.

Color is nothing more than cone cells in your retina being stimulated by light waves within a certain range of the spectrum. Because our brains are different, our perceptions of color are different. The sky is blue, right? No question. However, your blue is different from my blue. Maybe even very different. Neither is right or wrong. Both are blue. Your blue is just as blue to you as my blue is to me. Both are merely our individual brains making sense of the same signals.

Each of us experience the world uniquely as our brains give meaning to events and stimuli encountered determined by our physical brain function, memories, beliefs, and attitudes about ourselves, others, and the world shaped by family, religion, school, culture, and life experiences past and present. These influences are typically below conscious awareness and determine how a person responds to the world, interacts in relationships, and thinks of and talks to themselves.

So, Mom and Dad, your sixth grade teacher, your best friend, and your media intake help paint your picture of reality.

Even your memory is subjective and colored by these subconscious shadows. Research has confirmed that our brains do not store everything verbatim like a computer and retrieve exact replicas. Our memories are re-creations. Your brain rebuilds a memory from a few key features and fills in the missing details based on associations and implicit and explicit knowledge.

Your brain just makes it up! A person has no way of knowing what is recalled verbatim and what is constructed.

In his book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer writes “Our memories are not like fiction. They are fiction.” He compares memories to “a Xerox of a Xerox of a mimeograph of the original photograph.”

In your brain, a memory is made up of slight shifts in certain synapses firing in a specific sequence. Every time you recall a memory, the brain reconsolidates this process incorporating and filtering the thought through who you are and what you know at the time of remembering.

Memory is an active and ongoing process, and according to Lehrer, “A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it. The more you remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes.”

Traditionally, science has viewed memories similar to unchanging words on the pages of a book on a shelf gathering dust. Not true. Experiments done at NYU in 2000 proved this false and demonstrated that the act of remembering actually changes the brain which might prove to be useful in treating PTSD and drug addictions.

Because of our differing brains, each one of us really does live in our own little world. Reality depends on what actually happens (objective) and how our brains make sense of what happens (subjective). Although there are many commonalities across our realities, it cannot be assumed that anything is the same for everyone or even remotely close to it.

Kind of freaky, right?  But, wait! Herein lies the superpower we all have. By purposefully effecting the variables determining your brain’s interpretation of the world around you, you can change your brain and life for the better.

The key is to become conscious of and take control of your thoughts and mind. Remember that your brain factors in subconscious beliefs and attitudes about yourself, others, and the world when assigning meaning to incoming stimuli and in this way, creates your reality. By becoming aware of these influences and consciously choosing which ones you buy into, allow to have impact, and intentionally inserting new influences, you can change your past and future and physically alter your brain.

Well, you can’t literally change the past, of course. By modifying your perspective and feelings about about prior events, you differ their significance in your present life which can, in turn, allows you to modify your thoughts, behaviors, and future.

Because of neuroplasticity, a scientific truth of the last decade, your repeated thoughts, feelings, and behaviors actually shape your physical brain and its functioning. By changing your mindset, you CAN change your brain and reality.

Image source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/pargon/

Take Care Of Your Brain, And It Will Take Care Of You

shutterstock_44186410 (1)Your brain is involved in everything you do – every thought, word, action, behavior, and feeling – literally everything.  Most of us know less about the command center in our heads, with its amazing abilities surpassing the most sophisticated computer, than we do our smartphones.

Because your brain effects all aspects of your life from health and happiness to relationships and your ability to function in the world, it makes sense to learn about and take care of it. With over five million Americans age 65 and older currently living with Alzheimer’s disease and that number projected to triple by 2050, brain health is of major concern to most everyone.  (See Your Brain’s Future: The Good And Bad News)

There’s a lot of misinformation out there and persistent brain myths that just won’t go away.  (See Busting Brain Myths) Your brain doesn’t come with an owner’s manual. So, you have to educate yourself about what is arguably the most important organ in your body.

Take care of your brain, and it will take care of you.

The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age,  by Alvaro Fernandez, Elkhonon Goldberg PhD, and Pascale Michelon PhD, separates “hype from hope in the brain health arena” by providing the latest science-based information to tell you how to optimize your brain health and function across your lifespan. Below are some brain fitness facts the authors share:

  Brain Facts

  • There is not only one “It ” in “Use it or lose it.”  The brain is composed of a number of specialized units.  Our life and productivity depend on a variety of brain functions, not just one.
  • Genes do not determine the fate of our brains.  Lifelong neuroplasticity allows our lifestyles and actions to play a meaningful role in how our brains physically evolve, especially given longer life expectancy.
  • Aging does not mean automatic decline.  There is nothing inherently fixed in the precise trajectory of how our brain functions evolve as we age.
  • We will not have a Magic Pill or General Solution to solve all our cognitive challenges anytime soon.  A multi-pronged approach is recommended, centered around nutrition, stress management, and both physical and mental exercise.

 Physical Exercise Facts

  • Physical exercise improves learning and other brain functions through increased brain volume, blood supply and growth hormone levels in the body.
  • Of all the types of physical exercise, cardiovascular exercise that gets the heart beating – from walking to skiing, tennis and basketball –  has been shown to have the greatest effect.
  • Aerobic exercise for at least thirty to sixty minutes per day, three days a week, seems to be the best regimen.

(For more information on physical exercise and brain health, see The Fountain Of Youth For Brain And Body)

 Brain and Nutrition Facts

  • The brain needs a lot of energy:  It extracts approximately 50% of the oxygen and 10% of the glucose from arterial blood.
  • Intake of Omega-3 fatty acids is associated with decreased risk of cognitive decline.
  • Intake of vegetables (and thus antioxidants) is associated with decreased risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
  • Tobacco use increases risks of cognitive decline and dementia.
  • Moderate doses of caffeine can increase alertness but there is no clear sustained lifetime benefit.
  • Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption lowers the risk of dementia.

(For more information on nutrition and brain health, see Brain Food, Brain Food For Better Memory, and Feed Your Brain)

Mental Challenge Facts

  • Mental Stimulation strengthens the connections  between neurons (synapses), thus improving neuron survival and cognitive functioning.
  • Mental stimulation also helps build cognitive reserve, helping the brain be better protected against potential pathology.
  • Reading, writing, playing board or card games, doing crossword and other puzzles, and participating in organized group discussions can be cognitively challenging activities.
  • The only leisure activity that has been associated with reduced cognitive function is watching television.

(For more information on challenging your brain, see Mental Gymnastics)

 Brain and Social\Engagement Facts

  • Higher social engagement is associated with higher cognitive functioning and reduced risks of cognitive decline.
  • Volunteering helps lower mortality and depression rates, and slows down the decline in physical health and cognitive function.
  • Larger social network sizes are associated with better cognitive function.

(For more information on the brain benefits of socializing, see Beauty Begins In The Brian Part I)

 Brain and Stress Facts

  • Chronic stress reduces and can even inhibit neurogenesis (the birth of new brain cells).
  • Memory and general mental flexibility are impaired by chronic stress.

(For more information on the effects of stress on your brain, see Beauty Begins In The Brian Part III)

 Brain Training Facts

  • Medication is not the only hope or even main hope for cognitive enhancement.  Non-invasive interventions can have comparable and more durable effects, side-effect free.
  • Not all brain activities or exercises are equal.  Varied and targeted exercises are the necessary ingredients in brain training so that a wide range of brain functions can be stimulated.
  • “Brain age” is a fiction: No two individuals have the same brain or cognitive functioning.  Consequently brain training cannot be said to roll back “brain age” by 10, 20, or 30 years.
  • Brain training is more effortful, and its effects are more specific, compared to a challenging leisure activity.

(For more information on brain training, see You’re Not Stuck With The Brain You Were Born With)

summit2014_sharpbrains_hdr (1)

On October 28- 30, the Sharp­Brains will host The 2014 SharpBrains Vir­tual Sum­mit fea­turing over 40 of the world’s top sci­en­tists, inno­va­tors and prac­ti­tion­ers work­ing on evidence-based and scal­able ways to define, mea­sure and pro­mote brain fit­ness. The Sum­mit, now in its fifth year, pro­vides a vibrant and con­ve­nient forum to dis­cuss the lat­est in con­sumer and patient needs, cog­ni­tive and brain sci­ence, dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies, videogames, men­tal health, human cap­i­tal, life­long learn­ing, and senior services.  (Use code sharpbrain2014 for 10% off)