Upward spiral

 I wish to start this with a few personal thoughts, so bear with me. While the concepts and my interpretations are good (or so I think) - and I have enjoyed reviewing what was previously learned - I am also aware that every point made may not work for everyone (including myself). Depression is a mean taskmaster which does not play nice.

Disclaimer: this blog post is taken from a slide presentation I did a few years ago about what was learned from reading a book (title to come, don't worry). Please note that I will only review the book's overall content - and not go into details. What this means is that I left out the medical and brain anatomy names (words such as medial, ventromedial, and lateral prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and striatums), also brain/body processing jargon found throughout the book (which does not make it an easy read).

The author’s concept is that - just as there is a downward spiral, there can also be an upward spiral. Sandwiched among lots of medical gobbledygook terminology - this book talks about happiness from the viewpoint of neuroscientists. They study the pinkish grey wrinkled blob in your head, the brain, and have some insights and offer answers. The book’s author, a neuroscience researcher, writes about 4 things which will make you happier.

Now on to the book review...

The Upward Spiral - using neuroscience to reverse course, one small change at a time - Author: Alex Korb, PhD

Let’s talk about the brain’s “reward center”. Sometimes it does not feel like your brain wants you to be happy - you may feel guilty or shameful. Why?

Believe it or not - guilt and shame both activate the brain’s “reward center”.

Do you worry a lot? Why?

In the short term, worrying makes your brain feel a little better - at least you’re doing something about your problems - you are worrying about them.

In the end guilt, shame, and worry are horrible long-term solutions! This takes us to the first of those 4 things you can do. The book’s author says to ask yourself a question…

1) What am I grateful for? 

This is the most important question to ask when you feel down. That’s dope!

Yeah, gratitude is awesome… but does it really affect your brain? Do you know what the antidepressant drug, Wellbutrin does in your brain? It boosts the neurotransmitter dopamine. So does gratitude! Do you know what the antidepressant drug, Prozac does in your brain? It boosts the neurotransmitter serotonin. So does gratitude!

Sometimes life hits you in the gut and you may feel there is nothing to be grateful for. Guess what? It doesn’t matter… it’s the searching that counts!

There’s an asymmetric response to positive and negative which are rooted in the brain’s emotion processing. What this means is: to be happy we need to receive a high ratio of positive to negative feedback. An average ratio is 3 to 1 (3 wins for every loss). But not everyone is the same - some may need less, others much more.

But what happens when bad feelings and thoughts completely overtake you? When you’re down in the dumps and don’t know how to deal with it? There’s an easy answer to this, the second of the 4 things you can do is…

2) Label negative feelings. 

Give the awfulness a name like sad, anxious, angry. Describing an emotion in just a word or two can help reduce the emotion. In the research they used an fMRI (which is a fancy acronym for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). This uses technology to measure brain activity by detecting associated blood flow. Subjects were shown photos of people with emotional facial expressions. When they were asked to name the emotion, by consciously acknowledging the emotion it reduced the impact. Hopefully you are not labeling your current emotional state as… bored (ha ha).

Maybe you don’t feel awful - but there are probably things in your life causing you some stress. The 3rd thing from this book is a simple way to beat the stress.

3) Make decisions to do things you enjoy.

Ever make a decision, and then your brain finally feels at rest? Making decisions reduces worry and anxiety - it also helps solve problems. But making a decision can sometimes be hard. What kind of decisions should you make?

Make a “good enough” decision! Don’t stress about making the "best decision" - being a perfectionist can just add to your stress! Trying to be perfect can overwhelm your brain - making you feel out of control. But here’s the really fascinating thing… making a decision also boosts your pleasure levels!

Want proof? Okay, let’s talk about cocaine.

Wait... WHAT??

In part of the study they gave two rats injections of cocaine. Rat A had to pull the lever first. Rat B didn’t have to do anything. Any difference? Rat A received a bigger boost of dopamine.

What’s the lesson here? The next time you buy cocaine… whoops, that is not the lesson!! The actual lesson is… when you make a decision and achieve it - you feel better than when good stuff just happens by chance.

If you do something because you feel that you have to, or that you should, that is not really a voluntary decision. You brain does not get the pleasure boost - it just feels stress. We don’t just choose the things we like - we also need to like the things we choose.

The fourth item is something so simple you cannot forget or skip it!!

4) Touch people!

No! Not indiscriminate touching (that could get you into police trouble). But we all need to feel love and acceptance from others. When we don’t it’s painful - not “awkward” or “disappointing” - but actually physically/mentally painful.

They did a study where people played a ball-tossing video game. There were no actual other players, it was all done by the computer program - but the subjects were told the characters were controlled by real people. So what happened when the “other players” stopped playing nice and did not share the ball with the subject? Their brains responded the same way as if they experienced physical pain. Rejection doesn’t just hurt like when you have a broken heart - your brain feels it like a broken leg.

Relationships are important to the brain’s feeling of happiness. Want to take that to the next level? Touch people! Touching has incredible power, and touching someone you love actually reduces pain. When studies were done with married couples, the stronger the marriage, the more powerful the effect.

So hug someone - today! Research shows receiving five hugs a day for four weeks increases happiness big time! Don’t worry if there is no one in your life to hug - the answer to that is easy... go get a massage!!

Finally spend time with other people, and give hugs - sorry but texting is not enough. When people are in a stressful situation, and visit or talk with loved ones (even on the phone), they feel better. What about when they just texted? Their bodies responded like they had no support at all.

Here’s a round-up of the 4 things to do which can help...

1) Ask yourself, "What am I grateful for?"

No answers? Doesn't matter, just searching helps

2) Label negative emotions

Give it a name and your brain isn’t bothered by it

3) Decide

Go for "good enough" instead of "best decision ever"

4) Hugs, hugs, hugs

Don’t text - instead touch (talk or some type of physical contact)

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