Stress is at the root of so many physical and mental health struggles Americans deal with; and comes at a major cost to not only ourselves, but our families, communities, jobs, the health care system, and beyond.
From the obvious of anxiety, depression, and PTSD – to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and even neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and dementia; the reduction or elimination of psychological stressors in our life can pay huge dividends both personally and financially.
I had the great pleasure recently of interviewing a well-known mindfulness expert who has been featured on Dr. Oz and other popular programs. Cory Muscara shared with me, and my listeners, a simple, yet highly effective technique to break the cycle of damaging stress responses in just a few short breaths.
How it’s done
- Hold your hand in front of you, palm side up, with elbow bent at 90°
- Take the index (pointer) finger of the opposite hand and place it in the palm facing you just in front of the wrist crease
- As you begin to inhale slowly and deeply, slide your finger along the course of your thumb to the tip
- Follow the course of the thumb with your finger back to the wrist as you slowly exhale
- Proceed as such for the pointer, middle, ring, and pinky fingers for a total of 5 breaths
- Initially perform with eyes open, then try with eyes closed
What it does
Pausing to breath like this, while bringing your attention to the tactile sensation of your finger sliding on your hand, creates a few moments of mindfulness that can interrupt most any stressor and get your brain back on track. This technique creates a parasympathetic (relaxation) response that will lower your heart rate, normalize breathing patterns, and simply make you feel better!
Practice often and you will find that even thinking about it will evoke the same responses.
To listen to the full podcast with Cory, please visit www.TrainYourBrainPodcast.com – Episode #339.
For other posts on stress and stress management, click here.
A (Sometimes) Long and Winding Road
Recovery from any type of addiction can be a monumental task. Even for those ready to take it on, the road can be a painful one loaded with many obstacles. Although, one that will ultimately pay off with better health, better relationships, and overall better quality of life.
Smooth the Way to Your Independence
So, what can be done to ease the pain of transition from a life of dependence to one of self-control and freedom?
While not a ‘one-size-fits-all’, the following 3 tips are proven strategies that can help soften the blows the various phases of recovery throw at you. And, ultimately, lead you to a life of positive practices that will replace the conditions and substances you seek to avoid.
All of these common-knowledge practices seek to establish harmony in and between the brain and the body. When the ‘mind-body’ connections are performing at their best, you will have the greatest chance at overcoming your struggles (whether recent or lifelong).
Addiction Recovery Tips
- Meditate Daily – Research continues to show how sitting quietly for periods of time with a focus on ‘present moment’ sensations like breathing can allow for greater focus, clarity of thought, and self-regulation. Start at 5 minutes and work to 20 minutes daily.
- Exercise Daily – One of the best ways to control and improve functions of our brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) is to do vigorous exercise daily. Get your heart rate up, do resistive and high intensity activities, and, most importantly, move daily!
- Eat Smart – Eat whole foods, eliminate refined and processed foods (i.e. anything in a bag, box, or can), increase healthy fat and protein intake, limit sugar intake (sugar can be as addictive as heroin or cocaine), and stay well hydrated (that means water).
Stay tuned for Part II of II where we will go over the next 3 addiction recovery tips.
The Current Situation – Great Cause for Alarm!
There has been a distinct disconnect between the “mind” and “brain” sciences when it comes to addiction, and what is looked at more and more as being at the root of addiction and substance use – learning and behavioral disorders. In her ground-breaking book, Unbroken Brain: A revolutionary new way of understanding addiction, Maia Szalavitz states:
“Our brains are embodied – much of the problem with the debate over addiction and psychiatry more generally is a refusal to accept this and our ongoing need to see “physical”, “neurological”, and “psychological” as completely distinct.”
There is a fundamental flaw with this outdated thinking, a flaw that has in part led to skyrocketing heroin usage (especially among those ages 18-25) and overdose rates that have quadrupled since 2010. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, illicit drugs cost the US nearly $200 billion annually, just behind alcohol and tobacco use ($224 and $295 billion, respectively). Not to mention, the obvious cost of lives lost, fractured relationships, and communities being torn apart.
Clearly, things are getting worse, not better. Substance use is becoming harder than ever to treat given the broad scope of substances being used, increasing potency levels, rates of consumption, varied methods of delivery, decreasing age of usage, and the numerous learning and behavioral issues those with addiction have prior to onset that have not been appropriately treated (or, treated with medications that may lead to, or complicate, the addiction itself).
At the Root of the Problem
ADHD, anxiety, OCD, ODD, anxiety, depression, sensory processing disorders, schizophrenia, and PTSD are just some of the many learning, behavioral, and mental health disorders that cause people to seek balance in their life through use of chemical substances. The long-held belief that addiction is genetic and an inevitable consequence for the affected, or that substance users are damaged and incapable of recovery, is beginning to dissolve. So are many of the tough love and shaming techniques that have been the norm across the addictions treatment arena for well over half a century.
Time for a Paradigm Shift
To understand that learning dictates behavior, and that impaired learning will lead to behavioral patterns that will set the stage for addiction, is the first step in effectively dealing with substance use disorders. Most learning and behavioral challenges have physical and cognitive manifestations that can be measured (i.e. impaired eye movements, balance, timing, attention, memory, etc.), whether prior to or during the addiction recovery process.
Once these impairments are measured, there are a host of research-backed Brain Training modalities that can be implemented by qualified professionals for correction of deficient function. This will lead to more effective remediation of the learning or behavioral disorder, and, ultimately, the seeking of normalcy through chemical dependence that is hallmark with substance use disorders.
Brain Training for Addiction and Substance Use Disorders
- Brainwave Optimization – Better known as neurofeedback (NFB), neurobiofeedback, or neurotherapy. NFB, while available since the 1950s, has gained significant popularity in the recovery arena as of late. Through sophisticated computer analysis, one is trained to self-regulate brainwave activity by hearing sounds or other reinforcements that signal a more desirable or efficient state of function within the brain has been obtained.
- Training of Brain Timing – Temporal processing is the rate at which sounds can be processed in the brain. When one is unable to process at sufficient and accurate rates, learning will be impaired and behavior impacted. Programs like the Interactive Metronome® have been shown to improve learning capacity, attention and focus, and decrease destructive impulsive and repetitive behaviors.
- Training of Balance – The balance (vestibular) system, which is made up of structures in the inner ear and is directly influenced by systems of vision, posture, and hearing, is directly plugged into our frontal brain. This more “human” part of our brain has a profound influence on learning and behavior and is positively impacted by improvements in balance and coordination.
- Training of Eye Movements – Fixating on a target in your visual field, moving your eyes slow or fast, watching an object move closer or further away, and certain inborn eye reflexes help to make us uniquely human. Many of the control centers of these functions live in our frontal brain. Correction of certain faults in eye movements can lead to improved cognitive abilities.
- Neurological Rehabilitation – While training of balance and eye movements fall into this category, they have been given separate explanation given their heavy influence on learning and behavior. Complex motor skills, whole body vibration, electrical stimulation, strength and conditioning, smell and sound therapies, and so much more impact the brain in a positive way to minimize the effects of learning and behavioral issues on one’s life.
- Metabolic Therapies – To address brain function without paying mind to the numerous nutritional and metabolic factors that go into a properly functioning brain is akin to throwing a bunch of random ingredients together and hoping it turns out like your favorite dish. Blood sugar, stress hormones, neurotransmitters, micronutrients, food allergies, among countless other factors, are just a sampling of what can be evaluated, and in many cases corrected, via dietary shifts and nutraceutical intervention.
A New Era for Addiction and Substance Use Disorders
While mental health therapies have been, and always will be, an integral component of a sound addiction recovery strategy; more is needed. It is abundantly clear that what is in fact needed are scientific, evidence-based strategies to address the underlying learning and behavioral issues that are the hallmark of any addiction profile. What is needed is Brain Training… To measure and manage numerous ‘biomarkers’ of brain function with sophisticated diagnostic testing, and effect positive change in these markers through progressive neurological training modalities. This, in concert with the more traditional mental health options, is what holds the greatest hope for recovery in those battling addiction and substance use disorders!
Addiction or, more appropriately, substance use disorder (SUD) is defined as one’s recurrent use of drugs and/or alcohol leading to significant clinical and functional impairment. This impairment may be reflected in the areas of physical and mental health, employment, school, relationships, finances, and more.
One thing is for certain – the vast majority of those struggling with SUD also have underlying challenges with learning and behavior, and may have one or more mental health disorders. While the reasons for these underlying challenges are likely as many as the number of challenges themselves, this shifting of perspective away from the genetic view of addiction offers great hope for those seeking progressive therapies that, in many cases, can have a profound impact on the underlying disorders and the problem behaviors and outcomes associated with SUD.
Newer thinking also dictates that addictive tendencies can be due to factors such as concussion and traumatic brain injury, and metabolic imbalances caused by food allergies, environmental toxicities, nutrient deficiencies, and the like. And let’s not forget stress…
In order for progressive brain-based modalities to be delivered effectively, which provide a tremendous complement to standard mental health strategies implemented during both in-patient and out-patient programs alike, one needs to understand that SUD is not a disease as we would normally think of one (e.g. cancer, Parkinson’s, etc.), and it is not a moral failing or a character flaw on the part of the user. SUD can affect anyone… of any class, race, gender, and ethnicity.
SUD is in fact a ‘brain problem’ that, in many respects, can be measured and needs to be approached as such for maximum gains. Let us consider 5 areas of measurement related to brain function that reveal a great deal about learning, behavior, and mental health status; and, more importantly, let us realize that something can be done to improve upon function in any or all of these areas:
- Brainwave Activity (EEG) – In our brain we have networks related to attention, vision, sensations, relaxation, emotions, vital functions, and more. How much delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma brainwave activity we have under different circumstances dictates how well various parts of these networks perform. Quantitative EEG (qEEG) is gaining popularity in select mental health circles as an extremely viable diagnostic tool that can enable us to peer into the inner workings of the brain and these brain networks that make us uniquely human.
- Cognitive Testing – Executive function, cognitive flexibility, simple and complex attention, and processing speed are just a few of the tests of higher cognitive function that can reveal a great deal about how one’s brain interacts with its environment. They are also excellent diagnostic tools for monitoring progress when treating the various subsets of learning and behavioral issues underlying SUD.
- Metabolic Function – Blood sugar, amino acids, urine organic acids, food antibodies, heavy metals, environmental toxins, hormones, neurotransmitters, vital nutrients, genetic variants, and so much more are a mix of both classic and progressive ‘biomarkers’ of brain function. How our bodies handle fuel, utilize nutrients, process hormones, and react to toxins in our environments determines how well our brains handle what is presented to them on a moment to moment basis.
- Eye Movements – Generally ignored in the mental health arena from a diagnostic perspective, eye movements of all types are directly related to the brain regions that control them. From primitive abilities of finding visual targets that involve parts of the brainstem and emotional centers like the amygdala (fear response), to fast eye movements controlled by our higher functioning frontal lobes; eye movements deliver a wealth of information related to SUD and its underlying causes. Videonystagmography (VNG) is one type of diagnostic tool used to measure these types of functions.
- Balance and Coordination – More and more, addiction based programs are implementing movement based activities such as Tai Chi and yoga. From both balance and relaxation standpoints, there is good reason to do so. Our sense of self is largely influenced by our ability to physically interact with our environment. When one has severe balance or coordination impairment, as is seen in conditions like schizophrenia, mental function and behavior will likely be impaired. Measurement tools such as dynamic posturography and standard tests of movement and coordination can be utilized to measure these abilities.
The inherent beauty of any of these tools, that can reveal a wealth of information about cognitive, behavioral, and mental functions, is that they can in turn be utilized to track progress when one enters into a collaborative treatment program with their mental health specialists and qualified functional neurologist. The blending of the ‘brain’ and the ‘mind’ sciences is long overdue and is proving to be clinically effective with regard to its impact on addiction and SUD, and the underlying disorders that are being shown with greater clarity to be the root cause of them.
Testosterone, estrogen, dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline, oxytocin and vasopressin…
These brain chemicals and hormones have everything to do with all phases of love, from attraction or ‘love at first sight’ to long-term relationships and attachment.
The phase of superficial attraction vs. the deeper bonding you may be in dictates what chemicals will be present and in what amounts. Also, factors such as gender and overall physical and mental health play a role in what stages of love one is (or isn’t) in based on the nature and quantity of chemicals produced.
In general, earlier stages of attraction are dominated by adrenaline and dopamine; which account for behavioral traits of being clumsy and tongue tied due to stress responses encountering your love interest with the former, and having increased focus and energy with the latter. Serotonin is what can get you into trouble as this is what causes you to focus on your attraction more than anything else – very similar to the decrease in serotonin levels observed in those with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
The latter stages of attachment and deeper bonding are orchestrated primarily by oxytocin and vasopressin; although other factors are present at all stages in varying amounts, depending on level of attachment and continued attraction. Oxytocin has been called the “cuddle hormone” and is an integral part of bonding between couples, mother and child, and, interestingly enough, dogs and their humans. (our four-legged friends produce this when they see their favorite person). Vasopressin has been shown to enhance interpersonal relationships through positive communication.
So, while we don’t want to dissect this most natural of emotions too much during the Valentine’s Day season, a basic understanding of the brain chemicals discussed and the many influences upon them (e.g. diet, exercise, stress, sleep, environmental factors, brain injury, mental health disorders, etc.) is in order for you to better understand how you view the world and how it views you through the “eyes of love”.
Every breath you take, every move you make (enter the distinct guitar sounds of The Police’s wildly popular 1983 hit) is controlled by your brain’s innate timing system. Whether physical movements or production of thoughts, your brain’s ability to time these magical feats appropriately is the difference between unnoticed normal everyday functioning and disastrous consequences.
Most can relate to the impact timing has on the way we move. We’ve all seen someone with Parkinson’s disease or brain injury, or simply decline in function with aging, struggle with what most of us take for granted (i.e. walking, tying shoes, speaking, etc.). Our ability to effortlessly time movement is taken for granted… Until that ability is lost.
On the other hand, it might be a bit more difficult for one to consider that the disorganized thoughts of those with schizophrenia or similar conditions has anything to do with timing. This is in fact a growing area of research where disorganized or uncoordinated thoughts are being related to uncoordinated motor activity such as walking and speech. When movements are improved through various types of physical training, individuals experience more efficient thought processing and communication of these thoughts. Through this lens it is quite easy to see how our thoughts, and even emotions, can be impaired by improper mental timing.
Can I improve my brain’s timing???
Musicians, dancers and other athletes would tell you… Absolutely! Simply involving yourself in activities that revolve around a regular beat or rhythm (cadence) will help to strengthen your mental timing ability. The obvious here would include activities such as music and dance.
But what if there are problems with my brain???
Previously mentioned brain injury and Parkinson’s disease would be natural barriers to improving timing in the brain. Studies also show that key physical abilities (bio-markers) such as balance and eye movements are impaired in those experiencing cognitive decline with aging. Challenges in these and other abilities will undoubtedly have an impact on our ability to improve timing. Addressing the physical and metabolic aspects of these conditions would be the logical first step in improving mental timing in any situation. For those with severe impairment, and for those looking to be the best they can be, there are other options.
Can my mental timing be measured and improved???
Fortunately, yes! With sophisticated measurement and training tools such as the Interactive Metronome, those with neurological conditions and peak performers alike can have their brain’s timing measured quite accurately. This particular program utilizes auditory (sound) cues to first measure and then train one’s mental timing capacities. Through matching body movements to a standardized metronome beat, the computer software can determine (down to the millisecond) how accurately one is timing. Numerous aspects of timing can be measured including early and late timing tendencies, left vs. right side of body differences, upper vs. lower body timing differences, consistency in timing from one beat to the next, and much more. Armed with this information, experienced clinicians such as those at APEX Brain Centers in Asheville, NC can design and deliver specific Brain Training programs to repair the deficient timing issues to the highest degree possible.
What does this all mean for me???
With intact and efficient mental timing our risk of injury due to falling decreases… Thought processing and problem solving become more efficient… Attention and focus get sharper… Memory formation and retrieval becomes much easier… Certain unwanted behavioral traits improve… Academics and test taking require less effort and produce less anxiety… Our limits of physical performance can skyrocket…
I believe you get the point. There are few aspects of humanism that are not positively impacted by an improvement in our brain’s innate timing abilities. Go exercise that rhythm – your brain will thank you!
Everyone that signs up for a 5 or more day full intensive training program at APEX Brain Centers in Asheville, NC, that is! (Unique offer details below).
While technology and all that come with it can cause significant impairment for many, it can also be used to provide an extreme advantage when it comes to Training your Brain. The ever-growing list of hi-tech applications (apps) for mobile devices and tablets is astounding, many of which hold significant promise for re-training brain dysfunction, and for improving upon already strong performance in those looking to reach their peak potential. As with anything, there is a downside – apps used improperly and not under expert guidance can, in some cases, be counter-productive, and even harmful!
The following are the main areas of apps for brain performance:
- Memory and Attention: We have all heard of that brain training program that begins with ‘L’ that most folks pronounce incorrectly! While this and many other similar apps are quite useful and largely without side-effects, they may not be providing all they claim in the absence of a comprehensive brain health program.
- Eye movements: The secret is out, eye movements are directly related to our higher, more human, cognitive brain functions. A simple Google search of ‘eye movements and cognition’ should get you rolling there! The challenge is that these sensitive windows into higher brain function can very easily be trained incorrectly, leading to further dysfunction or significantly limiting peak performance. User beware: Expert direction is essential with these type of apps!
- Neurofeedback/Biofeedback: By far the newest and most concerning area of mobile brain training, app stores are piling up with programs that will help you regulate your brainwaves, heart rate, muscle tension, and more. Common sense should let you know that training your brainwaves in the absence of higher education in neurophysiology and neuroplasticity might not be a very wise choice. Once again, user beware!
Although just a sampling of what’s available in the various app stores in the cyber world, the take home message here is that ANY effort in training your brain should be directed by a qualified health care provider trained in these areas of brain performance for maximum benefit and decreased probability of side-effects.
Enter the iPad…
All clients entering into a 5 or more day full intensive training program at APEX Brain Centers in Asheville, NC through May 31, 2015 will receive a FREE iPad Mini with Retina Display (or comparable device) as a valuable aid to your brain training program, and to help you continue progress once discharged. All you would need to do is have an iTunes account to purchase any needed applications (typically less than $35.00), and the desire to make your brain the best possible brain it can be.
This special offer is not to be combined with any offers and you must reference this post at the time of consultation or admission for validation purposes. Let us help you harness the power of technology and put you in the driver’s seat on your journey to Building a Better Brain!
Obsessions (repetitive thoughts) and compulsions (repetitive behaviors) that significantly interfere with one’s daily activities affect over 2 million American adults diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, according to the National Institutes for Mental Health (NIMH). Millions more people are affected by these symptoms than that number suggests, because obsessions and compulsions are quite often associated with other conditions including eating disorders, tic disorders (i.e. Tourette Syndrome), addictions, and phobias.
It is extremely difficult for a brain that is “stuck” on a certain behavior to be productive in any way, shape or form. Although OCD traits are sometimes seen in “peak performers” such as high level athletes and CEOs, there is a point where the behaviors become the only focus of the affected individual. This, as you could well imagine, could lead to significant anxiety and distress, essentially crippling an individual psychologically (and sometime physically).
There are many well-known interventions for OCD and its associated disorders including: medications (typically antidepressant and antianxiety agents), Exposure and Response Prevention (a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) to desensitize individuals from their “problem” stimulus, psychological counseling, or some combination of the above.
As the numbers of those affected continue to grow each year, alternatives to conventional therapies are needed now more than ever and are in increasingly greater demand. Millions of Americans are now seeking therapies such as neurofeedback, transcranial magnetic stimulation, metabolic and nutritional therapies, chiropractic care, and acupuncture in hopes of decreasing, and possibly eliminating, their obsessions and compulsions.
Recent research from the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam has demonstrated increases in the “feel good” neurotransmitter dopamine in the brains of those with OCD. Also singled out over the years is a decrease in Serotonin levels; which has a negative impact on mood, memory, and learning. Chemical regulation and improvements in the underlying “wiring” of pathways in the brain through Brain Training must be addressed to increase the effectiveness of the more common approaches to OCD mentioned above. Improvement in chemical regulation and brain “wiring” can occur safely and quite cost effectively through a number of approaches.
What follows are 3 examples of activities that can be done easily, inexpensively, and very likely more effectively than the standard interventions for OCD.
- Exercise. Physical exercise has been hailed by some of the leading scientists as the greatest medication on the planet. One thing is known for sure, moving our bodies productively can and will have an impact on neurotransmitter production and metabolism. In his groundbreaking book Spark, Dr. John Ratey of Harvard Medical School discusses the impact of certain types of exercise on specific brain chemicals. Exercise also helps to strengthen nerve connections, create new nerve cells, and improve fuel delivery to the brain.
- Meditation/Relaxation. Mindful meditation, breathing exercises, progressive relaxation, guided imagery, biofeedback, and many other relaxation techniques empower individuals with the ability to take the focus off of their problem thoughts and behaviors while engaging them in more productive behaviors. This can have a profound impact on brain chemicals and body systems as with exercise.
- Interactive Metronome. A bit more on the hi-tech end, training the brain’s internal timing mechanisms through repetitive body movements made in concert with sound commands, one can begin to dramatically improve their focus, attention, and cognitive control; critical brain “wiring” factors that need to be addressed when dealing with OCD.
From training the brain systems that govern control over our impulses, to improving the chemical interactions that are involved in these systems, there is hope for those under the stranglehold of OCD. If you or a loved one is battling OCD and/or any of its associated disorders, understanding that the brain can be trained and returned to a state of normalcy is the first step in beating this elusive disorder.
Are you constantly driven to distraction by thoughts that fuel fear and worry in your mind? Is your brain constantly pulling you to perform behaviors that interfere with your daily routine and cause social distress? If so, you may be one of the millions in this country that are struggling with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
OCD is a brain-based anxiety disorder characterized by repetitive, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and ritualized behaviors (compulsions). Scientific research suggests that OCD is caused by inappropriate connectivity between various brain regions. This dysfunction causes the brain to “get stuck” in unhealthy behavioral patterns. The frontal lobes and basal ganglia are the areas of the brain that many OCD researchers have focused on. These regions are where our higher cognitive functions, and coordination of those functions, reside.
Obsessions can involve virtually anything someone with OCD thinks about. Fears, phobias, anxieties, and worries often lie at the heart of OCD and can fuel both obsessive thoughts and compulsions alike. Classic OCD compulsions include ordering, hoarding, grooming, counting, checking, cleaning, and more.
Treatments for OCD
Classic treatments for OCD include medications and cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBT). Medications for OCD are numerous and varied, although generally fall into the categories of antidepressant and antianxiety agents. A common approach to OCD involves managing serotonin levels through the use of SSRI medications, allowing the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter to stick around longer in the brain.
More and more folks are turning towards complementary and alternative therapies for management of OCD. APEX Brain Centers is leading the charge. Through cognitive, neurological, and metabolic testing, followed by a host of Brain Training interventions, positive changes can be made in the areas of the brain responsible for this debilitating disorder. These changes allow for greater cognitive flexibility and the ability for the individual with OCD to better control their condition.