How to teach an old dog new tricks – Cognitive Science of Habits

Research shows our brains are plastic, moldable and easy to please and despite sayings to the contrary, you can, in fact, teach an old dog (or cat) new tricks. But you have to give your brain a reason to get started.  

Here are excerpts from the article:

On the Mind: How Habits Work and How to Make Them

“Our brains like treats, MRI scans are clear about that. The reward pathway involves several parts of the brain, including areas such as the prefrontal cortex. Food, water, sex and pleasurable activity light up these areas and travel around the brain. If you want to build a habit, make it fun.

“Overall, recent brain scans show that certain areas of the brain light up when a new behavior is started, and the most effective way to keep the areas lit and happy is through rewards. Otherwise, we’re programmed to be lazy and efficient.”

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“In the past year, neuroscientists and psychologists have teamed up to study habit learning and how the brain reacts to new behaviors. They’ve found that some neurons, the cells that fire information across our brain and tell us what to do, are linked to motivation, reward association and habit learning.

Rewarding Right Behavior by Peggy

“When we like a new action, our brain pumps out feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, and we’re more likely to repeat the action to get the same pleasurable response.”

“Just like Pavlov’s dog, if we can motivate ourselves to repeat an action with a reward several times, we can potentially make it stick. And if we lump two or three of those habits together, they can cascade in the brain and lead to the likelihood of sticking with several good habits at once. Hey, even monkeys can learn how to build habits through repetition without much instruction, Brown University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers reported.”

Key Takeaways

1.  Make a Plan for 2 months . . . or longer!

Figure out what works for you, and don’t get discouraged by what seems to be common knowledge. Pop culture has promulgated the idea that it only takes 21 days, or 3 weeks, to form a new habit, but research shows that, depending on the person and habit, changes can take two months or longer.

“To figure out which cravings are driving particular habits, it’s useful to experiment with different rewards,” which may take days or weeks, Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit. “During that period, you shouldn’t feel any pressure to make a real change … think of yourself as a scientist in the data collection stage.”

2.  Be Realistic

Don’t set yourself up for failure or place your expectations too high.

“ . . .   it’s common for people to set their sights cripplingly high in a moment of ambition, only to feel crushed when they fail to live up to those unrealistic goals.”

“That crushed feeling sends negative pulses rushing through your neurons, which destroys good associations with the habits you’re building. Try the smallest steps possible . . .  to feel happy about the smallest success you can accomplish.”

3.  Reward Yourself

“If you want to be motivated, you have to do something you enjoy and feel comfortable doing.”

Read entire article: Habits and How to Make Them

 

4 easy ways to GET HAPPY

There are studies which indicate happiness is over-rated and we should strive instead for contentment.  I say we should strive for happiness and be grateful when we are simply content.  

How to get happy in a hurry, according to neuroscience

From the book The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by UCLA neuroscience researcher Alex Korb

Know what Prozac does? It boosts the neurotransmitter serotonin. So does gratitude!

1. “Write a running gratitude list or simply ask yourself what you’re grateful for: A warm house, a pet you love,  new shoes, a cellphone – doesn’t matter how big or small.  Gratitude boosts both dopamine and serotonin, the two most powerful neurotransmitter chemicals involved in giving you a feeling of calm and well-being.”

“Don’t worry if you can’t immediately find things to be grateful for. The mental search for gratitude alone will begin to elevate the level of those pleasure chemicals”.

2. Label negative feelings.Simply saying to yourself “I’m sad” or “I’m anxious” almost too easy for happiness.  Yet in one fMRI study – ‘Putting Feelings into Words,’ participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Each participant’s amygdala [the brain’s fight-or-flight alarm bell] activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.”

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sad . . . bordering on disdain. . .

3.  Make a decision. Just deciding to do something can reduce worry and anxiety right away.  “Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals – all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety.”

“Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which can pull you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world – finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.

“And you don’t have to worry about making the “right” decision?  The “good enough” decision is good enough to make our brains go into at-ease mode.  AND you can decide not to decide or change your decision!”

4.  Touch people, appropriately! This is one of the easiest ways to release oxytocin  which is the pleasure-inducing ‘cuddle chemical’]   It can be as simple as a handshake or a pat on the back.

“A hug is the best but if you don’t have anybody to hug get a massage which has been shown to boost your serotonin by as much as 30 percent. Massage also decreases stress hormones and raises dopamine levels.”

Pawsitively Tuesday – Rx for Gratitude

Guaranteed* to decrease moping, malcontent and feeling blue. Gratitude is now available over-the-counter, but should not be used off-label for conditions other than dysphoria.

Rx for Gratitude by Peggy

WARNING!

Adverse Side effects

  • Only take as directed, no more than 100 gratitudes a day, or may induce euphoria, resulting in dancing nude on the beach which can lead to skin cancer.
  • Can cause lightheartedness in individuals with pre-existing conditions of joy
  • May impair balance and equilibrium with danger of falling in love with yourself or others.

*Disclaimer:  

Any and all information, directions, inferences, enticements, and/or opinions on this site are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
All content, including text, graphics, images and information, contained on or available through this web site is for general information purposes only.
Peggy, Judy or their representative felines and canines make no representation and assume no responsibility for the accuracy of information contained on or available through this site or any other web site, and furthermore such information is subject to change without notice, depending on our mood.

PEGGY, JUDY, their felines and canines are  NOT RESPONSIBLE NOR LIABLE FOR ANY ADVICE, COURSE OF TREATMENT, DIAGNOSIS OR ANY OTHER INFORMATION, SERVICES OR PRODUCTS THAT YOU OBTAIN THROUGH THIS SITE or anywhere else, for that matter.

 

Symptoms of Happiness

I was embarrassed!

Patients who had just been released from the hospital’s psychiatric unit caught me red-handed.   I was leading a group therapy session about how important it is to focus on the positive – what you want instead of what you do not want. I went on and on explaining that when we think negatively the neo-cortex part of our brains triggers neuro-chemical emotions which correspond to those thoughts.

Not happy

Not happy

I smoothly seque-wayed into explaining what the many symptoms of depression are. The patients had been listening,  and stopped me and not so diplomatically pointed out I was focusing on the negative. Lesson learned!  MY lesson learned.

The group decided that instead of learning symptoms of depression, they would create a list of  symptoms of happiness.  

 Here’s their list:

Symptoms of Happiness

  1. Feeling good (or at least “decent”) most of the day, for two weeks or more.
  2. Eating an appropriate amount of food with good appetite.
  3. Sleeping well and awakening refreshed.
  4. Taking pleasure in most everyday activities and enjoying fun activities.
  5. Having a good energy level most of the day, every day, for two weeks or more.
  6. Having thoughts of fun or of good times to come.
  7. Being able to concentrate on the activity on hand.
  8. Feeling that one’s life matters.
  9. Able to exercise three times a week for half an hour, or more.
  10. Socialize in person or on the phone with 5 to 7 people each week. ( texting counts too)
  11. Laugh or at least smile every day.
  12. tailupsmall

    Happy is as Happy Thinks

How many happiness “symptoms” do you have?

(even one is a start).

PA

Linda commented (below): Feeling grateful, enjoying nature, feeling loved, able to say “life is wonderful”.

The Chemistry of Joy . . . (and other emotions) from your kitchen

One of my long time friends (who shall remain nameless but who I closely work with on a blog – which also shall remain nameless) “hates” me because I weigh about the same I did when we went to high school together.  (“Hate” may be a bit too strong but she’s been known to say that to my face.)

I can’t help it that I’m just not a glutton like one of my long time friends (who shall remain nameless but who I closely work with on a blog – which also shall remain nameless).

I can’t help it that I eat healthy in moderation unlike one of my long time friends (who shall remain nameless but who I closely work with on a blog – which also shall remain nameless).

When I found this research I thought I might share it with you and one of my long time friends (who shall remain nameless but who I closely work with on a blog – which also shall remain nameless).

The Chemistry of Joy

Our mood, our outlook and our energy levels are determined to a huge extent by the chemicals serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine and their relationship to one another.

We feel good when they are in balance. Beta endorphins also create a feeling of well-being, connectedness to others, and emotional stability. They even help us tolerate pain.

  • If levels of norepinephrine and dopamine are low, people will slow down, sleep a lot, have trouble concentrating and find it hard to motivate themselves. They can have a “sluggish” depression.
  • On the other hand, people with high levels of norepinephrine and dopamine, and possibly low levels of serotonin often feel angry, resentful and despairing. They can be critical and demanding. This would be an “agitated ” depression.
  • A third kind of depression can occur with low levels of serotonin, which results in people feeling fearful , worried and inadequate. This is an “anxious” depression.

Here is where he kitchen comes in:

In the Kitchen by Peggy

  • Sluggish Depression – Eating to INCREASE norepinephrine and dopamine: 
    Eat high quality proteins throughout the day, lean beef, low-fat meats and fish.
  • Agitated Depression – Eating to DECREASE norepinephrine and dopamine:
    eat the same as to increase serotonin but eat very small amounts of protein. A vegetarian diet would be good.
  • Anxious Depression – Eating to INCREASE serotonin:
    Increase carbs, eat tryptophan, which is in nuts, dairy, and meats. Eat regularly throughout the day. Get some protein, but not a large amount.

SUGAR (also alcohol) elevates beta endorphins, which may be why people have sugar cravings. This elevation only lasts a short time, because the body metabolizes it quickly. This results in a “low” that follows the sugar “high”, and you want more sugar! My long time friend (who shall remain nameless but who I closely work with on a blog – which also shall remain nameless) can avoid this by eating complex carbs and protein.

Cholesterol helps the brain make the chemicals we need. So if you are depressed, eat some fat: Halibut, salmon, grains and nuts that have omega 3 and animal fat with omega 6 are both needed in balance.

     *     *     *     *     * 

And so my long time friend (who shall remain nameless but who I closely work with on a blog – which also shall remain nameless)

THIS is a brain healthy diet:
Fats 30%
Sugar 10% or less
Caffeine drinks a day, 2 or fewer ( a cup of coffee is 6 oz)
Complex carbs, whole grains, lean protein, fresh fruit and dark green, leafy vegetables – A lot!

Maui had a “ball” – You can too.

“Maui’s Mini Tail”

Maui had a yellow ball.

Maui loved to chase a small yellow ball around the house. He would grab it with his paws and throw it up in the air, or bat it across the floor!  He loved  playing with the yellow ball, constantly chasing it around the house and batting it across the room.

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I should have learned a thing about feeling good from Maui but it took a book to teach me what Maui knew.

Peggy had a beach ball

When I was working with patients with major mental health problems (Schizophrenia, severe depression, manic depression), I read The Biopsychology of Mood & Arousal by Richard Thayer. I was surprised to learn that if you do a brisk activity for only 10 min, your mood goes up and stays up for 4 hours. It sounded almost too easy.  I found  a beach ball to put it to the test.

At the beginning of the next patient’s group therapy session I  asked everyone to rate their current mood on a scale of 1 to 10. One = horrible/awful/terrible/bad. Ten = wonderful/elated/ joyful/good.

I tossed the beach ball in the air and everyone joined in batting the ball to each other.  Sometimes we missed, sometimes we got hit in the head, but everyone swung at the ball, waved their hands around and had a little exercise.   AFTER 10 MINUTES we stopped and rated mood again.

Take a look at the chart below showing how each patient rated their mood at the beginning of the session, in blue, and where each patient rated their mood after tossing the ball for 10 minutes,  in green.

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Would the mood elevation last? After 3 1/2 hours, everyone rated their mood again.  All moods were still up with one exception. It had worked making my own mood elevated.

The chart below shows each patients mood before the ball toss started,  in blue, and where each patient rated their mood after 3 1/2 hours, in purple.

hourslaterchartThe average improvement in mood was 30%! In TEN MINUTES.

Of course, negative events can bring mood down again. (as happened to the one patient – letter i – in the group) but this is one of my favorite “tricks” to stay happy.

Maui always knew . . .  playing ball is good for you.

THE SCIENCE 

In his 1989 book The Biopsychology of Mood and Arousal, Robert E. Thayer discusses how 10 minutes of brisk exercise improves mood for four hours.  He describes how each of us has a daily biorhythm of ups and downs in energy (There’s a chart in the book on how to  figure out your own biorhythm).

Exercise is shown to boost endorphins and the neurotransmitter norepinephrine both of which improve mood.

Not only does exercise grow your muscles, it also grows neurons in your brain. Such neuron growth is associated with improved mood.  Research shows:

Regular exercise can relieve depression just as well as medication over a 4 month period, and even better after 6 months.

I personally use this concept to get and keep my own  mood up.  Ten minutes of activity is a cheap price for creating 4 hours of feeling good (or at the very least, feeling ok).

(PA)

How do you elevate your mood?  Let us know in the comments.

Click here for Time article It’s All in the Nerves: How to Really Treat Depression 

 

 

 

The Loss of Self Identity

From birth we are constantly, chronically losing our identities.  As we grow and develop those loses are generally seen as positive and things to look forward to:  Losing our dependency of childhood; being able to drive; setting out on our own.  I liken these types of losses to waves that are constant and ubiquitous. 

With loss that involves tragedy or illness, the sense of who we are is wrested from us – more like a sudden tsunami than relentless waves . . .  

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Heart Sisters is a blog I’ve followed for several years.  Carolyn Thomas, the blogger, suffered a “widow-maker heart attack” and has devoted her time and energy to educating women, clinicians and the public about woman’s heart issues.

In an excellent post Two big factors that can impact a patient’s loss of ‘self’ Carolyn references Dr. Kathy Charmaz

“When California sociologist Dr. Kathy Charmaz studied the subject of suffering among those living with chronic illness, she identified an element of suffering that is often overlooked by health care providers.(1)  As she explained her findings:”

“A fundamental form of that suffering is the loss of self in chronically ill persons who observe their former self-images crumbling away without the simultaneous development of equally valued new ones.

“The experiences and meanings upon which these ill persons had built former positive self-images are no longer available to them.”

“Dr. Charmaz also found that this profound sense of having lost the “self” you used to be before being diagnosed is generally the result of both external and internal influences on how we view ourselves. “

Click below and read the entire post:

Two big factors that can impact a patient’s loss of ‘self’

Carolyn’s post spoke to me personally on several levels:  

  • As a psychotherapist I spent 30 years trying to help others adjust to “loss of self”.  
  • Ten years into my private practice I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia – my own tsunami.
  • When I retired my “loss of self” was not a tsunami but the wave was at least a 20 footer.

jw