Why stressed minds are more decisive

“When we’re put under pressure, our brains can suddenly process information much faster – but only in certain situations, says neuroscientist Tali Sharot.”

Some of the most important decisions you will make in your lifetime will occur while you feel stressed and anxious.

Do we become better or worse at processing and using information under such circumstances?

 

A perceived threat made firefighters better at processing information

“My colleague Neil Garrett, now at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute in New Jersey, and I ventured from the safety of our lab to fire stations in the state of Colorado to investigate how the mind operates under high stress.”

“Firefighters’ workdays vary quite a bit. Some days are pretty relaxed; they’ll spend part of their time washing the truck, cleaning equipment, cooking meals and reading. Other days can be hectic, with numerous life-threatening incidents to attend to; they’ll enter burning homes to rescue trapped residents, and assist with medical emergencies. These ups and downs presented the perfect setting for an experiment on how people’s ability to use information changes when they feel under pressure.”

“When you’re stressed, your brain undergoes physical changes that can make it hard to ignore possible dangers.
We found that perceived threat triggered a stress reaction that made the firefighters better at processing information – but only as long as it conveyed bad news.”

“This is how we arrived at these results. We asked the firefighters to estimate their likelihood of experiencing 40 different aversive events in their life, such as being involved in a car accident or becoming a victim of card fraud. We then gave them either good news (we told them that their likelihood of experiencing these events was lower than they’d thought) or bad news (that it was higher) and asked them to provide new estimates.”

“Cortisol levels spiked, their heart rates went up and, lo and behold, they suddenly became better at processing unrelated, yet alarming, information”

“Research has shown that people are normally quite optimistic – they will ignore the bad news and embrace the good. This is what happened when the firefighters were relaxed; but when they were under stress, a different pattern emerged. Under these conditions, they became hyper-vigilant to any bad news we gave them, even when it had nothing to do with their job (such as learning that the likelihood of card fraud was higher than they’d thought), and altered their beliefs in response. In contrast, stress didn’t change how they responded to good news (such as learning that the likelihood of card fraud was lower than they’d thought).”

“Back in our lab, we observed the same pattern in undergraduates who were told they had to give a surprise public speech, which would be judged by a panel, recorded and posted online. Sure enough, their cortisol levels spiked, their heart rates went up and, lo and behold, they suddenly became better at processing unrelated, yet alarming, information about rates of disease and violence.”

“When you experience stressful events, whether personal (waiting for a medical diagnosis) or public (political turmoil), a physiological change is triggered that can cause you to take in any sort of warning and become fixated on what might go wrong. A study using brain imaging to look at the neural activity of people under stress revealed that this ‘switch’ was related to a sudden boost in a neural signal important for learning(known as a prediction error), specifically in response to unexpected signs of danger (such as faces expressing fear). This signal relies on dopamine – a neurotransmitter found in the brain – and, under stress, dopamine function is altered by another molecule called corticotropin-releasing factor.”

“Such neural engineering could have helped early humans to survive. When our ancestors found themselves in a habitat filled with hungry animals, they benefited from an increased ability to learn about hazards so as to avoid predators. In a safe environment, however, it would be wasteful to be on high alert constantly. A certain amount of ignorance can help to keep your mind at ease.”

“So a ‘neural switch’ that automatically increases or decreases your ability to process warnings in response to changes in your environment might be useful. In fact, people with clinical depression and anxiety seem unable to switch away from a state in which they absorb all the negative messages around them.”

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons and is edited for space.

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180613-why-stressed-minds-are-better-at-processing-things

Food is Medicine

I’m an emotional eater –  it doesn’t matter if I’m feeling bad or good.  But when I’m depressed I crave sugar & carbs.   I’ve always conveniently blamed my father.   I’m not sure whether he was the one who needed a pick-me-up or he thought I did but he would go out of his way to bring a bit of pleasure into my life in the form of something delectibly sweet.

Dad would drive across town to a special shop that dispensed root beer from a soda fountain and then back at home he’d pile in vanilla ice cream to make floats.  We would sneak out to eat cinnamon rolls and M’M’s peanut chocolate candy. 

Dad lived by specific culinary principles:

  • Cake’s main purpose was to hold up the frosting. 
  • Pepsi was the beverage of choice because water was for bathing, not drinking.
  • The only edible food was brown and white (unless it contained copious amounts of sugar), green food should be reserved for insects or chimpanzees
  • Fruit was only safe to eat if it was in a pie. 

Today there is a an incredible amount of scientific evidence that food is medicine, not just muscle fuel, and the right kind of diet may give the brain more of what it needs to avoid depression, or even to treat it once it’s begun

You’re feeling depressed. What have you been eating?

Psychiatrists and therapists don’t often ask this question. But a growing body of research over the past decade shows that a healthy diet—high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and unprocessed lean red meat—can prevent depression. And an unhealthy diet—high in processed and refined foods—increases the risk for the disease in everyone, including children and teens.

The findings are spurring the rise of a new field: nutritional psychiatry.

“Now recent studies show that a healthy diet may not only prevent depression, but could effectively treat it once it’s started.
“Researchers, led by epidemiologist Felice Jacka of Australia’s Deakin University, looked at whether improving the diets of people with major depression would help improve their mood. They chose 67 people with depression for the study, some of whom were already being treated with antidepressants, some with psychotherapy, and some with both. Half of these people were given nutritional counseling from a dietitian, who helped them eat healthier. Half were given one-on-one social support—they were paired with someone to chat or play cards with—which is known to help people with depression.”

“After 12 weeks, the people who improved their diets showed significantly happier moods than those who received social support. And the people who improved their diets the most improved the most. (The study was published in January 2017 in BMC Medicine).”

“A second, larger study drew similar conclusions and showed that the boost in mood lasted six months. It was led by researchers at the University of South Australia and published in December 2017 in Nutritional Neuroscience.”

“And later this month in Los Angeles at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting, researchers from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago will present results from their research that shows that elderly adults who eat vegetables, fruits and whole grains are less likely to develop depression over time.”

Scientific evidence aside . . .

My dad lived to 93 . . .  it might be prudent to follow his dietary regime.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, The Food That Helps Battle Depression bElizabeth Bernstein

 

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Pawsitively Tuesday – Don’t Mind Me

“Anyone who doesn’t change their mind

doesn’t have one.”

Bob Burridge

Interchangeable

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Pawsitively Tuesday – Make up your mind

 “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

Abraham Lincoln

Today, researchers are confirming that assessment. Although some of your temperament is genetic, a large percentage is under your control. In short, your happiness is up to you.

Write About Past Failures to Help You Succeed In the Present

Having taught journal writing workshops for decades it’s apparent to me that very few people are avid journal keepers, including myself.  Most of us, however, can do periodic writing to relieve stress, resolve problems and most of all give our brains get an objective view point.

In psychological jargon the “objective observer” actually helps us “reprogram” painful, hurtful, stressful, difficult memories.  There are lots of ways to access our “objective observer” – meditation, guided imagery, the arts – and writing is one of the quickest.

Write on! by Peggy

Research have shown that writing about negative events or emotions is emotionally therapeutic and can even benefit the immune system.  Interestingly other studies have shown that writing about one’s worries before a high-stakes exam can boost test scores.

Here’s a particularly interesting study:

How Writing About Past Failures May Help You Succeed In The Present

by Alice G. Walton

“They say failure is a necessary part of success, but it doesn’t always feel that way. A new study in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience not only supports this connection but adds an interesting twist, finding that reflecting on past failures—by writing about them—may help us stay calm in the face of new stressors. The team found this in the lab, but based on past evidence, it likely applies to real life, too.”

“The researchers, from Rutgers University, University of Pennsylvania and Duke University, had people come into the lab and write for 10 minutes about either a time they’d made mistakes or failed at something in the past, or about an unrelated topic (a movie they’d recently seen). The team predicted that writing about a past failure would actually reduce a person’s stress level during a stressful situation in the present, whereas writing about the random topic wouldn’t have any effect.”

“To stress the participants, they subjected them to a well-known Trier Social Stress Test, in which participants have just a few minutes to prepare a five-minute speech, which they have to deliver in front of the researchers, or in this case a researcher posing as a “speech expert.” If that weren’t enough, the participants then had to count backwards by 13 from 2063. Finally, participants carried out a straightforward test of attention and reaction time.”

“As the team predicted, people who’d written about a past failure didn’t show the typical stress response (measured by the stress hormone cortisol) to the stress test, compared to the control group, who’d written about movie plots. They also did better on the tests of attention, making fewer mistakes, and ending with higher scores on average.”

“Because the control group still wrote, but about an unemotional topic, the authors conclude that it’s not just the writing, but the reflecting on earlier failure, that seems to have the stress-reducing effects.”

“We didn’t find that writing itself had a direct relationship on the body’s stress responses,” says study author Brynne DiMenichi in a statement. “Instead, our results suggest that, in a future stressful situation, having previously written about a past failure causes the body’s stress response to look more similar to someone who isn’t exposed to stress at all.”

https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2018/03/24/how-writing-about-past-failures-may-help-you-succeed-in-the-future/#12991c2d13bc

Check out an easy tutorial on writing. Click HERE

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Hot to stop your SuperWorry

Mind races.  Unsettling worry or concern repeats itself over and over.  No solution.  No relief.  Can’t sleep.  Can’t concentrate on anything other than your SUPER WORRY

It doesn’t feel like it but your brain is doing this for your benefit – Relentlessly focus your attention on a potential (albeit imagined) threat to help you stay safe.  Three parts of you brain start firing in lockstep:

  • The orbital frontal cortex gives you the feeling you made a mistake or there is danger.
  • It signals the cingulate gurus which generates the neurochemistry of anxiety.
  • The caudate nucleus usually allows thoughts to flow from one to another, but it stops doing this.
  • These 3 parts together keep person locked into worry, an obsession with something thy fear.

You may even realize that the worry is not rational, or the fear is not imminent.  It’s your brain locked into a feed-back loop and won’t let you escape from the worrying thoughts.

Mousey Worry by Peggy

You can rewire your SuperWorry into SuperRelief

Talk to your brain – silently or outloud:

  1. Thank your brain for doing what it was created to do.  Don’t be mad or upset with your brain. It’s a good brain.
  2. However, relabel the problem as a brain problem, not an imminent threat. The real problem is not what you fear, it is the brain is getting locked into a position and isn’t moving on.
  3. Pick something positive or neutral to focus on instead.  Ideally something pleasurable.
  4. Repeat this as often as necessary.  It takes time for your brain to understand it doesn’t have to protect you in this way.

Here’s an example:  Thank you brain.  You don’t need to keep reminding me that (an earthquake will happen, someone will break into the house, I will get fired).  I’m safe right this minute.

When brain focuses on something over and over, it strengthens the brain neuro-connections. When you stop the thinking the connections are weakened.  Think of it like a wilderness trail – The more the trail is traveled the path gets wider and the dirt gets more and more compacted.  Stop walking on the trail and it becomes overgrown, impassable and no longer used.

Use it or lose it 
Any deviation from the neuro-connection path weakens it.  Every time you interrupt and then stop the thought about the fear and redirect your thoughts it gets easier. The more you  practice the more the neural links to the worry weaken and new positive neutral pathways are generated.

PET scans have shown that the brain pathways actually change when you perform the four steps.

Use this process for small worries, not just big ones.  

Sources:

Norman Dodgie,  “The Brain that Changes Itself” 

Jeffrey M Schwartz, “Brain Lock”  

Daunted by “spring” cleaning? Blame your brain

I’ve barely made a dent in the editing down of this article.  Why?  It’s a big article, I don’t know where to start and I am  blaming it on my brain.

Cluttered Closet by Peggy

 “Closets bulging with clothes and shoes. Plastic bins of stuff shoved under the bed. Stacks of mail covering the dining table. Has anyone seen the car keys?”

“It’s spring, time of rebirth and rejuvenation. Time to throw open the windows and do some spring cleaning. But the magnitude of the project is daunting. How to begin?”

“If you want to know why it’s so difficult to tackle a big project like spring cleaning, blame your brain, said Randall O’Reilly, professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of the Computational Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at CU Boulder.”

“The brain is wired to be very cautious and conservative in starting big projects, because once you do start, it takes over your brain,” he said. “The brain, researchers think, is wired to track progress towards whatever it is you’ve decided to do, like spring cleaning, which is hard work. You have to make a lot of difficult decisions and the outcome is uncertain. Your brain recognizes that and says, ‘Maybe I won’t start on that project after all.’ It’s an adaptive property of the brain.”

“Once we get over the initial stalling and begin the project, the brain rewards us with small hits of dopamine as we make progress. This provides an incentive to stick with the task.”

“Dopamine is a chemical released by neurons that sends signals to other nerve cells and plays a major role in both mood and reward-motivated behavior.”

“So, you’ve tackled cleaning and decluttering and you’re making progress. And then you notice the teapot that belonged to your grandmother stored in the back of the cupboard. It’s sweet and dainty and evokes fond memories of your grandmother, but it’s not your style at all. Now you’re confronted with a dilemma: Keeping a teapot you never use is taking up much-needed space, but getting rid of it would feel disrespectful to your grandmother.”

“Things with an emotional attachment take on meaning,” O’Reilly said. “The teapot is not just a teapot. It has a personal history, so it’s unique in that sense. If you get rid of the teapot, it feels sacrilegious. It’s valuable to you because it carries that authenticity and history with it, so it feels like you’re disrespecting that value.”

“So, why do we accumulate clutter? The answer is found in the dopamine system, which is based on expectations. When we accumulate something or have a pleasurable experience, the brain releases dopamine and we feel good. As soon as our wants and desires are satisfied, however, the brain discounts that feel-good moment.”

“You can see mathematically that the brain is constantly comparing what we have versus what we expected to get,” he said. “Every moment of our lives, that’s what our brain is doing. How much better is that movie versus what you thought it would be? How much better was that cookie than you remembered? Every single thing is being compared to a baseline of what your expectation is.”

It needs to be better than what you expected

“Attachments to things are like those expectations. We want them and feel that we need them. This is where it gets diabolical, O’Reilly said. If something we like is meeting our expectations, we no longer get a dopamine burst. Our brains are constantly trying to up the ante, so we continue to acquire more stuff to feel better.”

“To get the dopamine surge, the experience needs to be better than what you expected. If it just meets expectations, guess what? No dopamine for you! The flip to the reward of dopamine is a downer.”

“If the experience was less than you expected, there’s actually a reduction in the firing of dopamine neurons, leaving you feeling disappointed,” O’Reilly said. “Then the brain tries to come up with new ways to get the dopamine. It needs to be better than what you expected.”

“The expectation system is what drives learning,” he said. “This system in our brains drives us forward, to learning more and more. You’re changing your expectation level, your sense of self. Don’t have attachments. Have ambition.”

https://www.colorado.edu/today/2018/03/27/daunted-spring-cleaning-blame-your-brain-professor-says

Read

Loss Aversion – why we don’t declutter.

 Click Here: Spring has Sprung and so have I

 

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