Why your memory is poor, and what you can do about it.

Hint: It’s probably not Alzheimer’s. 

In February I posted a video on YouTube, “The link between stress and memory!”In this video I discuss why people who suffer from chronic stress tend to have memory problems. In a nutshell, when under stress, the memory center of the brain, called the hippocampus, can’t activate the way it needs to in order to encode memories well. This is because the hippocampus is covered in cortisol receptors, and when we’re under stress our cortisol increases, flooding the hippocampus and making it difficult to activate properly. In the short term the result is that we don’t encode very stressful or traumatic things as well as we otherwise would (hence the controversy behind eye witness testimony). Over the long haul, the chronic stress, which causes ongoing cortisol flooding of the hippocampus, leads to atrophy of the brain’s memory center. This in turn makes it difficult to encode not only traumatic events well, but any memories. Information can seem to “go into one ear and out ther other.”

Thus, for many people memory issues aren’t due to early onset of Alzheimer’s Disease, rather, the culprit is too much stress. So what can we do about it? The good news is that neurogenesis, which is the growing/regeneration of neurons, is possible in the hippocampus. Here are some quick recommendations to help your memory center become healthy and strong! The following have been shown to promote neurogenesis in the hippocampus:

1.     Get moderately-intense exercise: You don’t have to be a marathoner. Just get approximately 30 minutes of moderate exercise about three times per week.

2.     Eat chocolate and blueberries: Hippocampus neurogenesis has can be promoted by eating foods rich in flavonoids, such as cocoa and blueberries. 

3.     Practice mindfulness: Incorporating mindfulness practices, including yoga, meditation, and diaphragmatic breathing is another great way to strengthen the memory center.

4.     Get plenty of Omega-3s: Omega-3 fatty acids are a great way to increase neurogenesis in the memory center of the brain, and may also help manage depression.

Stress, anxiety, and trauma can wreak havoc on the brain. The best thing you can do for yourself if you believe you might be suffering from one of these conditions is to seek professional help from a licensed mental health provider. However, many people find that making small changes (I call them “one degree changes”) can make a large difference in how they feel over time. Think about it like this… If you are traveing in one direction and veer to the right by one degree, it won’t take you far off course in the short term, but 1,000 miles later you’d be in a totally different place. That’s the idea behind one degree changes. Slightly change your habits now, and reap the benefits later!

 

 

What is the insula? The important mental health brain structure you've never heard of.

I recently posted a vlog onYouTube about an area of the brain that is extremely important for mental health professionals to know about: The insula. To see the vlog go here! As promised, I wanted to also include a blog here describing this area of the brain, what it does, and why it's important!

The Insula Explained:

The insula, or the “Interoception Center,” is the main site of interoception. Interoception is one’s ability to feel into internal experience and connect with internal sensations. For instance, feeling hungry, warm, or jittery are all examples of interoception. This too-often overlooked area of the brain is extremely important because without a strong and regulated insula, emotion identification and regulation become very difficult. Imagine, for example, that a client suffers from panic disorder. If they cannot feel into the body and be aware of the physical sensations that part of their panic, it would be extremely difficult to treat their panic disorder! This is because the experience of emotion is not simply cognitive; Emotion is always experienced in the body.

When an individual is able to “feel into” the body and connect with internal sensations, those sensations provide critical information about the emotion the individual is experiencing. The ability to do this is often called “felt sense” by trauma expert Peter Levine (2009). In different mental health conditions, however, this can be difficult for clients. In several disorders the insula is underactive, meaning that it is difficult to feel into the body and be aware of emotional experiences. In some other disorders, the insula becomes overactive, leading to a misinterpretation of bodily sensations as dangerous or catastrophic.

Thus, one goal of trauma treatment is to build a strong but regulated insula that gives accurate information about internal states. With a more regulated insula, individuals improve interoception and experience fewer emotional outbursts and dissociative symptoms (including numbing). Additionally, with a strong insula individuals are better able to feel into their own bodies, identify the emotions they are experiencing, and regulate them. 

For two free insula strengthening tools you can start using right away, click HERE

Source: insula

My Therapist Keeps Telling Me To Breathe…. Why?

If you’re like a lot of people who’ve been to therapy, you’ve probably heard your therapist tell you to breathe. The recommendation might have been in passing, or perhaps they even taught you some specific diaphragmatic breathing exercises to practice at home. Either way, you may have asked yourself why this seems to be a thing. Why emphasize something you’re already doing? I’m breathing right now, and I bet you are too. I breathed yesterday, and the day before that, and I’ll breathe every day from now until I die.

When I’ve brought up breathing to clients, I’ve seen the initial, “I’m paying you for this?” look more than once. But breathing the right way is really good for you and might just help you reduce some of the symptoms that brought you to therapy in the first place. Let me explain.

Take Home Point 1: Normal breathing and diaphragmatic breathing are NOT the same thing.

This is critical to understand. Diaphragmatic breathing is when you fill your whole diaphragm with air, breathing fully in, and fully out. This is different from what most of our breathing tends to look like day to day, which is usually “chest breathing.” Chest breathing is faster and much more shallow, and does not utilize our entire diaphragm. Chest breathing can be associated with a heightened stress response, increased toxins in the body, and less oxygen in the brain, and is usually not very healthy. However, it’s what we’re all used to, and to create more healthy breathing habits takes training.

Take Home Point 2: In order to reduce your anxiety you must breathe through the diaphragm. All other breathing is pointless (other than it keeps you alive).

The error a lot of people make when practicing breathing exercises is that they don’t actually breathe through the diaphragm. Maybe it’s because they don’t know how to, or perhaps they erroneously think they are (but actually aren’t). For most people, there seems to be a lack of understanding regarding how important this actually is, so I want to emphasize this. If you are not breathing through your diaphragm during a mindful breathing exercise, you’re wasting your time.

Take Home Point 3: Breathing through the diaphragm activates the vagus nerve; vagus nerve activation is what reduces your anxiety.

When you breathe through your diaphragm, something amazing happens: You activate your vagus nerve, which tells your brain to stop producing anxious feelings and start relaxing. Here’s a depiction of the vagus nerve – it’s the bright yellow band running from the brain to the organs.

 

So here’s what happens when you breathe through the diaphragm:

1.     You inhale fully, expanding your diaphragm.

2.     As your diaphragm fills with air, the diaphragmatic wall pushes downward, like a balloon that is filling up.

3.     When the diaphragmatic wall drops, it begins to squish your internal organs a liitle bit.

4.     Wrapped around your internal organs is the vagus nerve, so as the organs are getting slightly compressed, so is the vagus nerve.

5.     When the vagus nerve is pressed, such as when you breathe through your diaphragm, it activates!

6.     After activating, the vagus nerve sends a signal upward, through the spine to the brain, telling the brain to stop the stress response and activate the relaxation response.

7.     The brain can then reduce the stress response and everything associated with it (fast heart rate, that nervous jittery/buzzing sensation, foggy thinking) and replace it with the relaxation response!

This whole process takes about 45 seconds. That’s right – we can literally calm down and reclaim a sense of control over our emotions, thanks to how our bodies are naturally built, in less than a minute. Amazing, right? So, the next time you’re told to breathe, consider trying it, but make sure you’re breathing through the diaphragm!

If you aren’t sure whether what you’re doing is diaphragmatic breathing, and want to ensure you’re breathing optimally, click HERE to request my free mini-guide, “Diaphragmatic Breathing 101: Five Ways To Breathe Well.” It contains five breathing strategies that take the guesswork out of diaphragmatic breathing.

Here’s Your Brain on Trauma

Approximately 50% of the population will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives. While reactions to trauma can vary widely, and not everyone will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), trauma can change the brain in some predictable ways that can be useful to be aware of if you are struggling to cope after trauma. With an increased awareness of what is going on in your brain, you can seek treatment to address your symptoms and learn skills that will actually rewire your brain for recovery! Additionally, knowing what’s going on can be immensely helpful because you may realize that you’re not crazy, irreversibly damaged, or a bad person. Instead, think of a traumatized brain as one that functions differently as a result of traumatic events. Just as your brain changed in response to your past experiences with the world, it can change in response to your future experiences as well. In other words, the brain is “plastic,” and you can change it!

Three brain areas to know:

Trauma can alter brain functioning in many ways, but three of the most important changes seem to occur in the following areas:

1.     The prefrontal cortex (PFC), called the “Thinking Center”

2.     The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), called the “Emotion Regulation Center,” and

3.     The amygdala, called the “Fear Center”

A visual depiction of these three areas appears below.

 

As you can see, the Thinking Center (PFC) of the brain is located near the top of your head, behind your forehead. The Thinking Center is responsible for many abilities that we possess, including rational thought, problem-solving, personality, planning, empathy, and awareness of ourselves and others. When this area of the brain is strong we are able to think clearly, make good decisions, and be aware of ourselves and others.

The second region, the Emotion Regulation Center, is located next to the Thinking Center, but is deeper inside your brain. This area is responsible (in part) for regulating emotion, and (ideally) has a close working relationship with the Thinking Brain. When this region of the brain is strong, we are able to manage difficult thoughts and emotions without being totally overwhelmed by them. While we might want to send that snarky email back to a coworker, the Emotion Regulation Center reminds us that this is not a good idea, and helps us manage our emotions so that we don’t do things we regret!

The last area listed is the amygdala, which is a tiny brain structure deep inside our brain. This subcortical area, which is outside of conscious awareness or control, serves as the Fear Center of the brain. Specifically, its primary job is to receive all information – everything you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste – and answer one question: “Is this a threat?” The main purpose of the Fear Center is to detect danger and threat and, if present, produce fear in us. When this area is activated, we feel afraid, reactive, and vigilant.

So what’s going on in a traumatized brain?

Traumatized brains look different from non-traumatized brains in three predictable ways:

1.     The Thinking Center of the brain is underactivated,

2.     The Emotion Regulation Center of the brain is underactivated, and

3.     The Fear Center of the brain is overactivated.

Here’s what it looks like:

 

What this shows is that oftentimes, a traumatized brain is bottom-heavy, meaning that activation of lower, more primitive areas of the brain (called subcortical areas) are HIGH, including the Fear Center, while the higher areas of the brain (called cortical areas) are underactivated.

In English, what this means is that if you are traumatized, you may experience chronic stress, vigilance, fear, and irritation. You may also have a hard time feeling safe, calming down, and sleeping. These symptoms are the result of a hyperactive Fear Center.

At the same time, individuals who are traumatized may notice difficulties with concentration and attention, and often report they can’t think clearly. This, not surprisingly, is due to the Thinking Center being underactivated.

Finally, survivors of trauma will sometimes complain that they feel incapable of managing their emotions. For example, if someone spooks them, they may experience a rapid heart rate long after the joke is up, or may have a hard time “just letting go” of minor annoyances. Even when they want to calm down and feel better, they just can’t. This is in large part due to a weak Emotion Regulation Center.

What can you start doing now?

Changing the brain takes effort, repetition, and time. The best gift you can give yourself, if you’re serious about rewiring your brain for health, is psychotherapy. If you’re ready to start that journey, look for a psychologist who specializes in trauma and PTSD, and who uses evidence-based methods that change the brain by working with both the body and the mind.

Also, consider adding a body-based or mindfulness-based technique to your daily routine, in order to begin de-activating the Fear Center. This is a fantastic first step to healing, as when we are able to quiet the Fear Center, we are better able to work on strengthening and activating the Thinking Center and Emotion Regulation Center. Two Fear Center de-activating exercises include diaphragmatic breathing and autogenic training, and you can access free, guided practices of these techniques here. The recommendation is to practice these techniques, or similar ones, for short periods of time multiple times per day. Remember, practice makes progress!