Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Training the Puppy in Your Brain: “Catch It in the Act”

The brain changes itself constantly throughout our entire lives. All of our experience changes the brain. Symptoms such as pain, discomforts of illness, anxiety, and depression also change the brain — because they are part of our experience. The brain “learns” those symptoms, and builds them into pathways that stay in the brain. These pathways become stronger and stronger with repetition.

How can we “unlearn” symptoms? I remember learning trigonometry in high school, and then never used it again. Eventually, I forgot how to do it — I “unlearned” trigonometry.

If we want to “unlearn” pain, we have to stop “using” it. To understand how, it helps to know something about dog training.

How is the brain like a puppy dog?

If you’ve ever trained a dog, you know that it takes a lot of time, patience, and repetition.
The trainer also needs to have three very important qualities:
  • Stay positive
  • Be consistent
  • Always “catch it in the act”

Puppy on floor, looking up with sad eyes, symbolizing the brain's bad habits before being retrained with neuroplasticity
When I walk in the house and see my dog with her nose in the garbage, I want to interrupt that behavior as fast as I can (in a neutral way) and then immediately get my dog to demonstrate a positive behavior so I can praise her: “good dog!” It looks like this:
    • Stop! (Catch it in the act)
    • Come, sit! (Be consistent)
    • Good dog! (Stay positive)
    On the other hand, if I come home and see garbage on the kitchen floor, with the dog happily lying on her bed in the other room, I’ve lost my opportunity for training. If I call her into the room and show her the garbage, she doesn’t understand. There is no perceived connection between the garbage and her doggy brain. That is why I have to “catch her in the act”!

    Similarly, if I want to extinguish a symptom (remember that symptoms are reinforced by connections and pathways in the brain) I can “catch it in the act” by
    • immediately noticing that I have pain, or anxiety, or depression (whatever symptom I have) stopping the experience of the symptom right now by taking my attention away from the symptom itself and
    • quickly counter-stimulating the brain using one of many positive attention-grabbing techniques, such as telling my brain to stop! the symptom, and remembering a fun activity, thus
    • helping my brain feel like my dog, “wonderful, good, happy brain!”


    We learn from dog training that when the trainer makes a mistake (gets tired, overworked, doesn’t feel well) and does not immediately stop the unwanted behavior, the training itself will ultimately be more challenging and take longer, leading to more garbage on the floor!

    Training the brain (unlearning symptom-related pathways) requires
    • interrupting the experience of the symptom every time we notice it
    • developing many techniques (tools) — immediate positive and engaging experiences — to counter-stimulate the brain (like singing, looking at photos of vacations, or viewing pet videos!)
    • patience and persistence — changing the brain is a slow process!

    Why is it so important to interrupt the symptom as soon as we notice it?

    The answer has to do with the rules of Neuroplasticity — how it works in the brain:

      Happy dog (chocolate lab Grace) symbolizing a brain retrained with neuroplastic tools to stop repeating pain
    • What is fired is wired (and nerves that fire together wire together): When brain cells (nerves) are activated, cell by cell, it makes a pathway (set of connections between nerves) that stays in the brain. Repetition strengthens the connections/pathways.
    • Nerves that are activated at the same time in the same place make connections and pathways together
    • Use it or lose it: The pathways that have been created in the brain disappear if you don’t keep using them!
    • When you make them you break them; when you break them you make them: In order to make new connections (pathways) in the brain, existing connections are broken; in order to break existing connections (pathways) in the brain, new connections must be made. This way the brain conserves its resources.

    We want the brain’s “use it or lose it” principle to break up connections and pathways that reinforce symptoms of chronic pain/discomfort, anxiety, and depression.
    • The brain will do this only when symptom-related connections and pathways are not being “used.”
    • Therefore, we must interrupt the experience of the symptoms as quickly as possible to stop “using” those pathways.

    The brain keeps changing – we can do it!

    When we consistently interrupt the experience of our symptoms, eventually the brain will decide that the symptom-related pathways are no longer being “used.” That is when the “use it or lose it” principle will be activated. Pathways associated with pain, anxiety, depression, and other symptoms will be broken up to help the brain make new positive connections and pathways. As pathways are broken up, symptoms reduce more and more. I’ve been using this practice for almost six years, and experience vastly reduced pain and greatly expanded energy and abilities. The puppy dog in my brain is as happy and well-trained as my wonderful dog Grace.

    Learn how to do it for yourself in my group:
    A Change of Mind: Neuroplastic Tools for Healing

    Monday evenings 6:00–8:00 p.m.
    Starts October 8, 2018
    Tuesday mornings 11 a.m.–1:00 p.m.
    Starts October 9, 2018

    Wednesdays 3:30–5:30 p.m. PDT
    Starts October 17, 2018

    For information and to apply, please see:
    Individual Appointments Available

    Wednesday, January 10, 2018

    How an Online Group Can Help You

    I’ve lived with chronic pain myself for 28 years, and for the last 5 years, since I’ve been practicing the neuroplastic method, it’s gotten better and better – and I’m able to be active from morning until night!

    You may have looked at my website, thought about your symptoms, and wished that you lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, where my Medical Counseling practice is located. Or perhaps you live with chronic pain and read Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, and wanted to learn the neuroplastic method developed by Drs. Moskowitz and Golden — but you live in the Midwest, or the East Coast, or the South, or Canada. Maybe you have a friend who was in one of my groups, “A Change of Mind: Neuroplastic Tools for Healing,” and who already has less anxiety, more energy, or less pain, but it’s simply too far for you to drive to Berkeley.

    If so, you are the person who inspired me to take my group to the Internet. My first online session of “A Change of Mind: Neuroplastic Tools for Healing” was held in autumn 2017, with participants from many different places. Using Zoom videoconferencing technology, and with the help of “Steve the Tech Guy,” every participant was able to connect with me and with each other, support and be supported, and learn about the brain, neuroplasticity, the neuroplastic method I adapted from Drs. Moskowitz and Golden, as well as many techniques, all of which help us (yes, me too!) change brain pathways associated with symptoms of chronic pain, anxiety, depression, negative/unhelpful thought patterns, and symptoms of chronic illness. By doing so, over time, we begin to rewire our own brains so our symptoms can gradually be reduced, and some can even be eliminated.
    The new online session of “A Change of Mind: Neuroplastic Tools for Healing” will begin February 7, 2018 — Wednesdays 3:30 to 5:30 PM PST
    There will be eight meetings of two hours each. It’s easy to use the technology, and the Tech Guy will be there each time to help anyone as needed. You can be in your own home, in any position that’s comfortable, and you have a choice each time of being seen by video or simply heard by audio (you can participate even if it’s a “bad hair day!”).

    The cost is $500, and if you are experiencing financial limitations, there is a sliding scale available. I want you to feel better!

    A few representative comments from both online and in-person group participants:

    • This group was a great way to connect with others facing health challenges and to learn to use tools to improve symptoms. Overall, a high-quality group!
    • Being in a group of people who understand pain is a huge thing.
    • This group was very helpful to me as I struggled with illness.
    • Being part of an online community for 8 weeks, especially the check-in at the beginning, helped with motivation.
    • I use many of the tools to help me deal with symptoms and anxiety.
    • I am more cheerful and happier.
    • Wonderful. Inspiring and encouraging. Way more positivity with purposeful upbeat thoughts. Mood better. More hope.
    • Using these principles (MIRROR) to apply to other important life issues beside pain is also very life-changing; it opens to moving in another direction.
    • I have less pain already – a real breakthrough after 30 years of chronic back pain. It’s uneven, but to move and not have pain is amazing!
    • The facilitator is excellent – I don’t know where else I would get this process from someone who could present it so well for non-medical people.

    In addition to the online group, I have two in-person groups starting in early February. More information and sign-up form are on my website’s Change of Mind Groups page.