Self Compassion — Stress Relief That Lasts

Stress — the feeling of being overwhelmed by your to-do list, social media, politics, multi-tasking, being ever available via your phone, judging yourself harshly… the list goes on… indefinitely.

So, what to do? Next time you’re feeling particularly frazzled, try this new stress hack: Be compassionate to yourself.

Sounds too easy, right? It’s actually harder than you think to be kind to yourself. Turns out that judgy voice in your head is strongest when it’s judging you!

A new study in the Clinical Psychological Science found that practicing self-compassion has great health benefits, including reducing:

  • heart rate
  • blood pressure
  • sweating 
  • anxiety levels

The above symptoms are triggered by the body’s threat response system (adrenaline surges) that chronic stress can cause. Being in a state of constant chronic stress is terrible for your brain, your heart, your digestive system, your ability to keep from getting sick, and your overall wellbeing and longevity.

However, learning to be more self-compassionate appears to put the body in a state of safety and relaxation — which shows up as a slower pulse (heart rate) and slowed breathing. Both can be regulated by sending loving thoughts inward.

Try it for yourself

  • Take a moment to stop what you are doing and close your eyes 
  • Slow down and deepen your breathing 
  • Mentally scan your body from head to toe
  • Bring awareness to and give gratitude for each body part and what it does to keep you healthy and active.

This may be difficult at the start, so give it time. As Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback says, “We believe everyone can train themselves to be self-compassionate. Being kind to yourself is like flexing a muscle. The more you practice, the easier it will become.”

Diet soda + 10 years = increased risk of dementia & stroke 

diet soda popDiet soda + 10 years = increased risk of dementia & stroke 

Recently, a large study tracking stroke and dementia risk in diet soda drinkers caught our attention at INDY Neurofeedback.

The health hazards of sugary beverages like regular soda have been known since 2015. But a more recent study shows that the sugar-free soda version is not any healthier. 

Artificially flavored drinks like diet soda seem to be linked to a higher risk of stroke and dementia, according to a new study published in an American Heart Association journal.

This ten year study included one group of 2,888 adults age 45 and older, and a second group with 1,484 adults over age 60. Researchers studied the over-45 group for stroke risk (rare before age 45) and the over-60 group for dementia (rare before age 60).  

Researchers analyzed the number of artificially flavored drinks each person consumed. They then checked the group’s health over the next 10 years and found:

  • Those who drank at least one diet soda per day were about three-times more likely to experience an ischemic stroke (blockage of blood vessels to brain tissue), compared with those who avoided the beverages. 
  • Just one daily diet soda was linked to higher rates of dementia as well, although other risk factors like obesity or diabetes also could be to blame.
  • Researchers note that it isn’t proven that diet sodas caused these conditions. But it is true that those who developed stroke or dementia had consumed more soda than those who had not. (Other factors, such as obesity – also tied to diet soda drinking – could also be a factor).

More research is needed to determine exactly how—or how much—artificially sweetened beverages affect your vascular system, the network of vessels that carries blood to your brain. 

“What we do know,” says Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback, “is that when vessels harden or develop sticky plaque build-up, it raises your risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes, as well as dementia and stroke.”

“So the best thing you can do for your brain health is to maintain a healthy lifestyle to help protect against these illnesses. What’s good for your health and heart is generally also good for your brain.” 

Learn to Quiet Your Brain — and Live Longer

Those of us at INDY Neurofeedback were fascinated with a new study recently published in the medical journal Nature, which linked quieter brains with longevity. We were fascinated because it confirmed what we have been seeing in our neurofeedback clinic for years.

It makes sense that a less active or calmer brain would use less body energy. That’s the theory behind activities such as mindfulness and meditation – which have been around for thousands of years. It also supports the HeartMath HRV (heart rate variability) program all clients are taught in conjunction with our neurofeedback training. 

In the Nature study, researchers from Harvard Medical School reported that a calm brain with less neural activity could lead to a longer life. 

Here’s what the Harvard study showed:

  • The study analyzed donated brain tissue from people who died (aged from 60 to over 100). 
  • A protein that suppresses neural activity — called REST — was found to be associated with neural activity and mortality.
  • Researchers noticed that the longest-lived people had lower levels of REST as well as genes related to neural activity.
  • The study showed that daily periods of slowed activity spent in meditation, uni-tasking, being in quiet environments, or sleeping, were just as important for life-long brain health and longevity as more well-known maxims such as staying active, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercise. 

“Even though our brains weigh only about one-seventieth of our total weight, brains consume nearly one third of all the energy in our body,” explains Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback. “So it is incredibly important that we learn how to quiet our brains to give them a chance to rest – especially when all around us, we’re encouraged to multi-task and stay engaged.”

“Learning how to quiet our overly-busy, multi-tasking brains is vital for our mental health. And now, we know it is also connected to longevity.”

Here is what INDY Neurofeedback tells our clients:

  • Begin to tune into and listen to your body. Find out where you are holding in tension, and acknowledge those areas. When you acknowledge your body, you are more open to what is really going on for you.
  • Learn to recognize when you are feeling overwhelmed.
  • Practice mindfulness and deep breathing.
  • Try regular meditating. It’s a good way to stay tuned to your internal mental state.
  • Learn to stop reacting and talking, and be present. Really listen to what others are communicating.
  • Be brutally honest with yourself about having clear boundaries. Know when you need to take a break from work, children, problem-solving, or being with others. 
  • Spend time alone, doing what you enjoy.

Those of us here at INDY Neurofeedback have noticed that by incorporating both HRV and neurofeedback techniques, individuals can learn to gain control over various over or under active parts of our brains, providing the tools for healthier more optimal brain function.

Slow Walking, Slow Mind?

What is the pace of your usual walk? Brisk and peppy, or slow-paced? Turns out that the gait of your walk provides reams of information to onlookers and health practitioners about your age – and brain health.

Physicians have long used walking speed as a marker for cognitive capacity in older people, since gait is linked to the central nervous system. But perhaps more interestingly, you don’t have to be a senior for walking pace to play a significant part in your overall health. 

New research suggests that even people in their 40s who walk slowly are more likely to have slower functioning brains. 

A new Duke University study is the first to suggest that the gait health analysis might work for younger people as well as seniors, reports BBC.com. The data comes from a long-term study that followed approximately 900 New Zealanders from their birth in the 1970s to their 45th birthdays. The study tested participant walking speed and examined their physical health in addition to brain function.

Significantly, the slower walkers tended to display signs of accelerated aging – specifically in their lungs, teeth, and immune systems, as the researchers had expected. But surprisingly, MRI scans of the slow walkers’ brains looked notably older than the brains of the regular paced walkers. 

Adding insult in injury, strangers who were asked to assess the age of the participants from photos of their faces said the slow walkers even looked older.

Researchers from Duke University conclude that these results suggest that, “A slow walk is a warning sign of brain decline decades before old age sets in.”

What does your brain convey about your overall health? From patterns of forgetfulness to repetitive thoughts, anxiety to inability to sleep, your brain’s optimum functioning is the key to your health – no matter what your age.

If there is something about your brain health you’d like to discuss with us, come talk with us. Our consultations are free and always confidential.

Protect Your Brain by Lowering Your BMI

Losing a few pounds may help you stay sharp, according to a recent U.S. study published in the journal Neurology

The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine study looked at just under 1,300 adults, checking weight, BMI (body mass index), inflammation, and dementia. 

The lead study author found that having a higher BMI and waist circumference was associated with having a thinner cortex, which has been known to result in worse cognition later in life. BMI is a useful measure of calculating obesity levels. Using your height and weight, your BMI is an estimate of body fat and a good gauge of your risk for diseases that tend to occur with more body fat. 

In general, the higher your BMI, the higher your risk for certain diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, gallstones, breathing problems, and certain cancers. We can now add the tendency toward dementia to that list.

Researchers suspect that chronic inflammation caused by obesity may play a role in brain cortex thinning. If so, this discovery provides yet another reason to maintain a healthy weight.

“Dementia is a growing problem in the U.S. and European countries, and as of yet, there are no curative therapies,” says Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback. “So focusing on risk factors that can be modified, such as being overweight, is a proactive way to help.” 

At INDY Neurofeedback, we help our clients achieve and maintain good brain health. Eating right, exercising daily, getting proper sleep, and sustaining a healthy weight are things you can start now to help your brain health for years to come.

Your Dog Can Understand Word Meaning, Not Just Intonation

Thanks to behavioral science and the fMRI, we now know that dogs are able to understand the actual words their owners use — not just voice intonation, as previously thought.

Until a recent study was published in Science magazine, most dog owners thought that no matter what words they used, they could convince their dog that it was being praised if they used an affectionate tone. But this new canine brain study indicates that dog owners have likely been underestimating their dogs’ comprehension skills. 

The dog brain study from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest revealed that dogs do not rely exclusively on tone when they listen to human speech. Many dogs are able to recognize the meaning of frequently used words.

Behavioral scientists used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to examine patterns of brain activity in 13 specially trained dogs as they listened to their trainer speaking either words of praise or neutral words. 

The two types of commonly used Hungarian phrases were selected. Importantly, the dogs heard the two common phrases delivered in both a praising and neutral tone on multiple occasions. According to the study, “This was absolutely critical for disentangling any distinct effects that word content and intonation might have on the canine brain. Indeed, the setup led to several interesting discoveries, including fascinating similarities in the ways speech is processed in the dog and human brain.”

fMRI scans revealed that words of praise triggered particularly strong activations in the dogs’ left hemispheres. It did not matter whether they were delivered as praise or in an entirely neutral tone. Researchers believe that dog brains are capable of extracting the arbitrary symbolic content that humans assign to words, and have learned their special significance.

Researchers also found that reading intonation in human speech was found in the opposite hemisphere, the right side of the dog’s brain – just as it is in human brains. Right-side brain regions, which normally process auditory information, responded to neutral and praising tones of delivery with different levels of activation regardless of actual word content.

“This anatomical contrast of word meaning and intonation in the canine brain is strikingly similar to what we know about the brains of humans,” remarked Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback. “We’ve known since the turn of the 19th century that humans with damage to part of the left hemisphere could be fluent in speech but lack comprehension. They also had difficulty understanding the meaning of others’ speech. More recently, researchers have discovered that those with certain types of right hemisphere damage can understand the meaning of words, but struggle to interpret people’s emotional states — or humor — which are usually expressed by tone. So it’s interesting to discover that the two hemispheres of dog brains appear to be similarly specialized for interpreting communications.” 

It turns out that dogs use tone to assess the possibility of hearing some rewarding content, but integrate both sources of information to ultimately decide whether they are indeed being praised. This effect doesn’t seem to be too different from what happens in the human brain when we assess whether or not something we are taking in is pleasant. We do this for example, when we evaluate how much we like a particular piece of music.

The similarities between how canine and human brains interpret speech by integrating word meaning and intonation probably dates back to the dawn of canine domestication. 

In the process of selecting dogs with characteristics that made them better companions for us, we inevitably also selected for brains that process communications in a similar way to ours. 

After all, similarly tuned brains are probably better suited for connecting with each other. Another reason dogs are our best friends.

How Screams Trigger Our Brains 

Why is it that a high-pitched scream causes us to drop everything and give 100% of our attention to the source of the noise?

It’s not just because screams are loud. Lots of other things in our daily lives are loud. But high decibel screams in particular are impossible to ignore. 

Here’s why: Human screams contain fast, barely perceptible fluctuations in loudness, usually at frequencies of between 40 and 80 Hz. This frequency makes them acoustically shocking to our ears. And now, thanks to new studies, we understand why human screams hijack our brains into paying attention. 

A research team at the University of Geneva has found that the 40 to 80 Hz frequency range triggers reaction in brain areas related to more than hearing – this frequency also triggers the brain’s aversion to pain. 

The new study, published in Nature Communications, invited16 participants to listen to streams of repetitive clicks played at various frequencies, between 50 to 250 Hz. At frequencies below about 130 Hz, participants could hear distinct clicks. Above this frequency, the clicks were usually perceived as being one continuous sound. 

The participants reacted particularly vehemently to very loud, unpleasant sounds, with fluctuations in the range of 40-to-80 Hz. This is the same range of frequencies heard in home alarm systems, sirens, and human screams, including a baby’s scream of intense distress.

Researchers attached a type of EEG directly to study participants’ brains so they could see what areas of the brain were aroused when these particular screams were heard. They found that when an intense 40-to-80 Hz scream was experienced, it was perceived as excruciating and affected highly specialized areas of the brain. 

In fact, the EEG showed synchronized patterns of activity in a number of brain areas, including the amygdala, hippocampus and insula. These areas are all related to the experience of pain, which explains why participants perceived these intense sounds as being unbearable. The amygdala, hippocampus and insula areas if the brain experiences these intense sounds as high danger, activating cortisol release – the “fight or flee” hormone — so that the sounds are impossible to ignore. 

Listening to our environment, we hear how we have learned to exploit the brain’s recognition of danger calls by engineering car alarms, home alarms, tornado sirens, and fire engines with the same danger frequency range to get their urgent messages across. 

At INDY Neurofeedback, we find our complex brains endlessly fascinating. If you have a question regarding the way your brain works, let’s talk. Our goal is for your brain to work optimally.

How Your Brain Reacts to Fright

Why do some of us like getting a good scare now and then?

When something startles you, your body’s response is pretty interesting. And like so many things, it all starts with our amazing brains.

Here’s why we jump and how getting scared works:

  • When we experience something scary, your brain sends out an immediate alert to your amygdala, the brain’s control center for emotions and reactions. 
  • When the amygdala receives the alert, it activates your fight or flight response, sending a rush of adrenaline coursing through your bloodstream. This adrenaline sets you into a hyper alertness; your pupils dilate and your eye muscles tense to open your eyes wide, expanding your field of vision.
  • The adrenaline also causes your heart to immediately pump faster, increasing your blood pressure and breathing rate. 
  • Your arms and legs raise with goose bumps, the mammalian response (seen frequently in cats) to make us appear larger to predators. 

A few seconds later, another region of your brain kicks in, your prefrontal cortex — the region that rules your thinking. Only then does the assessment part of your scare begin.

Your brain begins to decide whether or not there’s a rational reason to be scared. If your fear is well founded, your prefrontal cortex finds ways to keep you safe. If not, it begins to shut down all that adrenaline, and your body begins to go back to normal.

Does anything good come out of all this?

Assuming we were watching a scary movie and not running from a bear, it might not seem as if anything good could come from being frightened. But — your body’s response to fear can give you some small health boosts. 

Being scared can heighten concentration. You are more likely remember details about the situation (again, your amazing brain to the rescue helping you recognize patterns in case the scare reoccurs). That heightened concentration will also help you to remember your lines in a play, or nail a job interview.

If you are sharing your scare — such as watching a scary movie with friends or family, as you calm down, the act of sharing that extreme emotion will encourage the secretion of the hormone oxytocin, encouraging bonding. 

How to calm yourself down when you are overly panicked:

Most of us cannot control the first part of panic, when your amygdala takes over. But we can train ourselves to react to fear less violently by learning to control our secondary stress reactions.

  • First, breathe deeply and steadily. That will help slow down the production of stress hormones, steadying your heart rate and helping your muscles relax.
  • Second, remind yourself that your body is responding in the way it is designed to, working to self protect. Embracing and understanding the process will help you calm down faster.
  • You can add to that calm by focusing on your vegus nerve  — gently massaging from the top of your ear to the lobe. This has been proven help reverse your body’s fight of flight response and calm you down.

Now that you know what’s going on in your body, feel free to enjoy a little scare now and then!

How Regular Exercise Benefits Your Brain

It’s fairly well known that research studies are finding that regular exercise absolutely benefits the brain, especially as we age. What we are still trying to determine is precisely how exercise helps counter the cognitive decline that comes with aging.

To find out, researchers at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health have studied a unique group of middle-aged people at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s — 1,500 people who are cognitively normal, but have genes that put them at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s, or have one or two parents who have been diagnosed with the disease.

The research team is trying to relate which biological processes change with exercise. In one study, these at-risk ‘middle agers’ were divided in two groups, those not physically active and those that were. All had their brains scanned to track Alzheimer’s-related brain changes including differences in how neurons metabolized glucose, since people with Alzheimer’s disease tend to break down glucose more slowly. At the end of the study period, the group that exercised more showed higher levels of glucose metabolism and performed better on cognitive-function tests compared to those who did not.

In previous work, the Wisconsin researchers identified a series of Alzheimer’s-related biological changes that seemed to be affected by exercise by comparing people who were more physically active to those who were not. In this study, they showed that intervening with an exercise regimen could actually affect these processes.

Collectively, this body of research is determining how physical activity contributes to significant changes in the biological processes in the brain that drive Alzheimer’s, and may even reduce the effect of strong risk factors such as age and genes linked to higher risk of neurodegenerative disease.

So what does this study mean to you? Brain scans of people who reported exercising at moderate intensity for at least 150 minutes a week, showed that age-related changes to the brain were significantly reduced over those who sporadically exercised or did not at all. The benefits of exercise in controlling Alzheimer’s processes was even stronger among those with genetic predisposition for the disease.

What about those that exercise even more? Studies show that people with higher aerobic fitness levels showed low amounts of white matter hyperintensities, which are signs of neuron degeneration. These show up as brighter spots on MRI images, hence the name. White matter hyperintensities tend to increase in the brain with age, and are more common in people with dementia or cognitive impairment.

So, exercise matters. A lot. This is confirmed by the National Institutes of Health. Exercise for your body’s fitness and your brain’s. It all contributes to aging gracefully and keeping your cognitive abilities going strong. If you are interested in knowing more about your brain, call INDY Neurofeedback to schedule a brain mapping.

How We Process Learning Intentionally And Unintentionally Is Very Different

Would you have trouble memorizing and repeating back ten un-related words? How easily do you absorb driving directions before using them?

Learning something intentionally is called explicit learning, such as the list of instructions and words mentioned above. However implicit learning – learning that is naturally absorbed and not intentional — is something brain researchers are very interested in learning more about.

Implicit learning is recognized as a core learning system that underlies our learning of language, music, navigating our environments, and much more. It’s been assumed that implicit learning is something we are born with, a strategy for basic, rudimentary learning. A good example is grammar. Although a six-year-old cannot explain the rules of grammar, s/he will know how to use basic grammar to communicate. The learning of language rules is an unconscious learning of abstract knowledge, even though it is absolutely learned information.

So how does this type of learning occur in our brains? And how much of a difference in this type of learning is there, from person to person?

In a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 64 healthy young adults were given four types of tasks that required implicit learning, including:

  • Ascertaining an artificial grammar usage and correctly applying it.
  • Predicting whether a particular group of images was going to trigger a specific outcome.
  • Guessing where a circle was going to appear on a screen based on prior sequences.
  • Classifying abstract visual stimuli into categories.

One week after these tasks, the same participants returned to complete an IQ test as well as different versions of each of their former tasks. They were tested on their working memory as well as their “explicit” learning (deliberately memorizing a list of words).

For three of the four implicit learning tasks, the researchers found a “medium” level relationship between a participant’s initial performance and how well they did a week later. This suggests stability in implicit learning ability.

The team also found that how well a participant performed at implicit learning bore no relation to their IQ or working memory results. It seemed to be driven by independent neural processes rather than those that explained explicit learning — which is linked to IQ.Their findings tended to reinforce earlier work which tied explicit and implicit learning to different brain regions and networks.

Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback, weighs in. “The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for explicit — but not implicit learning. Researchers have found that damage to the basal ganglia and cerebellum sections of the brain impair implicit, but not explicit, learning. Each area of our brain is responsible for different systems, functions and behavior.” 

These findings also suggest that someone might feasibly be smart, as measured by an IQ test, but not particularly adept at implicit learning – perhaps slower than someone else with a significantly lower IQ score. A good example of this is the ability to identify a barely discernible tumor in a medical scan, which would require implicit learning strength.

So, brain researchers wonder, can implicit learning brain mechanisms be trained? How might explicit learning help or hinder implicit learning?

“Our brains are incredibly diverse and complicated. It will be fascinating to learn about the results of follow-up research in this field,” says O’Neil.

If you are concerned about your recall or short-term memory, INDY Neurofeedback has drug-free, non-invasive training plans that can help you improve memory and brain function. Your first consultation is free.