Is the Brain More Complex Than the Universe?  

Resourceful Self
Posted in Addiction

In the brain, billions of neurons frantically transmit electrochemically-based messages over millions of miles of myelinated axons every second of your life. Brain structures composed of innervated tissue, nuclei and cell bundles also receive and send messages unceasingly via neurons supported by a fatty substance called “white matter”.

Somehow, this three-pound, lumpy-looking organ contained in the sturdy confines of your bony skull is responsible for your vision, your hearing, your sense of smell, your sense of taste and your ability to be conscious of reality.

How does the brain do this? And is the brain really more complex than the universe?

Of Quantum Physics, Black Holes and Neurotransmitters

Neuroscientists who have spent their lives studying the intricacies of the human brain will readily admit this mysterious organ may never be fully understood. Even less complicated brains composed of only a primitive limbic system (such as those found in worms, amphibians and fishes) remain difficult to understand. Although a number of theories exist that attempt to explain how human brains “do” what they do, no one theory fully deciphers the enigma of consciousness, the unpredictability of emotions and the almost instinctive drive for meaning that emerges from deep within the human brain. .

While we know that the universe is immensely old, unfathomably huge and adheres to most known laws of physics (except for black holes and that newly discovered stuff called “dark matter” that has astrophysicists scratching their heads), we only know about 10 percent of what makes the brain “tick”. We are especially confounded by how consciousness and self-awareness emerges from the bio-electro-chemical processes happening within the brain at blindingly fast speeds. In fact, some neuroscientists think the only way we will ever understand how the brain functions is to apply the often offbeat rules of quantum physics.

Without neurotransmitters, the brain would operate like the brain of a futuristic robot, capable of finding answers to the most complicated logic problems and acting in a completely rational manner. The “person” being guided by a brain without neurotransmitters would never feel hungry, sleepy, happy, angry, sad or aggravated. They would also never suffer from mental disorders or addiction, no matter how much heroin, meth or cocaine that person consumes. Absent of the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and GABA, the brain is no longer capable of feeling reward, pleasure or euphoria.

10 Things We Still Don’t Know About the Brain

  1. How mental activities arise from the interaction of synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.
  2. How memories are stored, preserved and retrieved.
  3. How complex, non-instinctual emotions such as hope, shame and embarrassment are formed by chemicals that evolved to millions of years ago in response to surviving and reproducing.
  4. How does the brain “make” someone more intelligent than another person?
  5. Why does the brain need to sleep and dream?
  6. How do specialized areas of the brain integrate and communicate with each other?
  7. What exactly is consciousness? Is it self-awareness or awareness of others?
  8. Why and how does music cause us to “feel” emotions?
  9. How does the brain allow us to “see” into the future (formulate future plans, daydream, conjecture)?
  10. What is creativity and how does the brain “create”?

Brain Science and Addiction

The more we learn about how electrochemical processes and specific pathways in the brain are altered by psychoactive substances, the more we learn about the disease of addiction. We promote understanding of how the brain responds to addictive substances, why it is so difficult to stop abusing drugs and how your brain changes during the course of a recovery program. Realizing that addiction is a brain disease can help you complete a recovery program and achieve a lifetime of sobriety, health and peace.

References:

1. http://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/9907009v2.pdf

2. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/11/emotion.aspx

3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK19961/

How Meditation Regulates Emotions and Creates a Natural High  

Resourceful Self
Posted in Mental Health

Between the stresses of school and family life, changing hormones, and the continuing development of brain areas associated with self-control, it’s no wonder that teens feel emotions so intensely.  For many teens, using drugs is a way to distract themselves or alter their emotions.  However, there is a simpler, drug-free route to emotional control and a natural high: meditation.  Study after study shows that meditation improves emotional well-being and can actually induce brain changes in the same regions impacted by drugs.

Approaches to Meditation

There are many forms of meditation, and different types work better for different people. The core feature of all types of meditation is a focus on turning inward to attend to the present moment.  Meditation can be religious or non-religious, from Eastern or Western traditions, and part of a formal practice or something you do on your own.  What is important is learning to retrain your mind and center your emotions.

Scientific Research about the Effects of Meditation on the Brain

Richard Davidson, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is at the forefront of research on meditation.  With the help of the Dalai Lama, he began recruiting Tibetan Buddhist monks to come to his research laboratory to have their brains scanned.  Dr. Davidson wanted to see if people’s brains actually change when they perform meditation.

The findings suggest that during meditation, a range of brain areas involved in attention and emotion monitoring are engaged.  Additionally, those who are experts at meditation — such as Buddhist monks who have been practicing meditation for decades — can slip into this altered brain state within moments.  People who meditate also do better at ignoring distracting information and regulating their emotions compared to non-meditators.

However, it is not just experts at meditation who can harness its benefits.  Researchers have also investigated how regular people’s brains may change after learning how to meditate.  Their results suggest that after just 8 weeks of practice, people show brain changes associated with more positive emotions and better emotional control.  

Many of these changes occur in the limbic system, which is the brain’s reward processing area.  This is also the area that is activated following drug use, suggesting that meditation and substance use may be tapping into the same underlying processes.  In fact, meditation may cause changes to the brain’s levels of dopamine, the same brain chemical involved in drug addiction.

Try It Yourself: A Simple Meditation Exercise

Many people are surprised when they first begin to meditate by how powerful it can be.  After a bit of practice, meditation results in feelings of calm, relaxation, and even euphoria.  This “natural high” allows you to better regulate your emotions and overcome distressing situations.

When first trying meditation, find a quiet place to be by yourself.  Sit in a comfortable position, either cross-legged on the floor or in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.  Note your breathing coming slowly, in and out.  Notice how your body moves when you breathe, with your rib cage and belly expanding.  Maintain your focus on your breath, coming in and out, in and out.  If you find your mind wandering, just gently return your focus to your breath.  

To start, try attending to your breath for 2 or 3 minutes.  As you get more practice, you can increase the amount of time you spend meditating or experiment with different forms of meditation.

Davidson, R. & Lutz, A. (2008). Buddha’s brain: neuroplasticity and meditation. IEEE Signal Processing Magazine, 25(1): 174-176. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2944261/

Davidson, R., et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4): 564-570.

The Impact of Structure and Support at Home on Stress and PTSD  

Resourceful Self
Posted in Stress

A supportive and well-structured home environment helps improve a loved one’s ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle. According to the National Institutes on Health (1), social support from friends and family enhances an individual’s ability to resist stressful situations and remain healthy during difficult times. When you do not have a structured and supportive environment in your home, a loved one faces a greater risk of health concerns associated with stress.

Causes of Stress

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (2) estimates that almost 7 to 8 percent of Americans develop PTSD at least once during their lifetime. Since almost 50 percent of women and 60 percent of men face traumatic situations in their lifetime, the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, it relatively low. The causes of stress in an individual’s life depend on multiple factors, including their home environment.

Common sources of stress and trauma include:

  1. Healthy and normal stress from work or relationship management
  2. Traumatic situations, like a car accident, natural disaster or an attack
  3. Abuse during childhood
  4. Lack of support and structure in the home
  5. Sexual assaults of any kind
  6. Injuries from accidents
  7. Life-changing events

Every individual faces stressful situations throughout his or her lifetime. In many cases, stress stems from minor problems like disagreements in the workplace, managing homework from school or even happy events like getting married. Severe stress and PTSD stems from out-of-control situations that leave a lasting impression on your mind and body.

The Role of Family Support in Healthy Resilience to Stress

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (3) reports that substance abuse hurts the entire family and it causes stress in your home environment. After a loved one enters a treatment program, your family must work together to create a supportive environment in the home.

According to the National Institutes on Health (1), a supportive social network helps prevent a loved one from developing PTSD after a traumatic experience and it assists with healthy recovery when a loved one does show signs of PTSD. Psych Central (4) explains that family involvement in addiction recovery helps a loved one start working toward realistic goals and improves relationships within the family unit.

When a home lacks structure and support, you allow a loved one to flounder and struggle against the symptoms of a mental health disorder without any help or assistance. Post-traumatic stress disorder contributes to a loved one’s substance abuse, particularly if it occurred before the addiction developed. A loved one attempts to handle the symptoms of PTSD by abusing a substance.

Setting up a Healthy Home Environment

An unhealthy support system causes stress and harms a loved one’s ability to rebuild his or her health during a recovery program. It allows a traumatic experience to a negative situation to grow out of control and reduces a loved one’s resilience to stressful and dangerous situations.

Set up a supportive environment by working with a loved one and the entire family throughout an addiction treatment program. Attend family therapy and work on building healthier habits that encourage a loved one to maintain his or her recovery goals.

Substance abuse harms your family and it raises concerns about your ability to trust a particular individual; however, it does not mean that a loved one will not regain his or her health. A healthy support network and clear rules provide the structure that a loved one needs to focus on goals and improve the current situation.

(1) Fatih Ozbay, M.D., Douglas C. Johnson, Ph.D., Eleni Dimoulas, Ph.D., C.A. Morgan III, M.D., Dennis Charney, M.D., and Steven Southwick, M.D., Social Support and Resilience to Stress, The National Institutes on Health, May 2007, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921311/,

(2) How Common is PTSD?, The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, November 10, 2014, http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/basics/how-common-is-ptsd.asp,

(3) Drug Abuse Hurts Families, The National Institute on Drug Abuse, http://easyread.drugabuse.gov/effects-family.php,

(4) Steven Gifford, Family Involvement is Important in Substance Abuse Treatment, Psych Central, January 30, 2013, http://psychcentral.com/lib/family-involvement-is-important-in-substance-abuse-treatment/6631/

The Existential Crisis

Resourceful Self
Posted in Mental Health

The Existential Crisis

The phrase “existential crisis” is a philosophy/psychology term used to describe intense feelings of anxiety, dread and meaninglessness. Attributed to the major existential philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Martin Heidegger, an existential crisis also includes “anguish”, which is an emotional condition that Sartre considered an essential part of being human.

Anguish emerges when we realize that our decisions to perform certain actions will profoundly affect our own existence as well as the existence of others.

Philosophically, “anguish” and the existential crisis partly arise from the idea that we have been “abandoned” in this world and have no way of knowing whether our decisions are “good” or “bad”. Another Sartrean term is despair, which co-exists with anguish, abandonment and the terrifying (to substance abusers) epiphany of having absolute freedom in a passive and meaningless world.

Inability to Cope with Responsibilities

Ultimately emerging from the realization that we have so many inescapable responsibilities, an existential crisis may lead to feelings of meaninglessness, anxiety and bewilderment. These feelings may be so overwhelming that the choices made by individuals susceptible to substance abuse tend to contribute directly to their substance addiction.

Conforming and the Existential Crisis

Many people who abuse substances have strong, nonconforming personalities that clash with the expectations of societal norms. To them, conformity does not allow for achievement, individuality or dissatisfaction with being forced to accept responsibilities. An existential (depression) crisis may strike a person suddenly when constant friction in their life forces them to think about life, death, meaning and why they must suffer when they see others being content and happy.

It is entirely normal for anyone to experience despair and hopelessness after an unsettling life event, like a death in the family, a fire destroys their home or someone they love abruptly leaves them. For those that are plagued by feelings of hopelessness, alienation and a sense that everybody is just “pretending” to like them, an existential crisis is a never-ending encounter with the deepest, darkest part of their true being that no one else could ever know or understand.

What Triggers an Existential Crisis?

Psychologists consider an existential crisis a form of clinical depression resulting from years of feeling dissatisfied, unhappy, unfulfilled and possibly unloved. Typically, an existential crisis can be triggered by one or more of the following:

  • Death of a loved one or friend (often forces the person to realize their own mortality)
  • Divorce
  • Job loss, lack of steady employment or being forced to take jobs they do not want
  • Being diagnosed with a chronic or incurable disease
  • Turning 30, 40, 50, etc. (birthdays cause many people to take a long, hard look back at their lives and what they have accomplished or not accomplished)
  • Reading about violence in the world or seeing graphic images of people suffering on the news makes people question the meaning of life and ultimately, the meaning of their own existence
  • Other psychological or physical trauma

Addiction and Existential Crises

Just like people suffering chronic pain conditions, mental illness or unbearable life situations self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, those experiencing the anxiety, depression and anguish of an unresolved existential crisis may also turn to addictive substances. They often do it to relieve the torment of dark thoughts and feelings of utter despair and meaninglessness from which they feel that can’t escape.

Substance abuse diagnosed with comorbid disorders involving depression, anxiety, derealization and the hauntingly disruptive emotions associated with an existential crisis can be addressed. Therapists experienced in addiction counseling and other psychotherapies are necessary to help the individual understand what they are feeling, why they are feeling this way and how they can cope with an existential crises with resorting to drugs or alcohol.

Sources:

http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depersonalization-derealization-disorder/basics/definition/con-20033401;

http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml

Six Surefire Ways to Cope with Stress in College

Resourceful Self
Posted in Stress

Eight in ten college students say they have experienced stress in the past three months. (1) Learning how to cope with stress will improve your college experience, help you maintain good physical and mental health and help prevent drug and alcohol abuse, which can have a devastating effect on your future.

Here are six proven ways to cope with stress in college.

Reduce Stressors

Preventing stress in the first place is the best way to cope with it. Think about the things that cause you the most stress and work to mitigate them. If you’re experiencing financial stress, working out a budget or using a money-tracking app to help you curb your spending can help you stay in the black. If you tend to procrastinate, develop and stick to a schedule to help ensure your assignments are in on time. Controlling what you can will leave you with more energy to better cope with the stressors you can’t control. 

1. Breathe

Deep breathing reduces stress hormone levels on the spot, leaving you feeling calmer and better able to cope. Whenever you’re feeling particularly stressed out, take a few minutes to sit quietly and breathe deeply and slowly.

2. Exercise

Exercise reduces stress hormones, stimulates the production of feel-good brain chemicals and reduces feelings of depression and anxiety. (2) Strive to get a half hour of moderate-intensity exercise at least five days a week. Brisk walking, swimming, biking and dancing are great ways to get exercise. You may also consider joining an intramural sports team for regular exercise and healthy camaraderie. 

3. Meditate

Meditation not only reduces stress on the spot, but it also helps your body learn to better respond to it, according to research. Meditation brings calmness and clarity, and it can help reduce symptoms of mental illness like depression and anxiety. To meditate, sit quietly and comfortably. Breathe deeply and slowly, and stay focused on your breath. When thoughts come into your head, don’t judge them. Simply acknowledge them and then return your focus to your breath. With regular practice, it will become easier to clear your mind during meditation.

4. Have Fun with Friends

Having fun with your friends can go a long way toward reducing your stress. Engage in enjoyable activities with your pals to improve your attitude and foster closer relationships. Having fun can even prevent burnout and improve your overall health. Find healthy, engaging ways to have fun with your friends for a serious dose of stress relief.

5. Make Healthy Lifestyle Choices

Good overall health is a major factor for reducing stress, and good health requires healthy lifestyle habits. Make sure you’re getting at least seven hours of quality sleep each night. Eat a healthy diet that includes lots of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. Get regular exercise. Quit smoking, and if you drink, do so in moderation. 

6. If You Can’t Cope with Stress, Seek Help

Too much stress can dramatically reduce your quality of life and sense of well-being and lead to unhealthy coping behaviors. If stress is causing problems in your life, consider professional help. Talking to a professional can help you change thought and behavior patterns that promote feelings of stress, and it can help you develop skills and strategies to reduce and cope with stress in your life. Reducing your stress will lead to a happier, healthier college experience and improve your overall outlook on life.

(1) https://www.stress.org/college-students/

(2) http://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/benefits-of-exercisereduces-stress-anxiety-and-helps-fight-depression