5 Ways We Are Priming the Brain for Addiction, Anxiety and Depression… And 5 Ways We Can Stop.

As I sat listening to the parent educator talking about the results of her research with addiction and affluent teens, I knew the question was inevitable.

“So what makes this so different from when we were kids? We all did the same stuff. Why is this such a big deal?”

I cringe. It’s true, we did do similar, even perhaps worse things. So what is the big deal? The problem is that now we are seeing a dramatic increase in mental health issues in teens and young adults. The problem is that while we were able to learn to control our “adolescent behaviors,” we are finding that young adults of today may not. The problem, I believe, if that we are literally dealing with different brains.

A couple of years ago, David Meyer, a research expert on multitasking, “likened people’s distraction behaviors of today to smoking cigarettes decades ago, before we knew what it was doing to our lungs.  In a similar way, he says, many people today are not aware of how much they are degrading their mental processes as they attempt to multitask through the day.” That quotation has haunted me as I try to navigate raising our four children.

Last week, Professor Jean Twenge published an article tying the use of smartphones to the dramatic increase in depression, anxiety and suicide among teens. Though Twenge’s argument is compelling, cell phones are only a piece of a wider picture to consider–the ways in which our current lifestyle can prime our brains for addiction, anxiety, and depression. I believe that the key to understanding how to stop it is understanding the brain.

First, here is a quick guide to three key areas of the brain that we are affecting:

Key Areas of the Brain:

braincortex (grey area)- “the thinking brain”
limbic system (blue area)- “the emotional brain”
amygdala (red area)- “the watchdog brain”

Next, a bit about brain chemicals:

Think about brain chemicals as text messages sent to different parts of the brain to give clues about how to respond. Here are some of the important messages:

Dopamine is known as the “reward message.” When we do something that feels good, the dopamine sends a signal to our brain to keep seeking out that reward.

Oxytocin is known as the “bonding message.” It is a signal for our brain to trust and feel good in this social relationship.

Serotonin is the “confidence message.” It tells our brain that we confident and happy and all is going well.

Cortisol is the “danger message.” It tells our brain that we may be getting into a dangerous situation, so we need to be prepared to react.

So with that background, let’s take a look at how our lifestyle is priming our brains.

#1: Lack of “unstructured time”

When we are born, our brains are like a jungle. Each experience that we have begins to clear pathways through that jungle, meaning that we can literally choose the neuropathways that we develop. As we practice piano, we develop pathways in our brain for music (and mathematics, etc). As we learn a new language, we develop pathways to speak that language. However, it is during unstructured time that we tend to develop higher level thinking skills such as creative thinking, problem solving, persistence, planning, organizing and communication. As our schedules become packed with structured activities and our “down time” is filled with electronic devices, those higher level thinking pathways (executive functions) are not being forged. The brain needs “unstructured time” to develop these pathways, which help to develop a healthy brain.

#2: Protection from struggle

Have you ever worked really hard toward a goal? Struggling, failing, and continuing to persevere? What happens when you finally succeed? You get that “YES!” moment. What is happening is that your limbic system gets a nice big dose of dopamine, the reward neurochemical, and serotonin, the confidence neurochemical.

Without the experience of struggle, we don’t experience that large burst of dopamine and serotonin. In other words, self-esteem is not a gift that you can give to someone, it is a neurochemical response that you rob them of every time that you protect them from struggling. Serotonin is key for helping us to develop a sense of purpose. The brain still seeks out dopamine, but if we do not have the experience with struggle, instead we seek out the smaller, more immediate rewards (sugar, facebook likes, alcohol).
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#3: Priming the limbic system for short-term rewards

Our world is filled with short-term rewards that are over-feeding our limbic system: sugar, fast-food, social media, new stories. The limbic system is the emotional brain and is in charge of short-term decisions/ survival, so it loves all of this stuff. Each time we get a little short-term reward (say a piece of candy, a social media “like,” or a piece of juicy gossip to share), our limbic system gets a little burst of dopamine, which tells it to seek out more. The more it receives those short-term rewards, the more we begin to seek them out, distracting us from those longer-term, harder to reach rewards. This primes the brain for addiction.

#4: Starving the cortex

The cortex is in charge decisions that are going to benefit us in the long-term, like studying for the test, working on the project or leaving the party to get a good night’s sleep. The cortex needs a lot of care in order to work effectively, so we don’t make our best long-term decisions when we are not taking care of the cortex. Some of the things that help the cortex work effectively are sleep, focused attention, good nutrition, in-person social interactions, and exercise.

As we prime our limbic system for those short-term rewards, our cortex begins to lose the ability to make good long-term decisions. For example, as we seek out those social media “likes,” it is often at the expense of sleep, exercise, and in-person social interactions, all of which help to develop a healthy brain. When we sleep, our brain has a chance to clean up all of the information from the day. When we exercise, our brains release serotonin and dopamine. When we have in-person social interactions, our brain releases oxytocin, the boding neurochemical. Oxytocin is a text message that lets us know that we are loved and cared for.

#5 Over-triggering the amygdala

The amygdala is in charge of looking out for threats. When we experience a threat to our survival, say a car coming at us, the amygdala is in charge of switching control of the brain to the limbic system (fight-flight-freeze) so we can get out of the way.

The amygdala responds the same way to social threats and rewards as it does to physical threats and rewards, so when we experience social threats, we get ready for fight-or-flight–and short-term decisions. That fight or flight response comes with neurochemicals that help us the react, including adrenaline (a message to move) and cortisol (a stress-response message to be on high-alert). Just like we are training our limbic systems to respond to short-term rewards, the constant stream of potential social threats (cyberbullying, news reports, social media) has primed our amygdalas to be on high alert. With our cell phones, threat is always at our fingertips.

So how can we stop it? Here are a few thoughts…

#1: Mindful Practice/ Mindful Choices

Mindfulness is an understanding of what is happening in the moment. When we are able to be mindful, we can override the amygdala and orchestrate when it is in our benefit to respond for the long-term (cortex) and when to respond for the short-term (limbic system). A healthy brain is about balance and integration.

As we learn more about the brain, mindful practice (meditation) has become more popular because neuroscientists have demonstrated the power that it has to strengthen that ability to respond more thoughtfully. It only take 5-10 minutes a day to make a true difference in how we are able to train our brains to respond, and there are several apps out there to make it easy to do.

#2: Use the Four Ss Framework to respond to challenges

The way that we think about our selves, the way we judge challenges, our support systems and our strategies determine our resilience (self, situation, supports, strategies). By using those four Ss as a framework for preparing for, handling, and reflecting on challenges, we have the opportunity to develop more resilient brain pathways.

#3: Nurture the cortex

The cortex needs nurturing. We need to be given the time and opportunity to develop long-term, high level brain pathways, and in order to do that, we need unstructured time, opportunities for challenge, and the tools for optimum brain performance, including sleep, social connections, exercise, and good nutrition. Another thing that we can do to nurture the cortex is to engage in activities that give us opportunities for pride, gratitude and compassion. We need to feel connection, confidence, competence and purpose in order to get the neurochemicals that our brains need. They are kind of like the antidotes to anxiety and depression.

#4: Tame the Limbic system

The limbic system is critical to our survival through fight-flight-or-freeze. As the “emotional brain” it is also the part of our brain through which we experience joy. The important part is to recognize when and how we are feeding that limbic system–are we constantly on the look-out for those short term rewards or are teaching our brains to hold off for that greater reward? Once again, a healthy brain is about balance and integration.

#5: Be aware of our response

Kelly McGonigal has a great TED talk called “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” The basic message: it isn’t stress that is dangerous to our health, it is the way that we respond to that stress. When people think about stress as a positive force, their arteries do not constrict, preventing the negative effects on our hearts.

Cortisol is the neurochemical that is released in response to threat. It is a text message that tells our brain to get ready to respond. However, so many of the social threats of today leave people feeling like they are not able to respond–they feel helpless. The opposite of depression is not happiness, it is action and hope. It is in those moments when we most feel hopeless that we need to act.

Moving Toward a More Mindful Lifestyle

So often, when I speak to parents, their immediate reaction is that they want to take away their kids’ phones. It feels like if only we could get rid of the phones, we could get back control. But the truth is, taking away the phone is not the answer.

The phone is a tool, one with great potential and potentially great danger. Kind of like a car. Getting a driver’s license has been a right of passage for teens for many years. It signals the independence that is primal and necessary for the teen brain. But we realize that in order to use the car safely, teens need guidance about how to use it.

Similarly, we need to recognize that technology of today provides tools that require guidance. We are at at interesting point in history. Just as our lifestyle is becoming more and more distracted, we are making breakthroughs in brain science. Understanding and applying this knowledge is the key to changing our direction. We need to integrate more mindful practice and practice making more mindful decisions in order to address the rise in mental health issues.

by Donna Volpitta, Ed.D.
Copyright 2017 The Center for Resilient Leadership

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