Want to be more creative? Reduce your stress!

I was recently asked by a reporter to answer the questions, "Does happiness make us more creative?" I thought this was an excellent question, especially since so many people have careers that require creativity and flexible thinking. The short answer is yes! In fact, the main barrier to our own creativity is stress. Here's why...

Creativity is a complex process that requires the activation of several areas of the brain, and collaboration between those areas. When feeling sad or depressed, the "stress center" of the brain (called the amygdala) activates, which actually suppresses the brain regions we need "online" in order to be creative (such as the prefrontal cortex, which allows us to have cognitive flexibility). What this means is that when we are upset or stressed, we lose perspective and the ability to find new, novel solutions to problems.

Also, when we get stressed out we lose the ability to create, because the "imagination network" in the brain cannot collaborate with the "attentional control network." This collaboration allows us to think of new ideas, but also helps us figure out ways to express or implement them. When sadness and depression are present we go into a survival mode, where creativity is switched off and survival becomes the main goal!

So what can we do to increase creativity? First set aside time to do nothing. No work, no emails, nothing. At least 15 minutes per day, plan it in your schedule to purposefully zone out, preferably without any technology. Second, whenever possible get outside, into nature. This can be hard during the winter months for some people, but being outside opens our senses to a variety of sights, sounds, and smells, and encourages new connections in the brain while also calming the stress response. Thus, the next time you feel stuck and can't make progress on a creative pursuit, get out and "smell the flowers"!

Wired for success! Change your brain for health and happiness.

With some habit changes and exercises, it is possible to rewire your brain in ways that allow you to become more successful in life. There are a few key ways ways to create a better, stronger, smarter brain:

  • First, incorporate tryptophan into your diet. Specifically, a diet rich in tryptophan is critical for the production of neurochemicals that make you smart and happy, such as serotonin. Most people don't realize that serotonin is produced by your body thanks to the food you eat. But not all food is created the same, in terms of how it facilitates brain health. Foods rich in tryptophan and niacin help you produce more serotonin, as tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin. Research has shown that when people who take depression medication strip their diet of tryptophan, they become depressed despite being on the SSRI (depression medication). By incorporating more tryptophan in your diet you'll not only feel happier, you'll be better able to regulate your emotions and become less impulsive. Emotion regulation is often a key to success when stress and tension are high!
  • Next, meditate and exercise. Though it has become a cliche, a key component to building a strong, smart brain is meditation. And if you want to magnify the effects of meditation, exercise at least three times per week.
  • Finally, incorporate omega-3s into your diet. A very important area of the brain, called the hippocampus, holds the key to success for many of us. The hippocampus is the "memory center" of the brain, but it does a lot more than help us remember items on our to do list. The hippocampus allows us to prioritize the stuff we need to remember and let go of the stuff we don't, and helps us identify the tasks and goals that are most important (along with some other areas of the brain). Additionally, this area of the brain is part of the stress response system, and is specifically involved in the regulation of stress. Without a well-functioning hippocampus, stress wreaks havoc on our brain and body, causing "allostatic load," or unmanaged stress. A strong hippocampus allows us to remember what needs to remembered, prioritize goals, and regulate stress. However, anxiety and prolonged stress damage the hippocampus, shrinking it over time, which leads to memory deficits and mental health challenges.

    Meditation, exercise, and omega 3s have actually been shown to help people produce *brand new neurons* in this area of the brain, a process called "neurogenesis." There is no other brain change that is likely to make you smarter and more successful than neurogenesis, and we know we are capable of neurogenesis if we meditate, exercise, and get plenty of omega-3s!

Thinking of using insurance to pay for therapy? Read this first!

Many clients enter therapy wanting to use insurance. This is completely understandable, as using insurance can greatly offset the cost of obtaining much-needed mental health services. What a lot of clients don’t realize, however, is that a lot of personal information may need to be shared with the insurance company to use in-network benefits, and there may be limits to the benefits they are allowed to use. When using in-network benefits it’s helpful to know the following:

  1. A diagnosis is required by insurance companies, and this label will become part of your medical record. While this is not concerning to some clients, others feel this to be too much of a violation of their privacy, and it can pull therapists to assign a label to clients that they many not be totally comfortable with. 
  2. Clients' records are not protected, which means that all information about the client, including very personal information, may be obtained by the insurance company. Different companies require different types of information, so it is in your best interest to contact your insurance carrier and ask what types of information they obtain from mental health professionals. 
  3. Clients' care is dictated by the insurance company, and the therapist essentially works for the insurance company, not the client. This can compromise the quality of mental health services provided and can limit services provided. It is not uncommon for insurance companies to dictate the length, duration, and frequency of therapy sessions.

While using insurance is not always a negative experience for clients, it’s useful to understand the power insurance companies wield, and to have a plan in place if they try to limit your services.

One alternative that works for many clients is to use their out-of-network insurance (OON) benefits. Many insurance plans have good OON benefits, which is a well-kept secret that many clients don’t realize. If you’re curious about your OON benefits, definitely give your insurance a call and ask them what your OON behavioral health (outpatient) benefits include. You may be pleasantly surprised! The upside to using OON benefits is that the insurance company is not entitled to as much personal information about you (it’s usually pretty minimal), and your therapist will work for YOU, not the insurance company.

If you’re wanting to start therapy at KCMHA, we will work with you as best as possible to use your in-network benefits if needed, but will also help you use your OON benefits when when that is preferred!

Exercise and anxiety: The surprising link!

Exercise has amazing effects on the brain and body, helping with a variety of mental health challenges. In particular, those suffering from anxiety disorders can benefit immensely from exercise, including high intensity interval training. This is because, unknown to most, exercise is the number one best way to generate new neurons in the memory center of the brain (called the hippocampus), meaning that exercise can actually *reverse* brain damage caused by chronic stress and anxiety. This results in better long-term management of the stress response system and improves memory and concentration.

Additionally, exercise has been shown to increase heart rate variability, decrease activation in the stress pathway (called the HPA Axis), and reduce activation of the "fear center" of the brain (called the amygdala), meaning that it works to keep you calm and feeling good by eliciting changes in both the body and the brain. So the next time you feel on edge or overwhelmed, make some time for this brain-changing, brain-growing technique and hit the gym!

Change Your Brain With Cognitive Therapy: Why you should do the corny, touchy-feely things recommended by your therapist.

If you’ve ever been in the market for a mental health provider, you’ve probably come across references to “cognitive behavioral therapy” or “cognitive therapy,” as these are common approaches for treating a variety of mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety. Broadly, cognitive therapies teach clients how to work with, manage, or change their thoughts in order to reduce symptoms such as depressed mood, worry, insomnia, etc. The idea here is that when you can manage or change your thoughts to be less distressing, you’ll feel better emotionally and engage in healthy behaviors.

This makes sense to most people, but a lot of clients complain to me that some of the methods recommended to them to shift their thoughts seem corny, superficial, or too touchy-feely. I’ll hear, “My last therapist told me to repeat these worthless affirmations…” Or, “I laughed when my therapist told me to write in red lipstick on my bathroom mirror what a lovable person I am…” Often, these “think positive” types of exercises are seen as a waste of time. Why would therapists recommend this stuff? What is going in the brain during cognitive therapy and, more specifically, why should we engage in the corny thought-shifting techniques promoted by some therapists and New Age thinkers?

The answer, put simply, is that when we engage in cognitive therapy, including all types of cognitive restructuring and thought-shifting techniques, we change critical neural networks that shape how we think, feel, and see the world, as well as what we believe to be possible.

The brain contains roughly 86 billion neurons, each of which is connected to about 10,000 others. The connections between these neurons organize themselves according to topics, or themes, and become neural networks over time. The result is that we have billions of neural networks dedicated to all kinds of thoughts, topics, emotions, and situations. For example, we all have a neural network called “dogs,” “the color white,” “coffee,” etc. If you’ve ever focused on it, you probably have a neural network for it. To understand why cognitive therapy can be so helpful, it’s useful to understand some basic rules about how neural networks work. Here are the three main rules of neural networks, in a nutshell…

The Three Rules of Neural Networks

1. The focus of your attention is the network you are in. If you are thinking about cleaning your toilet, you are in that network so long as you keep focusing on that topic. If you’re reflecting on what a good or terrible person you are, you are in the “good person” or “bad person” network so long as your mind is focused on that topic. Your attention tells you the neural network you are in. While it is common to find ourselves magically in the depths of some old network that may not be helpful, we can learn to practice mindful awareness in order to begin noticing where the mind wanders and lands. And, when needed, we can begin to shift attention to more helpful networks.

2. Neurons that fire together wire together. This is called Hebb’s Rule (1949), which basically says that repeated experience can strengthen or weaken neuronal bonds. The more neurons fire together, the faster and stronger they wire together, producing larger and stronger networks over time. What this means is that when you spend a lot of time in a particular network (meaning, you’re focusing your attention on one thing a lot), you grow it, and it becomes bigger and stronger.

There’s a New Age movement going on which tells us that what we think about can grow, and thoughts can become real. Some people even believe that with thoughts they can “manifest” certain outcomes in their lives. While this type of thinking invites eye rolls from some scientifically minded folks, these ideas are backed by neuroscience. It is in fact true that what you think of grows — quite literally — in the brain. And the more you focus on something, the more connections to that thing you make, which means that over time you begin to see the world more and more through that particular network/lens and the things that are connected to it. What you focus on, you get a lot more of. So engage with your thoughts wisely, and pay attention to which networks you spend a lot of time in!

3. Use it or lose it. Just as attending to a particular thought strengthens the neural network associated with that thought, neglecting neural networks results in a weakening of those networks over time. A great example of this is a neural map of a town. If you’ve ever lived in one place and then moved, you’ve noticed over time that you gradually get better at finding your way around the new town. It doesn’t happen immediately, but it does happen over a period of months, and the reason for this is that you build a neural network of that new town, which becomes stronger with time. As this neural network strengthens, however, you may notice that your memory of how to get around your old town becomes increasingly fuzzy. When you return to your old town years later, you realize you no longer can find your way around like you used to. This is because that network has atrophied over time as a result of neglect.

With neural networks, you either use them, or you lose them! This is really good news, because it means that if we can promote disintegration of old, negative, unhelpful networks, we can reduce the intensity and frequency with which we produce (and experience!) the distressing thoughts associated with those networks. Instead, we can build new, positive, helpful networks to spend time in, and reality shifts.

What These Rules Mean for Therapy

When a client is engaged in cognitive therapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy, the main goals are to: 1) help the client become aware of the network they are in by becoming aware of their thoughts (which can be difficult!), 2) recognize how being in that network/having that thought is helpful to them or not so helpful, 3) become aware of the consequences of spending time in that network/engaging with that thought, and 4) shift out of that network/thought into more helpful networks/thoughts when needed.

When we are mindful about where our attention goes, we are able to craft our neural networks to be more helpful, adaptive, and healthy. And when we shift away from the old, unhelpful networks that contain negative self-talk or beliefs, they actually begin to wither away as we cease to activate them. Thus, while gratitude exercises, thinking positive, or “manifestation” through thought manipulation may seem touchy-feely, they are very much in line with what we know leads to brain change, as they promote neural network alteration though thought shifting (or, in cognitive therapy language, “cognitive reappraisal”). So the next time your therapist tells you to repeat some affirmations or fill out a daily gratitude journal, remember that they are helping you change your brain for the better!

(Reposted from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/workings-well-being/201711/change-your-brain-cognitive-therapy