Neuroplasticity Tip: Understand How Associative Learning Causes Physiological Changes

Two things to understand first:

  1. You can use your conscious mind to train your brain, changing its unconscious activity.
  2. AND, your brain learns from and changes due to unconscious activity, too.

Most of the brain’s activity is unconscious. Things like regulating your blood pressure, regulating your breathing, triggering feelings of hunger or thirst, triggering the release of chemicals and hormones (such as oxytocin, vasopressin, or cortisol) do not generally enter your consciousness.

But if every time you are around cleaning chemicals, your hypothalamus is scanning the environment, identifying bleach as a danger, and flooding your body with fight-or-flight hormones and chemicals, your brain will learn quickly that anything it thinks is related to bleach is a problem, whether you consciously smell it or not.

There is no question that anyone can train their brain to associate a stimulus with an unconscious response, thereby making the previously neutral stimulus a “trigger.” Most of the time, this happens without our conscious awareness or intent.

Ivan Pavlov was the first person to specifically document this and be recognized for this work. Neither dogs nor humans have conscious control of our salivation, but when Pavlov paired a bell ringing with the appearance of food, he “trained’ dog to drool at the sound of a bell.

Likewise, any of us can train our brains to turn on thirst or hunger — or shallow, fast breathing; a rise in blood pressure; or a release or oxytocin — with ANY stimulus. We could set up a training situation so that seeing a yellow card, hearing a horn honk, feeling something prickly, or smelling flowers changed our physiological response so that our breathing, hunger, blood pressure, or hormone levels change, even though there’s nothing intrinsic to seeing a yellow card that to making blood pressure rise. Like all animals, humans learn by association in the most primitive parts of our brain.

However, you can use your conscious mind to change your brain:

  • If you feel an unbidden surge of anger and anxiety every time you think of someone, you can train your brain to react differently to the thought of that person by practicing lovingkindness meditation. This would make it more likely your brain would trigger the release of oxytocin (the bonding or love hormone) when you see that person instead of cortisol or epinephrine (stress hormones).
  • If you have a spike in blood pressure when you smell fragrances, you can change your reaction to them by doing the DNRS steps when you smell fragrances.
  • And likewise if your digestion comes to a halt or you start breathing shallow, fast breaths when you eat a certain food, you can retrain your mind using DNRS and thus, eventually, your brain, which will communicate with your GI tract and your lungs…

If you pair whatever the trigger (stimulus) is with a DIFFERENT association (response), you can change your body’s PHYSICAL reaction. I know it seems weird to think that physical changes — changes in the body — can be affected by the mind, but they can because the mind tells the brain what’s important.

Happy Repatterning!

Neuroplasticity Training Tip: Perform an Incompatible Behavior

This tip is a continuation of yesterday’s tip about management versus training. Sometimes you can do BOTH management and training at the same time!

“Performing an incompatible behavior” is a great trick to get your brain doing something other than the undesirable behavior AND it is usually also a way to train a response that is different from your previous, undesirable/dysfunctional reaction.

Performing an incompatible behavior is a four-step process.

1. First you have to check in with WHAT you’re brain is doing that you don’t like. Try to name it.

This could be: feeling anxious/tight/constricted, ruminating on hopelessness or past hurts, hyperventilating, fixating on the chocolate cake in your refrigerator, predicting a bad outcome, fixating on an unpleasant smell, causing butterflies in your stomach and tightness in your throat, etc.

2. Then think, “What would be the OPPOSITE of this?”

You might come up with any of these:

The opposite of “feeling anxious/tight/constricted” may be feeling loose/relaxed/open.

The opposite of “ruminating on hopelessness or past hurts” may be feeling hopeful or imagining a wonderful moment in the future, or feeling grateful or thinking about a time someone was kind to you.

The opposite of “hyperventilating” may be breathing slowly, deeply, and calmly.

The opposite of “fixating on the chocolate cake in your refrigerator” may be focusing your thoughts on a really absorbing activity that is not in your kitchen.

The opposite of “predicting a bad outcome” may be focusing on anything happy or confidence-inspiring.

The opposite of “fixating on an unpleasant smell” may be (again) focusing on anything else that excludes that, especially ignoring all smells at all or could be focusing on enjoyable things you see or hear or touch.

The opposite of “causing butterflies in your stomach and tightness in your throat” may be feeling warm and relaxed and soft in your belly and open and free in your throat.

3. Then, decide what behavior would get your body/brain into the desired state. 

Generally speaking, you want to do something that requires active focus and concentration, if possible, and something enjoyable. I often find that vigorous or careful physical activity work best because I have to really be focused on what my body is doing. Studying a topic you care passionate about, playing a musical instrument or singing, doing an interesting and complex puzzle or game (usually solo because you don’t want to have flights of fancy while someone else takes a turn), painting or other artwork, or an intense interpersonal interaction (giving someone empathy, playing with a very active child) are all good.

Activities that are passive or in which you can “multi-task” usually don’t work as well. So, for example, watching TV, talking on the phone, or checking email are often not focused enough because your mind can still wander back to the undesirable location.

Continuing with the examples I gave above, you might decide to try these activities as incompatible behaviors:

The opposite of “feeling anxious/tight/constricted” may be feeling loose/relaxed/open.

I feel relaxed and open when I dance. Dancing is exercise, so it releases cortisol. It’s joyous and open and active, and the music can be loud. When I am dancing, I am just present in my body and not ruminating. Dancing is my go-to FAVORITE activity that is incompatible with anxiety, tension, rumination, worrying, etc.! You could use dancing for anything on this list!

The opposite of “ruminating on hopelessness or past hurts” may be feeling hopeful or imagining a wonderful moment in the future, or feeling grateful or thinking about a time someone was kind to you.

You could use the DNRS steps for this because the memory and visualization part very often involve great joy, appreciation, hope. If you wanted an antidote specifically to ruminating on past hurts, I would pick a memory or visualization involving someone you really love who has treated you with kindness, respect, or caring at one time that you recall clearly.

The opposite of “hyperventilating” may be breathing slowly, deeply, and calmly.

For this, you can belly breathing; talking to someone in a very slow, calm, relaxed way; yoga; breathing into a paper bag; or any exercise, especially bilateral exercise, such as walking (especially outdoors or somewhere beautiful that distracts you from yourself) or swimming or ping pong!

The opposite of “fixating on the chocolate cake in your refrigerator” may be focusing your thoughts on a really absorbing activity that is not in your kitchen.

Again, pretty much anything that is mentally absorbing and enjoyable that is not in your kitchen would work, although I think the best thing is something physically active because that gets the same calming brain chemicals going as are stimulated by eating. (Dancing!) Some that I use are walking the dog, reading something fascinating, playing Lumosity, or doing dog training homework.

The opposite of “predicting a bad outcome” may be focusing on anything happy or confidence-inspiring.

Again, this is a perfect one for DNRS steps because you end up focused on your happy memory and then future visualization, which contradicts predicting bad outcomes. You could also connect with a person or animal who makes you feel happy. You could do a power pose for two minutes, which increases confidence and lowers stress. Or, you know, DANCING. You can also make yourself laugh or make a joke to yourself and then laugh at it.

The opposite of “fixating on an unpleasant smell” may be (again) focusing on anything else that excludes that, especially ignoring all smells at all or could be focusing on enjoyable things you see or hear or touch.

For this one, if I’m able, I will do DNRS, if I can. If I can’t because there are people around and I’d feel too self-conscious, I engage them in conversation by asking a question to which I think they’ll give a long answer. Then I listen intently to them. I also have used focusing on my other senses (enjoying what I see and hear or feel with my fingers), looking at pictures of Barnum when he was a puppy, or DANCING.

The opposite of “causing butterflies in your stomach and tightness in your throat” may be feeling warm and relaxed and soft in your belly and open and free in your throat.

For this one, anything that gets you moving and open and relaxed. Yoga is my go-to behavior for this one. Singing is good, too, because it opens your throat up. Dancing, of course. Any movement, such as walking, would get the muscles looser and reduce the anxiety and stress hormones. Doing several big sighs or yawns opens the throat and also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms and relaxes the body.

4. DO IT!!!!!!!!

I was recently telling a friend about how I use dancing as a behavior incompatible with feeling anxious and shut down. (The process of going off of several drugs that have anxiety as a withdrawal symptom has made me really good at working on this one.) She said, “But how do you make yourself do it?”

Here’s how I do it.

I think, “I feel anxious. This feels terrible. I want to make this go away but I’M TOO ANXIOUS TO DO DNRS! I CAN’T FOCUS! AUGH!!!!

WHAT CAN I DO??? Wait a minute… What can I do?…

Umm, I can dance….

I NEED TO DANCE!!!!!!!”

Then I go put a dance CD on, or if someone else is around, I get my iPod. I turn up the music REALLY REALLY LOUD. I dance around like a maniac. I start smiling. I start feeling more relaxed. I sweat. When I feel all warm and relaxed and happy, I can stop, but I usually keep going till I don’t want to dance anymore. Then I do whatever else is on the day’s agenda.

Neuroplasticity Tip: Management versus Training

I have been sending out sporadic email tips to my clients and friends who are doing neuroplasticity-based recovery programs. I am trying to send the emails more often, and to write shorter tips, and it occurred to me that some of them might make good blog posts. So, here is today’s. Enjoy!
Those of you with dog training experience will recognize this tip because it’s something that animal trainers use a lot.
There are two ways to handle unwanted behavior: Management and training. This applies to all animals and humans, but when doing neuroplasticity-based recovery, I treat my brain as the “animal” I am training.
Management prevents the unwanted behavior from happening in the moment but does not affect future behavior. Management is good for when you don’t want to practice the undesirable behavior. It might also be useful when there are safety issues (such as if you are working on balance and you want to have control over when, how, and where you fall).
Some common examples of undesirable mental “behaviors” are ruminating on symptoms, worrying, replaying a recent unpleasantness, or predicting a negative outcome about something you’re doing. Ideally, you’d want to do some form of retraining when you notice these cropping up, but maybe that’s not workable in the moment because you can’t concentrate or you’ve been training for the last four hours and you’re fried.
In this case, redirecting your thoughts in some way that is NOT practicing the behavior won’t necessarily rewire your brain, but it will keep your brain from practicing the behavior more, which is good management. Management strategies could include reading a book, watching TV, asking a friend how THEY are (so you are focusing on them, not you), or doing any mental task that requires focus (such as playing a musical instrument, writing, training your dog, reading to your child, playing Lumosity, etc.)
Training is the process of changing future behavior.
Training is what “rewires” your brain and changes your neural pathways. Training is what brings about recovery. Depending on what neuroplasticity program you’re doing, training might mean doing the DNRS Limbic Retraining Steps, doing yoga, meditating, walking, etc.
Daily life requires both management and training. We do not live in petri dishes. The ideal is to train. Whenever possible, turn to training; this will bring about faster results.
However, if there are times you simply cannot train, look to management. Here are some examples:
  • If you’re practicing balance, and you feel unsteady, and you can’t train balance right now, sit down so you don’t practice falling down and feeling scared.
  • If you’re practicing DNRS to recover from MCS, and the exposure is too overwhelming, leave the situation that is challenging for now so your brain doesn’t keep rehearsing reaction.
  • If you’re experiencing anxiety or PTSD symptoms, connect with a person or animal to help you feel grounded and calm so your brain doesn’t keep practicing anxiousness.
  • If you’re feeling rageful and ruminating on a past injustice, call someone who is having a hard time and offer them support (and focus/talk about them, not yourself!).
Happy training! (And happy management.)

Neuroplasticity Quiz Answers & Drawing Winners!

I had so much fun doing these drawings! Thank you so much to everyone who entered! I wish I could have given prizes to all of you. I hope to have more giveaways in the future, so if you didn’t win this time, please try again!

Neuroplasticity Quiz Answers (and Who Got Them Right AND Why the Answers Matter!)

  • What is the name researchers give for the phenomenon of the human brain’s tendency to focus on things like worry, danger, anxiety, and interpersonal anger? (Answer is in, among other places, Rick Hanson’s book, Hardwiring Happiness.)

The answer: Brain negativity bias

Who got it right: Congratulations go to Kevin, Jill, CJ, and Sarah!

Why it matters: Our brains have evolved to focus on danger, rewards, and connection with other humans, or as Rick Hanson puts it, to make us anxious, driven, and clingy. Of these tendencies, the strongest one, and the one that is most relevant to brain negativity bias, is the propensity to worry about dangers or threats — our tendency to focus on worry, danger, anxiety, loss, and other “negatives.” This is because being on the constant watch for danger kept our ancestors alive, which allowed them to pass on their genes, so there was an evolutionary advantage to being vigilant.

Unfortunately, while vigilance may keep you alive long enough to reach maturity and reproduce, it’s very bad for your long-term health and happiness. Further, our modern-day focus on negativity is not limited to actual dangers, such as keeping us from getting into a car accident or keeping us from falling off a cliff. We actually focus on any negatives more than positives or neutrals. So, if 20 things happened to you yesterday, and 12 of them were neutral, and nine of them were positive, and one was negative, which one are you fuming about on your way home? Which one are you going to tell the sympathetic ear in your life about?

This is because our fight/flight system in our brain doesn’t understand that a computer software glitch, being late to an appointment, or having a fight with our spouse is not actually a life-or-death situation. Any situation that gets us stressed, revved up, brooding, or adrenalized is activating that do-or-die part of our sympathetic nervous system. This is what floods our bodies with stress hormones, raises our blood pressure, interrupts our digestion, dilates our capillaries, makes our heart pump faster, and affects our breathing so that we can run for our life or fight to the death . . . with our internet service provider? Yes. Our brains don’t know the difference between saber-toothed tigers and email viruses.

However, there is good news here: Once you know about the brain negativity bias, you can become aware of this tendency that is your birthright and start focusing on the positives. You can get more in touch with reality, in other words, and notice the good and neutral things, too, and dwell less on the negatives.

For example, if you just take ten seconds once or twice a day to notice what is good in the moment, you will be taking on a practice that will support your physical and mental health. There is something good in every moment. Probably on most days you can be glad that you had enough to eat for breakfast, that you can go to the bathroom on your own, that somebody in your life loves you, that the sun is shining, that you can communicate what’s in your heart or mind to someone else. Even on days that that’s not true, you can notice that your heart is beating or that you are breathing!

If you want to learn more on this topic, here’s a Psychology Today article on Brain Negativity Bias, and here’s a New York Times article on Overcoming Your Negativity Bias. Or, read Rick Hanson’s excellent book, Hardwiring Happiness.

  • Which three healing modalities did Donna Jackson Nakazawa detail in her book, The Last Best Cure?

The answer: Meditation, Yoga, and Acupuncture

Who got it right: Congratulations go to Sarah, who got it completely right, and to CJ and Holly, who got it mostly right.

Why it matters: The Last Best Cure is a compelling combination of memoir, medical research and science, and practical information for applying strategies to your own life. When she started her search for healing, medical journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa had multiple health problems, including autoimmune, neurological, blood, and endocrine disorders.

Her doctor urged her to use techniques that would support beneficial neuroplasticity — positive changes to her brain — to help her recover her health. The reason the author chose meditation, yoga, and acupuncture is that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence supporting their medical efficacy (more so for meditation and yoga than acupuncture at this time), and they are generally pretty accessible. You can do yoga and meditation on your own at home, or for a relatively low cost in groups or classes in the community, and acupuncture is also widely available and often covered by insurance.

The book chronicles her ups and downs and explorations. The longest portion of the book is devoted to her path in exploring meditation. She learns both metta (lovingkindness) and vipassana (insight) Buddhist techniques, and uses both walking and sitting meditation. She also finds yoga practice to be astonishing in its effects for her. In the chapter entitled, “So Why Aren’t We All Doing Yoga?” She says,

Neuroscientists are just now fully grasping the profound ways in which yoga helps to activate the healing responses of the brain and establish a positive feedback loop between state of mind and cellular vitality. As it turns out, the overall positive mood benefits of practicing yoga are more robust than what we see with other well-studied types of exercise. For instance, women who take a twelve-week class in yoga show greater improvements in mood and lowered anxiety levels than do women who expend the same amount of time and energy walking. That’s saying a lot — because, for a long time, walking has been the all-around wonder exercise for those of us with chronic health constraints.

The next paragraph describes yoga’s specific benefits for people with fibromyalgia, breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and allergy. In other words, yoga and meditation are amazing tools you can use, no matter where you live, to improve your physical and mental health.

Learn more about The Scientific Basis of Yoga or support forthe healthful effects of meditation, tai chi, yoga, and acupuncture, or check out these links on Neuroplasticity and Yoga, Meditation, Cognitive Training, and Health. And of course, I recommend The Last Best Cure.

  • The study of the expression of genes — which genes are “turned on” or “turned off” in our genetic code — is called what?

The answer: Epigenetics

Who got it right: Congratulations go to Kathleen, CJ, Holly, Forest, Courtenay, and Sarah!

Why it matters: I’m going to quote extensively from The Last Best Cure again because even though I’ve read other explanations of epigenetics, I found this one most compelling. For one thing, she puts it in the context of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and a disregulated response to stress, which resonated with me based on my own experiences as well as those of virtually all of my chronically ill friends:

…When we are repeatedly thrust into a state of hyperarousal when we are still young and our brain is developing, the physical and emotional sensations of fight or flight do more than send forth a toxic floating brain cocktail….Neurobiologist Michael Meaney recently found that this chronically elevated state of fight or flight causes deep biophysical changes in the young, developing brain. This occurs through a process known as epigenetics: biological changes that affect the expression of our genes — in this case, the genes that govern our stress hormone receptors in the brain.

Here’s how epigenetics works. Every cell in the body has the full set of chromosomes and contains all of our DNA. But the reason why one cell, during embryonic development, becomes a skin cell versus a bone cell or eye cell is because most of the genes that could be expressed are turned off. They get switched off by an epigenetic process called gene methylation in which small chemical markers, or methyl groups, adhere to specific genes, silencing them. This gene silencing is permanent, which is why we don’t grow eyes in the back of our head. But scientists are beginning to realize that the brain is an epigenetically “priviledged” place. This process of DNA methylation can occur much more easily within the brain, allowing the brain to respond to experiences that might be good or bad, and change with those experiences over time.

Meaney has found that when the young, developing brain experiences ACEs [adverse childhood experiences], these small chemical markers, or methyl groups, adhere to specific genes that oversee the production of stress hormone receptors in the brain. These chemical markers disable these genes, preventing the brain from successfully regulating its response to stress long into the future. The chemical markers that should govern stress hormone production profoundly disregulate the brain’s ability to moderate stress — and they impact us for life.

This methylation process tips the brain into a state of constant hyperarousal. Stuck on autopilot, inflammatory hormones and chemicals keep coursing through the body, like a leaky faucet left on, building up corrosive effects….

By the time children with a high ACE score reach adulthood, their stress hormone and fight-or-flight responses have been stuck in the “on” position for decades….

…Perturbed by all that I’ve learned — and concerned that it might be too late to change the brain that I now have — I reach out to neuroscientist Margaret McCarthy….McCarthy conducts research into how epigenetics impacts nuances of behavior and mental health. The good news, she reminds me, is that the brain is an eipgenetically priviledged place not just in terms of creating negative changes, but positive ones as well. “Our brains are malleable,” she reassures me. “Scientists are now of the mind that DNA methylation can come and go. And it may be that the reason why approaches such as meditation and mindfulness have such power is that they undo bad epigenetics or even induce new, good epigenetics.”

  • Which world-renowned religious leader has hosted conferences and written book introductions on neuroplasticity?

The answer: The Dalai Lama (aka Tenzin Gyatso, aka His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama)

Who got it right: Congratulations go to Sarah! (A couple of people said Deepak Chopra. While he has a spiritual practice that he has written and spoken about, he is largely known as a physician who advocates alternative medicine.)

Why it matters: Well, it’s partly just interesting, I think. I mean, I picked up the book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Newsweek journalist Sharon Begley at my library, and I was surprised to see, “Introduction by the Dalai Lama” on the front cover. It was kind of like picking up a book on neuroscience and seeing, “Introduction by the Pope,” you know?

It turns out that this book is actually a report on a neuroplasticity conference organized by the Dalai Lama! He has had a lifelong interest in science — partly because he believes that science is the main “religion” of the West — and he organizes a conference every year of Western scientists and his handpicked Buddhist monks to discuss where these two areas of inquiry overlap. (For more information on this, check out the Mind & Life Institute which is dedicated to contemplative science.)

It’s also relevant because the more I learn about neuroplasticity and ways to use it to our advantage, the more I see Buddhism as the practical, spiritual application of beneficial neuroplasticity. Those of us raised in the West have a lot to gain from learning from Buddhism (which does not require being Buddhist, or even if you are Buddhist, you can still be Christian or Jewish or Muslim). I think the fact that the Dalai Lama has been curious and inquiring and supportive of Western science provides an entry for those of us enamored of Western science to become curious, inquiring, and supportive of contemplative traditions. Everybody wins!

  • PTSD that grows worse over time, autonomic dysreflexia after a spinal cord injury, chronic pain, tinnitus, and addiction can be examples of what phenomenon?

The answer: I would have accepted any of these answers: “the dark side of neuroplasticity,” or “negative neuroplasticity,” or simply “neuroplasticity”

Who got it right: Congratulations go to . . . me, for thinking of such a challenging question that everybody gets to learn something from the right answer?

Why it matters: Neuroplasticity is not good or bad; it just is. Our brains are changing all the time. If you are alive, neuroplasticity is occurring!

Most of the recent explosion of research and writing on neuroplasticity focuses on its positive effects: that we are not condemned to Alzheimer’s disease or poor balance as we age; that we can recover from strokes, traumatic brain injury, depression, and PTSD; that those who exercise a specific area of their brain can develop amazing skills in that area; that more children with learning disabilities or auditory processing disorders can be helped to learn and process information more easily.

But I think it’s really important for people to understand that neuroplasticity is always occurring. Whatever you are doing or thinking about is always shaping your brain. If you an elite alpine skiier, spending your time skiing down mountains, not only will you develop strong muscles in your arms, legs, and back, you will develop the parts of your brain that have to do with balance and courage and coordination and competitiveness. And because neurons are competitive with each other — you only have so much cortical real estate, which is all in use all the time — some parts of your brain that might otherwise be used for other things will be given less space.

If you spend your time worrying — if you practice worrying — a larger-than-normal chunk of your brain will be devoted to “worry circuits” which will be juiced up and ready to spark into anxiety, worry, and fear, and that will have an answering impact on your body. If you spend your time reading novels, more neurons will be recruited for language, focus, and empathy.

So, neuroplasticity cuts both ways. The more you do something, the more your brain streamlines to get good at that thing — neurons are recruited from nearby cognitive maps to do that thing, those neurons get more nutrients and get stronger, the neural pathways for that activity are the fastest and most easily accessed. If that something you are doing is good for you — meditating, reading, doing math problems, feeling compassion — the end result will be a brain that supports your health. If that something you are doing is not good for you — feeling enraged, snorting cocaine, having flashbacks of a traumatic incident — your brain is getting good at it anyway.

This is why many chronic neurological conditions become chronic, and it’s also why it can be so hard to recover from them. Likewise, it’s why there’s hope for these conditions. For example, several years ago, a friend sent me an article about PTSD that talked about how having PTSD changes your brain, making sturdy pathways that are devoted to trauma increasingly stronger. She found it incredibly discouraging because it seemed to be saying, “Your brain will become increasingly warped by trauma.”

That article was focused on the negative side of neuroplasticity. If I had known more about neuroplasticity at the time I read that article, I would have realized that it was hopeful, too: If you can build up these neuronal networks of trauma, you can also break them down!

Tinnitus, addiction, and chronic nerve pain are disorders that grow out of the way the brain changes. Thus, there are also ways to make use of what we know about neuroplasticity to change the brain to ameliorate these problems.

If you want to learn more on this topic, check out this interview with Eric Nestler on the “dark side” of neuroplasticity and its role in addiction and depression. There’s even a book called Neuroplasticity and its Dark Side.

Now the giveaway winners…

Winners of a Set of Dynamic Neural Retraining System (DNRS) DVDs

Jill Huggins and CJ Buffalo!

Congratulations Jill and CJ! Please email me your US postal mailing address where I can have the DNRS DVDs shipped to.

Winner of a Coaching Session with Me

Sandy Friedlander!

Congratulations, Sandy! Please email me when convenient to set up your coaching session.

Winners of a Tagulator and Clicker

Kevin Skorupa and Sarah Friedel!

Congratulations, Kevin and Sarah, on your correct answers in the Neuroplasticity Quiz! You both totally rocked it. It seems really fitting that you won. Please get in touch about your preferred colors and styles of tagulators and clickers and where I should send them.

Thanks to everyone who participated! I hope you found the quiz and giveaway fun and informative!

Additional Giveaway Items: TAGulators, Clickers & 2nd DNRS DVD set!

With Nerdy Bonus Material: Why Clickers Are Particularly Useful for Limbic System Retraining

In my previous post, I announced that, in celebration of my upcoming one-year anniversary of my recovery program, I’m giving away a coaching session and a set of DNRS DVDs*.

I was just thinking, “Oh shoot. I should have included a couple of TAGulators in my giveaway,” when I got an email from a generous donor offering to pay for a second set of DVDs! (Thank you!) So, now I’m offering it all! The whole enchilada: two sets of DVDs, a coaching session, and two TAGulator/clicker sets.

What is a TAGulator?

It was developed by people who do TAGteaching, which is clicker training for humans. (TAG stands for “targeted acoustical guidance.”) But you can use it even if you’re not actually clicking yourself. TAGteach International defines tagulators in their post, “What the heck is a tagulator, anyway?“:

A tagulator is a specially beaded string that allows you to keep track of your tags.

I like to make TAGulators for myself and my clients. It’s a way of reinforcing yourself for a behavior you want to do more often or continue to do. You move a bead/button every time you do the desired behavior, and then when you have moved all the buttons/beads, you give yourself the reward you promised yourself when you started. (I usually get myself a neuroplasticity or dog training book.)

When I was doing brain retraining, and I was really sick of it and didn’t want to do it anymore, I would sometimes use my clicker to focus me on a particular aspect of what I was working on and as a way to reinforce myself and keep me going. For example, I would focus on smiling while doing my brain training and then click myself for keeping a smile on my face for longer chains periods while training.

Normally a click is a “secondary reinforcer” or “conditioned reinforcer,” which means it’s meaningless on its own, but it becomes a powerful signal to the learner because it’s paired with some other “primary reinforcer” — such as a piece of food for an animal or a token or candy for a child. Money is the classic example of an incredibly potent conditioned reinforcer: a $20 bill has no inherent worth — if you gave it to a baby, she wouldn’t find it any more valuable than any other piece of soft paper or cloth — but because money has the ability to get people virtually any primary reinforcer (food, drink, comfort, pleasure, etc.) — we value it above actual primary reinforcers.

For me, the sound of a click is like money. Since I have a long positive-reinforcement history associated with the sound of a click (many, many happy dog-training moments since 1998), hearing the click made me happy all on its own. I didn’t even need to pair it with another reward. (Curious to know more? Here’s a post I wrote explaining more about what reinforcement is and how I used it to train myself.)

Why is a clicker particularly useful for brain retraining?

All secondary or conditioned reinforcers are processed through the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system. And Karen Pryor makes a pretty compelling case in her book, Reaching the Animal Mind, for the distinctive sound of the “click” being particularly effective at going directly into the amygdala, without needing to be processed first by the neocortex. Here’s an excerpt from her post, “Amygdala: The Neurophysiology of Clicker Training“:

Research in neurophysiology has identified the kinds of stimuli—bright lights, sudden sharp sounds—that reach the amygdala first, before reaching the cortex or thinking part of the brain. The click is that kind of stimulus. Other research, on conditioned fear responses in humans, shows that these also are established via the amygdala, and are characterized by a pattern of very rapid learning, often on a single trial, long-term retention, and a big surge of concommitant emotions….

We clicker trainers see similar patterns of very rapid learning, long retention, and emotional surges, albeit positive emotions rather than fear. [Veterinary neurophysiologist Barbara Schoening] and I hypothesize that the clicker is a conditioned ‘joy’ stimulus that is acquired and recognized through those same primitive pathways, which would help explain why it is so very different from, say, a human word, in its effect.

If this is true, another contributing factor to the extraordinary rapidity with which the clicker and clicked behavior can be acquired might be that the click is processed by the CNS much faster than any word can be. Even in the most highly-trained animal or verbal person, the word must be recognized, and interpreted, before it can ‘work;’ and the effect of the word may be confounded by accompanying emotional signals, speaker identification clues, and other such built-in information.”

I am in the midst of writing a post about how much modern animal training and trainers (clicker trainers) have to offer the field of human neuroplasticity research and application. I come across relevant — and practical — applications in my work and studies of animal training all the time. This is just one example of that cross-fertilization!

Back to the giveaway!

Here’s the scoop: I’ll give away a clicker and a custom-made TAGulator to two people who comment on this or the previous post AND answer any of the quiz questions in the previous post correctly! (If you already answered them and you don’t know if you got them right, feel free to take another crack at them in a new comment.)

I have a variety of types of clickers (box, button, and party-favor type), and I’ll let the two winners choose their color and style of clicker. They’ll get some say in the design of their TAGulators, too. When I make TAGulators, I use buttons instead of beads because I have a ready supply of groovy, free buttons. (Thanks, Mom.) I’ll get in touch with the TAGulator winners to ask their preferences for button color, shape, or materials. (Want to see one? Find TAGulator pictures at the TAGteach International Shop.

All winners — of DNRS DVDs, coaching session, and TAGulators/clickers — will be chosen at random from people who comment on this or the previous post. Please see previous post for commenting/entry instructions.

*I do not represent, nor have any connection to, DNRS, other than as a very satisfied customer.

Updated! DNRS DVD and Neuroplasticity Coaching Giveaway!

This coming Friday is my first “rebirthday”! It will be one year since I started the Dynamic Neural Retraining System (DNRS) DVDs that launched my recovery. Woohoo!

To celebrate, I’m having a barbecue at my house and inviting many friends. I’ve been looking forward to this since June.

I’m also doing a giveaway to spread the hope, joy, and recovery tools that have helped me — and many others — make such positive changes to their lives.

“What are you giving away?” I hear you muse.

I will give away at least one copy of the DNRS DVD sets to someone who has difficulty affording them on their own! If enough people chip in, I will give away as many DNRS DVD sets as we raise funds for!

UPDATE: Someone has indeed donated enough for a second DVD set. I’m now giving away two DNRS sets of DVDs!

I will also give away a free neuroplasticity coaching session with me!

UPDATE: I’m also giving away two sets of clickers and TAGulators! Read about what these are and why they’re so good for limbic retraining.

“Where is this giveaway?” You might ask.

Why, right HERE on this website/blog!

“How will you choose the winner?” You may be wondering.

I will use the random.org random sequence generator to pick several winners — two for the DVDs, one for the coaching session, and two for the TAGulator/clicker set.

“And how might I participate?” You may be thinking.

I’m so glad you asked!…

You can participate in several ways!

1. If you are interested in a neuroplasticity coaching session with me by phone (or face-to-face if you live in Western Mass.), and you have never done a coaching session with me before (you are not already a client), please comment on this post by answering one of the neuroplasticity quiz questions below.

Also, please indicate in your comment that you are entering the coaching drawing.

2. To enter the drawing for DNRS DVDs, I ask that you follow these guidelines:

I really want these DVDs to go to someone who really wants to recover (from MCS, CFIDS/ME, fibromyalgia, PTSD, anxiety, depression, or post-treatment chronic Lyme disease) AND who finds it difficult or impossible to afford the DVDs on their own. Anyone on SSI is encouraged to enter, for example, and anyone who does not have access to $275 to pay for these DVDs without struggle or hardship. I am not going to ask for your financials. I just want these DVDs to go where they will be put to good use.

Note: The DVDs are captioned/subtitled in English, German, Spanish, Italian, and French. There is also a transcript available (for an additional charge) for people who cannot watch the DVDs due to electromagnetic field sensitivity or other reasons.

If you are interested in entering the DNRS drawing, please answer one of the Neuroplasticity Quiz questions below AND please indicate in your comment that you are entering the DNRS DVD drawing.

3. UPDATE: Anyone who answers any of the quiz questions below CORRECTLY is eligible for the TAGulators/clickers. (You can answer incorrectly for any of the other prizes.)

4. If you would like to support this drawing — either to help defray my expenses or to help make another set of DNRS DVDs available — I welcome your donation.

In addition to offering my time for free for the coaching session, I am paying for the set of DVDs. One set is $250 plus shipping (about $25) from Canada or $300 plus shipping for someone who can’t watch the DVDs and needs a transcript. I am committed to giving away at least one set, so even if nobody else chips in, I’ll still do that. (One person did donate after my last post. Thank you, friend!). If $250 or more comes in, I’ll donate a second set (or a third, fourth, fifth!).

If you would like to support this neuroplasticity giveaway, you can use the Paypal “Tip Jar” link on the right side of my homepage OR you can mail me a check (contact me for my mailing address) or you can hand me some cash in person (if you are a person I see in the flesh). No amount is too big or too small! $1, $5, $10, $100, $500, or whatever you would enjoy offering would be warmly received.

5. If you know of someone who you think would like to enter the drawing for the DNRS DVDs or the coaching session, please send them a link to this post. I’d like it to get to the people who can most make use of the giveaways. Thanks!

Neuroplasticity Quiz Questions

Please answer one of these questions if you want to take part in the giveaway! You do NOT have to get the answer right to win the DVDs or the coaching session! Just give it your best shot.

You can also answer the questions in the comment section just for fun even if you do not want to enter the drawings.

  • What is the name researchers give for the phenomenon of the human brain’s tendency to focus on things like worry, danger, anxiety, and interpersonal anger? (Answer is in, among other places, Rick Hanson’s book, Hardwiring Happiness.)
  • Which three healing modalities did Donna Jackson Nakazawa detail in her book, The Last Best Cure?
  • The study of the expression of genes — which genes are “turned on” or “turned off” in our genetic code — is called what?
  • Which world-renowned religious leader has hosted conferences and written book introductions on neuroplasticity?
  • PTSD that grows worse over time, autonomic dysreflexia after a spinal cord injury, chronic pain, tinnitus, and addiction can be examples of what phenomenon?

I’ll post the answers to these questions when I announce the names of the winners of the drawings. I don’t know exactly when that will be (I have a lot going on!), but it will be AFTER my “rebirthday” party — sometime after August 11.

I am really excited to be able to offer these resources in celebration of my recovery. It makes me very happy to support others in their recovery journeys, too!

Thanks for reading!

What & How I’m Doing (Am I Still Recovered? Yes)

A lot of people have asked me, “How did you recover?!”

Now that I’ve answered that for a fair number of people in my acquaintance, more people are asking me, “How are you NOW?”

I think some people are curious about what one does with one’s life after almost 20 years of mostly being in bed, often unable to care for one’s self!

Some may also be wondering whether the recovery has “stuck,” or whether it was just some flukey thing that has reverted. And some are friends who just want to know what I’m up to, I think. Here, without further ado, is what and how I’m doing.

How Am I Doing?

Sharon sitting at outdoor black metal restaurant table. There is a window behind her with a reflection of Amherst brick buildings in it. She is wearing a black T-shirt that says "I [red symbol of a clicker] DOGS." Across from her is a thin woman with short, white hair and a blue scarf around her neck. Both are smiling. On the table are two white paper cups and two plates. One has a piece of chocolate cake. The other has an eclair.

Eating dessert out with my friend and fellow recoveree, Forest (who has a text and video DNRS testimonial)

Great! Yes, I am still recovered! The only physical challenge anymore is that my feet are still adjusting to all this standing and walking after many years of not standing or walking. And even that is pretty minor at this point.

I have no CFIDS/ME symptoms anymore. I don’t think I have any Lyme symptoms anymore. (I’m working on another post on Lyme and neuroplasticity. I’ll say more in that post.) Every once in a while, I have a fleeting “MCS” symptom, usually when I’m experiencing symptoms of withdrawal from Klonopin, and then I do some brain retraining or something else antithetical to having symptoms, and it goes away. (The other night I got migraine aura, so I danced to Zoot Suit Riot for a few songs, and then I was fine).

As to what I am doing, how about if I take you through a typical week?

What I’m Doing

Exercise: Swimming, Yoga, Walking

Exercise was an important part of my recovery, and it’s an important part of my continuing physical and mental wellness. As I posted recently, exercise has been an essential component to coping with withdrawal from Klonopin. It’s also fun!

Twice a week, I got to the YMCA and swim about a mile, which takes me about 50 minutes. That is 1800 yards or 36 laps of a 25-yard pool. Sometimes I do 37 or 38 laps or whatever. I have a swim iPod that I’m very fond of, and I listen to Sarah McLaughlin or Two Nice Girls and do backstroke, breaststroke, or freestyle. (Backstroke is my favorite.) I love swimming. I grew up spending as much time in the water as I could, and I’m delighted to get back to that. I always feel wonderful when I’m climbing out of the pool.

Twice a week, I go to a yoga class. I am incredibly fortunate that my little town has awesome yoga classes at the library. The class is different every time. Sometimes it’s physically demanding and sometimes it’s gentle. Our yoga teacher is very funny and lively. She keeps us focused and entertained. I usually feel like melting butter by the end. Yoga is so fantastic. I am a complete yoga convert.

Every day (except for rare occasions when it’s raining hard or I’m super busy), I take Barnum for a walk. Usually we walk around a nearby pond (off leash), which is a little under a mile, and gorgeous, with swampy parts and hills and knotty tree roots and bridges over streams and big pine trees and wintergreen growing along the path that I pick and chew on. It’s lovely.

Sharon stands smiling on a dirt path with grass and very leafy trees and shrubs behind her. Next to her is a thin woman in a brown vest and jeans, smiling at Barnum. Barnum sits in front of Sharon, facing her, so his back is to the camera. He is wearing a red harness.

Barnum and me at the pond, with my friend Irene

Sometimes we do longer or shorter. Last week, we did three miles two days in a row because I had nothing I was hurrying to get to or from, which is unusual. The route we took was one of the dirt roads near my house (which is also on a dirt road), taking us past a heard of Scottish Highland cattle, which are big, furry cattle that are very friendly and interesting.

Large bull with very long, shaggy, reddish-honey colored coat. It has big horns that come straight out the side of the head and then make a right angle and go up a short amount.

Moo (but with a Scottish accent)

Six miles in two days turned out to be too much for my feet. I have had a flare of plantar fasciitis again and another fibroma on the sole of my right foot, so now I know not to suddenly put a lot of extra stress on my feet for a while. I am going to stick to a mile a day for the next week or two.

Neuroplasticity Coaching

I have been doing neuroplasticity coaching by phone. Since May, I have had between one and five coaching sessions per week. I do this on the two or three days a week that I’m not at my dog training internships. So far most people are either doing DNRS and want some help with implementing it (including adjusting other parts of their lives to allow them to work on it) or want to know whether I think DNRS (or another neuroplasticity program) would be right for them.

I really love coaching. When I am supporting someone with recovery, and they take the ball and run with it, it’s very satisfying. Providing support so someone feels better or more hopeful is also incredibly rewarding. The time I spend on the phone is dwarfed by the time I spend after and between sessions, sending emails about what we discussed, providing details of how to do what we talked about, and researching and answering questions.

I also spend a lot of time reading. I am rereading some of my favorite neuroplasticity books (and slowly buying them so I can underline things and dog-ear the pages) and also doing a lot of reading for my internships (see below). I also read articles online on neuroplasticity-related topics. I try to send tips emails to my neuroplasticity email list, but lately I haven’t had enough time.

A new neuroplasticity coaching project has been designing a program for my mom to improve her balance. I decided a few months ago that I wanted to do this for a few reasons. One is because my own balance has been a constant work in progress since I started walking again. Overall, my strength and agility have improved a lot — and my balance has improved tremendously, too — but I think balance and proprioception are the main physical skills I need to continue to work on. So, I have a lot of personal experience to bring to this topic.

Another reason I wanted to do this is that my mom has fallen and injured herself several times in the last few years, and since I have worked so hard on regaining my own balance, I want to share that with her and help her be more stable and healthy, too. I want her to feel strong and confident as she moves through the world. I am typing this from my parents’ home, in fact. I’m spending four days with her, working intensively on balance issues. Barnum has come along for the trip, too.

Another reason I’ve been excited about coming up with a balance plan is that I know balance and falling are issues for a lot of older people — including some other people I know — so I am using my mom as a guinea pig to see what works so that I can hopefully come up with a protocol that other people can use, too. Before I came, I researched and thought a lot about what goes into balance. We started with an assessment because balance is made up of many components: visual, vestibular, proprioception (mostly sensiromotor of lower extremities — in other words, information from the feet and ankles), as well as muscular/strength and mental components.

After assessment, I decided to focus on reaction time, sensorimotor/proprioception of lower extremities, mindfulness, relaxation, abdominal strength, and mechanics of walking. So, that’s what we’ve been working while I’m here.

Sharon has one leg slightly raised while she stands on a bridge that is about six boards wide, covered in a thin layer of snow over a small stream. There are tree trunks on the bank on either side behind her and the forest behind that.

Here I am working on my own balance six months ago

Dog (and Cat) Training Internships

I am interning with two trainers. I am assisting Caryl-Rose Pofcher, who does the dog training classes for Dakin Humane Society. When I started, I was assisting one evening a week with two classes. Then, another assistant was busy for Saturday mornings, so I was assisting with two classes twice a week. We have had a break for the month of July because Caryl-Rose has been away part of the time, and then I will start assisting one evening a week again in August.

I love assisting these classes! I am learning a lot and finding it very rewarding. I’m learning a variety of ways to train familiar behaviors and how to work with a large variety of dogs with different temperaments, learning styles, and also different breeds and sizes of dog. (Little dogs require different body placement and posture sometimes.)

I also learn a lot from watching and listening to Caryl-Rose teach because every teacher has a different patter, and I find it helpful to observe what seems to connect with students and nifty ways of explaining things. Caryl-Rose has also started to have me demo a new behavior each class, which is good preparation for learning how to demo and teach when I run my own classes in the future. I think one of the most challenging things she (and other dog training teachers) have to do is handle a dog while at the same time describing what she’s doing and then explaining how it relates to the larger concepts of what she’s teaching.

I help set up before class (put out chairs and water bowls, take out supplies, talk with the teacher about what we’re doing), and then during the class I help refocus dogs, answer questions, offer suggestions, model desirable behaviors, and help dogs who are over-the-top stay focused in a positive way so their owners can pay attention to the teacher. After classes, I help with clean up or transition into the next class.

My other internship is with Elise Gouge of Pet Behavior Consulting. She mostly does individual consulting for behavioral problems with dogs. These are often aggression cases (toward people or other dogs), but she also deals with separation anxiety, resource guarding, thunder phobia, and other issues. She also works with cats who have behavioral problems.

This has been a terrific source of learning because most of my dogs have not had significant behavioral problems, so I had very little knowledge of a holistic way to approach major behavior issues. Once a week, I go with Elise to her appointments — either behavioral consultations or training programs — in people’s homes. I observe the appointment, and afterward we discuss it in the car as we drive to the next appointment.

I also do barter for Elise once a week. I go to her house and help take care of boarding dogs while she’s out and other help with maintaining the business, such as poop scooping, cleaning crates, stuffing Kongs, filing client intake forms, entering checks in an accounting database, and similar stuff.

I am also following a curriculum Elise designed. There is one new subject each month, with several books to read for each block and an essay-type homework question each week, some of which are based on what I observe during lessons and consultations. The first block was learning theory, which I felt pretty solid on already, but it was a very helpful review; applying the concepts to a wide range of dogs and behavior issues has helped me get more solid on it. Now I am on canine ethology and body language, which I thought I already had a pretty good foundation for, but I have learned a ton. I have also learned some about cat behavior and body language lately.

Speaking of cat behavior, I recently fostered a feral kitten for Dakin Humane Society. I have always wanted to foster animals, and now I have the opportunity! Betsy and I decided that feral kittens would be the best fit for our household. Kittens generally need medical support (force feeding and subcutaneous fluids, and sometimes medication) as well as socialization. They start out in a large dog crate — which I kept in my bathroom – and when they’re doing better, they get the run of the bathroom. Eventually, if I get Barnum and future kittens up to that point, I might let kittens have more run of the house. I had the first kitten for 11 days, and Barnum was deciding whether she was prey or not at the end, which was an improvement over him being certain she was prey earlier in her stay.

For the kittens, what they mostly want is physical affection, not food. Later, the main positive reinforcer is play, so it is a good way for me to learn to use different reinforcers for desensitization and counterconditioning. With the kitten I just had here, once she was comfortable with handling, I counterconditioned things like my feet moving and desensitized her to the radio, the dishwasher, the stove, etc., and also worked with her on calmly accepting handling even when aroused. (I would play with her and then pick her up and pet her briefly and then return her to playing).

Also, I applied to Karen Pryor Academy last week. I am hoping to take the Dog Trainer Professional Program six-month course at the end of this year. I have my interview tomorrow. After I have graduated from KPA, I’ll have their certification (assuming I pass with 90 percent or better). I also plan to go to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) conference in October and hope to take their certification test by the end of 2014 or early 2015. And THEN my hope is to do a variety of dog training things, but what I am most hoping to do is create a course for people with disabilities who want to train their own service dogs. I think this would be a way for people to get information on laws, acceptable behavior and public access training standards for service dogs, as well as to receive coaching in how to train and access peer support from others who are doing owner-training.

Taking Care of Barnum

Having a dog can be a lot of work for anyone, but having a large dog who used to be a service dog and has several major medical problems turns out to be quite a bit of work (and money). As I mentioned above, I take Barnum for a walk every day, usually about a mile, and that is sometimes one of the more challenging activities, depending on how my feet are doing and where and how long we walk. Usually we’re walking on a dirt road or in the woods, so that’s pretty gentle on my feet. I do love taking him for walks. It’s very enjoyable to see him so happy and free, and it’s so beautiful where I live. Also, we go on different routes that allow me to explore different parts of the area where I live.

We are doing training as it’s convenient. On walks, I have mostly been working on his recall and “leave it,” because we do off-leash walks most of the time. That is going really well, and I hope to write a post soonishly about “hamburger recalls,” a trick I learned from Kathy Sdao‘s book, Plenty in Life Is Free.

One of the reasons that training has been challenging is that Barnum has food allergies to practically everything that is easy to use for training. Some of you might remember that we were dealing with a very severe and persistent ear infection. Well, that ear infection lingered for a year-and-a-half!

After many rounds of antibiotics and ointments and trips to the vet, we saw a dermatologist who believed the chronic ear infection was caused by food allergies. We did an eight-week elimination diet of only ostrich and quinoa, during which his ear infection, itchiness, vomiting, and diarrhea went away. I had already figured out that he is very allergic to chicken, which ruled out turkey and duck (they cross-react with chicken), and discovered he’s also allergic to beef and pork! So, now he is eating ostrich, quinoa, sweet potato and fish oil. The only treat I’ve found that he can tolerate is freeze-dried rabbit, but it’s expensive and hard to find, so I also make a lot of sweet potato treats and ostrich burgers as treats. We have an appointment with a nutritionist coming up to make sure that he’s getting everything he needs in this limited diet. She’ll probably put him on a vitamin supplement.

Sharon sits cross-legged on the floor. Barnum stands in front of her and kisses her on the chin. Sharon has her head tilted back and is smiling, with eyes shut, leaning away from the tongue. Barnum has curly, fluffy black hair.

But he’s worth it!

We also have a follow-up with Barnum’s dentist next month. Some of you might remember that Barnum has a lot of dental issues due to his malocclusion — his lower jaw is too narrow and too short for his upper jaw. So, in addition to brushing his teeth every day, he also has a chronic infection on his lower lips that I am cleaning and treating and trying to find a solution for. This problem is also from the malocclusion — because the lower jaw is underdeveloped, he has skin folds that stay wet all the time, and that causes the infection.

Between cooking him quinoa and sweet potato and ordering ostrich online and then mixing up batches of it or making into into treats, taking him for walks, taking him to the vet, brushing his teeth, giving him medication (thyroid pills and antibiotic ointment), and keeping his lower lip clean, Barnum is a heckuva lot of work!

I am hoping to start obedience or other classes with him in August, as well. This will partly be for fun for both of us and partly be for my own professional development. I am hoping to get some titles on him eventually so I can learn what that is like in order to be able to help teach it.

Celebrate My “Re-Birthday” with Me?

I consider August 8 to be my “rebirthday.” That’s because on August 8, 2013, I started watching the DNRS  (Dynamic Neural Retraining System) DVDs, launching my recovery and rehabilitation journey!

I am planning on celebrating my recovery rebirthday with a barbecue and a bunch of friends. I would also like to support other people in recovering. So, I am going to do a giveaway of at least one set of DNRS DVDs to one person who has difficulty affording them on their own. I will also give away a free coaching session to anyone who wants to work on neuroplasticity. I’ll post more info about these giveaways in an upcoming blog post.

Meanwhile, if you would like to support this giveaway, we might be able to give away more than one set of DVDs! A set costs $250 plus about $20 shipping from Canada. I would love some help paying that $270. And if enough money can be raised, I could buy two or more sets to give away!

If you would like to donate toward the DNRS giveaway — no amount is too big or too small, whether it is $1 or $5 or $100 or $1000! — please use the “Tip Jar” on the right side of my website homepage. Or, if you do not want to use Paypal, you can send me a check or hand me cash in person. Please email me if you want my mailing address. Thank you!

How I Got Off Klonopin and Depakote

Over the past couple of years, I have discontinued many medications. Most of them were antibiotics. Those were easy to go off of. The hardest so far has been Klonopin (clonazepam). The second hardest was Depakote. I was on both for migraine prevention. I didn’t even know that Depakote had a psychotropic effect until I struggled to get off it.

Klonopin, and to a lesser extent Depakote, are commonly prescribed to people with CFIDS/ME (chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis), fibromyalgia, and migraines. I wanted to post about my experiences of withdrawal because I am guessing that other people who recover from chronic illness with neuroplastic approaches might also want to get off unnecessary medications. I am hoping that reading about my experience might be useful to them.

What Is Klonopin?

Klonopin is a heavily prescribed benzodiazepine in the US and many other countries. Most people take it for anxiety, but it is also an anticonvulsant (anti-seizure drug). It is often prescribed to people with CFIDS/ME for trouble sleeping, cognitive impairment, and sometimes pain reduction.

What Is Depakote?

Depakote (divalproex sodium) is an anticonvulsant and “mood stabilizer.” It is most commonly used for bipolar disorder, depression, migraine prevention, and seizures.

How I Started Taking these Drugs

I started taking 0.5 mg of Klonopin, as needed, for insomnia in the midst of a trauma, in 1998. I was displaced suddenly from my home, staying with family, which was already stressful, when my best friends’ house — where my cats were staying while I was away — burned down. My best friends became homeless and one of my cats was never seen again.

For several years, I took Klonopin only occasionally, when I couldn’t sleep otherwise. However, Within a couple of weeks of taking Klonopin intermittently, I discovered I was habituating to it. Habituating means that your body adjusts to the drug, and you need to take more for the same effect as previously at a smaller dose. Habituation is not the same thing as addiction or dependence. Habituation with Klonopin is the rule, rather than the exception. Most people who take Klonopin habituate quickly to it, which is why people keep bumping up their dose over time.

Later that year, I moved to the country. Within a couple of years of that move, I was getting migraines more and more often. (Many years later, we discovered that these migraines were due to Lyme disease.) Eventually I had migraines almost all of the time. In desperation, I started seeing a neurologist who specialized in migraines. She put me on drug after drug to try to find something that would prevent the migraines. Almost all of these drugs were anticonvulsants. Most of them caused adverse reactions. Some of them did nothing.

During this phase, I noticed that on the days I took Klonopin in the early morning to get back to sleep, I was less likely to have a migraine that day. When I told my neurologist, she suggested that I take Klonopin every day, twice a day. Because I had habituated to the drug by then, I ended up taking one 1 mg tablet at bedtime and one on waking. I stayed on this dose until 2013, which was about ten years, I think.

The only other drug that seemed to help the migraines at all was Depakote, which also caused a great deal of weight gain. My first neurologist prescribed it. I gained about 30 pounds within a few months. Almost all anticonvulsants cause weight gain, but Depakote is notorious for being particularly likely to cause a large of amount of weight gain very fast.

Depakote messed up my sense of hunger and satiety, so even when I was full, I still felt hungry. My guess is that it acts on the hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain that controls hunger and satiety and part of the limbic system. I went off it and tried other drugs, none of which helped.

Eventually, I gave up on this neurologist and tried another. He also prescribed different drugs, but for longer periods to test them out. Again, Depakote helped migraines moderately, and I stayed on it. I was on it till 2013. Because of the extreme weight gain, and because Depakote only seemed to help somewhat with migraine prevention, I tried to go off it several times over the years. I would reduce the dose somewhat, and all would seem well. I would reduce it more, and then I’d get hit with a cluster of severe and relentless migraines. My doctors and I thought this meant that the Depakote had been helping my migraines, and without it, they were returning, so I would go back on a full dose. I gained over 60 pounds in the years I was on Depakote.

The Migraine and Lyme Connection

The first time I had relief from migraines was after I was diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2007. I went on amoxicillan, and during that first month of treatment, I had only about three migraines, which was unheard of for me at that time. (I usually had migraines at least two-thirds of the time.) I told my neurologist about it, and he said, “There is no connection between Lyme disease or antibiotics and migraines.”

I thought this was a pretty silly response to a very exciting and hopeful development for me, but the migraines did come back after that first blissful month of almost none. A few months later, I switched to a different antibiotic, cefuroxime, and again I had a month with just a handful of migraines. Then they came back again.

I spent several years aggressively treating Lyme and other tick-borne diseases with antibiotics and antimalarials. During this time, when I was herxing (experiencing symptoms from microbial die-off), my migraines would get much worse. Eventually, as I started to recover from tick-borne infections, the migraines got less frequent and less severe. I went through menopause at age 42, which further reduced migraines.

How I Got Off Depakote

In 2012, I decided to go off Depakote. By then, I had learned a lot more about drug withdrawal. (If you want to learn more about psychotropic drugs and how to withdraw from them, I recommend the book, Your Drug May Be Your Problem. I also researched online. I learned that if you are on Depakote for migraines, you will likely get rebound migraines during withdrawal. (If you are taking Depakote for seizures, the most common symptom from withdrawal is to get seizures, and so on.) Other common withdrawal symptoms that I experienced were anxiety, agitation, and mood swings.

The main thing I had learned about drug withdrawal — especially for any drug that is psychotropic (has mood-altering effects) — is to go off them much more slowly and gradually than you think you have to. THIS IS TRUE FOR ANY MEDICATION THAT LIKELY AFFECTS MOODS, EVEN IF YOU ARE NOT ON IT FOR A MOOD DISORDER!

I’m going to repeat this because I think it’s so important:

Go off mood-altering medications
much more slowly –
at lower dose reductions
and at longer intervals –
than you think you have to.

Go off very, very GRADUALLY!

When migraines were worst, I was taking 1500 mg of Depakote a day, which was one 500 mg tablet three times a day. When I was ready to start reducing, I was taking 1000 mg a day. I thought that the smallest pill available was 250 mg. (That’s what I was told, but it turns out there are 25 mg tablets. Let this be a lesson to you: Google is your friend. If you’re not sure you’ve been given accurate information from your doctor or pharmacist about the smallest available dose for a medication, do an internet search with the question, “what is the smallest dose of [your medication]?”)

Anyway, what I did was this:

  • I read what I could find about common withdrawal symptoms of Depakote.
  • I told my partner and my personal care assistants that I was going to start reducing the drug, and I asked them to let me know if they noticed any of these withdrawal symptoms. I also asked them to have extra patience and understanding if my behavior or moods were erratic, and to know that it was nothing to do with them!
  • I made a list of things I could do to take care of myself if my moods got wonky. The most important thing was to remind myself that these difficult moods were NOT real! That they were just a side-effect of the drug, and that it would pass. Other strategies were mostly ways to distract myself, like playing with the dog, watching DVDs. Another important strategy was getting empathy from my Nonviolent Communication (NVC) community.
  • I reduced the drug in the smallest increments I could and much more gradually than seemed necessary.
  • I NEVER cut or crushed the Depakote pills because I was on an extended-release formula (Depakote ER), and I had been instructed never got cut or crush the pills.

I was taking 500 mg twice a day in the beginning. Then I went down to 500 mg at night and 250 mg in the morning. I stayed at that dose for a couple of months. At first I had no withdrawal symptoms, then they would arise and peak, then they would fade.

Then I reduced to 250 mg twice a day, and stayed there a month or two. Each time after a reduction, I would have days or weeks without withdrawal symptoms, then they would arise and peak, then fade. I always waited to do another reduction until after I was feeling totally normal for at least a week or two before I reduced again.

When I got down to the smallest dose I knew about, it was still a pretty big dose — 250 mg — so I took one every other day for a couple of weeks, and then stopped. I had learned this strategy for going off of Prednisone. I recommend this strategy if you need to go off something for which you cannot take a very small dose.

How I Got Off Klonopin

After I got off Depakote, I wanted to go off Klonopin. After all, I had started taking Klonopin every day for migraine prevention, and I was no longer having chronic migraines! In fact, after I started my neuroplasticity recovery program, I stopped getting migraines altogether, which increased my desire to get off all unnecessary medications.

I had heard from other people how hard it is to get off Klonopin, so I was determined to go as slowly as possible. I wanted to be kind to myself. I also wanted to be kind to the people around me because I had learned that I was a difficult person to be around when my moods got really screwy.

When I started reducing Klonopin I was taking one 1 mg pill in the morning and one in the evening. I cut the morning pill up so that I was taking 3/4 mg in the morning and continuing to take the full dose in the evening. That was a 0.25 mg reduction.

In the beginning, I was reducing the dose by 0.25 mg (1/4 pill) every two weeks. I found that a couple of days after I’d reduced the dose, I would have anxiety most of the time, and it was very unpleasant! This rebound anxiety lasted anywhere from one to four weeks after the reduction.

I soon changed this strategy. This rate of reduction was too steep for me.

I decided I wanted to reduce the dose more slowly. I asked my doctor to prescribe the smallest dose pill, which is 0.5 mg. That way, if I cut a pill in quarters, I could reduce by 1/8 mg instead of 1/4 mg.

I also reluctantly decided to change my reduction schedule from two weeks to four weeks. At that time, I usually had the worst anxiety for one or two weeks, starting three to five days after the reduction. I wanted to have some time of normality (non-anxiety) after each reduction before I did the next one.

After I started my recovery from CFIDS, MCS, and chronic Lyme, I also exercised — swimming, yoga, and walking — and meditated to help with withdrawal. These strategies helped a LOT.

  • Walking the dog was good because it was an hour of gentle exercise out in nature and interacting with my beloved dog. So I got a dose of dog love (oxytocin pump), a dose of nature, and a dose of exercise all in one. Also, the dog NEEDED to be walked, so it felt productive, too, and it was something I’d do even if I didn’t feel like it.
  • Swimming helped because I LOVE swimming, because it was continuous exercise, because it was in a novel and relaxing environment (a pool), and because I could focus on things like my stroke, my kick, number of laps, etc.
  • Yoga was particularly effective because it combines the positive effects of meditation, stretching, and exercise. Also, if I went to a class, I just had to follow along. I didn’t have to THINK at all. At the end of every yoga class, I always feel way, way more relaxed than I did in the beginning.

Eventually, the schedule I came up with was to reduce by 1/8 mg (1/4 of a 0.5 mg pill) once a month.

However, I did keep the schedule flexible. For one thing, there were differences in how severe or how long the withdrawal symptoms lasted. Some weeks, the anxiety only lasted seven or 10 days. But, if I was having a very stressful month — such as the month I got my driver’s license and was car shopping — the anxiety could linger for a month! Then I would wait for six weeks or even two months to do the next dose reduction.

Suggestions for Klonopin Withdrawal

  • Adjust your attitude: This is a marathon, not a sprint. This is a long-term process of supporting your health and wellbeing. You support your health and wellbeing when you are KIND TO YOURSELF. You don’t get any points in life for suffering more, being tough, or going as fast as possible. Go as slowly as you need to feel OK.
  • Get support. Tell your partner, friends, family, care providers or other people you TRUST that you are starting a long and gradual withdrawal process. Ask them to be supportive.

    I find that people really appreciate it and find it helpful if you give them specific information about HOW to provide support because not everyone has the same idea of what “support” looks like.

    ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT. Say, “I would like a hug,” or “Can you remind me that this isn’t forever, and eventually I will feel relaxed and happy again?” Or, “When I’m feeling anxious, will you rub my back and tell me your proud of me?”

    Ideally, give people written information ahead of time, before you are in withdrawal, letting them know what you might experience and giving them specific suggestions or requests for what you will find helpful. You can send a group email to your supporters with this information so they can refer back to it.
  • When you experience anxiety or other unpleasant symptoms, remember that THEY ARE NOT REAL. The thoughts and feelings are not really yours! They are just drug effects. Before the symptoms are bad, make a list of things you can do to connect with what is real and true when your perceptions are chemically altered. Reminders to put on your list might be things like, “This is a temporary state. I will feel better when I am done withdrawing from this drug.” “These people love me and want me to be well. They told me to call them if I’m feeling bad: [list the people].” “When I am having a hard time, I feel better if I do [activities that make you feel better.]” Keep this list somewhere easy to find.
  • Reduce the dosage in as small increments as possible, especially as you get farther along. In the beginning, reducing by a small amount will be a smaller percentage change than as your dose gets smaller. In this “middle stage,” cut the pills into smaller doses, and you might also want to ask your doctor for pills in lower strengths, so you can cut some of the dosage even smaller. This post explains percentage reductions clearly.
  • Give yourself time to feel “normal.” To do this, you have to go slowly and gradually and give yourself a “honeymoon” period before each new dose reduction. Ideally, you will want to give yourself a week or two of stabilization — a week or two when you feel NORMAL — at each dose before you reduce again.
  • EXERCISE every day! If you have CFIDS/ME, you may think this is impossible. But if you have used or are using DNRS to recover from CFIDS/ME, the more you exercise, the better for your recovery as well as for withdrawal symptoms. Even if you can only exercise a little, it will help. Exercise is effective for several reasons: It reduces stress and anxiety, releases brain chemicals that make you feel good, such as dopamine and endorphins, and unless you are overtraining or getting too intense in your workouts, gets cortisol out of your system (the stress hormone associated with fight/flight and limbic activation) and improves sleep. Also, if you are focused on exercise, it gives your mind a rest from thinking about anxiety or other unpleasant thoughts or feelings.
  • Do YOGA. I know I just said to exercise, but yoga is specifically shown to be calming and relaxing to body and mind, and you don’t need to go at it intensely or vigorously. You can even do it in bed. Yoga has specifically been shown to reduce cortisol. Yoga combines relaxed, mindful breathing with a focus on what you’re doing with your body, and gentle stretching and movement, which is healthy and feels really good!
  • Meditate or practice mindfulness. It may be hard to meditate during the worst throes of withdrawal or anxiety, but if you practice meditation when things are a little easier, it will eventually help you to have more awareness and acceptance of mental and emotional states as just things you can witness that you don’t have to DO anything about.
    One morning, as I was driving to the YMCA to swim, I was simultaneously aware of my body being awash in anxiety and also feeling really happy and calm that I was able to drive, that I was able to be out in the morning, that I was able to see the trees and the sky and the birds. These twin awarenesses were a gift from practicing meditation. It makes it much easier to deal with withdrawal symptoms when you can experience them as a phenomenon that doesn’t mean anything about you….

    Here’s a beginner’s guide to meditation. I found Metta (lovingkindness) meditation the easiest and most beneficial practice when I got into meditation. Here’s a beginner metta video. Or, here’s a good written beginner’s guide to metta. Some people prefer Vipassana (insight) meditation. Here’s a beginner’s guide to insight meditation.
  • Be aware of, and adjust around, stress. My experience is that withdrawal-related anxiety was worse when something stressful was also happening. If you have something stressful coming up, hold off on your next dose reduction until it’s over. Or do your next dose reduction earlier, so the withdrawal period will be over before the upcoming stressful event.
    You probably have more control over how much stress you have than you realize. For one thing, stress takes different forms — distress (unhappy stress) and eustress (happy stress). Any big change is stressful — moving into a wonderful new home, starting a relationship, recovering your health, having a baby, or getting a puppy are all wonderful and stressful events. Hold off on getting the puppy or planning your wedding until you are finished with withdrawal. It’s something to look forward to!
    Also, busy-ness and rushing cause stressful responses in our bodies. When my withdrawal anxiety lasted a month after a reduction, I decided I needed to lighten my schedule. Even though I love writing and my writing groups, I quit both of them until I was done with withdrawal. I added a one-and-a-half hour yoga class in one of the slots where I’d had a three-hour writing group. That was a really helpful change.
    You might think, “Work is stressful, but I can’t work less AND pay rent and feed my pets and myself,” but maybe there’s a food pantry you could use for a little while. Some animal shelters also donate food to food pantries or community organizations to help prevent pet homelessness. These are not permanent changes. These are things to do to ease up on your stress until you are done withdrawing.

One day, it will be over! You’ll be off the medications, and you won’t be having unpleasant side effects anymore.

I did it, and you can, too!

Right now I am newly off Klonopin and having the last of the withdrawal symptoms. Yay! Three weeks from now, I’m having a “happy rebirthday” party for myself because it will be one year since I started DNRS, which was the cornerstone of my recovery program. I expect to be done with the withdrawal symptoms by then, and I’m really looking forward to that!

No Salad Left Behind

I’m taking a break from blogging about dog training, neuroplasticity, and behaviorism to cross-post this article on the critical issue of lettuce rescue and rehabilitation, which is the work of the nonprofit group, No Salad Left Behind.

No Salad Left Behind is a rescue and sanctuary for lettuces that have been attacked — through no fault of their own — by roving gangs of predatory herbivores or even lone squirrel vigilantes. NSLB is located in a secret location in southern New England, home to a struggling effort to protect lettuces from the Bun-Bun Gang.

“We are considering taking in arugula and kale eventually, if we can raise the green,” said Heda Romaine, director of the sanctuary. “For now, we’ve decided to focus on tender, sweet lettuces because they are the most at risk. It’s hard because not everyone appreciates or is even aware of the problem.”

Here in rural New England, even in seemingly peaceful quiet towns, lettuce attacks are all too common. Every spring, a new gardener or farmer may face empty beds.

“Three days ago, my lettuce was doing great,” says Sharon Wachsler, a new member of NSLB. “Then, yesterday I went out to plant some basil, and where my lettuce used to be, it was just empty. It was just dirt. At first I didn’t even see the little pieces of stem where the lettuce used to be.”

Wachsler takes us on a tour of her “garden” and shows the place where once had thrived a young, vibrant community of red romaine.

“This is the only lettuce that survived unscathed,” Wachsler says. “I think it was because it was not near all the other lettuce. But how long will it survive if the rabbit or squirrel should come back?”

A very small romaine lettuce plant, green with red, about eight or ten leaves, surrounded by tiny basil seedlings.

This courageous young plant has survived with its leaves intact — but for how long?

“These weren’t bad seeds,” stresses Wachsler, gesturing to the desolate earth where once had stood her hopes for a decent crop. “They were organic, from the town’s seed saving library. I had great hopes for them passing on their seeds to the next generation of the library, but now, who knows?”

Who knows, indeed. Eight of Wachsler’s lettuces have been moved to the NSLB sanctuary. There, in large pots behind a chain link fence, Wachsler hopes the little roots and nubs of stems — cut down by a pair of cruel incisors in the prime of their youth – will eventually make a recovery. Hopes are not high.

“I used to have pet rabbits,” says Wachsler, ruefully. “They can squeeze through really small spaces. Their bodies are like Jell-O. If they want to get to the lettuce, they’re going to get to it.

“I’ve just started feeding my dog dehydrated rabbit,” Wachsler adds. “Do you think this could be retribution?”

Two big, clay-colored pots filled with dirt. The stumps of lettuce plants are barely visible.

Recently transplanted lettuce

When asked what the chances are for the new transplants, Ms. Romaine hedges. “These plants have been through an ordeal. After having all their leaves eaten, they’ve been uprooted from the only soil they knew and brought to these isolated pots in a gated community. They’re traumatized. We’re just playing a waiting game.”

While most in the community support the efforts of NSLB, the group’s name has stirred up some controversy.

“It’s offensive,” says Isa Bergh. “Lettuce is not just for salad. It has a lot of other possibilities. You can use it as a garnish, or in a sandwich, or in Caesar salad, or . . . Oh wait, that’s a salad. Um, I mean Waldorf sa– . . . well, you can use it for . . . OK, that’s not the point!” Bergh says. “Lettuce is not just for people to eat! It wants to soak up the sun, to flower, to bear seeds, just like any other plant.”

“This kind of attitude that lettuce is just, you know, ‘rabbit food’ is what makes it vulnerable to these kinds of attacks!” Insists Bergh, though critics point out that rabbits have never paid much attention to what people post on blogs. “At least animals can run or fight if someone is trying to eat them, but plants are defenseless,” says Bergh, who eats neither plants or animals, surviving on steam – nicknamed “the Hot Air Diet.”

“I don’t want to get into the politics,” Romaine deflects the question. “We’re here for the lettuces. That’s our position.”

The herbivorous assailant or assailants is still at large. While it’s possible a squirrel or chipmunk is behind the midnight snack-attack, NSLB says they suspect Fuzzy Lapin, who has been known to steal into gardens at night and eat tender young greens. Wachsler confirmed that she has seen “a suspicious rabbit” in her yard and supplied us with the photograph below.

Very cute wild brown rabbit with while tale, nibbling a blackberry vine on a bed of gravel.

Rogue rabbit, wanted for questioning, could be notorious salad eater, “Fuzzy” Lapin.

“I used to think the rabbits were cute!” Wachsler groans. “I even wrote a humorous blog post about this rabbit a few years ago. I’ll never do anything like that again!”

The Difference between Reinforcers and Rewards

Some of you are dog enthusiasts. Some of you are interested in neuroplasticity. I hope this post is of interest to both! Let’s find out….

Recently I sent an email to a group of friends and clients who have been using the Dynamic Neural Retraining System (DNRS) neuroplastic program. The main “work” of DNRS is a behavior that takes between ten and 20 minutes to complete, called the Limbic Retraining Steps (LRS). Program participants are instructed to do LRS three to six times (equivalent to one hour) per day.

One of the main problems I hear about from people who are struggling with DNRS — and it was a challenge for me, too — is completing the daily quota of LRS. I used a lot of “behaviorism tricks” to get myself to do LRS (train my brain) as much as possible. So, in the email I sent to other DNRS students, I encouraged people who were having trouble sticking to their daily program to set up a reinforcement schedule for LRS.

While writing this email, I waffled about which words to use — whether to use “reinforcement” or “reward.” I really wanted to use “reinforcement” because it was more accurate, but I worried that if I sent out an email about “reinforcement schedules” and “reinforcers,” it would sound too technical and jargony. Although I mostly spoke of “reinforcement,” in a couple of places, I wrote “reward” to try to be more “accessible.”

I got an email back from someone who said she does not need rewards to do LRS, that she finds doing LRS rewarding in itself, and that she often attaches LRS to another activity in her day. I thought, “Well, that’s because LRS is supposed to be a conditioned reinforcer, so that is working for you the way it was intended! And then you’re using Premack’s Principle to further reinforce it!”

But that probably would not be meaningful to her because she’s not a behaviorism nerd, like me. But I really want more people to know what reinforcement is so they can use it to better their lives and the lives of the people and animals in their care. So I’m writing this post to try to say some of the things I talked myself out of writing in that email.

At the end of this post, I’ll come back around to LRS and brain retraining and why this all matters….

Here’s the first thing you need to know, the definition of a reinforcer:

A reinforcer is an event that, when it occurs in conjunction with a behavior, and contingent on that behavior, makes that behavior occur more often.

Let’s translate that into English and break it down into its component parts.

First component: Reinforcement makes behavior occur more often. 

(I’m going to try to use a dog example and a neuroplasticity example for each point to make this post maximally relevant.)

Example #1: When your dog sits, you give her a lick of peanut butter. Over time, your dog sits more often. This means that getting peanut butter after sits is reinforcing sitting in your dog.

Example #2: When I wanted to improve my memory and cognition, I asked my family and PCAs not to supply me with the word I was groping for when I would get stuck when I was talking. Instead, I asked them to wait quietly until I came up with the word on my own, and then to point out to me that I had come up with the word on my own and say something like, “Yay, Sharon, you did it!” Over time, I was able to speak with more fluency, with less groping around for words. This means that my behavior of persistence in finding the right words was reinforced by others giving me space to find them and then cheering for my success.

But what if it doesn’t work? What if the behavior occurs with the same frequency or less often than before the “reinforcer”? Then, it was not actually a reinforcer!

Example #1: Barnum hates peanut butter. (I know, it’s weird, but true.) If I put a smear of nut butter on my finger and hold it in front of his nose, he will make a face of revulsion and try to get away from it! So, for MOST dogs, a lick of peanut butter after sitting would reinforce sitting, and you’d get sits more often, but if I did that with Barnum, over time, he would sit less often. That would mean that getting a lick of peanut butter after sitting would punish sitting in his case.

Example #2: My PCAs and family said, “Yay, Sharon, you found the word!” With sincerity. They were honestly happy for me that I was recovering and that my cognitive function was improving. Their happiness and support of my hard work came through in their “Yay”s, so I found it reinforcing. But if one of them had not been sincere when she said this — if I thought she sounded sarcastic or grudging, as if she resented the time wasted while I worked to come up with the word — then it likely would not have been reinforcing of my word-finding efforts. I might have felt embarrassed or ashamed of my cognitive struggles and just been quiet around that person or given up on improving my word-retrieving ability around her. If that person’s response was punishing enough, I might even have generalized that bad feeling and stopped striving to find words around anyone.

Second component: Timing is crucial to reinforcement. The reinforcer occurs in conjunction with the behavior it is reinforcing. This means they either occur at the same time or the reinforcer occurs immediately after the behavior it’s reinforcing.

Example #1: Your dog is wild about balls. Every time you call your dog to you, at the moment when he is running his fastest to get to you, you throw a tennis ball in the opposite direction. Your dog, thrilled, speeds off to get it. Over time, your dog would run faster and faster to get to you, even though he is ending up running off in a different direction for the ball. Because the reinforcer (speeding ball) is being delivered in conjunction with “running really fast to get to my human after she calls me,” the ball throw is reinforcing running to you.

If the reinforcement does not occur in conjunction with the behavior, then what?

If you called your dog, and then immediately threw the ball to him before he had moved toward you, you would not be reinforcing running to you. You would be reinforcing standing still, or more probably you would be reinforcing standing still and looking wildly around for the ball. Sometimes people try to time reinforcements too soon, and then the intended reinforcer actually becomes a lure/bribe or a distraction!

On the other hand, if you timed the ball throw too late, such as once the dog had already gotten to you, you had praised him, and then released him, and he was trotting off to sniff something interesting, at that point you are reinforcing moving away from you or sniffing. Timing reinforcement too late is probably the most common mistake trainers make.

Example #2: After I started swimming again, I wanted to do flip turns when I swam freestyle in the YMCA pool.

I used to really enjoy flip turns when I was on swim team as a teenager. They were fun and gave me a sense of speed and mastery. It was fun to get to the other side of the pool and do a partial somersault in order to turn around. Therefore, they reinforced swimming fast and swimming freestyle.

Then, when I was getting sick in 1995, I started having a lot of symptoms when I was in the pool, including nausea and dizziness. These symptoms became the most severe when I did flip turns, which I found particularly frightening because I would lose track of which way was up, and which way was water or wall, and then bump into the wall with my head. It was largely because of these unpleasant flip turn experiences that I stopped swimming.

Thus, when I started my recovery, I had a mixed reinforcement history of flip turns: I had a longer history of flip turns being reinforcing of swimming freestyle for me, but I had a more recent experience of them punishing swimming to such an extent that it extinguished swimming behavior altogether!

I wanted to turn them back into reinforcers. I worked on this with many behavioral strategies just to be able to start to do them again – a story too long to go discuss here. But, after I was back in the swimming pool and starting to do flip turns, every time after my feet pushed off from the wall, I would say, in my head, “Wheeeee!” as I propelled through the bubbles of my own wake.

Saying “whee” in my head was an effective reinforcer because it reminded me that speeding through the water was fun, that I was going fast, and that I was speeding through the water in a fun way BECAUSE I had done a flip turn. It felt silly and enjoyable. (It also automatically made me relax my shoulders whenever I said “whee” after a turn.) Saying “whee” reinforced flip turns because I did it immediately after the flip turn and while I was still experiencing the direct result of the flip turn — speeding through the bubbles off the wall. In other words, I did it in conjunction with flip turns.

What if I said “whee” at a different time?

If I said “whee” as I was gearing up to turn, when I was feeling a little nervous about doing the flip turn, I would be reinforcing “gearing up to turn.” That might work to help propel me into the flip turn except that actually doing the flip turn was my reinforcement for gearing up, so “gearing up” was already being reinforced. It’s possible that if I’d said “whee” before the turn, I’d find it so reinforcing that I would start skipping the flip turn, but I doubt it. It probably either would have eased the transition into starting the flip or just felt irrelevant (and therefore neither reinforced nor punished the behavior of doing flip turns).

If I had said “whee” after I had finished coming out of the turn and then started my stroke again, it might have reinforced whatever I was doing at that moment (arm movements, turning head to breathe, or kicking), or it might not have reinforced anything because “whee” doesn’t feel congruent with the other activities of swimming, so it might have felt irrelevant and not altered my behavior.

Third component: The relationship between the behavior and the reinforcer is crucial. Reinforcement should be contingent on (be a direct result of) the behavior it is reinforcing.

Example #1: (Recycling the previous two dog examples….)

The dog sitting MAKES peanut butter appear. If she doesn’t sit (if she stands up or lies down, for example), no peanut butter. When she sits, she gets peanut butter. Peanut butter (reinforcer) is contingent on sitting (behavior).

For the other dog, running to the handler MAKES the ball get thrown for him. If he meanders to the handler or sits there looking at the handler instead of running over, no ball. The ball (reinforcer) is contingent on running to the handler (behavior).

Example #2: (Recycling the previous two Sharon examples….)

My searching and coming up with the right word LED TO my PCAs or family saying, “Yay, Sharon, you found the right word!” If I had given up, come up with the wrong word, or said, “Just tell me the damn word!” They would not have said, “Yay, Sharon!” I only got my reinforcer (“Yay, you found the word!”) because I did the target behavior (finding the word I wanted).

Likewise, I only say “whee” when I am swimming as I come off the wall in a flip turn.  If I don’t do a flip turn, I don’t say, “Whee!” in my head. And I don’t tell myself, “Whee!” if I haven’t done a flip turn.”Whee!” (reinforcer) is contingent on flip turning (behavior).

Now let’s see how this compares with the definition for reward*….

Definition of reward:

1. Something given or received in recompense for worthy behavior or in retribution for evil acts.
2. Money offered or given for some special service, such as the return of a lost article or the capture of a criminal.
3. A satisfying return or result; profit.

The relationship here between the behavior and the result are a lot looser! For example, “Something given or received in recompense for worthy behavior,” would fit what my parents did after each semester: take me out for ice cream as a reward for getting a good report card. I think this is a pretty typical way that people reward others. How is this different from the reinforcers I described previously?

For one thing, the ice cream came WAY after the behavior it was intended to reward. I had already done all my homework and taken all my tests for the semester before I got that “reward.” In fact, often the new semester had already started by the time the report cards went home and the evening out happened. The ice cream did not occur in conjunction with the studying and test-taking and homework-doing. There was no temporal relationship between the studying and the ice cream.

Secondly, getting ice cream at Friendly’s twice a year did not actually affect my studying behavior, therefore it didn’t act as a reinforcer. I studied because I cared about getting good grades and about achieving. The test or research paper handed back with an “A” on it or the teacher’s smile when I answered a question right was the reinforcement for the behavior of studying for tests or writing papers or participating in class. If my parents had never taken me out for ice cream, I still would have worked hard and gotten good grades.

Third, the ice cream was not actually contingent on my performance. My parents ALWAYS took me for ice cream at some point after I brought home a report card. They did that whether I had all “A”s or whether I had “B”s mixed in there, too. (Or, when I was younger, when I had a mix of “satisfactory,” “unsatisfactory,” “excellent,” “needs improvement,” or “improvement shown.”)

I am not saying there is anything wrong with rewards like this! I really enjoyed those evenings out with my parents. It felt good to have my efforts recognized. We had a good time hanging out and eating our ice cream. It was kind of a feel-good/bonding ritual.

I think this is often how and why we reward our dogs, too: We give the dog a biscuit for being cute. We invite her up on the bed just because we want to be close and have a cuddle. We throw him the ball because we want to play together. There’s nothing wrong with any of this. In fact, it’s some of the stuff that makes life with dogs feel good! But, we should not confuse it with training or with shaping our dogs’ behavior.

Likewise, as I wrote in a previous post, it was very exciting for me to go to a shoe store to get new shoes after I started walking again. I was thrilled to be there, and it felt rewarding in that I had not been able to be in a shoe store in almost two decades and now my hard work was helping to make this happen. But it was not tied to any specific behavior in time or contingency. I did not increase the amount I was walking in order to make new shoes happen. And having new shoes didn’t make me do more rehabilitation work. It was an enjoyable, celebratory event and a benchmark for me, but it was not really a reinforcer for my recovery work.

Also, rewards come with judgment or intention from a person (either yourself or someone else) to you — YOU are being rewarded. Reinforcers, on the other hand, reinforce the BEHAVIOR, not the learner, can come from anywhere, anything, or anyone, and do not necessarily carry a message.

Rewards carry judgment: You did something worthy, so you are receiving a gift. The judgment is that you did something good, so you deserve something good in return. Or, the reward (as in “just rewards”) can be “retaliation” for “evil” behavior. But in either case, there is a giver, and they are acting with judgment and intention to tell you, “You done good.”

Reinforcers can certainly come from other people. In all my examples in this post, the reinforcers were delivered by the dogs’ handlers or by me to myself with the intention of modifying behavior. But reinforcers can come from anywhere and don’t carry any moral weight. In fact, the environment is a common reinforcer.

For example, suppose you are trying to make a habit of meditating first thing in the morning. It’s a struggle — it’s still dark out, you’re tired, you’re groggy, you’re not sure this is worth it. But, the first day, in late summer, you wake up at 5:30 AM, set your timer for 30 minutes, and shut your eyes and meditate. When your timer goes off, you open your eyes and turn and see a beautiful sunrise out your window. The sky is filled with streaks of pink. The birds are singing. You feel calm and happy.

The next day, you are again not sure if this meditating business is all it’s cracked up to be, but you are looking forward to opening your eyes at the end of the meditation and seeing the sunrise. You position yourself so that you will be looking out the window when you open your eyes. After the 30 minutes, you are delighted to see the sunrise again. You start moving your meditation time a little bit later every day so that, as the days shorten and the sun rises later in the day, you will still end your meditation by looking at sunrise.

The sunrise is not “rewarding” you. Nobody is saying, “That person deserves a sunrise for meditating.” It was just coincidence that the sunrise was coinciding with the end of your meditation time when you started, BUT as a person who is savvy about reinforcement, you recognized the sunrise’s reinforcement value for your meditation practice, so you manipulated that variable by moving yourself in front of the window and changing your meditation times.

With dogs, too, reinforcement can come from anywhere. Suppose your dog slips out the door first thing in the morning one day before you have made it to the hens to collect the eggs. The dog, however, does a terrific job of “collecting” the eggs into her stomach. She decides to do the same thing the next day. Eggs have now reinforced escaping in the mornings. The hens didn’t intend this! The dog didn’t know she’d find eggs the first time. It just happened. And the more it continues to happen, the more escaping in the morning will be reinforced by eating eggs.

Another example is barking. Many dogs find the act of barking reinforcing. It’s not that they think, “Barking is good!” Or, “Barking is bad!” Or, “I’m going to reward myself with barking!” They often bark because they’re bored and it gives them something to do, or maybe for no reason other than they got on a roll and now it’s a habit. In a lot of dogs, it seems to be a cycle of anxiety — they bark because they’re anxious, and then more barking becomes both an outlet for the anxiety and a perpetuator of anxiety. Barking reinforces barking because barking seems to be one of those behaviors that is “self-reinforcing.”

Indeed, reinforcers don’t have to be enjoyable!

To support clarity, I have so far kept my examples and explanations of “reinforcement” pretty limited. I have focused on positive reinforcements and primary reinforcers.** But negative reinforcement is also reinforcement. In fact, I think negative reinforcement played a big role in my recovery.

Positive reinforcement means adding something that the learner will work to get (something desirable) as a consequence of behavior which makes that behavior more frequent. The examples in this post — peanut butter, tennis ball, “Whee,” and “Yay” are all positive reinforcers.

Negative reinforcement means removing something aversive (something unpleasant) that the learner will work to avoid as a consequence of a behavior to make that behavior more frequent. The buzzer in your car that sounds until seatbelts are fastened is a negative reinforcer; when the behavior of seat belting is completed, you are reinforced by the absence of that annoying buzz. (Alarm clocks and timers work the same way.)

How this all relates to DNRS and the Limbic Retraining Steps

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned someone saying that she found doing the Limbic Retraining Steps pretty easy because it was rewarding in itself. I’m pretty sure that Annie Hopper, who created DNRS, designed LRS to be reinforcing of doing LRS because the two longest steps, near the end of the behavior, involve immersing yourself in a happy memory and a happy visualization. (That’s not the only reason they’re there, but it’s an important one.) In this case, then, the PROCESS of doing LRS, itself, carries a reinforcer. If you feel good at the end of it, that’s reinforcing. That’s an example of positive reinforcement.

But there’s another potential hidden reinforcer in LRS. The training involves using something mild to challenge oneself (a low-level trigger) at the beginning of the steps. If you have MCS, as I did, you use a scent, for instance. For me, this meant usually when I started my rounds of LRS, I was having unpleasant symptoms as a result of the trigger/challenge item. Because I had symptoms all the time, sometimes I did not use a trigger like fragrance or foods to challenge myself, but would just take a moment to notice unpleasant sensations in my body, making me more aware of the symptoms that were hovering in the background.

However, often (but not always), by the end of the session, the symptoms had lifted to some degree, and then I felt relieved by feeling better. This was a very potent negative reinforcer!

This means that there can be an element of negative reinforcement in the training program: We start out feeling bad, and then doing LRS removes the unpleasant stimulus (headaches or anxiety or whatever), and the relief from that aversive can be VERY reinforcing!

This was most effective when I did not intentionally trigger my symptoms, but something would happen that would make symptoms worse: If I was in the car, and another car drove by that had diesel fumes; or I picked up a piece of mail that had a fragrance to it; or I woke up in the morning and felt lousy (as was usually the case in the past). THEN, when I did LRS, if I felt better at all, that was very reinforcing. I hadn’t done anything to make myself feel worse; the environment (internal or external) had set up the training situation for me to reinforce doing LRS to feel better. In fact, control of one’s environment is a primary reinforcer — something we all want from birth, like food or air or affection.

Also note that even if sometimes you feel better after doing LRS, and other times you don’t, the behavior is still getting reinforced. This means you are on an intermittent or variable reinforcement schedule, which is actually a really potent reinforcement schedule. You keep working at it in the hope that this time will pay off. (This is why gambling is so addictive.)

What this also means, though, is that the process of doing LRS carries an aversive. The tricky part with any behavioral modification program that employs negative reinforcement is that, until the aversive is lifted, and we have the relief of not experiencing the unpleasantness, whatever was happening up till that moment was being punished! So, having limbic system reactivity to the trigger that results in unpleasant symptoms means we are punishing that reaction — we are punishing our brains sending chemicals through our body that cause symptoms, which is a fine thing to punish. But, we might also experientially connect the punishment to starting our LRS training.

Punishment is not necessarily a bad thing in every case. Punishment suppresses behavior, and that can be extremely important in a behavioral modification program like DNRS that is designed for learners to stop using one neuronal pathway and build and use another instead. And I really don’t think Annie Hopper intends for the program to be punishing — quite the opposite! She goes to great lengths to stimulate and support improved mood and other very enjoyable states. I think that’s very successful for most learners most of the time.

But, some participants might experience the beginning of LRS as punishment, and the problem with punishment is that there is always fallout. Fallout in this context means undesirable side effects from the use of aversives. Fallout includes: associating anything present during punishment with punishment and a desire to escape or avoid the punishing situation.

It might be obvious to you that there is an element of punishment if we do something intentional to trigger mild symptoms, but there can also be an element of punishment even if we are using existing symptoms. If you typically use distraction or avoidance to cope with symptoms, then when you trigger symptoms intentionally, or even if you just let yourself connect with and be aware of symptoms that were already present, that might feel like a punisher to you.

How might one avoid the unpleasantness associated with the first parts of LRS? Procrastinating starting LRS in the first place! For most people, the greatest challenge in sticking to the DNRS program is getting themselves to start doing LRS, whereas once they get going, they roll right along and feel better than (or at least as good as) before they started.

So, if you or someone you’re working with is having trouble sticking with a training program (whether you are training your dog, your child, or your own brain), please know the following:

  • This is normal! It does not mean you are bad, wrong, aberrant, or weak-willed. You are affected by the laws of behavior, just like anyone, and this is actually good news because….
  • It might be because there is an aversive in there that is too harsh at its present intensity for you or your learner to withstand, and you might need to dial it down. This is something you very likely have control over! So, this is something that is possible to adjust to work better for you or your learner, to make the program more likely for you to succeed.
  • It might also be that you need more reinforcement to stick with the program. This is something that can be dialed UP. This is also something that is possible to adjust — that you have a say in — to work better for you and help you succeed.

These are also the kinds of things I love to work on with people when I do coaching. If you’re interested, contact me to set up a session. Or, you may find that, armed with this additional information, you are able to figure out some tweaks on your own!

Happy training!

Peace,

Sharon

P.S. Did you enjoy this post? Would you like to reinforce my behavior? Tell me what made it juicy for you in the comments — if you’re a “dog person” or a “brain person” and what spoke to you! Or make use of the Tip Jar in the sidebar; money is a very potent conditioned reinforcer! (I’ll be talking about why money is such a powerful conditioned reinforcer in a future post.)

*Much to my surprise, I have discovered some dictionary definitions of reward now refer to reinforcement. Such as this one, which is from the same dictionary as the definitions above:

Psychology The return for performance of a desired behavior; positive reinforcement.”

But I still think what most people think of when they hear “reward” is what I describe above.

**I plan to discuss conditioned reinforcers, Premack’s Principle, and punishment more thoroughly in other posts.

Upcoming Posts (with extremely fuzzy timeline):

  • The Laws of Behavioral Science Are In Effect All the Time (whether you know what they are or not)
  • Why you procrastinate: Long duration behaviors and delayed starts
  • Punishment: What it is, what it isn’t, how it works to stop behavior (whether you want it to or not)
  • Premack’s Principle, or how to use your addiction to retrain your brain
  • Conditioned Reinforcers, or how brain retraining is like money in the bank
  • Reinforcers vs. Rewards, Part II: Why feedback is better than praise
  • Clicker Train your Brain: Why clicker training and limbic system retraining are a perfect match