Enrichment: Make Your Dog Happy while Preventing Common Behavior Issues!

What is enrichment?

Enrichment is giving your dogs things to do to keep their minds and bodies active, exercised, or engaged.

Dogs evolved to work. First, as wolves, they had to hunt or forage for their food. Later, domesticated dogs had to work with people as hunting, herding, or fishing assistants, as protectors of the farms or homes, or as racers or vermin catchers.

Today, dogs whose job is “companion” still have the drives that their ancestors had to forage and hunt for their food. This means that what dogs are programmed to spend several hours doing — finding and eating their meals — instead takes them just a few minutes in a day. This leaves most domestic dogs — whose food is plunked down in front of them in a bowl with no challenge — severely understimulated. After they gulp down their meal, what do they do with the rest of their day?

Busy dogs are good dogs; bored dogs are . . . less good dogs

We are not used to thinking of our pets as bored. We see them napping or greeting us happily, and we don’t know what else may be going on in their minds. But our dogs don’t have the language to say to us, as a child might, “I’m bored! There’s nothing to do!”

Even if your dog spends half her day sleeping, that still leaves several hours each day when she needs to do something to occupy her mind . . . and mouth and paws. If you’re home and available, you might spend this time cuddling, playing, or otherwise engaging your pet, but when dogs are home alone or when their humans are busy, many find their own “games” to occupy themselves. The activities they come up with to busy themselves — barking at people and cars outside, foraging for food (in the trash or on the kitchen counter), or having a satisfying chew on your shoes or the couch — are often games we do not appreciate!

There are many types of enrichment — sensory, cognitive, social, and more — that can make your dog happier, more content, and less destructive. To learn more about how to offer diverse kinds of enrichment to your dog or cat, pick up the book Beyond Squeaky Toys: Innovative Ideas for Eliminating Problem Behaviors and Enriching the Lives of Dogs and Cats.

This post focuses on one type of enrichment — giving dogs the opportunity to work for their food. This type of enrichment is often quick, easy, and inexpensive for human caretakers and can give our dogs hours of enjoyable fun and mental exercise. It also means that while they are busy working for their food, they are not engaging in other activities we don’t like!

Also, mental exercise can be much more tiring for a dog than physical exercise. If you’ve ever started studying a new language or taken an intensive math class and just wanted to take a nap or zone out in front of the TV after, you have experienced this yourself! A dog who is working his brain is often pleasantly wiped out afterward and happy to take a nap. A tired puppy is a good puppy!

Isn’t it mean to make a dog work for his food?

Just the opposite! Dogs LOVE to work for their food. We can see this excitement at work when we give a dog a food-dispensing toy that they have to paw at, push with their nose, bounce around, or excavate with their tongue; they become very enthusiastic about playing with that toy and getting every last bit of food out. Not only that, but most of the time, a dog who has learned the joy of a feeder toy will ignore a bowl of food in favor of a food-dispensing puzzle toy that she has to work to get the food out of!

Egg-shaped ball made of hard, clear plastic with purple rubber lattice on the outside.

The Kibble Nibble

In fact, here is a review of the “Kibble Nibble,” a feeder toy, where the owner describes this phenomenon:

Can someone explain to me what magic properties regular dog food has that when you make it difficult to get to, it becomes the most highly desired treat ever??? I have a 1 1/2 year old Golden Retriever that is a freak of nature. She is the kind of dog that you can put an entire day’s worth of kibble out and she’ll just munch on it off and on throughout the day. BUT if you put that EXACT SAME KIBBLE into this toy, she is on a mission from God to get every single piece out this very second….I’ve been laid up after having hip resurfacing surgery so haven’t been able to play with my dog as much the past couple weeks. This ball has definitely helped easy some of her boredom.

Will this take a lot of extra time?

No, not for you. It will take more time for your dog, though. Time that he will NOT spend anxiously awaiting your return or barking out the window, jumping on guests, or shredding the toilet paper.

If you feed your dog a bowl of kibble twice a day, instead you can simply pour their meal into a feeder toy twice a day. If you feed wet food (such as canned dog food or raw ground meat), you can stuff some Kongs with his food, pop the Kongsin the freezer, and hand them out for their meals. A Kongsicle is a delightful challenge for a bored dog!

Always make sure to supervise your dog with any new feeder toy until you are sure they can use it safely. While feeder toys are generally designed to be very safe, some potential dangers are the following: Chewing or taking in the mouth a toy that should not be chewed, breaking a toy that could be ingested or cut the dog, shoving a toy into a closet and ending up locked in (Barnum did this!), etc. Most dogs can play with most feeder toys safely unsupervised once they know how to use it and the area they’re in is “dog safe,” but until you know for sure, it’s best to supervise the first few sessions with a new toy.

Here are some of my favorite toys to feed my dogs from. 

Kibble-Dispensing Toys

  • The IQ Treat Ball is sturdy, inexpensive, has adjustable levels of difficulty from easy to challenging, can be “worked” with a nose or a paw or both, and is great for dogs of many different sizes and breeds. (I recommend the large size — five inches — for all but tiny dogs.) What would otherwise be hoovered down in a minute can now make for a half hour of great fun, physical and mental exercise! (Here’s a video of Barnum playing with the IQ Treat Ball.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MTG4Dn7mGU
  • Another very popular feeder toy is the Buster Cube. This is a big toy (which comes in two sizes) that you can fit a lot of food in at once. It has the advantage of being too big to fit in a dog’s mouth (even a very big dog), making it hard to destroy and very safe for even aggressive chewers. It also has an easier and more challenging setting, though it’s not as easy for people to fiddle with the levels as the IQ Treat Ball. Because it’s so big, you can fit even a large dog’s entire meal into the toy pretty easily. (This is the loudest toy. See quieter toys in the “Troubleshooting” section below.)

    A hard plastic cube, but with rounded corners and edges. There's a large hole in the center of one of the sides.

    It’s Big. It’s Orange. It’s Loud!

  • The Kong Wobbler is Barnum’s favorite feeder toy. This is a big, heavy toy that the dog can smack around with a paw or nose, and instead of rolling, it wobbles and skids and gives out unpredictable amounts of kibbles.

Toys to Stuff with Wet (Canned or Raw) Food

  • Kongs are the classic enrichment toy. They are made of natural rubber, can be washed in the dishwasher, and last for many years. If you have a very aggressive chewer, get the black Kong. For most dogs, red Kongs are best. It’s also a good idea to go up a size or two because you can fit more in a big Kong, and you don’t have to worry about the dog ingesting it. So, if your dog is small, get a medium or large. If your dog is large, get the XXL, etc.
  • There are other versions of Kongs, such as the large and sturdy Kong Stuff-a-Ball, and the smaller and less rugged (but tennis-ball sized) Kong Biscuit Ball.
  • There are some other rubber toy manufacturers. The West Paw Tux is an all-natural rubber toy that can be stuffed and will be replaced for free if your dog ever chews through it!

Do I need to buy toys? Are there free solutions?

Yes, there are! While the toys listed above are generally around $10 or less each, you can also make food-dispensing toys from things around the house. Here are some tricks that I learned from Beyond Squeaky Toys (and there are more ideas in the book). Definitely supervise your dog with these as some of them can present a choking hazard if they are shredded or chewed.

  • Use an empty plastic water or soda bottle. Make sure it’s clean (especially if it had soda or juice in it that had xylitol, which is an additive that is poison for dogs). Pour kibble into the clean, dry bottle, and let your dog bat it around to get out the food!(If you want a more durable version of this, there is the Busy Buddy Tug-a-Jug.)
  • Lick clean the empty jar of nut butter. When you finish a jar of peanut butter (or other nut butter, or applesauce, or anything your dog loves to eat that is safe for him), you can give it to him to lick clean! (Not sure which foods are unsafe for dogs? Here’s a list of foods toxic to dogs from the ASPCA.)
  • Tennis ball o’ kibble. Take a tennis ball, cut a few slits in it with a razor blade, and stuff kibble into it.
  • Paper bag surprise. Do you have a lot of extra paper bags around the house? Put some food in a few of them. Or put the treat-dispensing toys inside paper bags or cardboard boxes for your dog to find and extricate.
  • Forage. This is the easiest one and can be done indoors or outdoors. Take your dog’s breakfast or dinner kibble and scatter it on the ground! Then they have to sniff it out with their nose.

Troubleshooting

This toy is too noisy!

Some toys are much noisier than others. Especially if you have hardwood or tile floors, the Buster Cube, Kong Wobbler, and IQ Treat Ball are very loud. I don’t mind it except when I am on the phone, but Betsy hates the noise. If you like peace and quiet, and you are satisfied that your dog is safe with her toys, you can give your dog the toys right as you leave the house (to give them something to do while they’re alone).

Otherwise, you can try a toy that has a softer outer surface. The rubber Kongs are usually pretty quiet because they are rubber, not hard plastic. There are also kibble feeders that are quieter, though you still usually hear the kibble rattle around inside the toy.

Some quieter kibble feeder toys are . . .

This toy is too easy! My dog gets all the treats out in a minute!

There are a few ways to make toys more challenging.

  • You can put it inside a bag or box or hide it in a different room so the dog has to work to get to the toy.
  • You can put food in a few toys and hide them around the house.
  • You can use a toy with an adjustable difficulty level, like the IQ Treat Ball or the Kibble Nibble.
  • You can use bigger kibble that doesn’t come out as easily from a large hole.
  • You can make the hole smaller by putting a piece of duct tape over part of the hole to make the hole smaller (which is what I did with the JW Hol-ee Treat Ball)
  • You can soak the kibble in water or mix it with broth, put it in a Kong, and freeze it.

This toy is too difficult! My dog can’t get enough treats out quickly and gives up!

In this case, you can do the opposite of some of the tricks above — feed a smaller kibble, make the hole in the toy bigger, or remove some of the barriers (with the IQ Treat Ball, you can take out the white piece that separates the ball in half). For an inexperienced Kong user, put kibble dry into the Kong, and just put it on the floor. If they move it at all, treats will fall out!

If you have a shy, young, hesitant, or low-confidence pup, you can also help them along by nudging the toy a bit with your foot so some treats fall out, encourage them when they touch the toy in any way, and otherwise cheerlead until they get the hang of it.

The toy gets stuck under the couch!

Yes, a lot of these toys are ball shaped and can easily roll and get stuck under furniture. You can solve this problem in different ways:

  • Allow your dog to learn some useful skills by supervising and letting the ball get stuck for a little while and then asking them to “Show me!” And going to where they indicate, removing it and giving it back. Some dogs will learn to get faster with their nose or paw to keep the ball from going under furniture. It’s also a very helpful skill for the dog to show you where the hidden toy is stuck.
  • Use a toy that is too big to fit under the couch or does not roll easily. The Buster Cube is too big to fit under most couches and some beds. The Kong Wobbler, Tug-a-Jug, and other oddly shaped toys will be less likely to roll fast and far.

This toy is too messy!

Some people have had experiences of messy Kongs with peanut butter getting smeared on furniture or floor or dog. If you’re using a kibble feeder toy, as long as your dog hoovers up all the kibbles, there is no mess.

If you’re using canned food or raw meat, freezing it in the Kong usually means there’s not much mess because the dog licks it out as it thaws. I also have had a rule with all my dogs that they only eat a Kong or chew toy in their crate or on their mat. They are not allowed to bounce it all over the house and have raw meat go flying everywhere! If you want the same rule, either give the toy to your dog inside their locked crate or supervise and tell them to take the toy back on the mat or in the crate if they move off (or put it back yourself, if they don’t know what you mean yet).

I feed only raw, whole pieces of food

If you feed raw, most of these toys won’t work, but you can apply a lot of the same concepts to enrich your dog’s eating experience. You can use large bully sticks or dehydrated cow tracheas as a long-lasting chew the dog has to work to eat.

To add challenge, you can hide them in a box or bag, put more than one around the house, or thread a bully stick through one or two or three Kongs so the dog has to remove the toys to get to the chew, etc.

What about enrichment for my cat?

There are cat feeder toys, too:

You can also enrich your cat with many other ideas found in Beyond Squeaky Toys or listed above, such as hiding food in paper bags or boxes.

Have fun!

Giving your dog puzzles to work for his food will make him happier and calmer and therefore less destructive. It is also a lot of fun! I really enjoy witnessing my dog’s excitement and satisfaction when he is working for his food. I bet you will, too!

Lyme Disease and Neuroplastic Recovery

After I went public about my recovery, I received many queries about Lyme disease. Given that Lyme disease is rampant, that it can be a long and grueling illness, and that I was an example of how bad chronic Lyme can get, I’m not surprised that people are asking me about my recovery. I have also done several coaching sessions with people who are already working on a neuroplasticity recovery program who, along with chronic conditions such as chemical sensitivities or chronic fatigue syndrome, also have Lyme disease.

It’s sometimes been challenging for me to answer questions about Lyme. For one thing, there are a lot of unknowns about how neuroplastic treatment approaches work for Lyme disease. While I have opinions, I definitely don’t think the topic of recovery from tick-borne disease is cut-and-dried. I also sometimes get the impression that my answers to people’s Lyme questions are not what they hoped for, which isn’t fun because I hate to disappoint.

Nonetheless, I do want my experience to be as useful to as many people as possible, so I am writing this post in an effort to answer the most common questions and issues I’ve run into related to Lyme and neuroplastic recovery approaches. The recent suicide of a friend who had Lyme disease has given this topic a greater sense of urgency for me.

I really want people with chronic Lyme disease to know that there absolutely is hope. When I first joined Lyme communities online, I felt discouraged when I met people who said there is no cure to chronic Lyme, that it wasn’t possible to recover completely. For anyone reading this who has thought the same and is hoping for more encouraging perspectives, I hope this post will help you.

The questions I’ve been asked about Lyme and recovery that I adress in this post include…

  • How cured is your Lyme disease? Do you still have symptoms?

  • Can DNRS* or a neuroplasticity program cure my Lyme disease, too?

  • Which neuroplasticity program do you think helped you the most?

  • What should I do if I have chronic Lyme disease? Should I do DNRS*? Or something else?

  • I did DNRS* but I still have symptoms. Why do you think this is?

In this post, I’ll address these questions and others about tick-borne disease (TBD) and neuroplasticity-based therapies. I’m basing my opinions on my personal experience, my study of Lyme and of neuroplasticity, and on the best informed guesses I can make at this time. There is still a lot more to learn about TBDs and about neuroplastic recovery. I am hopeful that in time, all interested people will have more answers.

Also, please note: I am not a doctor and am not making recommendations of treatments for individuals reading this post. I have done coaching sessions with people who wanted to know if I think DNRS or other neuroplastic approaches can help them, and some of these people have had Lyme. I am more than happy to offer this to anyone who is interested, but this post should not be interpreted as medical advice.

Now, on to the questions!

Are you actually cured of Lyme? Do you still have symptoms?

The short answer to this is that I do consider myself to be recovered and I don’t think I have much in the way of symptoms anymore, but it’s hard for me to know for sure. I’ll explain why below.

This was me before I started my recovery. I’m at the optometrist, trying on glasses. Before my recovery, this is how I almost always looked in public — I had my mask and oxygen on and was using a powerchair.

Sharing wearing a white baseball cap and white cotton mask over her nose and mouth, sitting in a powerchair with many glasses frames and mirrors in the background.

April 2013

Why it’s hard to say definitively that I no longer have any Lyme symptoms

  • I still have a little bit of recovery left, so I’m not sure what the eventual picture of my health will look like. I have found that a lot of symptoms that I thought were going to stay with me have faded as I have settled into my recovery and my “new” body. It seems reasonable to expect that process to continue.
  • I first became chronically ill when I was in my 20s, and I’m now in my 40s, so I don’t know what feels normal for an aging body, what is a side-effect of a long illness, what is side effects of medication and medication withdrawal that I’m still going through, and what is a result of deconditioning that I will recover from.
  • As part of my recovery process, I pay as little attention as possible to any form of physical distress, so I am not that aware of “symptoms” unless they are very intrusive.

Even with those caveats, my recovery from Lyme feels pretty remarkable to me! I would like to explain why.

Here’s me before DNRS in May 2013. My Lyme doctor and I decided that after four-and-a-half years of intravenous antibiotics, I had gotten all the benefit I could from them.

Sharon sits in a powerwheelchair and has a white mask on her face. She has her left sleeve rolled up to reveal a dressing and PICC line on her left upper arm.

This picture was taken when the visiting nurse was about to remove my PICC line. I was very happy about that!

To get a sense of the scope of my recovery, I offer a list of the TBD symptoms I used to have which I don’t have anymore. Some of these symptoms were things that had improved to some extent from antibiotics before I started neural retraining, and others were things that were still huge problems even after antibiotics. In the list below, I’m focusing only on symptoms that started with my TBDs. I’m not including the CFIDS and MCS symptoms I had before I moved to the country, although there were several symptoms I had before Lyme that did worsen or take on new aspects after infection with TBDs.

I no longer have these TBD symptoms…

  • Trouble speaking (mixed-type, apraxic spasmodic dysphonia)
  • Trouble or inability to move my limbs, especially my legs
  • Tremors or weakness in my limbs
  • Exhaustion so severe I cannot move or can barely move
  • Migraines or vertigo, nausea, or vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light, movement, touch, sound, and smell
  • Severe, chronic pain in my muscles and joints, or swollen joints
  • Sore throats, sweats, flushing, feeling feverish, chills
  • Mood swings, anxiety, agitation, rage, paranoia, mood and behavioral disturbances
  • Hopelessness, despair, loss of creativity
  • Insomnia that reversed my sleep schedule (e.g., going to sleep at 5 AM and getting up at noon)
  • Cognitive impairment, including trouble thinking, remembering, concentrating, finding words, problem-solving, or reduced processing speed or impaired executive function
  • Tacchycardia, ringing in ears, eyelid droop, hypercoagulation (thickened blood)

August 2013 — two weeks into my recovery, without mask or oxygen, happier, still using wheelchair:

Sharon's mother, father, and Sharon sitting outdoors at a festival at a folding table with literature on it, grass below, trees above, other tables and umbrellas, tents, and people in the background.

My parents visiting with me at my town’s summer festival.

What might still be “symptoms”?

It’s a pretty short list!

  • The most challenging thing has been my feet. For a very long time, I did extremely little standing or walking (for a few years, I did none), so when I started walking again, it was a really big adjustment for my feet. Since I began to recover, my feet have gone through plantar fasciitis, plantar fibromas (lumps of collagen in the sole of the foot), tendinitis, fallen arches/flat feet, and bunions. With stretching, reconditioning/time, good shoes, and orthotics, my feet have improved a lot! It was a very happy day when I first noticed that my feet were not in pain all the time anymore. I expect my feet to continue to improve. I don’t think any of this is Lyme-related.
  • I have some aching and stiffness in the muscles and joints of my legs which goes away with movement and exercise. (Essentially, if I sit or lie down for half an hour or more, when I get up again, I’m creaky for a couple of minutes, then it goes away.) My PT was pretty sure that it was muscle fatigue — the aching you get the day or two after a big workout. Since almost every day for the past year has been the day after a big workout for me, it’s taken some time for this to subside. For example, when I had a virus last winter and was resting on the couch for several days, doing no swimming, yoga, or hiking, the pain lessened after the third day. Thus, this seems to be a deconditioning issue. Like my feet, I have noticed my legs getting less and less painful over time.
    Another wrinkle is that I am tapering off of Elavil (amitriptyline). Elavil withdrawal causes muscles to contract, which leads to tight, sore muscles.
    This is really the only issue that feels like a Lyme question mark for me since I did not have muscle pain before Lyme, when I was in my 20s. However, because of the questions around aging, medication withdrawal, and deconditioning, it’s really hard to know how this will shake out.
  • I am still going through withdrawal of some medications. The most unpleasant effect has usually been anxiety, though sometimes it also affects my sleep or causes mood swings or other symptoms. These symptoms subside within one to four weeks after a reduction in medication, then kick up again after another reduction. I do not think this is Lyme-related.
  • Although my mind feels very functional overall, I think I don’t think as fast or as easily as I did before I got sick. Since I have noticed other people my age have the same “issues,” I think this is probably just the difference that twenty years makes.
  • Probably the hardest thing about recovery has been reentering the world of social interactions in meatspace. I always had some anxiety and confusion around social situations and did not feel like I fit in with other people, and that’s been the biggest challenge of being out-and-about again after 90 percent of my communication being by phone and internet for almost 20 years. But I don’t think this is related to Lyme disease, either.

Recovered! Things are pretty different now:

Sharon standing with knees bent and arms blurry waving in the air, wearing a purple tank top and olive cargo shorts. Her house, which is purple, is behind her, and there are tables and chairs with food on them around her.

Dancing!

Sharon stands at an outdoor grill, holding the lid up with one hand and a pair of tongs in the other hand.

Grilling!

Can DNRS* cure Lyme disease?

Well, I don’t have a straightforward answer. There are variables.

  1. I don’t consider DNRS (Dynamic Neural Retraining System) a “cure.” I consider it a rehabilitation and recovery program. The difference is that a cure is something that is done to you. You take a pill or you have surgery, and suddenly — shazam! — you are all better. This is not how DNRS works.
    Rehabilitation is a process. It takes effort and commitment. Neuroplasticity-based recovery approaches requires practice, just like other types of rehab programs. If you were learning how to use a leg again after an injury from a car accident, or if you were learning how to eat or write after a stroke, you’d need to practice a lot. With DNRS, as with most rehab programs, you practice, incrementally raising your criteria. Over time, you get more and more skilled, and your brain and body change.
    The end result is yes, that you’re no longer ill. It looks like a cure to others, but for people who have gone through it, we know that we were not cured. We have recovered.
  2. If a person has an active systemic infection, such as Lyme disease, babesiosis, bartonellosis, etc., I think it is unlikely that DNRS or another neuroplasticity-based treatment will lead to their complete recovery. I’ll say more about this below because there are a number of other questions and wrinkles in this topic, but I believe that the best way to treat infection is to kill the infectious bacteria or parasites with antibiotics or other antimicrobials. If someone has undergone an aggressive, comprehensive, long-term antimicrobial treatment regimen and still has symptoms, I think neuroplasticity-based treatment will likely help them achieve complete recovery.
  3. If you have already done an aggressive, long-term antibiotic (and/or antiparasitic) treatment with a Lyme-literate doctor, and you still have chronic Lyme symptoms, then I definitely think DNRS can help you recover completely. This is what I did. I had improvement after my six years of antibiotic treatment for Lyme, babesia, and bartonella, but I was still extremely sick. Doing DNRS is what made it possible for me to turn my life around. I think it is especially likely you’ll do well with DNRS if your Lyme complex also includes any of the following: chemical or fragrance sensitivities, food sensitivities, electromagnetic-field sensitivities, anxiety, or depression.

Which neuroplasticity program do you think helped you the most?

Absolutely the answer to this is the Dynamic Neural Retraining System (DNRS). Although I added a lot of other practices to my recovery plan, it is hard for me to imagine any of it would have been possible without the information, guidance, and inspiration I received from watching the DNRS DVDs. Before I watched those DVDs, I believed it was impossible for me to recover from MCS and CFIDS, and I thought I probably would not ever recover completely from Lyme, either.

DNRS requires the person who wants to recover to change their behavior and their thoughts because we can use the conscious mind to change the function and anatomy of the brain, which then affects other organs and systems of the body. So, most people who use neuroplasticity-based treatment approaches experience a gradual improvement over time. And the improvement requires repeated activities — practice — to change the brain and therefore the body.

Doing DNRS gave me the first big boost of hope, provided me with cognitive tools to approach recovery, and gave me a conceptual scientific and behavioral framework in which to work. When I followed it to the letter and started to have improvements in my MCS, I was then able to think about additional approaches that would complement what I was already doing.

If I have chronic Lyme disease, what should I do? Should I do DNRS? Something else?

My recommendation depends on your situation. There are a lot of variables. My answer often depends in part on people’s answers to these questions…

1. Have you already undergone aggressive antibiotic therapy?

“Aggressive antibiotic therapy” does not have a precise definition, of course, but basically I want to know if a person with tick-borne disease has seen a competent Lyme specialist and been on (at least) several months of antibiotics/antimicrobials that target the various different forms of borrelia burgdorferi (cyst form, biofilms, etc.) and also the specific coinfections the person had. (Really, a couple of years of targeted antibiotics is probably better.)

I ask this because if you have an active bacterial infection, I think the best thing to do is kill the microbes that are causing the infection. While Western medicine does not have the best answer for everything, it has the best answer for some things. Bypasses for blocked cardiac arteries and antibiotics for bacterial infections are two of the best tools Western medicine has to offer.

I do want to include here, as an alternative viewpoint, Lauren’s story. Lauren recovered from a slew of disorders — including POTS, CFIDS, MCS, etc. — using DNRS. Although I didn’t see it on her website, she says that she also had Lyme and coinfections and did not use antibiotics, and she recovered completely anyway. So maybe it is possible to recover from Lyme and other tick-borne infections without antibiotics. To me it seems less likely, but here is Lauren’s wonderful recovery story, so you can see for yourself.

If you have already killed the infection, and you are still sick, then I think it is very likely that retraining the brain can help you a lot. If you have undertaken thorough antibiotic treatment and you still have Lyme or other TBD symptoms, then in most cases I would say you should try DNRS.

If you have not undergone antibiotic therapy because you think antibiotics are dangerous**, or because you tend to have really severe reactions to medications, I would probably say you should do DNRS. In the future you might still want to do antibiotics, but it’s probably a little more complicated. Some related questions are below.

2. Do you have have MCS, EMFS, anxiety, or depression along with Lyme and cos, OR did you have fibromyalgia or CFIDS before you got Lyme?

If yes, then I would say that if you haven’t already done hard-core antibiotics and you don’t have a major problem with them, to either go ahead and knock out the infection and then do DNRS, OR — especially if something is preventing you from taking antibiotics — you might want to do DNRS first so that you can recover from the MCS, EMFS, etc., and get relief from those things. If you have any Lyme and coinfection symptoms after that, you can then do antibiotics for whatever is left over.

There are a few benefits to doing antibiotics first:

  • If you don’t have any of the other limbic system injuries/dysfunctions, you might not need to do DNRS; you might recover completely from Lyme just by doing antibiotics!
  • DNRS requires you to focus on recovery and not focus on symptoms, medical management, etc., so it’s much easier to do DNRS if you know that you have already done the one big, obvious thing that Western medicine has to offer for infection, and you are not still looking toward the possibility of medical intervention.
  • A neuroplastic recovery process requires committed, ongoing practice, including changing your behaviors and thoughts, over many months or sometimes longer. It is much, much easier to stick with a plan that requires big changes in behavior if you are being reinforced by having lots of periods of relief from symptoms. If you still have active infection that causes symptoms, it may be challenging to do lots of ongoing brain retraining because you will not be getting as much reinforcement from symptom relief, and you will likely have trouble with the cognitive component of the work. This is the main reason I usually suggest antibiotics first for most people.

There are a few benefits to doing DNRS first:

  • The most common “side effects” I’ve noticed from people who do DNRS are improved mood (increased happiness, reduced anxiety) and a greater sense of empowerment and hopefulness. These are benefits to anyone and can certainly help with the process of recovering from Lyme.
  • Once you have gone through the DNRS recovery program, you will be better equipped to maintain your brain training practice as you go through antibiotic treatment.
  • If you have trouble with antibiotics because of bad reactions to them, doing DNRS should take care of that so that you will later be able to do them if you choose. This is often the deciding factor for why I recommend doing DNRS first for some people with Lyme.

Are there benefits to doing DNRS and antibiotics at the same time?

I don’t yet know of anyone who’s done this, but it’s certainly possible, in theory. I think the most challenging part would be not focusing on symptoms and treatment while undergoing aggressive antibiotic therapy.

What about doing DNRS and antibiotics in some other combination?

Yes, that is possible, too. Recovery is often not a linear process. Someone could start on antibiotic therapy and get through a year or two of that, and then continue on them while starting DNRS. I think this would have many of the benefits I listed for doing antibiotics first, as well as some of the benefits for doing DNRS first. This seems like a really viable option for some.

In many cases, I think the answer is to do a combination of antibiotics and neuroplastic approaches. The order you do those in can vary a lot.

3. Is something preventing or delaying you from doing DNRS?

There are some people who want to do DNRS but haven’t started yet. Usually the reasons for this are one of the following:

  • They are still raising money. For people with very low incomes, such as people on SSI, it can take several months to save up $250.
  • They are actively experiencing fresh or ongoing trauma. It is best not to do DNRS when in the midst of a major trauma or when newly recovering from a recent trauma. This includes things like being abused or assaulted by a family member or partner; having a parent or other important person or family member die recently; or having recently lived through a natural disaster. (If you have a trauma history or are dealing with the on-going stress of a chronic illness, this does not apply, and it’s great to go ahead with DNRS.)
  • They are trying to get their life or schedule in order to support DNRS and want to wait to start until they can devote themselves to it.
  • They are doing a lot of medical treatment that they’re very focused on, and they want to wait to start DNRS after that is more resolved or takes less attention.

If you’re in one of these situations,  there are other neuroplastic approaches you can take in the meanwhile. These are things you can pursue even if you are doing other Lyme treatment. Any amount of the following have been shown to be good for mental and physical health and to make positive changes in the brain:

  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Walking
  • Spending time in nature

Yes, any amount is beneficial! There are studies that show that just five minutes a day of meditating, walking, or spending time in nature are good for your brain and your overall health!

If you can only add one of these things, my vote would go to yoga, if you like movement, or meditation, if you like stillness. The data supporting yoga and meditation promoting wellness and happiness are overwhelming!

I’ve been doing the DNRS recovery program faithfully for a long time, and I’m still sick! Why?

This is sometimes a reason people book a coaching session with me. Now, NOBODY gets well as fast as they want to. I got well at warp speed, and I still was sometimes frustrated and impatient and wanted it to go faster! And it’s definitely not unusual for it to take a year or two or more for some people to recover. Having your recovery take longer than you wish does not necessarily mean you have Lyme! A lot of the time, it has to do with needing to do more practice, do things differently or in a more complete way, or other factors.

But some situations I hear about are like this: The person has MCS, and they do DNRS, and they recover completely from reactions to fragrances and other smells, but they still have achy joints, vertigo, fatigue, migraines, and fevers. These symptoms have not improved. They have incorporated the program completely. They are still practicing every day. They live in the Northeast. I ask them if they’ve been diagnosed with Lyme, and they say, yes, actually a doctor diagnosed them a few years ago, but there were so many other things to deal with, it got lost in the shuffle. And they have never taken antibiotics. They weren’t treated. In this case, I think they should get on antibiotics!

There are wrinkles, though. There are people who have done DNRS, have had MCS symptoms resolve but are not having a complete recovery in some other respects and when I ask them about Lyme, I hear….

  • The doctor who diagnosed them with Lyme was a jerk, so they didn’t trust his diagnosis even though they had a positive Lyme test.
  • Or they had a negative Lyme test, but they know Lyme tests often turn up false negatives, and they did think they had Lyme, but their doctor said they can’t have Lyme if the test is negative.
  • Or they did have Lyme, but they used an alternative treatment they believe in (not antibiotics), so they don’t think they have Lyme anymore even though they have joint pain, fevers, etc.

In all these cases, I think it’s pretty likely these people have Lyme disease (active infection), for which I think they should take antibiotics. This is usually not what people want to hear! And maybe I’m wrong. I would love to be wrong, but I try to do my best to present the information I believe to be most likely to be true.

I hope you have found this post helpful and informative. I welcome your comments and questions!

Footnotes:

*DNRS is Dynamic Neural Retraining System. I have written about it in previous posts and on some of my neuroplasticity pages. It was developed by Annie Hopper to treat multiple chemical sensitivity, electromagnetic field sensitivity, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia. It also happens to work very well for PTSD, depression, and anxiety. I have no affiliation with DNRS and do not make any money from people buying DNRS products. I just think it’s a very helpful recovery tool.

**If you have done DNRS: I suspect that the belief that antibiotics are always bad or dangerous is usually a POP. (If you haven’t done DNRS, “POP” won’t mean anything to you, so please disregard.)

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 “Teaching with 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 is 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!