Can Early Brain Development Predict Autism in Toddlers?

In the larger context of neuroscience research and treatment, there is currently a big push within the field of neurodegenerative diseases to be able to detect the biomarkers of these conditions before patients are diagnosed, at a time when preventive efforts are possible.  In Parkinson’s for instance, we know that once a person is diagnosed, they’ve already lost a substantial portion of the dopamine receptors in their brain, making treatment less effective.  The idea with autism is similar; once autism is diagnosed at age 2-3 years, the brain has already begun to change substantially.

So – this begs the question: Can we find a way to identify which infants are at risk to be diagnosed with autism before 24 months of age?

A  first-of-its-kind study at University of North Carolina Health Care was recently conducted on high-risk babies – those who have older siblings with autism.  Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) were used to image the brains of infants, and then researchers used brain measurements and a computer algorithm to accurately predict autism before symptoms set in.  Researchers from around the country were able to correctly predict 80 percent of those infants who would later meet criteria for autism at two years of age.

The study shows that early brain development biomarkers could be very useful in identifying babies at the highest risk for autism before behavioral symptoms emerge.  Typically, the earliest an autism diagnosis can be made is between ages two and three.  But for babies with older autistic siblings, the MRI imaging approach may help predict during the first year of life which babies are most likely to receive an autism diagnosis at 24 months.

The research project included hundreds of children from across the country and was led by researchers at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at the University of North Carolina.  The project’s other clinical sites included the University of Washington, Washington University in St. Louis, and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  Other key collaborators are McGill University, the University of Alberta, the University of Minnesota, the College of Charleston, and New York University.

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (or ASD) have characteristic social deficits and demonstrate a range of ritualistic, repetitive and stereotyped behaviors.  It is estimated that one out of 68 children develop autism in the United States.  For infants with older siblings with autism, the risk may be as high as 20 out of every 100 births.  There are about 3 million people with autism in the United States and tens of millions around the world.

Despite much research, it has been impossible to identify those at ultra-high risk for autism prior to 24 months of age, which is the earliest time when the hallmark behavioral characteristics of ASD can be observed and a diagnosis made in most children.

For this study, researchers from around the country conducted MRI scans of infants at six, 12, and 24 months of age.  They found that the babies who developed autism experienced a hyper-expansion of brain surface area from six to 12 months, as compared to babies who had an older sibling with autism but did not themselves show evidence of the condition at 24 months of age. Increased growth rate of surface area in the first year of life was linked to increased growth rate of overall brain volume in the second year of life.  Brain overgrowth was tied to the emergence of autistic social deficits in the second year.  Previous behavioral studies of infants who later developed autism — who had older siblings with autism -revealed that social behaviors typical of autism emerge during the second year of life.

The researchers then took these data — MRIs of brain volume, surface area, cortical thickness at 6 and 12 months of age, and sex of the infants — and used a computer program to identify a way to classify babies most likely to meet criteria for autism at 24 months of age. The computer program developed the best algorithm to accomplish this, and the researchers applied the algorithm to a separate set of study participants.

The researchers found that brain differences at 6 and 12 months of age in infants with older siblings with autism correctly predicted eight out of ten infants who would later meet criteria for autism at 24 months of age in comparison to those infants with older ASD siblings who did not meet criteria for autism at 24 months.  This means we potentially can identify infants who will later develop autism, before the symptoms of autism begin to consolidate into a diagnosis.

If parents have a child with autism and then have a second child, such a test might be clinically useful in identifying infants at highest risk for developing this condition.  The idea would be to then intervene ‘pre-symptomatically’ before the emergence of the defining symptoms of autism.

Research could then begin to examine the effect of interventions on children during a period before the syndrome is present and when the brain is most malleable.  Such interventions may have a greater chance of improving outcomes than treatments started after diagnosis.

Until this new research, there hasn’t been a way to detect the biomarkers of autism before the condition sets in and symptoms develop.  Now there is very promising leads that suggest this may in fact be possible.

Biomarkers – ‘Precision Medicine’ for the Brain

From the time of the ancient Greeks, medical practitioners have searched for biomarkers for physical illnesses. Hippocrates tasted patients’ urine for sweetness (he is thought to have been the first to diagnose diabetes mellitus).  More recently, doctors relied on patients’ complaints about the severity of their chest pains in order to diagnose a heart attack. Today, they measure cardiac enzymes in the bloodstream.

Think of it this way: Cancer treatment doesn’t treat the symptoms of cancer.  You don’t want the swelling to go down or the pain to disappear; you want to get rid of the cancer.  But that’s the protocol clinicians and researchers have used for years – the cataloging of symptoms such as sadness, fatigue and loss of appetite, rather than looking for biological clues associated with the symptoms in a blood test, a brain image or a saliva sample. The focus was treating the symptoms of mental disorders, not the causes.

Neuroscience’s inroads have emboldened a small but growing number of clinicians and researchers to reject diagnostic protocols on which mental health practitioners have relied for years and instead focus on finding the biomarkers, the concrete measurements of mental illness.

There was a huge shift in the approach to diagnose and treat mental illnesses beginning in 2013, when the National Institute of Mental Health announced that the government, the largest funder of mental health research in the world, drastically shifted its priorities.  Research based solely on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the chief tool of mental health professionals, would no longer be funded.  The reason was “its lack of validity.”   First published in 1952, the manual has changed over the years, but its categorization of mental illnesses was based nearly entirely on symptoms either reported by the patient or observed by the clinician.  New funding is based on the premise that mental disorders are biological disorders involving brain circuits. Research into diagnosis and treatments such as talk therapy became relegated to the bottom rung of the research ladder.

New psychiatric methods visualize the nervous system and its activities, monitoring the physiological dynamics of mental health.  Rather than targeting brain chemistry to reduce symptoms, researchers now want to focus on brain circuitry.  Their efforts have been bolstered by advances in technology and imaging that now allow scientists not only to see deeper into the brain, but also to study single brain cells to determine which circuits and neurons underlie specific mental and emotional states.

Because of this huge shift from ‘brain chemistry’ to ‘brain circuitry’ some traditional psychotherapists are evolving onto “neurotherapists,” someone who first tries to understand a patient’s brain circuitry, then combines that with both psychological and physiological information to create a treatment plan.

While traditional psychotherapists might begin sessions by asking patients about their thoughts, feelings and problems, new diagnostic protocols might have patients fill out a color-coded form that matches statements about their thoughts and feelings with the parts of the brain most likely involved. Then patients undergo a quantitative electroencephalograph, or qEEG.

The EEG is a map of the brain’s electrical activity and reflects a patient’s emotional and cognitive states. The qEEG compares that information, in real time, to a digital database of hundreds of EEGs of healthy subjects. A patient’s brain map will pulse with red or blue if it is either overactive or under-active, compared with the norm.

Patient treatment plans can include psychotherapy and medication as well as neurofeedback, a technique in which patients are trained to increase or decrease brain-wave activity in the parts of the brain related to their complaints. Another tool is transcranial magnetic stimulation, a noninvasive method of delivering pulses of energy to the head, which has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of depression.

A person’s mental makeup is a kind of hierarchy, with personality on top, which is created by brain states that arise from circuits firing in a certain pattern below. With psychotherapy, you tweak the brain from the top down, dealing first with a patient’s personality and temperament. But with neurofeedback, combined with qEEG, patients are tweaked his from the bottom up, identifying the brain areas involved and then retraining those circuits to fire differently, resulting in changed moods or mental outlooks.

It’s a more precise way to  and it sure beats trial and error.

Information session – Please be our guest

Please join us on Tuesday, September 18th, at noon to learn what and how you can create internal well-ness.  We all have the power to strengthen and increase our brainpower by creating new connections in the brain through the use of neurofeedback and biofeedback. By changing the way our brain connects, we can begin to change our thought processes and our behavior.

Please be our guest and learn more about what we do.  Call 817-500-4863 to reserve a seat

It’s Spring! Get outside and open your mind!

This time of year seems to bring out our loosey-goosey side. Polish people have a spring tradition of dousing each other with water and chasing each other around with Pussywillow switches. South Asians pelt each other with colored powered as a celebration of the triumph of good over evil. And then there’s Mardi Gras – ‘nuff said. We tend to go a little wild.

This kind of behavior can be cathartic after a winter’s worth of suffering, but there’s evidence that it might be good for you, too.

It’s a given that cold weather can dampen spirits. Depression that returns during the winter months each year—seasonal affective disorder—goes by the extremely apt acronym “SAD.”

Warm weather doesn’t really have the opposite effect, though. A number of studies, including one based on 20,818 observations in Dallas, Texas, found that there was no significant correlation between mood and temperature.

So, if it’s not just the warmer weather that affects us, then what is it?

In a study published in 2005 by Psychological Science, researchers put volunteers through a series of tests to gauge how the weather and the amount of time they spent outside affected their mood, their memory, and how receptive they were to new information.

In the first test, researchers measured the temperature and barometric pressure (high pressure is typically associated with clear, sunny weather) on several days when 97 people reported their mood and how much time they spent outside. Then, the participants were asked to remember a series of numbers. They were also given a short, favorable description of a fake employee, and then given additional, unfavorable information about that same person, and then asked to assess the employee’s competence and performance. The more open-minded among them, the researchers thought, would be able to update their initial impressions with the new information before passing judgment.

All three metrics hinged on the weather and how much time the participants had spent outside. On days with high pressure—the clear, sunny ones—people who spent more than 30 minutes outside saw an increase in memory, mood, and flexible thinking styles. Those who spent the time indoors, though, saw a decrease.

In a second experiment, the researchers asked 121 subjects to either spend time inside or outside on a warm, clear day. Among participants who spent more than 30 minutes outside, higher temperature and pressure were associated with higher moods, but among those who spent 30 minutes or less outside, this relationship was reversed.

A third test was done to determine whether the first two tests were tainted by the fact that they took place in the spring in a northern climate. Data was collected through a website from 387 respondents who lived in various climates, and they correlated the submissions with the weather in each city for that day. They found that the participants who spent more time outside during the spring, but not during other seasons, had better moods.

Temperature changes toward cooler weather in the fall did not predict higher mood. Rather, there appears to be something uniquely uplifting about warm days in the spring.

In summary, across the studies, spending more time outside on clear, sunny days, particularly in the spring, was found to increase mood, memory, and openness to new ideas. People who spent their time indoors, though, had the opposite effect, and one possible explanation for this result is that people consciously resent being cooped up indoors when the weather is pleasant in the spring.

People in industrialized nations spend 93 percent of their time inside, but researchers suggest that if you wish to reap the psychological benefits of good springtime weather, go outside!

This just might be the perfect time of year to turn off your computer and lay a Post-it note on your desk (with a copy of this article) that says “OUT OF OFFICE”. Catch an afternoon ballgame, go fishing or just frolic around a park. You’ll feel better, smarter and become more open-minded. If your boss asks ‘what’s up?’ – just say “I’m brain training!”

Creativity and the “right brain myth”

For years the self-help gurus have been telling us “tap into the right side of your brain to stimulate creativity.” But is it really true?

A new study suggests it’s not necessarily which side of the brain is dominant – it’s how well the two brain hemispheres communicate that sets highly creative people apart.

The study is part of a decade-old field, connectomics, which uses network science to understand the brain. Instead of focusing on specific brain regions in isolation, connectomics researchers use advanced brain imaging techniques to identify and map the rich, dense web of links between them.

The study focused on the network of white matter connections of both sides of the brain. The brain’s white matter lies underneath the outer grey matter. It is composed of bundles of wires, or axons, which connect billions of neurons and carry electrical signals between them.

Researchers used an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging, which allowed them to peer through the skull of a living person and trace the paths of all the axons by following the movement of water along them. Computers then comb through each of the 1-gigabyte scans and convert them to three-dimensional maps — wiring diagrams of the brain.

The team used a combination of tests to assess creativity. The subjects were measured on a type of problem-solving called ‘divergent thinking’ or the ability to come up with many answers to a question. The participants also filled out a questionnaire about their achievements in ten areas, including the visual arts, music, creative writing, dance, cooking and science.

The responses were used to calculate a composite creativity score for each person.

They found no statistical differences in connectivity between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. But when they compared people who scored in the top 15 percent on the creativity tests with those in the bottom 15 percent, high-scoring people had significantly more connections between the right and left hemispheres.

This new method – studying the patterns of interconnections in the brain rather than the regions of the brain is a promising development that is being used in other areas of neuroscience. Researchers are now using these statistical methods to uncover early detection of Alzheimer’s disease, to better understand dementia, epilepsy, schizophrenia and other neurological conditions such as traumatic brain injury or coma and to find out whether brain connectivity varies with I.Q.

Brain Imaging Helps Identify and Treat Different Types of Depression

Millions of Americans suffer from depression. And few find relief even after several months onantidepressants. Research suggests the problem may stem from the way mental illness is diagnosed.

Diseases such as cancer or heart disease can be physically confirmed with objective lab tests, but the problem with diagnosing psychiatric conditions is that they are classified somewhat vaguely as clusters of reported symptoms. A person can be diagnosed as clinically depressed if they say they have low mood and meet at least four additional criteria. Depression can manifest differently from person to person – and symptoms can vary wildly. There really hasn’t been away to differentiate patients who have different kinds of depression. Until now, this has been a
big obstacle in understanding the neurobiology of depression.
Previous studies have shown that stress throws off the flexibility circuits in certain depressed individuals – whereas other people become depressed for different reasons. That is consistent with the view that depression is not just ‘one biological thing.’ In 2008, the National Institute of Mental Health initiated a new set of research priorities which encourages scientists studying mental illness to drill down to core mechanisms rather than placing disorders under blanket labels. This shift in thinking has invigorated the search for a range of biomarkers for depression
—toxic free radicals, the stress hormone cortisol and even epigenetics (environmental triggers that switch genes on and off).
Researchers have previously used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to check for differences in brain connectivity between depressed and healthy people. The analysis showed depressed people could be distinguished from healthy ones based on brain connectivity differences measured by fMRI in the limbic and frontostriatal areas. The limbic system controls emotions and frontostriatal networks help coordinate motor and cognitive functions. One brain area, called the subgenual cingulate cortex, has unusually strong connections with other regions of the brain in people who are depressed.
But in the most recent study, researchers used fMRI, to measure the strength of brain connections between neural circuits. Four subtypes of depression were analyzed. These fMRI-based subdivisions could be linked to particular symptoms. Patients falling into the first two subtypes reported more fatigue whereas those in the other two reported more trouble feeling pleasure. This subtyping has implications not just for diagnosis but potentially for non-pharmaceutical treatment.
People with depression subtype 1 were three times as likely to benefit from a newer therapy known as transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. This technology uses a magnet to produce small electric currents in brain areas affected by depression.  Another technology being successfully used is trans cranial direct stimulation or alternating current, tDCS/tACS.  The brain will mimic or emulate the tDCS/tACS fed into it and the capillary blood flow increases.
These findings and future research could help develop clearer diagnoses and enable doctors to tailor more personalized and new therapies targeting the specific form of depression in each individual patient.

Can’t get that song out of your head?

Whether you are rocking out to Led Zeppelin in your car or reading with Bach in your bedroom, music has a special ability to pump us up or calm us down.  Scientists are still trying to figure out what’s going on in our brain when we listen to music and how it produces such potent effects on the psyche.

Much research has been done using music to help us better understand brain function in general.  Recent studies explored how the brain responds to music. The quest to dissect exactly what chemical processes occur when we put our headphones on is far from over, but scientists have come across some clues.

Listening to music feels good, but can that translate into physiological benefit?

YES!   In one study, researchers studied patients who were about to undergo surgery. Participants were randomly assigned to either listen to music or take anti-anxiety drugs. Scientists tracked patient’s ratings of their own anxiety, as well as the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The results: The patients who listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisol than people who took drugs.  This points toward a powerful medicinal use for music.  Music is arguably less expensive than drugs, and it’s easier on the body and it doesn’t have side effects.  There is also evidence that music is associated with immunoglobin A, an antibody linked to immunity, as well as higher counts of cells that fight germs and bacteria.

So music is good for us, but how do we judge what music is pleasurable?

A study published in the journal Science suggests that patterns of brain activity can indicate whether a person likes what he or she is hearing.  Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, researchers led a study in which participants listened to 60 excerpts of music they had never heard before.  The participants were asked to indicate how much money they would spend on a given song when listening to the excerpts, while also allowing researchers to analyze patterns of brain activity through the fMRI.  Results noted increased activity in the brain area called the nucleus accumbens, which is involved in forming expectations and a key structure of our brain’s reward network. The more activity in the nucleus accumbens, the more money people said they were willing to spend on any particular song. This was an indicator that some sort of reward-related expectations were met or surpassed.

An area of the brain called the superior temporal gyrus is intimately involved in the experience of music, and its connection to the nucleus accumbens is important, she said. The genres of music that a person listens to over a lifetime impact how the superior temporal gyrus is formed.

The superior temporal gyrus alone doesn’t predict whether a person likes a given piece of music, but it’s involved in storing templates from what you’ve heard before. For instance, a person who has heard a lot of jazz before is more likely to appreciate a given piece of jazz music than someone with a lot less experience.

Have you ever met someone who just wasn’t into music?

They may have a condition called specific musical anhedonia, which affects three-to-five per cent of the population. Researchers have discovered that people with this condition showed reduced functional connectivity between cortical regions responsible for processing sound and subcortical regions related to reward.

This means that when we experience of music, a lot of other things are going on beyond merely processing sound. By using music as a window into the function of a healthy brain, researchers may gain insights into a slew of neurological and psychiatric problems.  Knowing better how the brain is organized, how it functions, what chemical/electrical  synapses  are occurring and how they’re working will allow us to formulate treatments for people with brain injury, or to combat diseases or disorders as well as psychiatric problems.

Is There a Link between Depression, Anxiety and Minor Injuries?

One out of 10 U.S. adults goes to an emergency department every year for injury.  Most injuries are considered relatively minor and providers often don’t look beyond what’s initially required to help that person heal.  But what happens when a person arrives in the emergency department needing help for a minor injury and who also expresses symptoms of depression and anxiety?

Researchers wanted to find out how such patients fared long-term, something relatively well-studied for people with severe injury but uncharted for minor emergency treatment.  They turned to data they had collected from previous work about long-term recovery from minor injuries.

In that initial study, the researchers used standard criteria to identify 1,110 patients who had sustained minor injuries, after excluding those with head trauma, those with a previous psychiatric diagnosis and those hospitalized during the past year for another minor injury.  From this group, 275 men and women were randomly selected and interviewed at intake in the emergency room, as well as at three, six and 12 months after injury.

Along with the larger diagnostic exams that were given, they collected each patient’s symptoms of depression and anxiety using symptom-severity scales called the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale and Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale.

They learned that people with more symptoms of depression at the time of their injury still had trouble working a year later and more frequently required bed rest due to health problems. They found connections, though less substantial, for anxiety, too.

Although it’s unclear what’s driving the relationship between psychological symptoms at the time of injury and long-term recovery, they do know there is a range of symptoms which, if identified and evaluated, could change the way we allocate resources or suggest more intensive follow-up for certain people who might be at higher risk for poor recoveries.

It’s an important link between physical and mental well-being for these patients.

The study further validates that health care providers can’t separate people into psych and physical because there’s an interplay between both that’s important to understand.  If the goal is to get patients back to their normal activities, psychological wellness must be incorporated to treatment after injury in order to meet that goal.

The researchers noted that future research should focus on building a better understanding of the pathways through which psychological symptoms influence long-term recovery.

A Different Look at the Brain – Body Connection….

It’s a common belief that our brain is the center of our consciousness, where your free will and your soul lives. We also think that the brain is a closed system when it comes to our thought process.  It feels like our brain is a special little organ that works in isolation, producing thoughts, mulling them over and then turning them into bodily action.

That may not be the case.

Think of your brain as a computer.  What kind of results would you get from your laptop if the user interface responded only to random inputs from the environment, such as wind, temperature, and other unplanned events?  Your computer would be useless.  The inputs would be random and the outputs wouldn’t make sense.  That’s why we consider the user interface to be an integral part of the computer.

One interesting hypothesis likens humans to robots that respond to programming.  If you aren’t intentionally programming yourself, the environment and other people are doing it for you. Luckily you have a user interface to your brain.  And that interface is your body.  Your body is collecting inputs from all over and feeding them to your brain to reprogram it.  The theory is- give your body the right inputs and you can reprogram your brain.

This concept is both obvious and radical at the same time.  On one hand, we know from experience that our thoughts are directly influenced by what your body is experiencing.  But because we also believe our brain is the special vessel of our free will, consciousness, and soul, we might believe the brain can also make its own independent decisions.  It can’t.  It is a computer that responds to inputs. Give it the right inputs and you’ll get the right outputs.  And your body is the user interface.

This hypothesis suggests another framework for viewing your brain. This framework gives you the means to program your brain with intention instead of letting the environment do it randomly. All you need to do is reframe your body to be part of your brain.

In the old worldview, where the brain is its own user interface, you may find yourself feeling sad, grumpy, tired, angry, and other negative emotions.  And you probably feel a bit helpless to stop it.  Your brain is determining your mood – seemingly on its own – and the rest of your body simply responds to it like a puppet on a string.  This is the most common worldview, and it can be debilitating to many people. They go through life in continuous mental anguish, feeling helpless to do anything about it.

Use hunger as an example.  You know from experience that being hungry can make you cranky.  But if you’re not aware of that mind-body connection – and often we are not-  it is easy to assume the brain is operating on its own to make you cranky.  All you needed was some food to reprogram your brain to more positive thoughts. In this case your digestive system was the user interface to your brain.

If you think of your body as the user interface to your brain, you can manipulate your environment until your thoughts change.  This process can help stop your  brain from thinking whatever it randomly wants to think.  When you do something to stop negative inputs into your brain via your body (the user interface) your brain responds by not producing negative thoughts.

Take an inventory of the people in your life who are unhappy. Ask some questions about what they are doing about their unhappiness. Rarely will the person say they are working on their body to fix their minds.

Now take an inventory of your more well-adjusted friends. Watch the degree to which they manipulate their bodies to manage their minds. Once you see the pattern, you will start to see it everywhere.

The brain likes to focus on one thing at a time. So make sure it is focusing where you want it.

It’s possible that the source of your thoughts just might be your body, and by giving your body the right inputs, it may help to reprogram your brain.

Stop Your Complaining!!

complainWe all complain.

Even if you are the happiest person in the world, you still complain sometimes.

So, why do we do it?

Most people don’t realize how often they complain because it has become a habit and, like all habits, it tends to be so familiar that it becomes invisible.  There is a basic desire in human beings to connect with one another.  People use  complaining as a conversation starter because it’s an easy way to find common ground. We use complaints as icebreakers. We often (and without even thinking about it as complaining) start a conversation with a negative observation because we feel that will help us connect with strangers.  For example, in a closed space like an elevator, we might say “It’s really hot out there today!”  When strangers complain about the weather in order to initiate a conversation, or when airline passengers complain about their flight delay, it helps build solidarity.

Despite having definite negative connotations, complaining can also be a feel-good factor for the complainer.  We sometimes complain to get acknowledgement and sympathy or to simply  vent and get something ‘off our chest’.

Research shows that most people complain once a minute during a typical conversation. Complaining is tempting because it feels good, but like many other things that are enjoyable –complaining isn’t good for you.

When you repeat a behavior, such as complaining, your neurons branch out to each other to ease the flow of information. This makes it much easier to repeat that behavior in the future — so easy, in fact, that you might not even realize you’re doing it.  You can’t blame your brain.  Who’d want to build a temporary bridge every time you need to cross a river?  It makes a lot more sense to construct a permanent bridge.  So, your neurons grow closer together, and the connections between them become more permanent.  Scientists like to describe this process as, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely.  Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you.  Complaining becomes your default behavior, which changes how people perceive you.

Another reason we tend to complain is that it’s easier to complain than it is to solve the problem.

Research has shown that complaining shrinks the hippocampus — an area of the brain that’s critical to problem solving and intelligent thought.  Damage to the hippocampus is scary, especially when you consider that it’s one of the primary brain areas destroyed by Alzheimer’s.

Complaining is also bad for your health.

While it’s not an exaggeration to say that complaining leads to brain damage, it doesn’t stop there.  When you complain, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol shifts you into fight-or-flight mode, directing oxygen, blood and energy away from everything but the systems that are essential to immediate survival.  One effect of cortisol, for example, is to raise your blood pressure and blood sugar so that you’ll be prepared to either escape or defend yourself.

All the extra cortisol released by frequent complaining impairs your immune system and makes you more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.  It even makes the brain more vulnerable to strokes.

It’s not just you…

Human beings are inherently social, our brains naturally and unconsciously mimic the moods of those around us, particularly people we spend a great deal of time with. This process is called neuronal mirroring, and it’s the basis for our ability to feel empathy.

The down-side is you don’t have to do it yourself to suffer the ill effects of complaining. Be cautious about spending time with people who complain about everything.  Complainers want people to join their pity party so that they can feel better about themselves.  Think of it this way: If a person were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke? You’d distance yourself, and you should do the same with complainers.

Tips to help you stop complaining:

Cultivate an attitude of gratitude.  When you feel like complaining, shift your attention to something that you’re grateful for. This isn’t merely the right thing to do; it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%.  People who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved mood and energy and substantially less anxiety due to lower cortisol levels.  Any time you experience negative or pessimistic thoughts, use this as a cue to shift gears and to think about something positive.  In time, a positive attitude will become a way of life.

When you have something that is truly worth complaining about, use solution-oriented complaining.  Think of it as complaining with a purpose. Solution-oriented complaining should do the following:

  1. Have a clear purpose. Before complaining, know what outcome you’re looking for. If you can’t identify a purpose, there’s a good chance you just want to complain for its own sake, and that’s the kind of complaining you should nip in the bud.
  1. Start with something positive. This helps keep the other person from getting defensive. For example, before launching into a complaint about poor customer service, you could say something like, “I’ve been a customer for a very long time and have always been thrilled with your service…”
  1. Be specific. Address only the current situation and be specific. Instead of saying, “Your employee was rude to me,” describe specifically what the employee did that seemed rude.
  1. End on a positive. If you end your complaint with, “I’m never shopping here again,” the person who’s listening has no motivation to act on your complaint. In that case, you’re just venting, or complaining with no purpose other than to complain.  Instead, restate your purpose, as well as your hope that the desired result can be achieved, for example, “I’d like to work this out so that we can keep our business relationship intact.”
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