scorecardA brain science expert shares tips for regulating anxiety and emotions during tumultuous times
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A brain science expert shares tips for regulating anxiety and emotions during tumultuous times

Moran Cerf   

A brain science expert shares tips for regulating anxiety and emotions during tumultuous times
LifeScience7 min read
Difficult emotions can be more controllable with practice.    svetikd/Getty Images
  • Moran Cerf is a professor of neuroscience and business.
  • Every week, he receives questions about psychology, business, and behavior via email from people who attend his talks; below are his answers to two recent questions.
  • He suggests articulating what you're feeling and connecting with a like-minded friend who may be experiencing the same thing.

The last couple of weeks have been radically anxiety-inducing, with a series of unprecedented events happening in the country. It seems impossible to not watch the news, but also impossible to watch the news and not get emotionally distressed when doing so. Is there any concrete advice that can help in the emotion regulation around these events?

It turns out that some emotions are part of a neural circuit that's not fully under our conscious control.

Moran Cerf
Moran Cerf.      Moran Cerf

For example, we don't 'choose' to feel things at will; like say: "My mom is sick. I should feel sad. Turn sadness on now for 10 minutes and then turn it off." Rather, sadness 'dawns on us' rather than chosen by us.

However, we do have influence over certain aspects of our emotions that we can train ourselves to control.

One interesting mechanism for reigning our emotions is language. Turns out that articulating our emotions out loud using words helps circuits to put labels on emotions such that they become more regulated.

So… the simple quick answer. If you feel like you're getting anxious and distressed by certain events - call a friend or a person that you believe shares your emotional levels and feelings and talk about those with them.

The tricky part is that some people are triggers for amplified emotions; i.e., if we talk to people who might contradict our feelings, they're likely to provoke increased activation rather than calm. So a good idea is to identify early, when you're not feeling anxious, a group of people that you believe share you emotional sentiments and agree that you'd call each other when either one feels the need.

Even a short conversation of less than 10 minutes where you just 'label' your experience will help you realign the distress and feel better.

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I'm a 43-year-old woman. I work as a consultant and travel quite a bit for work, which involves a lot of eating at restaurants, staying in hotels, being jet-lagged, and generally having a very inflexible routine. This means I don't get to exercise as much as I want and I constantly struggle with my weight. Combined with the general challenges of the last year, I'm gaining unhealthy habits due to work requirements I can't change. I've tried numerous diets to lose the extra pounds, but none seem to work. Any advice on a diet or way to lose weight that's backed by neuroscience will work with my profession that requires travel and unpredictable hours?

Here's the bad news that I should open with (even though it might ignite a series of lawsuits heading my way): Diets don't work!

While the self-help touted in bookstores and on midday cable TV shows suggests otherwise, the reality of repeated meta-analyses of the outcome of dieting is that the person taking on the diet is guaranteed to look the same and weigh the same within about a year from the day they started the diet. All the 'before'/'after' pictures we see in magazines offering us a solution for our desire to have the cake and eat it too are akin to seeing pictures of a lottery winner: When you see one you think it could be you, but easy statistics will show you it won't be.

What diets do to us is create a momentary change in habits and routine that can lead to weight loss and potential adoption of fitness-oriented lifestyle. What they do not do is change our mental state.

At some point, whether days, weeks, or (rarely) months after we achieve our desired weight or look, we'll go back to our original habits and behavior. If dieting companies would show you the 'before'/'after' as well as the 'after after' pictures, the final result would most likely resemble the 'before.'

Similarly, different studies from colleagues of mine that looked at adoption of wearable devices for behavior change (i.e., using a FitBit to track the number of steps you walk a day) found that while it does lead to a notable change in the early days of usage, after about 40 days there's a routine return to the original behavior. These gadgets, too, do not help (unless you are the company who sells them).

Read more: Sleep-tracking ring Oura is beloved by some of the biggest names in tech. We asked 7 investors and execs how it's helped them revamp their routines to sleep better and live healthier.

Now comes the question: "Why?" and "What can we do about it?"

So let's start with the "why." The simple answer (and I am simplifying a lot here) is that reprogramming neural habits requires changes that unfold in numerous ways and do not operate solely by a momentary change. Simply, the fact that you managed to force yourself to do something for two months doesn't mean that your psyche has changed. You are still the same person, just behaving differently momentarily.

Second, our brain is not equipped for long-term thinking that's aligned with the world we live in right now. Our ability to see behaviors manifest in outcomes and to retain thoughts over long durations is limited. Enough exposures to temptations are likely to break us - not by 'breaking' our desires, but by making us think that they carry forward over time.

Matthew Leete/Getty Images

Here's what I mean by that: Imagine walking in a shopping mall and suddenly noticing a cake store. The cake looks tasty and tempting, but you just recently started a diet and want to stick to it. You overcome your desire and keep walking in the mall. A few minutes later you encounter another temptation: a candy store. True to your diet you ignore this one too and move on. Continuing your stroll you then witness a third temptation: a donut shop. This time you tell yourself "Well, I already didn't eat cake or candy; I deserve a reward for that - I'll have the donut now."

From the perspective of our brain, this makes total sense - we struggled twice and prevailed; it's only reasonable to give in once every three times. It's a sign of our strength actually. But from the perspective of our belly, it's a totally different story. The belly doesn't know or care about the dopaminergic system that struggled with reward and impulse management for the last hour. The belly knows that calories came in, and it will now make sure they get properly converted to fat properly. After all; the stomach doesn't know what the brain will decide to do tomorrow and if it'll get any more of those sugar molecules soon.

For a brain that evolved to not know where its nutrition is going to come from next - a brain that evolved for the African Savanna and not Downtown New Orleans - the regulation of desire is nonsensical. Dieting and calorie restrictions are a battle destined to be lost, with only one neural circuit (our right prefrontal regions) fighting to maintain the diet, and nearly all the rest of our brain siding with the donut.

If you did succeed momentarily in managing a diet for a prolonged period of time, then your brain is likely to interpret that as a deficiency and regulate your body differently, such that your craving of sugars and behavioral manifestation of those will change as well. Simply put, your brain will make you feel an even stronger desire for the things you restrict, as a way to defend its habitual behavior.

In short - it would feel like you have no hope.

But what does work is this: Reconfiguring habits without adding the mental anxiety and stress about it. To clarify, a lot of the difficulty of dieting comes from the monitoring, the anxiety, and the challenge of seeing results. You may walk for two hours and still see that your weight goes up afterwards, then get disappointed and 'give up' doing it again. Or, you maintain a good habit of eating healthy for a month and see your weight dropping gradually, but then comes Thanksgiving and the weight comes back so fast that you feel like you failed.

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The anxiety and constant monitoring that we do when dieting adds a lot of challenges that lead to cognitive overload, and in turn, to failure.

Fixing it is challenging, but here's the trick: In the next two months (it has to be at least two, since those are far enough for us to overcome the brain's challenge in future temporal discounting; shorter periods will be essentially akin to not doing it at all), pick whichever 'healthy habit' (i.e., diet measure) you want to work on (eating healthier food, exercising more times a week, taking longer walks, going to sleep at the exact same time, etc.) and try to stick to it as much as you can without checking your weight at all.

That's the trick and challenge. Again, you are to not look at any quantitative aspect of the performance at all. You should keep doing the action you chose, but not give yourself any indication of whether it works, for two full months.

At the end of the period you can check. If the measure worked - you both know that it did, and you trained your brain to form a habit, so it will be easier for you to be able to maintain it further. If it didn't work (meaning, your weight is the same, or your body shape is nearly identical, or your happiness/sleep/etc. have not improved) choose another one and stick to that one for two more months without checking. Do this until you find a measure that works.

Not looking will be very difficult. But separating from the internal judgment and evaluation from the habit-forming action is likely to happen only in this way.

Also, walk. A lecture I saw recently by Prof. Daniel Lieberman about his new book exercised suggests that this one is among the safest one that most people can do and works best.

Moran Cerf is a professor of neuroscience and business who explores how we can harness our understanding of the brain to improve our behavior, our business, and society. He's a former hacker, a science consultant to Hollywood films and TV shows, and the founder of a number of companies.