The Science

Breakthroughs in neuroplasticity have led to the development of Emotional Brain Training. The wires in the emotional brain determine how we react to daily stress. Most of us have had experiences of stress overload in which we instantly responded with a mood, behavior, relationship pattern, work style or body attitude that was not effective. Normally, that would not be a problem, but due to a glitch in the brain, it becomes a problem.

That experience is strongly remembered in the brain and then replayed in the long term without our permission or awareness. The brain treats that experience as if it were a physical threat, such as a lion chasing us. Whatever we did in response to even a small emotional stressor it holds onto and repeats without our sense that we are not in complete control of how we respond. For example, it strongly remembers that we responded to stress by overeating and then whenever we are slightly stressed, activates a circuit that triggers us to overeat. We think we have bad habits, problems or issues, when in reality, we simply have a few wires or survival memories that are being reactivated.

Science 1

Over time, these wires proliferate and become dominant, and that causes our emotional set point to decline. The dominance in the brain of these circuits is the central problem that EBT addresses and the cause of stress-related problems as that dominance causes the "stress switch" (hypothalamus) to be "stuck on." Chronic stress decreases the brain's emotional set point (increases "allostatic load"). The age-related decline in set point can be hastened, with premature aging, and the development of a range of problems associated with stress-related wear and tear and adaptation of the brain and body to stress.

As the set point declines, our vagal brake disengages, causing us to lose our capacity to emotionally connect with ourselves and with others - and feel the compassion and empathy that is our primary biologic defense against stress. Once the brain’s set point is low enough to make emotional connection challenging, the brain, during episodes of stress overload, encodes circuits that when re-activated create strong drives for substitutes for emotional connection. These "survival circuits" encode a false association between survival and whatever extreme or artificial behavior, thought or emotion experienced during that stress episode to access escape, reward or comfort.

Once these survival circuits are encoded, they are strongly remembered by the brain and protected from erasure. In essence, as that response did not result in death, it must be preserved. The brain easily reactivates these circuits in response to even small stressors in daily life. As these circuits are stored in the implicit memory systems (“unconscious memory”), when they are re-activated, we have no awareness (“source attribution”) that the problem is a circuit, often assuming that our negative mood, over-reaction or maladaptive habit is the problem.

These circuits tend to become dominant because they are positive feedback loops, with no internal "shut off valves," They linger, and as circuits change based on the frequency and duration of activation, they train the brain to default to activating them. This increases reliance on artificial rewards (not evolutionarily-based natural rewards) that provide immediate relief but can become repetitive (compulsive or addictive) and deleterious in the longer term. Modern life is replete with ample opportunities to access artificial rewards, ranging from refined foods to technology to substances.

Science 2

Artificial rewards activate extremes of neurotransmitters. This repeated use of artificial rewards rather than emotional connection and natural pleasures can hijack the reward centers. The brain can become desensitized to the natural pleasures of life, leaving the individual with dependency on artificial rewards and, when seeking to change that pattern, experiencing the stress of withdrawal, again contributing to this vicious cycle.

The excessive use of various artificial rewards may further lower the brain’s set point and cause the brain to establish a fixed state of stress, which it defends. Without a reversal of the emotional set point, the brain can become “addicted” to stress and the individual increasingly vulnerable to a broad range of stress-related problems.

When stress-related problems mount, attention may shift to solving problems that are the symptoms of stress, rather than addressing the cause, the emotional set point in stress. The emotional stress of combating problems without addressing their cause and the medications, procedures, and devices required to treat these symptoms can further increase chronic stress and dysregulation of reward centers. This may lead to a state of overwhelm in which one does not know which problem to address first.

Science 3

The mission of EBT is to help people change their relationship with problems and see them as survival memories that the brain replays. It is to stop focusing on these symptoms of our wiring and instead focus on rewiring these circuits. As we rewire these circuits one by one, the brain’s stress habit begins to change. Over time, we can raise the brain’s emotional set point so that we are naturally resilient and have an abundance of life’s earned rewards: Sanctuary, Authenticity, Vibrancy, Integrity, Intimacy, Spirituality and Freedom.

The EBT program begins with a 30-Day Intensive that enables people to take small daily steps to change their set point. Participants choose between an intensive that rewires their relationship with food and weight (“Joy Intensive”) or rewires stress and encodes resiliency (“Power of One Intensive”).

In both intensives, participants learn how to be resilient to daily stress at all five levels of stress. They identify four circuits that block their joy and develop a personalized “Power Grind In” that de-activates the circuit and when used over time begin to raise the brain’s emotional set point. After the intensive, participants continue with EBT to raise the set point more and promote lasting changes in all domains of life.

Science 4

The circuits are stored in the emotional brain, which is the social brain. Although it is logical that learning the tools alone would be possible, when people meet regularly with others and learn the tools in small daily steps, their brain changes more rapidly. The technology platform of EBT provides easy access that is confidential and private to contacting other members for these brief "community connections" in which one person listens to the other person use the tools for stress reduction and reconsolidation of stress circuits. Research conducted at the University of Kentucky showed that these community connections predicted both improved health outcomes and improved program satisfaction. Data have also shown that it is by creating a small group experience with a certified facilitator and between-session community connections are most effective in improving retention and outcomes. The EBT technology portal was designed to make peer-to-peer support convenient and private, and access to the video courses, forum boards, text messaging and private phone connections accessible continuously to members.

To raise the brain’s emotional set point to prevent or treat obesity and stress-related problems requires focused attention, daily practice and a sense of humor. We are confronting the reptilian brain, which defends our old set point because it is familiar. The EBT program includes video courses that are progressing, essentially “coaxing” the brain to raise its set point over time to regulate reward centers and transform circuits that promote stress reactivity into circuits that promote stress resiliency. With the small group (think “tribe”) for support, goal setting and rewarding experiences (hence the slogan “If it is not fun, it’s not EBT”), the brain changes. All EBT is delivered in small telegroups to provide an optimal environment for raising the brain’s emotional set point.

All EBT tools and activities are consistent with brain science, and the program is evidence-based. EBT offers a new paradigm in healthcare that is needed. Strategies aimed at changing behaviors that are rooted in a low set point and activation of stress circuitry (survival circuits) but have not changed the brain circuitry have not shown sustained outcomes or have proven effective, but stimulated rises in substitute ("crossover") behaviors. The obesity and addiction epidemics are prime examples. Historically, between 1980 and 2000, taxation of cigarettes and laws that increased drunk driving penalties were associated with decreases of 25% and 50% respectively in alcohol and cigarette consumption. However, this coincided with a 40% increase in obesity, 50% increase in per capita consumer debt and a 400% increase in antidepressant prescriptions. Without addressing the cause – the brain in stress – health care expenditure is likely to continue to rise.

EBT research has shown significant and meaningful positive impacts in the short- and long-term. After eight weeks of participation, research has shown significant improvements in stress-related variables. Studies of longer-term effectiveness have been promising, including showing sustained improvements at two- and six-year follow- up. According to obesity expert, John Foreyt, Ph.D. (Baylor College of Medicine), EBT is "the first method to show continued weight loss after treatment ends." Sustaining improvements in a broad range of stress-related variables both suggests the intervention addresses the cause of health problems and holds the potential to reduce healthcare expenditure.

Selected References

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Laraia, B.A., Adler, N.A., Coleman-Phox, K., Vieten, C.; Mellin, L, Kristeller, J.L., Thomas, M., Stotland, N., Lustig, R.H., Dallman, M.F., Hecht, F.M., Bush, N., DeGroat, C.L., & Epel, E.S. Novel Interventions to reduce stress and overeating in overweight pregnant women: A feasibility study. Manuscript submitted to the Maternal and Child Health Journal.

Laraia, B.A., Adler, N.A., Coleman-Phox, K., Vieten, C.; Mellin, L, Kristeller, J.L., Thomas, M., Stotland, N., Lustig, R.H., Dallman, M.F., Hecht, F.M., Bush, N., DeGroat, C.L., & Epel, E.S. Novel Interventions to reduce stress and overeating in overweight pregnant women: A feasibility study. Manuscript submitted to the Maternal and Child Health Journal.

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Webber, K.H., Mellin, L., Barry-Greb, T., Vaught. J., Greene, B. A stress management- based approach to weight loss produces changes in weight, blood pressure, and perceived stress. International Society of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity Annual Conference, San Diego, CA, poster (2014).

Webber, K.H., Casey, E.M., Mayes, L., Katsumata, Y., & Mellin, L. A comparison of a behavioral weight loss program to a stress management program: A pilot randomized controlled trial. Nutrition Journal, accepted for publication (2015).