Stress is the #1 epidemic worldwide and the root cause of 80% of health problems and most suffering. Our external environment is internalized in the circuits of our emotional brain (“allostatic circuits” or “survival circuits”). Stressful experiences, particularly early in life, encode circuits that promote overreactions to stress, strong emotional drives for external solutions and excesses, and extremes of emotional states (“hyperarousal” and “dissociation”).
Once encoded these circuits are easily re-activated by normal daily stress, causing a cascade of stress hormones that can negatively impact every organ system. Each activation strengthens these circuits, increasing frequency and duration of activation and blocking the natural resilience of adaptive circuits (“homeostatic circuits”) that lead to a state of well-being, even joy and the health promoting effects of optimal brain functioning (“neural integration”).
The dominance in the brain of these maladaptive circuits is the central problem that EBT addresses and the root 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.
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 root cause, the emotional set point in stress. The emotional stress of combating problems without addressing their root 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.
The mission of EBT is to equip individuals with the tools, support and vision to raise their brain’s emotional set point. The neuroplasticity research of the last ten years has shown that these circuits that promote chronic stress, stress reactivity and a low set point are highly plastic. However, they only change when an individual feels stressed and has an experience of resiliency.
The EBT program is based on progressive training in the tools to rapidly reduce stress and, at the same time, reconsolidate the circuits that cause chronic stress. The tools reduce stress rapidly because they mirror the brain’s natural “best pathways” for stress resilience based on neurophysiology and evolutionary biology (attachment science). These same tools that reduce stress provide the exact pattern needed to weaken and erase survival circuits. Research conducted at New York University has shown that only when an individual experiences the stress are the connections between nerve cells (“synapses”) fluid and open to change, and the EBT tools provide a safe and easy way to activate and change the circuit.
Rather than relying for each circuit change on one-on-one sessions with health professionals, individuals learn the tools and self-apply them to accomplish self-directed, targeted neuroplasticity. They use the tools when stressed (e.g., a negative mood, a craving, an over-reaction) and in two to five minutes, reduce stress, turn the negative mood to a positive mood, stop the craving or over-reaction, and weaken or rewire the offending circuit. Learning how to use the tool, then using it over time to rewire circuits that cause various symptoms of chronic stress is the work of EBT.
These tools can be used solo, however, they are easier and more effective to use in the warm presence of another person, as the emotional brain (implicit memory systems) is the social brain. 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 weekly, 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 stress-related problems is not easy. The brain defends that set point because it is familiar. The EBT program includes videos 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. Without the small group (think “tribe”) for support, weekly goal setting and rewarding experiences (hence the slogan “If it is not fun, it’s not EBT”), success is unlikely. The individual will intend to change but the protective mechanisms of homeostasis will sabotage their efforts. All EBT is delivered in small weekly telegroups to provide an optimal environment for raising the brain’s emotional set point.
Meeting the goal of raising the brain’s emotional set point takes progressive, step-by- step training over time. After learning the basic tools, members move through the advanced video courses, which have been developed over the last two decades, with the goal of establishing a new set point in a state of connection and well-being. Each course provides new insights and activities to rewire circuits and promote regulation of the brain’s reward centers, sensitizing them to accessing the natural, pro-social rewards of a new set point (“homeostatic set point”), including sanctuary, authenticity, vibrancy, integrity, intimacy, spirituality and freedom.
All tools and activities are consistent with brain science, and the program is evidence- based. Most of the stress-related problems that we face are caused by the low set point of the emotional brain and insufficient training in the brain-based tools that promote resiliency. Although reminders to optimize health care, as well as a “brain fitness” lifestyle to promote neuroplasticity, neurogenesis and stress reduction are integrated into the EBT program, the focus is on reconsolidating the circuits of insecure attachment, stress reactivity, unhealed hurts and strong emotional drives for common excesses, because we believe the tools to reconsolidate these circuits not only improve the brain’s set point, but provide a new level of joy and freedom in daily life.
EBT offers a new paradigm in health care 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 root 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, PhD (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 root cause of health problems and holds the potential to reduce health care expenditure.
EBT was developed over the last 35 years by a team of researchers, clinicians and technology developers who are dedicated to providing a scientific solution to stress- related health problems, and to using neuroscience-based tools to help people to help themselves and others. They are dedicated not only to applying EBT in their own lives, but to continuous improvement of the tools, methods and technology, and to pushing the limits of how simple brain-based tools, used progressively over time in a loving, private environment, can improve the quality of people’s lives.
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