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Turning a Downward Spiral Into an Upward Spiral

This interview is from the Like Mind, Like Body podcast. You can listen to the full interview below, on iTunes or Google Podcasts.


Neuroscientist, author, consultant, and coach Dr. Alex Korb has studied the brain for over 15 years. The more closely he studies conditions like depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and addiction, the more he realizes that they’re not so separate from one another. Join us as Dr. Korb explains how the brain gets stuck in downward spirals and how we can play a role in turning them upside down.

Advisory: This episode contains a brief story about suicide. If you are not in a position to listen to this story, please skip minutes 8-11 of the episode.

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Certain things like addiction, or chronic pain, or depression, or anxiety are not so neatly separable from the standard human condition.

That’s why people get stuck in chronic pain. There’s always sort of a trade off between trying to understand: Is this pain relevant and do I need to engage and focus on it? Or is it just something that I need to move past and start focusing on other things?

We all struggle with those issues at some time, whether you have chronic pain or not. It’s just that if you have a brain that is more emotionally reactive or more sensitive to pain, then you are more likely to get stuck in chronic pain. But it’s not like there’s something wrong with your brain. The circuits are all working exactly as they are supposed to. They are unfortunately just stuck in this unhelpful pattern.

I like to describe it (and describe it in my book) as thinking about a microphone and a speaker, where the speaker is turned up a little bit too loudly or the microphone is put a little too close to it. Then just a small whisper can lead to this screeching feedback. There’s clearly something very wrong; it’s making a very loud sound. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the speaker. There’s nothing wrong with the microphone. They are both working exactly as they are supposed to.

The same is true in chronic pain. There’s nothing wrong with your brain. Your brain is not broken, it’s working exactly as it's supposed to. The volume on that pain circuity is just turned up a little too high. So just as with the microphone and the speaker, the solution is not to throw out the microphone or think that something is totally wrong. The solution is to learn to turn down the volume on the speaker just a little bit. You don’t have to change the whole thing; sometimes just a little bit makes the problem go away.

Why is your speaker turned up so loud in the first place or why is your microphone so sensitive in the first place? Well some of that you can’t control. Some of that is genetic and from your previous experiences. But some of that is based on your sleep habits, or how you’re interacting with people, or gratitude that you’re expressing, or your breathing patterns, or physical exercise, or all these other little ways that you have to tweak the knobs that influence the reactivity of those circuits. So stop trying to fiddle with the knobs that are not working or that were already glued in place decades ago.

Start fiddling with the knobs that you actually have some ability to control, and that’s enough to start an upward spiral and move forward.

[this is an excerpt only - for the full episode, listen to the podcast above]

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