Cynthia Moore was in an airport when she spotted the book. The title caught her eye: “The Solution: Winning Ways to Permanent Weight Loss.” Permanent? A registered dietitian, then with the University of Maryland and now with UVA, Moore was intrigued but skeptical.
It was one of those moments she’ll never forget. Moore bought the book, read it and quickly concluded that the methods advocated in the book “were going to be part of my personal and professional life.”
Moore attended training, got certified, and in 2006, brought the program to UVA’s Nutritional Counseling Center.
But this is not an advertisement for any old diet plan.
While managing obesity was its original purpose, The Solution Method was renamed and modified to Emotional Brain Training (EBT) — a mind-body intervention that addresses the stress response that is the underbelly of a variety of health and wellness issues, including obesity.
Meditation, Nia: Why EBT?
Other practices, like mindfulness meditation and Nia, for instance (also taught at UVA, through the UVA Mindfulness Center) use neuroscience to explain and test their effectiveness in resolving stress.
What makes EBT unique is its five-point system, which helps a person identify their brain state and shift it in an intentional way. “Shifting to connect with your breath and your body starts with a check-in, which begins to change how your mind perceives your day,“ explains Moore.
EBT trains people to recognize their brain state via the check-in, then to apply one of five tools or exercises to address or enhance that state. Moore says, “We’ve had people who have been in therapy for years say, ‘Here’s something I can actually do for myself.’”
An oversimplified summary of how the tools apply gives a glimpse of how this works:
1 – If feeling great, the Sanctuary Tool deepens the state with breathing and compassion.
2 – If feeling good, the Feelings Check takes an emotional and physical inventory.
3 – If a little stressed, the Emotional Housecleaning tool helps to identify both negative and positive emotions.
4 – If definitely stressed, The Cycle Tool requires a look at the facts of the situation, the feelings and expectations.
5 – A stressed-out state is dealt with through the Damage Control tool, which emphasizes not judging (self or others), minimizing harm and knowing it will pass.
As the EBT website explains, “EBT focuses on the root cause: stress in the emotional brain. Instead of forcing yourself to change your behavior, you use a unique, proven method to ease stress in your emotional brain. Mood, relationships, behavior and health naturally improve.”
Weight Loss and More
One of the options for nutrition and weight-loss support offered at UVA, EBT is also open to anyone having issues with stress — often with profound results.
Certainly, that was the case for Mary Beth Willis, who saw the fliers for EBT at her workplace, which happened to be the Northridge Medical Park, where the Nutrition Counseling Center is located. Burdened by caring for an ill family member while wishing she could lose weight, she decided to try it. Cynthia Moore led the training.
“Over the course of a year, I lost 50 pounds,” says Willis, who completed the program in September 2010. “I joined the Four Miler training program, completed the four-mile run, and I’ve done a couple of other runs since then, like the Turkey Trot. I pretty much walk four miles four to six times a week.”
For Willis, the weight loss was great, but the effects on her mental health, and being able to deal with stress, is “the most important thing. It’s huge. You have no idea what this has done for me.”
Obesity: The Root Cause
How did EBT get its start? A couple of researchers in the 1940s noticed an interesting link: A child’s risk for obesity was increased if they had inadequate nurturing or limits that were either too lax or too harsh. Based on this linkage, a faculty team at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) (including Laurel Mellin, author of “The Solution Method,” “The Pathway,” “Wired for Joy” and EBT workbooks) began teaching parenting skills and developed the Shapedown program— and watched the children stop needing extra food.
“Parents said, ‘Okay, that’s great for little Jane; will it work for me?’” says Moore. This led to the development of the Solution Method and the book Moore picked up in the airport. Treating the root cause of obesity, not just the behaviors of over-eating, proved successful at helping adults lose and keep off extra weight.
But it did more than that. People following the method found other parts of their lives improving. Relationships, spending, drinking, smoking — addictions and behaviors that they hadn’t even been addressing — started changing and disappearing, too.
What was happening?
Moore explains: “They didn’t need to self-soothe with those things anymore.”
Research, testing and emerging developments in neuroscience helped Mellin and the other interdisciplinary team understand what was going on — and to revamp and expand the program into emotional brain training.
Have you ever been “stressed out of your mind”? It’s just a phrase —but in some ways, an accurate one.
Moore draws a diagram showing the three parts of the brain that figure prominently in the stress response:
- Neocortex: This is the more evolved section of the brain, part of the prefrontal lobe, responsible for rational thinking.
- Limbic brain: Hippocampus area of primitive emotion, the feeling brain.
- Brain stem: This is the ‘reptilian’ brain, where the ‘flight or flight’ response to stress sets off the increase in stress hormones, blood pressure and heart rate.
When we’re stressed, the amygdala – the fire alarm of the brain – gets set off. The brain stem takes over. Stress triggers neural pathways or ‘wires’ that may shift our brain from a state of balance where all the parts work together well (emotional to thinking brain) to a brain state that may not be in our best interest (emotional to reptilian brain). “Kids have better crosstalk between the feeling brain and thinking brain; it’s harder for us adults to go in and access the feeling brain,” Moore says. This is often why we can know how to change overeating, anxiety and other reactions but still have a hard time altering that behavior.
The Consequences of Stress
Continual stress damages cells in our hippocampus, which interferes with the brain’s ability to turn off the stress response. Stress increases stress. When we’re stressed, primitive parts of our brain are triggered — old thoughts, reactions, feelings take over.
The health effects? According to the EBT website, many health problems have a causal link to stress, including:
- High blood pressure
- Immune problems
When we experience stress, our bodies are flooded with hormones. Blood rushes to our extremities. Clear decision-making becomes difficult. Overactivated, the system’s ability to shut the alarm off is compromised; we turn to behaviors like eating, drinking and fighting to try and alleviate the stress.
Change Your Brain, Heal Your Body
What does all this mean? The brain is not static, structured once in childhood and stuck; rather, the brain is neuroplastic. It can change throughout our lives, and we can retrain its patterns.
EBT summarizes these concepts as:
1. It’s not us. It’s our wiring.
2. Wiring triggers brain states.
3. Brain states can get stuck.
4. We can change our wiring.
EBT provides the tools for this rewiring: the EBT check-in during the day, the five-point system tools and by encouraging behaviors like exercise that help with brain retraining. “Since we’re pleasure-seeking mammals, learning to get more of our pleasure or joy from natural pleasures instead of from sugar-fat combinations that can hijack the brain’s pleasure pathways” helps address diet and eating behaviors at their root. For Moore, “The gem in this set of tools in my experience is number four.” This tool, for when a person identifies as being “definitely stressed,” instructs the person to identify the facts of the situation, their feelings and expectations, and then to “grind in.”
A “grind in,” Moore explains, is like “forming a new a groove in an LP. You take a new reasonable expectation and grind it in, literally creating a new memory in your brain, 10 times three times a day.” Individuals can definitely, she assures us, “interrupt what in your brain is business as usual.”
The Work Pays Off
Not that it’s exactly easy.
Willis admits, “It took work. Everybody’s life today is so hectic and time is of the essence; it really did require practice and time and dedication. I think the dedication was there for me because I wanted to succeed.”
The changes didn’t happen right away. “The stress of my situation didn’t change, but my perspective did.”
Willis would “absolutely recommend it.” But she’s emphatic that the EBT program requires commitment. “You can’t just sit there. You have to be at the point where you’re willing to make the dedication to make the effort, to take the initiative.”
Interested in Emotional Brain Training for Stress, Weight Loss or Other Issues?
Six-week sessions are available to the public.
UVA employee classes through Hoo’s Well have filled for April, but available in the future.
For more information, attend an orientation session, offered monthly at Northridge. To sign up, call 243.4749 or email [email protected].
Note: The EBT trainers prefer to offer group sessions, but they also offer individual trainings.