How To Train Your Animal Brain

Tip #134: Use the same method as an animal trainer.

The Why: For many of us, thinking of ourselves as an animal appears a weird proposition. We are, mostly, far more civilised than our furry siblings. We have classical music, Netflix and eat, mostly, with a knife and fork.

Although it’s true that we are far more advanced in certain respects, we share many of the same instincts, habits and ways of learning with our fellow mammals, and even some fish. It’s amazing how transferable many ways of training other animals are to training a human. Having potty trained both of my siblings, and litter trained my kitten, I can attest to this.

Trainers at SeaWorld (I know it’s not the best place on earth) use a very interesting method to get these amazingly intelligent animals to perform backflips, tricks and dives. A method that has also been shown to work on humans. Complete positive reinforcement.

For instance, if a dolphin is set to learn how to do a new kind of flip, the trainer will heavily reward each step of the process. If the dolphin jumps out of the water, it gets a fish. If the dolphin dives backwards, it gets a fish. If the dolphin puts these two moves together and jumps backwards out of the water, it gets two fish. Eventually, the dolphin will be able to combine all the different elements, and perform a backflip. The consequence of this? You guessed it: lots of fish.

Yet, the most interesting part of this is what happens when the dolphin misbehaves. Does it get punished in some way? Does it only receive a tiny fish? Not at all.

If the dolphin misbehaves, the trainer simply ignores it.

The results of this method of training are quite astounding. Using positive reinforcement to reward the behaviours you do want, and ignoring the behaviours you don’t is an incredibly effective way to train an animal. This is because rewarding the behaviours you do want gives the animal incentive to carry on doing them, and builds neural pathways that associate that behaviour with getting a reward, meaning that when they do that behaviour, their brain releases happy hormones and makes them feel good.

Ignoring, rather than punishing, behaviours you don’t want also has a positive impact, as any kind of response to bad behaviour is acknowledging it and in some way reinforcing it. If you completely turn the other cheek, eventually they’ll stop misbehaving and become neutral again, rather than engaging with them and fueling the fire.

In his famous book, How To Win Friends And Influence People, Carnegie relates a surprisingly similar method when talking about how to interact with, and train, his son.

But, I can hear you ask, what the hell has this got to do with anxiety?

Well, dear reader, a large part of overcoming anxiety requires you to re-train your brain, build new associations between you and the world, and build new non-anxious behaviours.

So, how would this apply to anxiety?

Whenever you have a panic attack, what do you do? Usually, first of all panic and feel horrible. But then, and I know this for myself, there’s anger, frustration, punishment.

Whenever I have a panic attack I berate myself, asking myself how I could be so weak, how I could let this happen, why can I not just be normal, why am I not over this yet?

I foolishly punish myself for my anxiety, making me feel approximately 100x worse. This reinforces the negative cycle, making you feel anxious about having anixety.

But what if instead of punishment, we rewarded ourselves for the times where we didn’t have a panic attack, or anxious thoughts?

For instance, if everytime we rode public transport, went to a party, or walked outside our door without having a flare up, we rewarded ourselves. Either with a self-high-five, a piece of chocolate, or an episode of our favourite TV show?

Further, instead of engaging with ourselves when we did have a panic attack, what if we simply ignored it? I know this can be very difficult, but what if we found a way? Whether that’s distracting ourselves, snapping a band on our wrist to stop the train of anxious thoughts, or visualising something wonderful, we can create ways to not engage with our anxiety.

Using positive reinforcement on ourselves, and ignoring the bad behaviours of our brain, could have an astounding impact on our mental health. Soon, our brain would associate not having a panic attack with a reward, meaning that every time we rode a bus, went to a party, or walked outside it would release the happy hormones, making them positive experiences, and making anxiety even less likely in those scenarios.

That’s what I call, a win-win scenario.

So, let’s try it. Let’s retrain our animal brain.

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