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Upward Spirals

Positive life changes cause positive neural changes altering the brain's circuitry to lead in further positive changes creating an upward spiral.

You've probably heard of downward spirals and it conjures up images of people living a life that is out of balance but what about upward spirals? This is the question that Alex Korb, PHD discusses in his book The Upward Spiral, Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a time. He says, downward spirals occur because of events that happen and the decisions made, change the brain's activity which can put us in a worried, anxious, and depressed state. On the other hand, positive life changes cause positive neural changes altering the brain's circuitry to lead in further positive changes.

What is an Upward Spiral?

A simple life change like going to sleep an hour earlier can lead to further changes which in turn lead to a series of expanding positive changes in life. For example, going to sleep an hour earlier can lead to waking up earlier so there is time for exercise which can lead to better sleep -> reducing anxiety -> improving mood -> gaining more energy to exercise -> generating better relationships -> and a general feeling of being happier -> this is how easy it is to create an upward spiral. It starts with making one simple change to a daily routine.

Alex Korb says "the brain circuits that help us to plan, solve problems and make decisions are the same ones that lead to worrying. The brain circuits that keep us out of danger are the same circuits that cause anxiety." It is not possible to eliminate or suppress those circuits because they are a necessary part of life. Worry and anxiety are distinct but related you can have one without the other. In essence worrying is thinking about a problem whereas anxiety is feeling the problem.

Worry and anxiety are figments of our imagination. Worry and anxiety do not exist outside of our minds.

Feelings to be aware of

Downward Spiral: My Life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened. Michel de Montaigne

Awareness of worry and anxiety can help to suppress it. Just being aware of the following feelings can help reduce its impact:

  • shortness of breath

  • dizziness

  • muscle tension

  • upset stomach

  • chest pain

  • feelings of dread

How to create an Upward Spiral

Alex Korb goes over eight ways to create upward spirals. I will focus on four: exercise, making goals, sleep, and cultivating a gratitude practice.


Is the most powerful and easiest way to create an upward spiral as it shares many of the same effects on the brain as antidepressants and recreational drugs. So you get all the good feelings without all the nasty side effects of drugs. I know this is easier said than done so get yourself an accountability partner, or commit to a practice for 40 days. Alternatively, don't do exercise! Instead take the stairs, ride a bike or walk to work instead of taking the subway. Take up dancing. Get creative and have fun with it.

Set Goals

Goals world bubble, transformation, healthy, wellness, focus, active

Setting intentions leads to setting goals and people are at their best when working toward achievable goals like purchasing a home or earning a promotion at work. Start by brainstorming what is important to you and create a specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound goals aka Smart Goals.


Making time for and creating the right environment for a good night's sleep will lead to elevated mood, lowered stress, better memory, clear thinking, and better decision making. Consider how many hours of sleep you are getting per night and shoot for seven to eight. Create preparing for sleep ritual where you wind down before bed perhaps with a cup of herbal tea.

Gratitude Practice

Thinking and expressing gratitude makes it easier to feel positive emotions which lead to upward spirals. One way to cultivate a gratitude practice is by keeping a gratitude journal, you can write 1- 5 things you are grateful for every day. You can also express gratitude every day upon waking up and thinking about 1 - 5 things.

Everything is interconnected, gratitude improves sleep. Sleep improves focus and decision making. Improved decision making leads to getting up and doing some exercise which leads to feeling better about yourself and on an upward spiral.

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