Mind wars against the flu

News about flu season is always a little scary, bombarding us with the latest figures on how bad the flu is,  shortages of vaccine, endless “woe is me” commentary.  I don’t like to read these scary headlines, but the reality is that this time of year we are bombarded with tips about how to stay healthy. Wash your hands, take your vitamins, eat chicken soup, get your flu shot, see your doctor within the first 48 hours of symptoms to try and rein in the toll.

One of the most fascinating–and accessible–answers this year has been a study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin. Bruce Barrett, MD, PhD and his colleagues had three groups of participants. One group exercised, one group was simply observed in their regular lives, and one group took a mindfulness-based meditation course.  Participants were then monitored by telephone, and tested for illness if they reported “I feel like I might be getting sick.” When participants in the mindfulness course did get sick, the duration of illness was shorter and they recovered more quickly, missing 76% less work than those in the other groups.

Anyone can practice mindfulness. Take time to sit, breathe, rest, practicing being in the moment. Tune into one bodily sensation for just one or two minutes. Teach the red light meditation to your kids: every time you’re stopped at a red light, pick one of the five senses to zero in upon for the duration of the light. Search Youtube and you’ll find lots of ways to introduce yourself to mindfulness. Or stay tuned for the commercial message: Level I and II mindfulness meditation groups are beginning in my office in the first week of February. We practice mindfulness from the very first session, learning to integrate it into your daily life in a way that works for you.

Mindful management for the holidays

Kudos to you! Taking time to read this in the midst of the pre-holiday “make it happen” rush, showing up for a moment for yourself when we’re counting down to the biggest holiday of the year! Give me a minute–that’s all this takes!

You are one big battery, buzzing through the holiday prep. How many activities zap you, drawing energy, as you aim at multi-tasking? Consider this recent research: we only have so much energy. Energy that you direct to goal #1 (wrapping?) takes away from goal #2 (cheerfulness?). You become less efficient. Pretty soon you are drained, and the lights begin to dim as you exhaust your energy. Or you implode in the grocery store line.

The fix is easier than you think. Focus on one task at a time. Ask if you are mindfully putting your energy where it really matters. Is this really the task you want to emphasize? Apply the “when I’m 80” test. When you are 80 years old, is this where you will be glad you poured out your precious energy? If yes, carry on. If not, stop and revise.

To hone your ability to be more mindful in each moment, help your brain develop the mindfulness habit with one of these three focusing-in-the-moment tricks:

1) At every red light, stop and breathe, notice your body, tune into each of your senses in turn.

2) Before you answer the ringing phone, take a breath, count to three, and smile. Your “answering voice” will be transformed.

3) As you reach for any door, pause as you breathe in as you count 1, 2, 3, hold for 1, 2, 3, and breathe out as you count 1, 2, 3.

Pick one. Practice it. In the total scheme of even the busiest days, you have the 60 seconds this might take. We all have daily triggers to remind us to be mindful in the moment. And with each mindful moment, our brains develop the habit, easing into this brief coping respite more smoothly.

It’s a positive spiral, increasing your stress management skills, offering great return on minutes invested. Saving your energy for what matters.

Hurray for Mac and Cheese

Fatty comfort foods have been getting a bad rap lately, particularly in health and dieting circles. We drift toward brownies, pasta alfredo, cheesecake, or chocolate when sad or stressed. I encountered a friend, draped with whiny kids, in the grocery store one day. She pointed wryly to her cart: chocolate ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate syrup. “Guess what kind of day I’ve had?” she quipped.

Even while we find ourselves snarfing down these ‘shameful’ treats to feel better, we are likely chastising ourselves. The assumption  (with psychology once again the guilty party) is that our craving for these foods is anchored solidly in learned behavior. As a child, Mommy offered you cookies or mac and cheese when you were sad, to cheer and comfort you. You learned to associate feeling better with these treats. If this is the underlying mechanism, we think, in rushes guilt or shame for not being able to resist this remedy when we are sad. Especially if weight issues are a struggle. We think we should know better and make healthier choices to boost mood–like exercise or talking to a friend.

New research from Belgium (where some of the world’s best chocolate, waffles, and french fries originate–how fitting!) has scientifically removed that guilt. As the headline reads, “fatty comfort foods really do comfort.” Study participants watched slides of sad faces while listening to emotional music. At the same time, they received infusions of either saline solution or fatty acids (such as ooze from the foods named above.) Functional MRI scans were taken of the participants’ brains at the same time, zeroing in on the parts of the brain that respond to emotion. The brains of the subjects who received fatty acids were much less reactive to the sad stimuli than the brains of the subjects who only got saline. Just one more piece of data about how mind-body interactions move in both directions! Not only can feelings make us crave certain foods, but certain foods can soothe our brains.

Drat, of course, that calories still count. And there are healthier (though certainly not tastier) ways to assuage sadness than dessert. I’m not recommending binges of hot fudge sundaes; everything in moderation. But I’m going to practice self-compassion and not feel guilty next time I have an urge for a Krispy Kreme (just one, not a whole box) on a really rotten day.

The View

Remember this?

For most of us, this common optical illusion was our first lesson in shifting viewpoint. Did you see a vase, or did you see two profiles? Lots of fun in elementary school–or intro psych class–to try to see both, and explore which friends saw things the way that you did.

I’ve been enjoying this series over at LiveScience called “What The Heck Is This?” It’s good brain-stretching to view their photos, playing the same little guessing game. I particularly like this recent one:

Simple: clouds, right? As to not steal any thunder from LiveScience, you’ll have to click over to their site to get the answer.

Here’s another one:

Others in our world are often the best source of valuable perspective, and this fountain reminds me of that lesson learned from my two year old, years ago. In my best mom-teaching voice, I called out to my daughter in her car seat to “look at the pretty fountain, with the water shooting up!” To which she replied, rather disdainfully, “and falling down again.” I simply hadn’t focused on both aspects. Silly me, in her eyes.

I’m reading a book called Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill

Imagine you are in a small boat in the midst of this:

Your experience? Likely to be tossed around, sick to your stomach, maybe even crash and hurt yourself?

But what happens if you back off?

Kind of pretty, I think. Certainly not threatening. Incredible shift in perspective.

Next time an emotional storm threatens to sweep you crashing into the rocks, remove yourself from it. Tap your fingers. Breathe deeply. Count to ten. Drink a glass of water. Meditate. Take a walk. Talk to a friend. Write. Pound up and down the steps. And find yourself rising above it, able to react in a much less damaging way.

Want to develop the skill to shift your perspective? Join me and a host of like-minded souls in my upcoming meditation training.

Who’s in my head?

Never ceases to surprise me when a client says some version of “last week you said X, and I can’t tell you how much that helped me. As a result, I’ve made shift Y in my thinking/behavior. I feel completely transformed.”

As I try to control any visible chin-drop-mouth-hanging-open expression, I conduct a search of my memory, to retrieve what I thought I said. Too often, I recall nothing. I remember what the client said–just can’t pull up my own words, the nuggets that my client has so eloquently restated and imbued with wise meaning. Maybe I really do deserve the credit. But I think it’s much more likely that my words clicked for the client, activating some inner wisdom based on his/her own experience.

The process of therapy, just like life, is not the same for me as it is for my clients. The way our brains work leads us to believe that everyone around us is experiencing the world in the same way. Think back to the ancient (okay, 1960s) kid game “telephone.” Sitting cross-legged on the floor, the first child whispers a phrase in the ear of the second child, perhaps “dogs don’t bite.” By the time the words have worked their way around the circle, retold through progressive whispers, the phrase has been transformed into “frogs don’t fight” (though often much more hilarious than that meager effort on my part to recreate the process.)

Who is in my head? Only my unique collection of world view, lessons, and beliefs that color my perceptions. I was comparing notes with a friend about our shared yoga class and the passage of time. She related how it drags on and on, with constant clock-watching and exasperated repetition in her head of “aren’t we done yet?” My experience, on the other hand, engaged in one of my favorite activities of the week, is “wow, an hour gone already?”

It’s often a matter of selective attention. We tune into what fits with our internal framework, or the instructions we have, whether from the brain or externally, as illustrated in this fun video:

Consider this with wonder. While we are all connected and share numerous experiences, each moment is processed through the filters of meaning in our heads. There’s no one in my head but me.

Remembering this allows me to extend greater patience and grace with others, rather than frustration over a pile of “shoulds.” Next week, I’ll say more about avoiding the pain and anger of that particular pile of expectations.

Do nothing–like me this week.

The benefits of doing nothing are priceless, given our rapid pace of do, do, do. Most of our daily tasks are repetitive and mind-numbing. Like laundry or dishes, these constitute an endless list in life, needing done again as soon as you finish. Our bodies are so used to this perpetual hamster wheel that the “flight or fight” response stays constantly revved up, leading to sleep problems, stress-related illnesses, anxiety and panic, to name a few. Lately, I’ve been lauding the health benefits of meditation, and this week I am lucky to develop my skills at the Chopra Center Seduction of Spirit Retreat. I’m sure that “doing nothing” will be hard work.

funny pictures - Doing  nothing  is  very  hard  work. You  never  know  when  you're  finished.
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Practice a bit of down time of your own this week. Even three minutes daily to stop and breathe is beneficial. In the words of the Tao-Te Ching, verse 48:

In doing nothing there is nothing left undone.

How often do we get to claim that? I’ll bring you a full report soon.

Worry dies hard–for worry die-hards

One of my all-time favorite movies, Defending Your Life, features Albert Brooks in “Judgment City” after his untimely death, defending his behavior during his just-ended life. A central tenet of the film is that anxiety is a given in human beings which we must all struggle to overcome. In the film, Brooks’ character will either ‘move on’ to the next level or get sent back to tackle his anxiety one more time.

Examining my own life and watching the lives of others unfold has convinced me that this is an innate truth.  Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain, who I heard speak in January, talked about how our brains are conditioned in this way for survival. A prehistoric human, obliviously waltzing through the meadow picking flowers, was likely to be the victim of a sabre-toothed tiger. Snap, crack, crunch–end of that lineage. Only those worriers who were constantly wary, watching for danger around every bush, survived to reproduce. This means most of us have the worry habit pretty well locked in, after eons of reinforcement.

Face it: this habit is no longer necessary for survival. Worriers often argue that point, feeling that the energy invested in worrying does somehow protect us. We think that if we relax our brains, and don’t tune into all the negative, we may miss a chance to protect ourselves, to react in time. Proponents of positive thinking insist the opposite is true. The more we invest in looking for negative, the more it’s what we see. This is what Hanson said, too: each time we fuel that habitual worry with attention, the related brain connections are strengthened.

Time to banish this energy-draining habit–or at least reduce it’s hold. Anxiety need not be the basic human condition. My favorite tools to reduce anxiety are:

1) labeling the anxiety as just that. “It’s anxiety–it’s not real.” This is powerful for me, leading to a deep breath and letting go. Just because the habit has kicked in and the brain circuits are activated, doesn’t mean that’s TRUTH.

2) Mantras: mind vehicles. These are phrases I repeat to make NEW brain connections that eventually will override the old habits. You may have your own; here’s the latest that’s really speaking to me:

Fear is a down payment on a debt you may not owe.

I detest paying good money for something I’ve not yet received and that may never even be delivered. These words have been a great reminder, as a way to activate the idea behind that little charm on my key ring to “free your mind from worries.”

Think yourself thin?

The law of attraction. Create your own reality. Manifest the life of your dreams. The buzz sucks us in—who wouldn’t want to achieve the ideal life simply by thinking the “right thoughts?” But what are the facts? “Think yourself thin,” for starters. Who says? If just deciding to be thinner worked, it would be Every woman’s dream come true. Surveys of satisfaction with weight and body image, in sources as diverse as Preventive Medicine and Glamour, consistently show that 40% to 64% of women hate their bodies and are working to lose weight. Want to learn more? Check out the rest of my article on Imagined, a new online magazine for women.

Wand targets, #1

In an effort to organize this blog, I’m launching some new categories. Admittedly, who really knows why I have a sudden need to provide order, after a half year of randomness? The need to organize usually arises out of feeling out of control, like when the house is such a mess that you suddenly just have to tear into (and straighten) the junk drawer. With the tidy drawer in front of you, you breathe a sigh of relief and accomplishment, feeling like you’ve grabbed the reins on your runaway life. I’m in the process of developing new writing projects in other venues, so the “to do” list is expanding, like one of those toys that magically “grow” into a slimy, disgusting object that you can’t wait to pitch into the trash once the children aren’t looking. Grow a dinosaur, grow a boyfriend, grow a cowboy–whatever your heart’s desire. But I digress. . .

New category number one is “wand targets.” If you could wave your trusty magic wand, and forever banish hated experiences and minor aggravations, what would be the target? What would vanish from your life? Tops on the list for most fallible human beings is the experience of being wrong. It’s a fairly universal state that we unanimously hate. Jokes in sitcoms and comedy routines abound (okay, often about men in particular) aimed at our discomfort uttering the phrases: “I was wrong” or “I made a mistake.” I continually tell myself, and clients, that making mistakes is NO BIG DEAL. To err is human, after all. I recommend repetition of the mantra “I’m only human. People make mistakes” as a way to stop the judgment, substituting a verbal pat on the back instead. You’re doing the best you can do. You can’t expect to be right 110% of the time.

Journalist Kathyrn Schulz has written Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. which offers an in-depth, and surprising, look at this issue. Schulz explains that we detest being wrong because of over-generalization and absolute, all or nothing reasoning. Just the sort of meme–thinking traps–that I like to ferret out and expose. Most of us react negatively because being wrong seems to confirm our inherent flawed nature. When we make a mistake, we feel stupid, useless, incompetent. We zero in on the error, convinced it represents the total package of who we are, rather than one slip. Underlying the shame and disappointment are thoughts such as “what an idiot I was.” Even deeper underneath that brain chatter is the belief that “I must be perfectly correct and successful at all times, or I’m a loser.” Being wrong equals failure, in our minds.

Schulz offers an affirming counter view: that error is the fundamental human condition and should be celebrated. Drawing on cognitive science, Schulz says that mistakes in judgment and actions and the ability to make correct inferences are a result of the same process. We can’t be right without sometimes being wrong–because the underlying mechanism is the same. Inductive reasoning is the path to most decisions. We collect facts, fit them together, and draw a conclusion, assuming that it’s right. In terms of probability, most of the time it is. But sometimes, the facts don’t fit together in the anticipated way, and we’re surprised–and often offended that our process failed us. Schulz suggests acceptance of the fact that inductive reasoning itself is fundamentally, unavoidably fallible. But fallible does not mean useless.

The process of language learning is an example, says Schulz. Tiny kids learn to add the suffix ‘-ed’ to words to create the past tense, through inductive reasoning when listening to adults. Most of the time, this rule is successful: “walked” or “played.” But it’s not universal, as we see when children relate how they “sleeped ” or “eated.” Inductive reasoning has a high hit rate–with a healthy dose of misses.

It’s still the best our brains have–with a proviso, says Schulz, that she calls the paradox of error. To prevent error, we have to embrace the possibility that mistakes are inevitable because of how our brains work. Mistakes are an intrinsic part of a fundamentally sound system–not a reason to chastise yourself or others. Brings us back to the mantra, true all along. Everyone does make mistakes. This reassurance is not based simply in a generic, feel-good, esteem enhancing philosophy. It’s a scientific fact about human physiology. Update the mantra: “I’m only human–that’s how brains work.” It’s not just talk of empty reassurance; it really is the best we can do.