All posts in Mental Health

Curiosity Feeds Your Brain

curiosity

Curiosity does not kill the cat. Curiosity does just the opposite, and same goes for humans. The more someone knows about the world, the more likely they’re able to survive.  So do yourself a favor. Ask questions, get answers and stay curious. Keep your brain active and you will be happier, healthier and stand a better chance of living a long and productive life.

All of which might make you wonder: Why are some people more curious than others? Does the answer have anything to do with aging, stress, diet, use of drugs (prescribed or otherwise)? Do genetics matter?

The answer is “yes” to all of these questions, they all have something to do with the release of a chemical compound in the brain called “dopamine,” which transmits nerve impulses and plays a role in the formation of adrenaline. Adrenaline subsequently raises blood pressure, speeds up heartbeat and warns you something big is about to happen.

The reaction traditionally is known as the “fight or flight” response — which at first thought doesn’t seem very healthy. But adrenaline is vitality. It lights up your brain, so to speak. It sparks curiosity, keeps you engaged, and helps you gather and retain information that is especially important for living a good life. When curiosity is piqued, the parts of your brain that regulate pleasure and reward respond positively.

All of which is worth remembering.

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If you want to be happy for the rest of your life…

Blessed

Being blessed has everything to do with being happy. Christians and Jews especially understand this, as well as members of most other major faiths and persuasions. But happiness often requires an attitude-adjustment technique.

Here’s how:

  • Sleep in a comfortable bed. A saggy mattress will not do.
  • No matter what, make it a point to wake up each morning thankful you’re still alive. You have lots of good things to do for others as well as yourself.
  • Your home, apartment, room or wherever you live is your castle. Keep it clean. There is no room in a happy life for confusion.
  • Surround yourself in light. Flip on the switch, open the curtains, lift the shades, step outside.  Light is energy.  Darkness is depressing.
  • Keep a fresh coat of paint on your walls, and decorate them with beautiful art. And make sure each piece means something positive to you.
  • Same goes for music.
  • De-clutter your house and your mind will follow. But remember, one room at a time.
  • Count your blessings. Your life is full of them.  It’s all a matter of attitude.
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Trouble Remembering? Consider taking a hike

walking-2-older-people

We do our best thinking when we exercise.  That’s because more blood — therefore more oxygen — gets to the brain when we increase our heart rates by taking a walk, jogging, playing golf or tennis and the like.  And, no matter how old you are, the sooner you get yourself into the “habit” of exercising properly, the better.

Studies show that a person who regularly exercises into old age typically has a larger functional brain than those who do not.  In other words, he or she has more gray matter than white between their ears.  What makes this even more interesting is gray matter in the brain typically shrinks in late adulthood, and this loss of brain mass plays a key role in memory decline.  Meanwhile, white brain matter tends to develop more lesions, which is not good.

So, no matter how old you are, try to develop a regular aerobic exercise regime that lasts at least 30 minutes daily.  Remember, this may mean that, depending on your age and health condition, you should check with your doctor first on how rigorous your exercise should be.

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Make Life Meaningful

Silhouette of hiking man in mountain

Make Life Meaningful

Happiness, resilience, connection and kindness — the key ingredients for a good life — do not come naturally for everyone. They thrive with practice. Here are two simple ways to stay in good shape:

  1. Live in the present. Stop fretting over the past and quit worrying about the future. Be mindful of what you are doing in the present. Mindfulness helps each of us to tune into our own senses. So practice paying close attention to your thoughts, feelings and sensations in a non-judgmental way. This reduces stress and opens the mind to the good things in life.
  2. Practice mindful eating. This fosters a healthier relationship with food. Hold a single raisin between your thumb and forefinger. Focus on it. Turn it in gently, notice the folds and ridges and the areas that shine and those that are dark. Roll it at your fingertips, exploring the texture. Close your eyes as you hold it and imagine how it tastes. Bring it close to you nose and appreciate its fragrance. Bring it to your lips, then gently place it in your mouth. Enjoy the initial taste. Bite it in half. Note what is happening in your mouth as you slowly chew. Now slowly swallow. Feel it moving downward into your stomach. Consider the next one and start again.

By increasing awareness of internal and physical states, you are practicing mindfulness. You are living in the moment. You are practicing control over your thoughts, feelings and behavior right now. You are also becoming more attuned to hunger and fullness, and therefore eliminating emotional eating.

“When we taste with attention, even the simplest foods provide and universe of sensory experience,” notes mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn. So take time to practice this everyday and at every meal. And enjoy!

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One Productivity Myth You Can Ignore

One Productivity Myth You Can Ignore

True or False?  A key to being successful and doing more important work is to be an early riser.  Early risers do their best work before everyone’s awake and the distractions of the day take over.

False!  Rising early is is not a requirement for success.  Don’t take this the wrong way.  Generally speaking, becoming an early riser is good advice.  It applies to a lot of people.  But the truth is that good, general advice doesn’t apply to everyone and there are far too many people trying to force themselves into this mold when a number of alternatives would might work much better.

There are 24 hours in every day, and it doesn’t matter which ones you choose to use so long as you use them effectively.  Everyone has their own set of hours when they’re most creative, and the key to doing great work is recognizing when they are and leveraging them.  Maybe you fall somewhere in between the extremes and you’re not quite sure where you fit.  There are a few questions you can ask yourself to get closer to finding your most productive time:

What time do you naturally wake up and go to bed?

If you can, spend a few days without an alarm clock and see what time you naturally wake up at.  When do you get tired again and go to sleep?  If you let it, your body will tell you what your natural rhythm is. You might feel tempted or pressured to wake up earlier, but don’t.  There’s no reason to mess with your natural schedule.

What time of day do you feel most alive?

This is your productive time and it’s the greatest opportunity you have to crank out your best work.  If you don’t feel like you’re very productive, it’s probably because you’ve been out of sync with your natural energy levels.  Pay attention to when you really come alive each day and use that window to do your most important work, not check email or surf the web.

The problem a lot of people run into is that there are too many distractions during their productive time.  Maybe you have to be at work or have some other commitment you’ve made.

If that’s your case and you’re trying to juggle other commitments with your most important work, then try out the early riser routine.  It’s popular because it works.  It’s just not the best option for a lot of people.

So, try to make your most important work the primary commitment during productive hours.  That may seem like a lot to ask, but the truth is, you eventually have to make the shift anyway if you want your best work to become your life’s work.  You can only hold those conflicting ideals for so long before you either take a big leap or resign from your best work.

Productive Productivity

Assuming you’re ready to let go of the early-riser myth and start doing your most important work when it’s right for you, here are a few things I do to make sure I get the most productivity out of my own time:

  • Stick to a schedule.  Figure out when you’re most productive and set it aside for your most important work.
  • Pick one task.  Don’t get bogged down trying to do 10 “important” things at once. Pick one and do it with focus.
  • Eliminate distractions.  If I want to do my best work, I need to focus.  That means I turn off the computer, the phone, even the stereo.  One-hundred percent of my attention goes toward the work that needs to get done.
  • Find back-up work locations.  I have a primary work space and routine, but occasionally that can cause things to get a boring.  If I feel stifled, I have two or three other places I can go to get things flowing again.  A change of scenery can make a huge difference for me.

Start getting used to doing your best work during your most productive time and you might notice less and less of a need to get up extremely early to keep up with your schedule.

What are your productive hours? Are you getting the most out of them?

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Are Health Coaches The New Shrinks?

Are Health Coaches The New Shrinks?

 

Weekly visits with a shrink used to be a popular strategy for getting a grasp on life.  But now health coaches are becoming more recognized as allies in getting lives healthier and back in sync.

In addition to being trained in behavioral change, health coaches have experience in wellness practices including proper nutrition, energizing yoga, sustained weight loss and deep meditation — and they’re popping up everywhere.

A health coach is a new type of health professional who works as a bridge between doctors and nutriontists.

“Like having a therapist, a health coach will work with you as a partner,” she said. “What’s different is that health coaches focus on helping you take stock of all the aspects of your well-being, and develop a map of where you are now and where you want to be.  We acknowledge the role of health in our lives as the foundation of a happy, full, interesting life.” Shelley Wroth, M.D., integrative health coach and physician.

Rooted in Change

Health coaching has grown  naturally from cognitive behavioral therapy and life coaching,  all with one goal:  To create positive behavioral change.  Change is difficult — something that health coaches are extremely aware of.  That’s one reason New Year’s resolutions usually fall by the wayside by the end of January.  But good health coaches take this into consideration, helping you plan for setbacks and to overcome them.

“A health coach will do more than just help you identify bad habits,” Wroth said. “We’ll help you create a plan customized to your own health, life and personal values.  And along the way, we’ll work with you to get to the bottom of what’s really going on if you get stuck.”

Health coach Laura Kraber is a member of a team of health coaches trained in dietary changes, stress-management and physical therapy at Duke University. “Making the changes necessary to support your health are challenging, but making them last can be even more difficult.”

“A health coach can help you deal with quality-of-life issues such as weight loss and stress management techniques, which are often connected.  This in-depth support has empowered many patients to make lasting changes.”

If you’re trying to lose weight, work with a coach to create your own plan — not one that focuses only on calories, but also the quality of food you eat, more nutrient dense and less inflammatory foods are much better according to Kraber. Health coaches can also help clients with advice on supplements by tailoring their use to specific situations.

For some, it may focus on things like digestive disorders or other types of illnesses. For others, it may be quality-of-life issues including sustaining weight loss or stress-management techniques.

Whatever your goals, a health coach’s job is to help you achieve them.

Each session with a health coach is tailored to a person’s needs and schedule. First sessions last from 30 to 90 minutes. Commitments are typically 12 weeks with a session at least every other week, initially, followed by month to month renewals. Sessions range in price depending on where you go, and they are not typically covered by insurance.

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How Well Do You Maintain Balance?

How Well Do You Maintain Balance?

If trying to maintain balance in your life makes you feel like a tightrope walker, you’re not alone. Most of us have so many demands on time and energy, life is like a three-ring circus. Take this quiz to see how well you’re handling it.

(True or False)
1. The only way I can successfully manage my life is to take care of myself physically and emotionally.
2. Nurturing myself enlarges my capacity to help others.
3. I eat healthfully and regularly.
4. I get check-ups, go to the dentist and take preventative precautions.
5. I set aside personal, quiet time for myself whether I’m meditating or simply letting my thoughts drift.
6. I experience the gifts of each season: ice skating, sledding, bundled-up beach walks; gardening, hiking, more time outside; camping, swimming, barbecues; harvesting the bounty, gathering wood, spending more time inside.
7. Creativity nurtures me too. I do what I love, whether that’s cooking, drawing, painting, writing, dancing, singing or another creative pursuit.
8. Reaching out to others enriches my life. I spend quality time with my family and friends.
9. Contributing to the world provides connection and purpose, so I give my time, energy and experience where it is most useful.
10. I notice and heed the emotional signals that tell me I’m out of balance: irritability, overwhelm, resentment.
11. If I feel that I’m catching a cold, I realize I may have stressed my immune system with overactivity, so I stop and take care of myself.
12. When I need or want to, I say no to requests for my time.
13. I listen to and honor the requests my body makes for such things as a nap, a walk, green vegetables, hot soup.
14. If I have something planned for myself, I don’t just toss that aside when someone makes a request of me.
15. I’m busy, but I find time to do the things I want to do.
16. I’m happy, I regularly experience well-being, contentment, even joy.

If you answered false more often than true, you may want to take a look at the questions to which you answered false and see if you can incorporate something of its message into your life.

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Accessing the Power of Gratitude

Accessing the Power of Gratitude

The exercise of gratitude as a tool for happiness has been in the mainstream for years. Studies support its effectiveness, suggesting that a positive, appreciative attitude contributes to greater success in life. While many acknowledge gratitude’s list of benefits, it can be difficult to sustain. Many of us are trained to notice what is lacking in our lives. For gratitude to meet its full healing potential, it needs to become more than just a one-time thing. We need to find a new way of looking at things and create new habits.

Practice makes perfect. If we practice giving thanks for all we have, instead of complaining about what we lack, then we give ourselves the prospect to see all of life as an opportunity and a blessing.

Gratitude focuses on where we put our effort and attention. Gratitude balances us and gives us hope.

Some Ways to Practice Gratitude

• Keep a gratitude journal in which you list things for which you are thankful. You can make daily, weekly, or monthly lists. Greater frequency may be better for creating a new habit, but just keeping that journal where you can see it will remind you to think in a grateful way.
• Make a gratitude collage by drawing or pasting pictures.
• Practice gratitude around the dinner table or make it part of your nighttime routine.
• Make a game of finding the hidden blessing in a challenging situation.
• When you feel like complaining, make a gratitude list instead.
• Notice how gratitude is impacting your life. Write about it, sing about it, express thanks for gratitude.
As you practice, an inner shift begins to occur, and you may be delighted to discover how content and hopeful you are feeling. That sense of fulfillment is gratitude at work.

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Why hugs have anti-aging benefits

Why hugs have anti-aging benefits

Sometimes all it takes is a hug to make you feel better, according an article in Nature’s Communications that was cited in the Huffington Post.  You may not be sure why, but you know that it is comforting, especially after a stressful day.

Studies conducted by the University of California, Berkeley show this comforting feeling has reparative and anti-aging benefits.  The “love hormone” known as oxytocin is accountable for those incredible feelings you get from giving and getting hugs.

As we age, our hormone levels drop, and research suggest it may be a factor in our bodies’ natural deterioration.  We lose up to five percent of muscle mass each decade after our thirties.

In the study,  researchers injected oxytocin into older mice with muscle damage and deterioration.  The older mice had lower levels of this hormone than younger mice initially.  But after nine days, the older mice were given the hormone and healed faster than those that were not. Their ability to repair muscle damage was up to 80 percent than that of the younger mice.

The study provided fast results and offers hope for the future use of the hormone in anti-aging regimes.  The extra oxytocin boosts aged tissue stem cells without simultaneously deteriorating muscle stem cells.  Researchers also believe that previous fears of oxytocin anti-aging molecules being associated with higher cancer risk have been dismantled.

So do yourself a favor.  Reach out and hug somebody!

 

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Disturbed Sleep Shown To Benefit From Mindfulness Training

Disturbed Sleep Shown To Benefit From Mindfulness Training

Woman sleeping on white background
We can now add disturbed sleep to the growing list of problems made better by mindfulness training. Apparently, the practice of non-judgmental focused attention on the present moment leaves a residue that stills the brain/mind enough to help the involuntarily sleep deprived get their rest. At least that’s the conclusion from some solid new research just published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

An especially interesting, and useful, aspect of this research is that it was a randomized clinical trial using real-world interventions with real people. Adults 55 and older with at least moderate problems sleeping were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group received a six week sleep hygiene education program. The other group participated in a community-based mindfulness program taught by a certified instructor. They also received sleep hygiene instruction.

The mindfulness group met two hours per week for six weeks. As stated in the NIH clinical trials database, those in this group “will be guided through in-class meditation practices and will be assigned daily meditation homework. Active program components include sitting and walking somatosensory-focused meditation, audio-guided body scan meditation, and loving kindness meditation.” This was the real deal. It was a much more immersive experience than something like just listening to oneself breathe a few times week or relying on one of the increasingly popular mindfulness apps, worthwhile endeavors in their own right but not the same intensity as what this research studied.

The sleep hygiene education group also met twice a week for six weeks. They met as a group so as to provide equal support, attention, time, and expectation of benefit. They were taught “knowledge of sleep biology, identifying characteristics of healthy and unhealthy sleep, sleep problems, and self-monitoring of sleep behavior.” The sleep hygiene component included the kind of advice health-care practitioners—myself included—frequently provide patients with moderate sleep problems. Advice such as no alcohol, caffeine, or screens before bed; establish a regular schedule for sleep; associate bed for sleeping not TV; make bedroom dark, cool, and relaxing; avoid large meals before going to bed; exercise during the day; and (personally my least favorite) avoid napping during the day.

While both groups showed improvements in sleep by the end of the study, the mindfulness training group did significantly better in reporting reductions in sleep problems. Plus, as the authors report, the mindfulness group also showed significant improvements in “secondary health outcomes of insomnia symptoms, depression symptoms, fatigue interference, and fatigue severity.”

We know that sleep problems are significantly associated with poor health outcomes. We also know that pharmacological sleep aids all carry significant risk and have significant side effects. We need effective options other than potentially dangerous meds, especially as the population ages and more people develop sleep problems. And the fact that mindfulness training has now been shown to improve sleep among the involuntarily sleep deprived is an important step towards a more well rested, and therefore healthier and happier, population.

It also means I will be changing what I do in my practice when it comes to patients who report sleep problems. From now on sleep hygiene plus a mindfulness practice seems to be the way to go.

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