Friday, December 9, 2011

Creative Problem Solving

In a holiday rut? If getting over the river and through the woods seems like an overwhelming challenge, perhaps it’s time to build your creative problem solving. Here’s how:

  • Record a stream of consciousness, capturing ideas as they occur, write about feeling every morning or evening. It will unclog the brain, lowering the noise level by moving or quieting emotions so ideas can bubble up.
  • Pay attention to your dreams and keep a note pad by bed, write down ideas upon waking.  Organic chemist Friedrich August Kekule had a dream about snakes biting their own tails; it led to his eureka moment when the next morning, he figured out that the chemical structure of benzene is ring-shaped.

Challenge your brain
  • Find tough problems to solve.
  • Assess constantly.
  • Look for new and innovative ways to solve/think about a situation.

The brain is like a muscle. The more active it is, the larger and more complex it becomes. Eric Kandel won the Nobel Prize for showing that when people learn something, the ‘wiring’ of their brains change.

Broaden your interests/circle
  • Learn interesting new things
  • Seek out innovative, creative people and listen to them and see how they think and do things.

Take adventures once a week
  • Do something outside the norm - go to a museum, a concert, out to the country, camping or hiking, find new places and experiences.

Take a break and do something different while your brain incubates
  • Change activities, do something relaxing or fun, or mindless.
The brain needs space to assimilate and incorporate ideas. The Greek mathematician and mechanical wizard Archimedes was stepping into a bathtub when the principle of fluid displacement came to him.

  • Moderate aerobic exercise helps integrate insights and intuitions

Creative revelations come to most people when their minds are involved in an unrelated activity. This is because the brain continues to work on a problem once it has been supplied with the necessary raw materials. Connections between ideas and imagination that already exist in the mind become weaker and are transformed by new information. A little relaxation and distance changes the minds perspective on a problem; the brain has the opportunity clear away thought barriers and newly combined associations break through.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Neurotic Stupidity

I know someone who locks her keys in the car whenever she is in a hurry to get somewhere. Plane leaves in an hour? Her keys are in the car – potentially it’s running and her cell phone mocks her from its perch in the passenger seat. Important meeting? You guessed it…keys safely locked inside the car.

The stress of making a flight or arriving on-time for a meeting is the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. My friend suffers from neurotic stupidity.

Of course, locking her keys in her car is just one symptom. She’s also been known to confuse her children’s names, her phone number and forget to pick up the aforementioned children from soccer practice.

What can she do about neurotic stupidity?

Stress and tension are the roots of the problem. Learning to manage them will help her think more clearly and concentrate more easily.

Easy things she can do include:

Regular aerobic exercise – even if it’s just a brisk thirty-minute walk

If she learns to manage her stress and tension, she just might remember when her daughter’s next soccer game is.


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Stress and Cancer

What does stress have to do with cancer?

Cancer is a problem of uncontrolled growth – the cells grow out of control and faster than they should. Cancer is an activation of growth genes – called oncogenes.

Most studies relating stress to cancer have been done in the laboratory with animals. In those studies, findings suggest that stress may bring on cancer and accelerate the progression of cancer.

The problem with the studies is that they inject the animals with cancer cells prior to or after they subject them to stressors. Do you see the problem? We aren’t injected with cancer cells, so we really can’t say that these lab animal studies are pertinent to human cancer.

In human studies, proving stress as a cause of cancer relationship is difficult. Most human studies are retrospective – taking place after someone has been diagnosed with cancer.

Prospective studies are more meaningful. These are the studies that follow people from a younger age into old age and look at different variables, including rates of disease. Here, the cancer/stress relationship falls apart.

What about the stress/relapse relationship? Not much evidence here either – the evidence is minimal.

And finally, what about the rate of progression and stress? Recent research suggests there may be a relationship between progression and stress.

John Cacioppo, PhD, from the University of Chicago and Steve Cole, PhD, from the University of California, Los Angeles are studying the way genes and environment interact to influence behavior and health – called social genomics, a division of molecular biology.

Here is what they are finding:

  • Loneliness and social adversity (including stress) influence health by priming the immune system to use its inflammatory response more often, which increases risk for disease. They are able to peer into cells and see what’s going on at a molecular level in a way that has never been done before.
  • Loneliness and adversity reprogram the immune system to be ready for trouble. This is also true for early life adversity, regardless of current conditions – these situations cause the immune system to be vigilant for stress and tone deaf to cortisol (hormone that controls inflammation), so the pro-inflammatory response proceeds unrestrained creating an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

Susan Lutgendorf, PhD, from the University of Iowa and Steve Cole, PhD, from UCLA found that social circumstances influence gene expression in cancer cells. More than 220 genes were turned on in the cancer cells of women with low levels of social support and high levels of depression. These same genes were not active in women who did not have social stress. Some of those genes are associated with higher rates of cancer metastases.

  • Genes and environment are not separate things.
  • The environment controls what your genome becomes.
  • Social support and stress management help people live better with and possibly control their disease.
  • It is imperative that people living with cancer and heart disease (and most likely other serious illness) have strong support systems and skills to manage stress.

Overall, the science isn’t there to suggest that stress directly effects whether or not we get cancer. Our bodies are much too elegant and complicated to make such a simple statement. However, once someone has cancer, it is in their best interest to do as much as they can to help support their emotional and physical health in order to live as well as they can for as long as they can.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What we can learn from Osmosis Jones

Did you ever see the movie Osmosis Jones? It was on television a few nights ago and I watched it.

Osmosis Jones (voiced by Chris Rock) is a cell that lives in Frank (played by Bill Murray). Frank doesn’t take particularly good care of himself and Osmosis and his fellow ‘cops’ have a tough time keeping Frank healthy. It is their job to identify pathogens and either attack them or create antibodies to neutralize them. Besides being an animated cop, Osmosis is an immune cell.

Osmosis taking out a pathogen.

There are two categories of immune cells, also called lymphocytes – T Cells, which originate in the thalamus, and B Cells, which originate and mature in the bone marrow.

Bill Murray’s character, Frank, has practically no stress in his life. His biggest concern seems to be getting to the Buffalo Wing Festival.

For those of us with more on our minds than wings and dipping sauces, stress is a concern. When you activate your immune system over and over again with short term stressors, you increase the likelihood of the immune system overreacting and wreaking havoc with your health – which can trigger autoimmune diseases or make any condition you already have worse.

Learning how to effectively manage stress is essential to long-term health.

Meditation, relaxation and regular aerobic exercise can all help you stay healthy.

At the end of the movie, Osmosis Jones saves the day (or Frank) and Frank decides to make healthier choices – including exercise and a more balance diet (think vegetables instead of chicken wings).

Like Frank, we can make a conscious decision to lead healthier life-styles. Even small changes can yield big results.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Brain Food

‘Oxide’ is a chemical term. It refers to a compound in which oxygen is bonded to one or more electropositive atoms. It makes me think about the rust on a bicycle fender, a cut apple that turns brown or a green penny. Oxidation is NOT something I want happening in my brain.

The brain consumes a large quantity of oxygen, making it susceptible to oxidative stress.

What to do?

Try introducing naturally occurring antioxidants into your diet. Antioxidants  convert free radicals to harmless waste products that are eliminated from the body before any damage is done.

Think of antioxidants act as scavengers that help prevent cell and tissue damage.

Knowing which foods have the most antioxidants is important, because your body needs all the help it can get to fight disease-causing free radicals.

The top ten antioxidant rich foods?
1) Small red beans (dried)
2) Wild blueberries.
3) Red Kidney beans.
4) Pinto beans.
5) Blueberries (cultivated)
6) Cranberries.
7) Artichokes (cooked)
8) Blackberries
9) Prunes
10) Raspberries
Don’t forget spices – especially powerful are cloves, turmeric and cocoa. McCormick has a handy chart.

Finally, you can drink antioxidants. Grape juice, red wine, green tea and pomegranate juice are all excellent choices.

Bon Appetit!


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Staying Sharp

In 1950, people could expect to live about eight years after retirement. In 2011, retirees can expect to live for 20 years. The difference is due to increased life expectancy and earlier retirement ages. No matter how old you are, there are things you can do NOW to ensure you enjoy a vibrant, healthy retirement with an active, curious mind.

The factors most closely linked with maintained mental function late in life include:

           Higher Education – This doesn’t mean you have to go back to school. What researchers think is that people who pursue a graduate degree are curious and that school teaches you how to learn.
           Aerobic exercise
           Hobbies – especially complex hobbies like playing bridge or chess
           Learning a new language
           Learning to play a musical instrument

Another tip - watch less TV – your brain goes into neutral and that’s not a good thing.

Also, don’t overlook exercise! Even a brisk daily walk can yield big returns.

The brain begins to lose nerve tissue beginning at age 30 (yikes!). Aerobic exercise tends to reinforce neural connections by increasing the number of dendrite connections between neurons, creating a denser network. A dense network is better able to process and store information. Exercise may even aid with the production of new neurons.
As if that wasn’t enough, aerobic exercise is strongly protective of brain functions. And, the effect is largest if you start in middle age.

And, it’s not just your brain that will benefit. Regular exercise leads to:

·         Improved cardio health
·         Reduction of depression
·         Better cardiovascular function
·         Better bone health
·         Better body composition

Think of it as saving for the future – your future health!


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Increasing Willpower

The ability to resist impulses and delay gratification (or willpower) is highly associated with success in life.

What limits willpower? What enhances it? It might be blood sugar, an essential energy source for brain cells. Most cognitive functions aren’t affected by minor blood sugar fluctuations. Planning and self-control are. 

In essence, exerting self-control lowers blood sugar, which reduces the capacity for further self-control. This is how diet might play a role in will-power. Certain foods that help regulate blood sugar, like those containing protein or complex carbohydrates, may enhance willpower for longer periods.

Imagine you have a willpower budget – one that you can spend bypassing temptation or making yourself complete unloved tasks. How you spend your budget is up to you.

The good news? You can increase your budget. Willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, it seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.

Use your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks. Believe it or not, this can lead to a measurable increase in your willpower capacity. People who do this can stick with an exercise program or diet longer. It also reduces impulsive spending, smoking, and eating junk food.

Also, people who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework.

The growth of willpower reflects a biological change in the brain. It could be that the neurons in the frontal cortex (responsible for planning behavior) or in the anterior cingulate cortex (associated with cognitive control) use blood sugar more efficiently after repeated challenges. Perhaps the chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate with one another are produced in larger quantities after they have been used up repeatedly.

Whatever the explanation, consistently doing any activity that requires self-control seems to increase willpower.

May the force be with you.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

While Your Were Sleeping

What happens while you sleep?

The first stage of sleep is slow-wave sleep where most of your brain is inactive which allows for restoration of energy in your nervous system.

The second stage of sleep is REM sleep (rapid eye movement) where some parts of your brain are silent while other parts are very active. During REM sleep the secondary sensory cortex is more active.

When you are awake and see something, the stimuli comes in through your retina, through your primary visual cortex, then over to your secondary and tertiary visual cortices, etc. But during REM sleep, the activity starts in the secondary and tertiary cortices rather than the primary visual cortex. In other words, those parts of your brain are processing things even though you aren’t actually seeing anything – you are dreaming.

Why do you need sleep?

First off, to restore energy to your brain. While the brain account for only 3% of your body weight, it uses 20-25% of your energy. Unfortunately, your brains cells cannot store energy. You need to replenish your reserves with sleep.

Another very important function of sleep is the consolidation of memories (particularly during REM). If your REM sleep is disrupted, it interferes with your cognition – you won’t remember or learn things as well.

Dreaming is an important activity during sleep. The subcortical/subconscious communicates in the form of images – dream images. Dreaming is also a chance to use circuits in your brain that you may have underused during the day.

Lack of sleep or sleep deprivation is a stressor.  Levels of glucocorticoids rise when you are sleep deprived. This can affect your bodies ability to form long-term memory, your metabolism and your immune systems – and not in a good way.

One way to improve the quality and length of sleep is by practicing a meditation/relaxation exercise right before you go to bed. It will help you sleep more soundly and keep you from waking up as often.


Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Little Shut Eye

How much sleep do you really need? While sleep requirements vary slightly from person to person, most healthy adults need at least eight hours of sleep each night to function at their best.

However, a recent survey found that more people are sleeping less than six hours a night, and sleep difficulties visit 75% of us at least a few nights per week. If you’re not getting the optimal amount of sleep, you are putting yourself at risk for health problems such as weight gain, high blood pressure and a decrease in the immune system’s power.

Sleep is important! It affects:

Learning and memory: As mentioned on Friday sleep helps the brain commit new information to memory through a process called memory consolidation.
Metabolism and weight: Chronic sleep deprivation may cause weight gain by affecting the way your body processes and stores carbohydrates, and by altering levels of hormones that can affect your appetite.
Mood: Sleep loss may result in irritability, impatience, inability to concentrate, and moodiness.
Cardiovascular health: Serious sleep disorders have been linked to hypertension, increased stress hormone levels, and irregular heartbeat.
Disease: Sleep deprivation alters the activity of your body’s NK cells and can affect your immune system.

Short of taking a pill, there are numerous ways to encourage a good night’s sleep.

Relaxation is always beneficial, but especially if you are struggling with sleep. Practicing relaxation techniques before bed is a great way to wind down, calm the mind, and prepare for sleep. Some simple relaxation techniques include:

Sweet dreams!


Friday, September 2, 2011

The Science of Learning

My niece is learning algebra and she will be the first to admit that it’s hard for her to learn mathematical concepts. She is currently studying the logical properties of equality…don’t ask.

When she learns them, she will change her brain.

The brain has a mechanism to transfer short term memories (if a=b and b=c then a=c) into long term memory. It’s called consolidation. Consolidation requires time between learning sessions. Learners need that time to reprocess information.  

Sleep helps with consolidation. When a person sleeps, there is a change in the overall pattern of brain activity. Things happen during sleep that play a critical role in learning. When we are sleep deprived, consolidation is disrupted. Stress also disrupts consolidation; it shuts down nonessential systems in the body and brain - some of which are related to memory and learning.

My advice for my niece?

                     It is best to divide studying in sessions so the brain has time to consolidate.
                     Get enough sleep!
                     A technique called “priming” can be used when you need to pay attention to certain information. For instance, if you are reading a chapter that has study questions in the back, read those first (even though you don’t know the answers), then after you read the chapter, you are more likely to remember the answers to those questions.

That’s my advice for anyone learning – be it algebra, a new software for your computer at work, a new technique for completing a task or anything else.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Nothing Will Disturb You

Meditation: Nothing Will Disturb You and Nothing Will Bother You

While comfortably supported, take a deep breath. As you breathe out, notice the feeling of relaxation that exhaling brings. Mentally move this feeling of relaxation into your shoulders and upper arms, then through your elbows, forearms, wrists and hands. Next move the feeling of relaxation into your chest, stomach, hips and upper legs – through your knees, into your lower legs, ankles and feet.

Move the feeling of relaxation from your neck to your head….until it fills your head with a very comfortable, relaxed feeling.

As you exhale, relax twice as deeply as you are now. Each exhalation will relax you more. Continue to become more deeply relaxed and comfortable each time you breathe out.

As you continue to relax, you will feel physically stronger and more fit in every way – so that nothing will disturb you and nothing will bother you. You will feel mentally stronger and your nerves will become steadier, your mind will become calmer and clearer, more composed and tranquil.

Breathe out. Nothing will disturb you and nothing will bother you.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What Makes Your Heart Beat Faster?

You may not realize how much your heart rate varies throughout the day or that it changes with your emotional state.

By becoming aware of the variability in your heart-rate, you can learn to take control and quiet your emotions. This is called reaching a state of coherence. Practicing a simple relaxation technique will help reduce stress, balance emotions, and increase performance. Used just a few minutes a day, you can learn to transform feelings of anger, anxiety or frustration into peace and clarity, and learn to take charge of your emotional reactions. Your health, communication, relationships and quality of life will improve.

Begin by imagining you are breathing in and out through your heart. Imagine the breath coming into your heart with the inhalation, and out through your heart with the exhalation.

Do this for a few minutes.

Then imagine something or someone whom you really appreciate. This may be different than going to a relaxing place – it could be an activity such as reading to a child, walking your dog, a physical activity, or sitting with someone you love. I imagine myself reading to my son when he was a child and I immediately move to a place of coherence. Imagine this for a few minutes.

Then, go back to breathing in and out through your heart for a few more minutes. Get up, stretch and know you’ve done something good for your whole self.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Hands on Exercise

When diagnosed with serious or chronic illness, people often feel a loss of control and that their bodies have failed them. Biofeedback training can help people learn self-regulation strategies to help them cope more effectively.

A common type of biofeedback is thermal or hand-warming biofeedback.  Thermal biofeedback training has proven very useful for those who suffer from migraine headaches, high blood pressure, insomnia, pain, stress, asthma and other lung disorders, digestive disorders, treatment side-effects and many other conditions.

The main goal of thermal biofeedback is to assist in measuring your level of stress through skin temperature. The higher the stress level, the lower your hand or foot temperature (75° F is cold, 70° F or below is very cold). The lower the stress level, the higher your hand or foot temperature will be (90° F with a training goal of 95-96° F).

We often use thermal biofeedback in conjunction with different relaxation training exercises to teach someone how to reverse the fight/flight response and quiet their body and mind. This results in warm hands (which means you are calm), the ability to think more clearly and handle daily stresses more easily.

Although biofeedback training is very helpful in giving you the verification that you are reaching your goal, you don’t really need it to learn to self-calm and warm your hands. You can simply pay attention to how cold your hands are. One way to do this is to put your hands against your cheeks and see if they feel cold. If they do, your hand temp is likely in the 70’s. If they are warm to the touch, they are in the upper 80’s or 90’s. If your hands are cold, practice some kind of relaxation technique.

I have explained a number of different techniques in past blogs but one fool proof exercise is deep breathing.


Monday, August 15, 2011

Be Fearless

Franklin Roosevelt said in his inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” What if we could banish our fear?

With meditation fearlessness is possible. Fearlessness is a sense of deep confidence and the feeling of “nothing to gain, nothing to lose”. Meditation can bring to mind a fearless certainty, a deep confidence that nothing can unsettle—decisive and firm, without hesitating, where you’re open to anything. You can enter into a state where you feel, no matter what happens, you have nothing to gain, and nothing to lose – a feeling of freedom from burden.

I’ve written before about visualization. You can use that technique to achieve fearlessness.

Sit in a comfortable position for meditation, close your eyes and breathe naturally through your nose. Then, identify what it is you are currently afraid of. Visualize your fears along with their actual causes in the form of dense thick smoke, and breathe it out. When the smoke leaves your nostrils, it disappears into the furthest reaches of space, where it completely disappears, never to return.

When you inhale, imagine breathing in pure, inspiring energy and fearlessness in the form of white light. Let the light fill your body and mind.

Or, if you’d like, you can focus on the word “fearlessness,” and repeat, “nothing to gain, nothing to lose,” while imagining the feeling of deep confidence.

With practice, this meditation will help you feel lighter, clearer, more peaceful and balanced. You will feel fearlessness.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Abdominal Breathing

We breathe without giving it any thought. Inhale. Exhale.

What if I told you the way you breathe can affect your stress level? Would you think about it then?

Turns out abdominal breathing sends more oxygen into your blood stream. This is a good thing. The oxygen improves the lactate levels in your blood and lowers the lactic acid in your body. Lactic acid contributes to anxiety.

Try to practice abdominal breathing at least twice a day - or, whenever you find your mind dwelling on upsetting thoughts or when you experience pain.

To begin:

·         Place one hand your abdomen. When you take a deep breath in, the hand on your abdomen should rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale. You want to fill your entire lung with air.
·         After exhaling through the mouth, take a slow deep breath in through your nose and hold it.
·         Slowly exhale through your mouth. As all the air is released with relaxation, gently contract your abdominal muscles to completely evacuate the remaining air from the lungs. Remember, respiration deepens not by inhaling more air but through completely exhaling it.
·         Repeat the cycle four more times for a total of 5 deep breaths and try to breathe at a rate of one breath every 10 seconds (or 6 breaths per minute).
Once you feel comfortable practicing the technique, you may incorporate words to enhance the exercise. For example, you might say to yourself the word, relaxation (with inhalation) and stress or anger (with exhalation). The idea being to bring in the feeling/emotion you want with inhalation and release those you don't want with exhalation.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Hypnosis - Be Glad You're Not a Chicken

If the word ‘hypnosis’ conjures up images of a tourist clucking like a chicken on a Vegas stage, it’s time to reassess.

The truth of the matter is that your unconscious mind won’t consent to behavior that is unacceptable to your conscious mind - sort of makes you wonder about those clucking tourists.

A second truth – you can be your own hypnotist. So, unless you tell yourself to cluck (and you harbor a secret but conscious desire to make a fool of yourself), your safe from chickenhood. Instead, you can use self-hypnosis to relax or help achieve your personal goals.

The procedure of self-hypnosis usually begins with an induction suggesting heaviness of the eyes, deeper and deeper relaxation and a countdown from ten to zero or one hundred to zero. Stay flexible. This is about YOU. Adding your own innovations or developing your own format is fine.

Look upward. When you do so, the natural tendency is for your eyes to close. If they don’t – assume some resistance to the exercise is taking place. Explore the reasons why. After a few minutes, if your eyes aren’t heavy enough to close naturally, close them.

After you become as relaxed as you want to be, make suggestions to yourself related to your needs and goals. Visualize yourself in the act of accomplishing these goals. A golfer might visualize his perfect swing and his ball landing on the fairway. A test-taker with high anxiety might visualize herself calmly and successfully completing her exam. A smoker might see himself taking a walk after a meal instead of lighting a cigarette. Picture the details, engage the senses – the smell of fresh grass, the sound of a pencil writing on paper or the feeling of clean air filling your lungs.

Before you bring the exercise to a close, remember to suggest that each time you do the exercise you will become more deeply relaxed. Select a few keywords – “more and more relaxed” or “heavier and heavier”.

Finally, tell yourself to return to an alert state of consciousness, refreshed and fully energized. Count upward from one to three and be glad you’re not a chicken!


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Types of Meditation

Do you think of meditation as a single, vaguely defined Zen-like mental exercise?
That’s like thinking baseball, football and golf are the same because they’re sports.
The truth is there are dozens upon dozens of varieties of mental training. Too often they are lumped together under the term meditation. However, each practice comes with its own instructions and specific effects on experience and brain activity.
Consider one-pointedness—a fully focused concentration on a single object of attention. It may be the most basic and universal of all practices. It is found in one form or another in every spiritual tradition that employs meditation.
Practitioners focus on one point and release the ten thousand other thoughts and desires that flit through their minds as distractions.
By contrast, visualization entails constructing in the mind’s eye a detailed image. In the Buddhist tradition, a meditator might imagine a deity, starting with the details and building the whole picture from top to bottom. If you’re rusty on Buddhist gods, you can visualize a pattern or mandala or even build peaceful refuge in your mind.
Researchers have found a clear difference in cognitive activity between the two. It’s not a bad idea to practice both and fire different parts of your brain.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Just do what feels right

When it comes to meditating, my advice is to do what feels right.

If you look online, you’ll find sites that tell you to eat before you meditate. Others tell you not to. Some sites will stress the importance of sitting in a certain position, others will tell you to find a comfortable chair.

The truth? When it comes to meditation, it doesn't matter if you eat or don't eat. It really doesn't matter if you sit up or lie down or stand on your head - you just need to quiet your body and mind in the way that works best for you.

Also, there is no 'right" time of day to meditate. The best time is when you don't think you'll fall asleep (unless the purpose of your meditating IS to fall asleep).

There is no "best" meditation. One meditation might feel perfect for you while another feels uncomfortable. There are thousands of exercises out there from visualizing for relaxation or reaching goals or preparing for surgery to very passive mantra meditations.

The key is to find the meditation that works best for you – one that quiets your mind and body. When you find it, you will feel better, happier and calmer.


Monday, July 25, 2011

Letting Go of Clutter

Self-calming activities like relaxation training or meditation should quiet the mind and body.

When you begin any kind of relaxation or meditation practice, you are lowering the noise level in your brain and body. When this happens, you might notice some ‘clutter’ in your mind. This clutter may manifest itself as wondering thoughts, pain or other sensations in your body.

Keep in mind, these distractions are not just popping up as you relax. With meditation, you are finally getting quiet enough to see what is regularly going on inside your brain and body. The bubbling of sensations and feelings is commonly known as ‘letting go’ phenomena (sometimes called discharge) and it is a good thing. You want to let go of the old, clean out the clutter, and make room for the new.

So, if you are meditating and emotions start bubbling up or you begin to feel anxious, understand that it is part of the process.

If you ever feel too uncomfortable, just stop, and try again later. The key is to be gentle with yourself. Start slowly. Gently ease yourself into the practice.

I suggest starting with visualization or relaxation exercises that keep you busier with suggestions. If you are practicing the more passive meditations like counting breaths or a mantra, only practice for twenty minutes at a time and build up to longer meditation sessions.

Some of the symptoms you may experience:

  • An increase in dreams
  • Emotions bubbling up to the surface
  • Feelings of nausea or dizziness or other bodily sensations
  • Feelings of anxiety or uneasiness as you are meditating

I hope I’m not scaring you off. This ‘letting go’ phenomena does not happen to everyone. Relaxation and meditation is so good for your mind and body, the benefits greatly outweigh the possible side-effects. If you ease into meditation and don’t get carried away with “more is better” in the beginning, you’ll be fine.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

An Insight Meditation

Imagine the earth is filled with enlightened people – everyone, that is, but you.

Now, imagine all those enlightened souls are here specifically to teach you. They are acting for your benefit.

The clerk at the DMV? She was put on earth to teach you patience.

The caller who interrupts your dinner? Her job is to teach you kindness.

Your children who scream at each other over whose turn it is to sit in the front seat? Well obviously, they are teaching you to look for peace.

The co-worker who brings fresh, warm donuts to your office when he knows you’re watching your weight? He is teaching you will-power.

Inwardly thank them for their lessons. They are gifts especially for you.

Practice seeing all those around you as enlightened beings here to teach you each day for a whole week. This may change your whole perspective on life – not to mention the difficult people in your life.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Meditation and Pain Management

Amazing isn’t it? Activities we took for granted in the first blush of youth can cause us pain now that we’re older. Bending over to pick up the newspaper while turning to call to the dog trampling your neighbor’s flowers can result in some serious back pain. Some people carry stress in their necks and a quick glance over their shoulders can mean they’re limited to looking straight ahead for weeks at a time. Ouch!

And now the good news - research shows that learning to meditate can alter brain activity in the same way next-generation pain medication do.

Imagine delivering your own pain-killer whenever and how often you want – with no warning label or serious side-effects.

For many it can take less than two hours of training to see significant improvement.

Use the basic relaxation induction that I outline in previous blog posts, then:

·         Focus on the area of the pain.
·         Breathe into it. This might be difficult to do because we are trained to move away from pain, but trust me, this technique is proven to work.
·         Give the pain a color, shape and size. Any color, size or shape will do.
·         Now change the color of the pain, make it lighter - if it is red, change it to pink, if it is black, change it to grey, picture the color of the pain getting lighter and lighter.
·         Change the size of the pain - imagine it shrinking, smaller…and smaller…and smaller. Make the size grow, larger and larger and larger…then shrink it again, making it smaller…and smaller… and smaller… until it shrinks to the size of a pea.
·         See if you can make it disappear, if you can't, don't worry, it is okay to leave it the size of a pea where it is manageable.
·         Just rest in this place, noticing how the pain has changed, how it is more manageable.
·         Try to relax deeper and deeper, letting go of any remaining pain…

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Noticing What Is

Do you wake up in the morning and react? The alarm didn’t go off, one of your kids couldn’t locate the shoes/assignment/notebook they simply had to have for school, traffic was awful, someone burned the coffee which you spilled on the final copy of the report due in five minutes…Most people move through their day reacting to whatever happens around them.

If you meditate, you naturally begin to take control of your emotions, your reactions to situations, and how you understand others’ motivations.

What follows is a basic meditation that allows you to develop a calm mind and insight through reflection and focusing your awareness on the body. The purpose is to allow you to notice how your mind works and to bring peace and clarity to your life. When you see more clearly what is going on inside of you, you see more clearly what is going on around you. This is good information to have – it allows you to move through your day with a greater sense of clarity and purpose.
In this meditation:

·         Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
·         Take a couple of deep breaths and settle in – allowing your body to relax.
·         Make sure you are breathing from your diaphragm, your abdomen should rise as you inhale, and fall back down as you exhale.
·         Just take deep breaths, letting peace and relaxation flow in and all of the day’s tension, conflict and worries flow out.
·         Remember - your breathing helps you relax. You can relax just the right amount, by first paying attention to your breathing and extending the exhalation just a little bit more with each breath.

As you relax, focus on whatever presents itself to you. Just sit quietly and notice any thoughts, images, sensations, tension or pain. As these thoughts, ideas or images come to mind, acknowledge they are part of the exercise. Then, breathe quietly and let them go. Let your heart soften and be open to whatever arises without fighting. Let go of the battle, gently allow all of your experiences to be present, breathe quietly and let them go.

Monday, July 11, 2011

How to Turn Down the Noise

We are bombarded with stimuli – cell phones ring, e-mail beckons, the television and its myriad channels sing their siren song, Facebook tells us what our friends are doing and Twitter informs us in 140 characters or less of the latest banalities. Our attention spans suffer and our stress level ratchets up.
Meditation can quiet the noise.
Meditation accesses parts of the brain most of us don’t tap into in our everyday lives. It gets to the physiology of the stress response. It bypasses intellectualizing, thinking and talking. It is a direct line to the emotional part of the brain – the part that doesn’t tell you to answer e-mail, return calls or write reports. It helps the meditator find a sense of peace and quiet in a storm of noise.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

In 1929, Dr. Edmund Jacobson published Progressive Relaxation. In it, he detailed a technique that focuses on tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups in the body.

The technique is now called Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). The mental component of the technique focuses on the difference between feelings tension and relaxation. During PMR the eyes are closed and concentration is directed to the sensation of tension and relaxation. Feelings of warmth and heaviness are felt in the relaxed muscle after it is tensed, a mental relaxation is felt as a result. With practice, one can learn how to effectively relax and deter anxiety.

Since Dr. Jacobson’s ground-breaking work, practitioners who are trained in various body therapies have come to believe muscle tension serves an important role in keeping psychological material repressed. They believe tension stops energy flow and therefore the flow of emotions.

It is best to consult a physician before beginning PMR – especially if you have suffered a serious injury, have muscle spasms or back problems.

PMR tips –

  • Find a quiet place with no electronic distractions
  • Remove restrictive clothing
  • Sit in a comfortable chair – you may practice PMR lying down but you just might fall asleep
  • Remember to hold the tension in each area for fifteen seconds
  • When you finish a session, relax with your eyes closed for a few seconds before getting up slowly

To begin –

·         Start with the right hand and lower arm. Make a tight fist and feel the tension in the hand, over the knuckles and up into the lower arm. Hold it for 15 seconds, then let go and relax. Notice the difference between tension and relaxation in your hand and lower arm.

·         To tense the right bicep, push your elbow down against the arm of the chair, feel the tension, study it, and then let go and relax

·         Move to the left hand and lower arm - make a tight fist......

·         Right bicep - push your elbow against the arm of the chair......

·         Move to the muscles of the face – start with the forehead. Tense the forehead by lifting the eyebrows as high as possible. Tense the muscles of the upper cheeks and nose by squinting tightly. At the same time wrinkle the nose.

·         Tense the muscles in the lower part of the face and jaw by gentling bite the teeth together while pulling the corners of the mouth back. Remember to feel the tension.

·         To tense the muscles of the neck – make a fist and push the chin against it, creating tension in the back and sides of the neck

·         Tense by shoulders by lifting them towards the ears. At the same time, create the tension in the back of the neck.

·         To tense the upper back - take a deep breath and hold it. At the same time, pull the shoulder blades together and try to make them touch

·         Tense stomach and abdominal muscles by pulling the stomach muscles in and holding them

·         Tense the right thigh by lifting the leg up off the chair - feel the tension in the upper leg and into the hip

·         Tense the right calf by pointing the toes

·         Tense the right foot by pointing the toes and turning the foot inward

·         To tense the left leg, lift it up off the chair

·         Tense the left calf by pointing the toes

·         Tense the left foot by pointing the toes, turning the foot inward

·         Now that each muscle groups in the body had been tensed and relaxed, try to relax each muscle group more deeply. Take deep breaths and let go of any remaining tension 


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Your Happiness Set Point

Studies done with monks who are adept meditators, found that a particular form of meditation called compassion or loving kindness meditation trains happiness and can actually change the happiness set point.

Through tracking brain activity, researchers have found when the activity in the Left Prefrontal Cortex (LPC) is higher than in the Right Prefrontal Cortex (RPC) – people feel alert, energized, enthusiastic, joyous, enjoying life more, and are happier. When the activity in the RPC is higher than in the LPC – people worry, are anxious, and sad. If the activity in the RPC cortex is much greater than the LPC, people are prone to depression.

The more adept meditators used more of their brains when meditating (more areas lit up). This shows how meditation accesses more of the brain. Particularly – the left prefrontal cortex – activity in the LPC cortex swamped that in the RPC the LPC is associated with happiness, love and empathy. This is what keeps meditators coming back for more – it feels good!

This meditation is a 2,500 year old practice in which key phrases are repeated and the meditator focuses on feelings of happiness or loving kindness toward themselves and others.

It is best to practice daily for fifteen to twenty minutes for several months.

Sometimes this meditation can bring up feelings opposite to those one is trying to cultivate. If this happens, please be patient, acknowledge those feelings, feel them, let them pass, and continue with the loving kindness phrases. Over time, the part of your brain that deals with feelings of happiness, love and bliss will be developed.

While repeating the phrases, it is important to focus on the feeling of happiness. If it is difficult to hold onto that feeling, concentrate on a time when you felt happy and focus on that feeling (don’t focus on the activity involved or the people you were with). Or, imagine yourself as a child or as you are now, surrounded with loving kindness by those who love you, or God.

·         Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
·         Take a couple of deep breaths and settle in – allowing your body to relax.
·         Make sure you are breathing from your diaphragm, your abdomen should rise as you inhale, and fall back down as you exhale.
·         Take deep breaths, letting the peace and the relaxation flow in and all of the tension, conflict and worries flow out.
·         Remember your breathing helps you relax – you can relax just the right amount, by first paying attention to your breathing and extending the exhalation just a little bit more from where it was before.
·         If thoughts, ideas or images come to mind, remember, it is part of the exercise, just acknowledge them, gently usher them through and go back to the exercise.

You will be repeating the following phrases for yourself and others:

May I be free from fear
May I be happy
May I be well
May I live life with ease (or in peace)

Begin by repeating these phrases for yourself, imagining the feelings of loving kindness and happiness permeating your body and mind. You may have to repeat these phrases for yourself for weeks until you feel the sense of loving kindness grow for yourself.  Then begin adding others, such as your family or friends - repeating to yourself:

May they (my family) be free from fear
May they be happy
May they be well
May they live life with ease