The Grateful Brain

“If you want to turn your life around, try thankfulness.
It will change your life mightily.”
~Gerald Good~

 

Gratitude is a cornerstone of every major religion, and indeed a part of North American culture.  (I am thinking here of Thanksgiving Day, which is celebrated in the US and Canada). For years we have been hearing from modern thought leaders such as Dr. Wayne Dyer and Joseph Dispenza, that we have the power to create our lives anew, and that gratitude plays a key role in it.

Recently I have been noticing the work of Dr. Daniel Amen, M.D., who is a psychiatrist researching brain functioning.  He uses the modern technology of brain scans to examine the electrical activity and blood flow in the brains of his subjects.

He discovered that gratitude positively and literally changes brain chemistry.  Especially the frontal lobes and cerebellum show increased electrical activity and blood flow. The frontal lobes are responsible for judgment, impulse control and planning. When your frontal lobes are functioning well, you are making high performance decisions that serve you well.

In a study to determine the effects of gratitude, Dr. Amen scanned each subject’s brain twice. One after asking the person to focus on things in life for which she felt grateful, and another after asking her to focus on things that made her angry.  The scans were amazingly different!  Feeling grateful showed a dramatic benefit to her brain.  Blood flow and electrical activity increased in the area of the brain which would result in better decisions, focus and judgment. By contrast, angry or hateful thinking resulted in a draining or restricting of blood flow and overall brain activity!

When we are taught that fear, anger and hatred are constricting and limiting, this is more than “New Age” mumbo-jumbo. And when the ancients indicated the way to expansion and a better spiritual life, we can now see how our human physiology is directly affected by our thoughts and resulting emotions. If you doubted the truth of what you were hearing, now science has demonstrated why they are true!

When you write a gratitude list and focus on the feeling, your pituitary gland releases endorphins and other neurotransmitters that contribute to a feeling of overall well-being.  This is not just your imagination, because we now understand more about the power of that imagination.  Improving your mood leads to improved brain functioning, making it easier to make healthy decisions that will make it possible to create the life of your dreams.

Practicing gratitude is the key.

Creating: Seeing what Already Exists

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” 
~Philip K. Dick~


At the beginning of every new year I hear a running argument about whether making resolutions for change is a waste of time or not. Cynics will maintain that their “good intentions” to lose weight, stick to a budget, etc. is useless because they usually last less than a week.  The more optimistic types will at least plod along, sticking to the practice of resolving or intending to make changes in what is important to them.

Research has found that there is power in clarifying intentions and resolving to make change, regardless of the time of year. In other words, if you intend to make a change in your life and are clear about what that will be like, you are much more likely to succeed at it than if you don’t.

Let’s consider this is a broader way.  As I have pointed out in previous posts, you are creating the life you have whether you are intentional about it, or not. This thought can be a little disturbing if you are unhappy about how things are. It is far easier to point the finger of blame at someone or something else. No need to run through the usual list of excuses; I’m certain that you have heard them all and likely at some point have used them yourself.

Instead I’d like to learn to be a more effective creator, and hopefully you do too.

An essential skill to learn and master in creating the life you desire, is to assess reality, or to see clearly what already exists. This sounds deceptively simple. Just open your eyes and look!

Several years ago I took a course in the fundamentals of drawing at the local art association. Having a life-long interest in art, I have always admired artists and had a hankering to create art myself. And so I arrived at the first class with sketchbook and tools in hand, eager to learn. What I soon discovered was that it is difficult to draw with my hand what my eyes are seeing!

Just as musicians are trained to hear music accurately and to identify it, artists are taught to draw what they see and to do it clearly. In a similar way, we need to develop the skill of viewing reality objectively. You may find this surprisingly tough to do and it may make you squirm. For many, seeing reality is uncomfortable.

We often are taught to view reality in certain ways that our parents, religious and ethnic groups and society in general, prefer. We get messages such as, “Our family always….,” or “Americans are….,” or “Methodists are…” You can insert whatever group name applies. As individuals, we may have gotten messages that we are the smart one, or the pretty one, or the athletic one, or the one who is difficult to get along with. Until we become conscious of it, these hidden beliefs form a kind of lens through which we see reality. Facing this bias and seeing through it can be uncomfortable at first.

If you are in a problem solving mode you may lie to yourself or rationalize the situation in order to feel better. Well meaning friends and family may help you with this, supplying justification or excuses for why things are the way they are. Of course this is not helpful.

What really does help is to ask for some expert assistance in objectively measuring the present situation. If you want to feel more energetic and healthy, then make an appointment with your doctor for a check-up. You may justify your level of blood sugar by saying that you celebrated too much, and that it isn’t that bad. But the numbers from a blood sample will give you a realistic picture. Or rationalizing about your bank account numbers will give way to a realistic picture if you work with a CPA or planner.

Yes, you will have to endure some discomfort.  Deal with those emotions of fear, anger or sadness by writing about them, talking to someone you trust or using EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique). Then take the realistic information you have gathered, touch base with the end goal that you established, and get ready to take action!

You must see clearly what your present situation is and then compare it to where you desire and intend to be. Doing so will be a big boon to energetically moving forward with effective action!  This will move you toward your goals in creating the life you desire. Don’t waste more time. Do it now!

 

Another New Beginning

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” 
H. Jackson Brown Jr.~

 Every year the last days of December prompt at least a superficial evaluation of what happened during the previous year.  We can find magazine issues devoted to the most influential people of the year or history shaping events such as a national election.  And certainly our minds drift to the major news events, as well as the more personal events that mark both positive and negative milestones of our lives.

It might be the birth of a new family member, or a marriage or a divorce or death of someone important to you.  Or a graduation, promotion or retirement that has occurred and that will be life changing on some level.  And then, of course, we may revisit the resolutions that we considered or even committed to at the end of last year.  Did you forget about what you desired after a few weeks or months?  Or are you feeling proud of progress that you made?

I just read an amusing tweet from someone who said she was debating about whether to form her new year’s resolutions or take a nap. Someone replied that she should make a resolution to take more naps.  Which might not be a bad idea when you think about it.  For those who find themselves living on a treadmill of responsibilities at home and more of the same at work, taking breaks can be a big boon to mental and physical health.

It seems that whether the resolution is for changing a bad habit or working harder on something, or improving some element of personal development, most people give up pretty quickly on making changes.  Probably the biggest reasons for this are two-fold:  a lack of clarity for what is motivating this change, (in other words, WHY they are willing to make the change); and making a realistic plan for HOW to achieve the change.

If you don’t stay connected with what is motivating you, and your reasons are not compelling enough to overcome your human, natural resistance to change, then your efforts will likely fizzle out.  Who hasn’t found the weather too cold, your energy level too low, or another “great reason” to put off until tomorrow whatever you have resolved to begin today?  Probably everyone.

There are tips and tools that can shore up your resolve as well as help pave the way to change.  One of the best that I use and recommend is one that you can access at The Tapping Solution, which is a program of EFT or Emotional Freedom Technique.  If you check out the site, you will see an icon that you can click to download a free e-book that nicely explains EFT and how you can apply it in your life.  You will also see a reasonably priced DVD that you can order which is an interesting film of a retreat in which participants from various life situations meet and learn to use the techniques.  My personal favorite is the membership site which has a wealth of products and lessons you can follow, made available by some of the foremost EFT coaches in the world.

It’s easy to be cynical about making substantial changes in your life, and maybe you have felt discouraged by your lack of progress in the past.  However, I would urge you not to give up on living a satisfying and meaningful life.  Support and help is all around you if you open yourself to seeing the possibilities.  Don’t stay stuck in the safety zone of what is comfortable and familiar to you.  You really do deserve to have, be and do better.  Get some support and determine to be in a place you really desire at the end of the coming year!

 

Beware the Pedestals!

Almost any day you’d care to look, the news offers opportunity to reflect on humankind and the meanings of life. Just as the heat of a national election is cooling down, and the approach of the “fiscal cliff” is looming, we hear breaking news of the fall from grace of another hero.

Like other news flurries, the scandal and resignation of David Petraeus will eventually sort itself out and fade into the background of our collective awareness.  In saying that, I’m not minimizing the importance of his extramarital affair to him, his family and inner circle, and possibly even to national security. What occur to me are our general tendencies to make our heroes one dimensional rather than remembering that they are complex humans, as we all are.

Perhaps we want some icons to look up to.  Perhaps we are comforted in confronting the chaos of the world and our resulting feelings of fear and helplessness when we put someone up on a pedestal. We may enjoy being put on a pedestal ourselves and receiving the attention and adulation that comes with being considered a hero to someone…anyone. But I want to caution you about doing either one.

After all, there are many examples of this “pedestal practice” and what comes of it. Lance Armstrong comes to mind. As does Sandusky and the whole Penn State debacle that once uncovered, revealed the dangers of the worship and adulation of a university football coach and the program he built. Many men who lived on pedestals in “Happy Valley” will topple before that scandal finishes playing out. Several years ago a well respected scholar and college professor was arrested for soliciting sexual contact with a female minor, and an entire community and church was rocked to the core. A highly regarded female pastor confesses that she has been having an extramarital affair with a parishioner, and the families and church are devastated in the wake of it.

On a smaller scale, married partners sometimes have this “Pedestal Practice” going on. If you marry someone and you regard them as more successful, smarter, more desirable, more powerful, wealthier or more competent than you, you may place them on the pedestal and never claim your own abilities and power in the relationship.

Taking the passive or submissive stance then results in an imbalance of power. The woman or man who is up on the pedestal isn’t seen as fully human, and true emotional intimacy is not possible as a result.  Not a true partnership. And usually, sooner or later something will occur that results in toppling the pedestal by an affair or deception of some other kind, and divorce.

Our first reaction to such news is, “That’s impossible!” Surely some terrible mistake has occurred!  He/she wouldn’t or couldn’t do such a thing!  Scummy, evil, bad people do this! Notice that the implication is that we are all one or the other: good people or bad people. Of course the truth is that we are neither. Each of us has our strengths, even great and wonderful qualities. And each of us has our “shadows,” unconscious beliefs and feelings that when they remain unacknowledged or unexplored, have the tendency to rear up and we act them out.

It seems to me that when we put someone else on a pedestal, whether that person is a sports hero, a national figure, a revered leader or someone you personally know, they will plunge off that pedestal by revealing themselves (albeit unintentionally) to be flawed.  Or in our resentment or disappointment at seeing them to be only human after all, we knock them off their pedestals with a resounding whack.

And if you are living up on a pedestal, watch out!

 

Baby Steps Revisited

 “While it is true that without a vision the people perish,
it is doubly true that without action the people
and their vision perish, as well.”
~Johnetta Betsch Cole~

Recently I wrote a post, http://www.coach4lifechange.com/2012/08/clean-up-clean-out/ about my adventures in making my work space more functional and pleasant.  About a month has elapsed since then and I’m happy to report some satisfying progress.

The home office itself is cleared out except for one box that needs to go to the donation center. The desk is a marvel of order, especially considering that one of the tasks I undertook was a revamping of the book keeping system that I use, complete with a meeting with David, my very patient CPA. At least for the time being the outbox is clear and the inbox has a small stack of opened mail. I’m still leery of putting anything important in that “Pending” file in the front of the file drawer. I am all too familiar with the truth in the saying, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

The closet in that room is full of stored items, and I must admit, needs a good turning out. Out of sight, out of mind kind of works for me there, at least for the short term, and with a good pair of closet doors.  It will be a good winter project.  I have noticed that as drawers, closets and other storage places get put in order according to the way that I use them, taking a couple of minutes to put things away is quick and easy. And the feng shui experts are correct in saying that it’s good for the general energy flow and sense of well being. I can focus much better when working in an orderly space.

After getting the financial data in order, I received some great advice.  And that is to set aside time every week…the same day of the week, to enter expenses, pay bills and check the balances.  Sounds like great  advice that I would do well to follow.  What could be the problem?

I am guessing that if someone were to advise me that eating half a pint of Ben and Jerry’s every day is the magic bullet to becoming a millionaire, I still would find myself “forgetting” to do it within a week’s time.  Doing a new task consistently is the bane of my existence!  And yet writing it in my schedule and taking on the challenge is something I am willing to do.

I have learned from experience that instead of just dreaming or just complaining about my dreams that have not come true, that there is no substitute for taking action. There’s nothing like baby steps. Unhappy about your life? Then do one thing different!  It may seem too small and simple to work, especially in the face of what seems like an overwhelming mess or long-standing beliefs and behaviors.

The secret that is not really a secret is that taking one small and consistent step in the right direction, will embolden and inspire you.  The challenge for me and maybe for you is being consistent.  No matter how smart an idea I have or what great instruction I have received, continuing to do it until it is a new habit.  Life happens, and I get pulled off course to take care of something that seems urgent (not always important though, I must say).  Before long I have fallen way behind and then awaken with a jolt as I realize that my mess has recurred.

But instead of complaining or whining about being a victim of circumstance, we need to climb right back up on the horse, so to speak, and proceed according to our dreams, goals and plans.  After some days and weeks of doing so, the new order will feel more comfortable and easy to live with.

SAD: Tis the Season

Recently in our neck of the woods, we have had a great break in the weather. After weeks of heat and humidity (which I find nearly insufferable; and I break my vows not to complain about it, usually within the hour after making them), we had a terrific thunderstorm. The next morning dawned bright and beautiful with low humidity and very moderate temperatures!

By now we have had a whole week of this blissful weather. Families are back from their vacations, the new school year is well underway, and my friends who are football fanatics are happily following their teams. I noticed that the foliage is just beginning to pick up a tinge of yellow and red when I was driving home.

Although I was sorry to see a sign at the farmer’s market that said “the last of the summer peaches…and cherries…and plums,” fall is my favorite season.

The only hitch in this is that the daylight is getting noticeably shorter. It was nearly dark when I left the office last evening. And much darker when I got up this morning. This used to be something that I lamented because it meant the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as “the winter blues.”

It took years for me to figure out why I hated winter so much. Odd since there were so many great things about the season. One fall I was listening to a seminar on clinical depression, when after hearing the instructor going through the (very familiar) list of symptoms, a gong went off in my head and I was amazed to realize that I was depressed!

Although there are some variations in the number and severity of symptoms, here they are:

  • Sleep disturbances.  Some people have disrupted sleep, and others can hardly drag themselves out of bed in the morning.
  • Problems concentrating which some people experience as a sort of “brain fog.”  Difficulty being productive at work.
  • Appetite disturbance, often with carbohydrate craving and weight gain.
  • Irritability and sometimes crying spells
  • Low mood sometimes accompanied by anxiety, and low energy level
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Less interest in socializing and a tendency to isolate

Children and adolescents may differ somewhat from adults in their symptoms. Often difficulty getting out of bed for school and a lowering of grades may occur. Like adults, they often have problems concentrating. And often they suffer low energy and self esteem.

Research is ongoing at the National Institutes of Health, and the evidence is not yet entirely clear as to the effects of the light on the functioning of the brain, as well as the cause of SAD. But it does seem clear that full spectrum light which comes in through the retina, and varies with the seasons, is the determining factor.  Sunlight is full spectrum light, but the artificial lighting that we live with at work and at home is not. (Tanning lights are NOT full spectrum, nor are they safe for the skin).

What is recommended for treating SAD is using a light box, which is equipped with specially developed, safe (no UV rays), full spectrum tubes. I have found the best source for these light boxes to be The Sunbox Company at www.sunbox.com.  The founder of this company was the original designer who worked with NIH for a good treatment option for sufferers of SAD.

By now I have been using my light box for 7 or 8 years.  Starting sometime in September (when I notice the brain fog closing in) until late March, my morning routine is to sit in front of it at my kitchen table for 30 minutes.  It is about a couple of feet from my face.  I read, write in my journal and drink my morning coffee.  Often the cat joins me by jumping up on my lap. It’s the only time he does that when I’m at the table, so maybe he needs a little cheering up too.  😉

If you recognize some of these symptoms yourself, I highly recommend using the light box. Other things also help, such as exercising, especially outdoors and in full daylight. You can visit the website to get more information at www.sunbox.com.  Their customer service is friendly and prompt, and their newsletter full of good information.

 

Tuning In Turning Off


Recently I was reminded of a stress reduction technique that Dr. Andrew Weil recommended in his book 8 Days to Optimal Health.  I was bringing a client back to my office from the waiting room, and as she rose from her chair, she tossed the news magazine she was reading back on the end table. “I guess I’m addicted to reading this stuff.  Before I start, I know I’m going to be aggravated by one thing or another!”

She had come to me for help with her anger and some decision making, and she appeared to be stressed and, well, angry.  Many of us experience what I call “normalized stress,” which is a state we come to accept as somehow unavoidable and inevitable.  But I’m here to say that stress is no laughing matter, and we certainly can reduce it and avoid the triggers that cause it.

Even though stress is as common as dirt, and I sometimes suspect is a point of pride for those who push themselves, fill up their schedules with busy-ness and working over time, it has a bad effect on our health, our sense of well-being and on our relationships. In short, stress is a problem worth tackling.

The suggestion that Dr.Weil made was to go for a week without listening to, watching or reading the news. A radical notion that I passed on to my client.  She had no interest in doing that, even though she predictably got angry every time she looked at the news.

If you live in the U.S. you are being bombarded by news leading up to the general election in November.  Regardless of your political affiliation, there are plenty of controversial, frequently mean-spirited and plainly factually incorrect messages being directed at you through any media you might tune into.

Recently my beloved local public radio station changed its format from classical music with periodic news, to a constant news and commentary format.  I still am a fan of NPR which comes the closest to a balanced presentation, in my opinion.  But I sure as heck do not want to listen to people analyzing and talking about what is going on in the country and in the world all day!  Frankly, I find it stressful.

Years ago after reading 8 Days to Optimal Health, I did a news fast.  And after that time I stopped watching network news, which I am certain has been good for my health.  The problem with it is that it comes in sound bites, designed to be alarming and provocative, with little or no real exploration or explanation. And there is no action to take.

I have noticed that even the weather is frequently presented as if we are all in the utmost danger…maybe.  So when it’s all strung together, you see something alarming that you can’t do a thing about, interrupted by commercials, often for drugs that are designed to calm you down or lift your dampened spirits.  What’s wrong with this picture?

So if you are finding yourself stressed and angry or even irritated by what is being dished out as news, I invite you to give yourself a week to turn it off.  Create some space to maybe listen to some music, or an audio book that is entertaining or pleasurable. If you are up for something really radical, try listening to the silence interrupted only by your own breathing.