The Things We Cannot Change

It’s pretty safe to say that I haven’t had a conversation recently with anyone that hasn’t included a complaint about the weather. In my neck of the woods, we have been enduring “winter in extremis.” Bitter cold and lots of snow and ice, going on for what seems forever. And it seems that people are getting the rats of it. Even those who love winter are ready to see the back side of this one.

This reminds me of the part of the Serenity Prayer that includes the words, “those things I cannot change.” Certainly the weather is one of those things that we do not directly control. (Which is a good thing in my book. Can you imagine what a mess mankind would make of that? The wars that would break out? But I digress). The snow and ice have disrupted schedules, caused more “snow days” for schools than they have had in years.

In addition there are lots of injuries caused by slipping on ice that is hidden under a layer of snow, or on packed snow or “black ice”…ice that is disguised as macadam or concrete. A broken bone, sprain, concussion or heart attack from shoveling is quite the unpleasant reminder that we do not run the universe.

Losing an ability to plan, or to count on carrying out plans that we’ve made seems to be one of the most frustrating things about it. I heard on a news program on NPR that there is a steep financial price to pay, in part for lost sales. Those of us who are service providers take a hit when clients cancel and offices have to close. A woman I know said that her family vacation plans at the beach have been lost along with their deposit, because the kids will still be in school instead of playing in the sand.

So how on earth does one attain serenity in the face of such helplessness?

That is a challenge for me, I must confess. But I think the place to start is to remember that the snow and cold are NOT causing our grumpiness or fear or whatever the emotion is.

Now that might just sound crazy to you, but it’s true. It is our thoughts about the snow that bring up the emotion (helplessness, anger, sadness, despair, frustration, etc) that we are experiencing. If you need convincing, just tune in for awhile to your “mind chatter” and notice what your thoughts are. And after you tune into that frequency, you might change the thoughts, and thereby change the emotional state you are experiencing.

This is a key to benefiting from cognitive-behavioral therapy, and also to making use of the Law of Attraction. Knowing that as you change your thoughts, you put yourself into a position of choice. Very empowering stuff! Try taking a minute to write down what you are thinking. You might be surprised. We get into habits and patterns of thought that we learned and collected over the years, and for most of us they are like wallpaper that’s been hanging on the walls for 50 years. We don’t even see it any more.

After you do that, notice what emotion is being evoked by the the thoughts. And then ask, “What thought feels better?” Go ahead…write down another thought which would improve on that. And as you do, notice that you are raising the emotional (or vibrational) level of your mood. I would encourage you to continue this exercise until you really do feel better.

I have been changing my own thoughts by remembering a gift in all this “lost” time, and that is that it affords me an opportunity to do some things that I have been putting off, or don’t get on my daily to do-list very often. Writing, clearing the clutter off of every surface (I’m not exaggerating much) of my home office; catching up with some friends that I haven’t spoken with in awhile; writing a get well card for a sick friend; working on Quick Books (my CPA will be happy); reading some of the pile of required reading for my coaching class; cleaning up the linen closet which would cause Martha Stewart to shake her head in despair; use that organic butternut squash that I bought at the market and make soup.

Probably the best antidote to making myself miserable over what I cannot change (in this case, the weather) is writing my gratitude list every morning, and taking time before I sleep to recall the highlights of the day. It works because it isn’t possible to be thinking of lack and loss, arousing sad or bad thoughts, and feeling grateful at the same time.

Gratitude banishes fear and misery, because thinking grateful thoughts allows the feelings of joy or relief to come. You may even compound the experience by calling someone who enriches your life and tell them so. Buy flowers or a plant to remind yourself that winter doesn’t really last forever. Write a note and tell someone how much they mean to you. Text them if you must. Just do what you can to recount the blessings in your life. It will at least figuratively melt the snow and ice. I highly recommend it to you.

 

 

 

 

Slaying the Perfection Dragon

Today while thinking about the New Year and preparing for bringing our intentions into reality, I was reminded of how important it is to clear out what no longer serves us. This may mean paper and computer files (have you noticed what clutter you are harboring?) or clothing that you haven’t worn in years. It may also be unhealthy habits, be they of thinking or behavior.

Then I came across a post that was originally posted in 2011, and I thought it was worthy of a re-run.  And so here it is.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the greatest enemy of good self esteem is perfectionism.  And it’s also the greatest enemy of your peace of mind.

It doesn’t take much rational thought to see why this is true.  What on earth can you see in your daily life that is perfect?  Certainly human beings, as much as we may love them, are never perfect.  And so neither are our relationships.  And any undertaking we make may be excellent, but never perfect.

Elaine told me that her mother admired tall, thin, blonde girls.  She was frequently pointing out one or another girl in Elaine’s class or on the streets of their town, telling Elaine how pretty that girl looked.  It wasn’t lost on Elaine that she was athletic, short and stocky with dark brown hair and brown eyes.  Quite different than the “perfect picture” that her mother lifted up as the ideal.  Clearly, Elaine was never going to make that team!

We get these ideal images from our parents, and also are inundated with them every time we open a magazine, turn on the television or watch a movie.  Our bodies, our clothing, our relationships, our jobs, cars and homes are all held up in comparison with perfection.  Even our children “should” be in the right sports, schools and activities in order to reach some mythical perfect standards.

For quite a few years I was an ardent fan of a famous Domestic Diva, and bought her magazines, cook books, and watched her television program when I could catch it.  I was smitten with the perfect pictures of food, crafts and rooms with their soothing, trademark colors.  As her queendom grew, so did the number of her homes (how many homes can one person live in?), the elegant meals and complicated deserts.  It occurred to me that these pictures of perfection were only made possible by the work of a gigantic cadre of minions who designed and executed the perfect gardens, recipes and craft projects.

A capable cook (if I do say so myself) I could slave over holiday meals or special deserts captured in the perfect pictures.  But what about setting the perfect table with handmade decorations?  Well, maybe if I started the month before (which I almost never did).  And then what about the perfect room that my guests would eat that meal in?  When it came down to it, I was pressed to have everything picked up and cleaned in time.  Alas, I am a woman without even one minion to do my bidding.

As I was falling out of love with the Diva, I started to cringe when I heard her use the word, “Perfect!” on the episode I was watching.  This was occurring at the same time I was becoming aware that I lived with the dragon Perfectionism myself.  And what a misery it is!

You may notice that whatever picture you have in your mind about the perfect body, clothes, job, spouse, meal, etc., that it makes a moving target.  There is nothing that escapes the beady eyes of your inner critic!  Listen to your inner voice if you don’t believe me.  Or listen to how you accept a compliment.  You may sweat over finding the perfect dress for that dinner party; spend hours getting yourself put together.  And when the first person compliments you, you say something like,

“Thanks but… (insert) I need to lose a few pounds, I was worried that it was too short or too long, I’m not sure it’s my color, or I’m afraid it makes my butt look too big.”

Picking out what doesn’t measure up to that picture of perfection is a great way to undermine self esteem.  Struggling to reach some impossible standard is guaranteed to lower your self confidence!

Instead of being the Perfect Mom, could you be a Good Enough Mom?  Meaning you can rear a child that is healthy, happy and grows up to be a contributing member of society.  Yes, s/he will be another imperfect human.  Instead of struggling to be the Perfect Cook/ Home Maker/ Professional What-ever/ Spouse, could you be Good Enough?

Knowing that you are a growing, developing, learning human who enjoys success and learns from failure (and yes, endures it because no one thinks it is fun!) you might loosen up enough to have fun, live in the moment, experiment (more fun), be curious and actually enjoy your life.  The pictures may inspire us, but leave it at that.  Use them for ideas, admire their beauty, and remember that that is all they do.

Most of all look for the beauty in your own rooms, or your own table in the meal that you serve.  Enjoy the charm, warmth and uniqueness of the relationships that are a part of your life.  And most of all, feel gratitude and appreciation for you…the lovable human being that you are.

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.

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.

 

Mountaintop Experiences

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back
to its old dimensions.”     ~Oliver Wendell Holmes~

 

When I was a kid I heard an expression that caught my ear and my imagination.  An adult (whom I don’t remember) was talking about “mountaintop experiences,” and how life-changing they could be.  Growing up in the Midwest, Colorado was my family’s favorite vacation spot, so I knew the majesty of the Rocky Mountains.  One summer while riding up above the tree line on the Fourth of July, my dad let us out of the car to have a snowball fight.

So anything compared to such mountain tops made a clear connection in my mind to something pretty terrific.  In the years that followed I had some experiences that were indeed life changing because they opened my mind to something new…a perspective that I had been completely unaware of before.

What experiences have you had that “blew your mind,” as the expression goes?  Perhaps it should be called “blew your mind open.”  Can you point to experiences that have turned out to be pivotal points in your life?

While listening to “From the Top,” a public radio program featuring accomplished young musicians, I heard a teenaged opera singer say that she had been amazed as a 10 year old when her parents took her to hear an opera for the first time.  When she heard the music, she said, “That’s what I want to do!”

A woman who had grown up in a small sleepy town in Alabama attended a church program with her family one summer evening.  The program featured a slide show of the work of a missionary couple who had come stateside to raise money for their cause.  The pictures and lecture illustrating the landscapes and cultures of Africa fired the little girl’s imagination.  Showing her a world radically different than her own, she was truly amazed.  Years later after leaving Alabama for a college in New England, she chose a career with the State Department and has traveled the world, working in many posts, including one in Africa.  She credits that “mind blowing” experience in the church basement as opening the door to a fascinating life.

Recently while talking with a man about living in the wheat belt of the Midwest, he told me that his brother, who had always lived on the East Coast, had roomed with a kid from Kansas while he was at college.  Hearing about the wheat harvest and days and nights in the fields, and about the family farm culture, his brother accepted an invitation to go home with his roommate for the next harvest. He was so taken by the experience that he immediately moved there after graduation, got involved in wheat farming and the small community and has lived there ever since.

Sometimes these mountain top experiences don’t involve a change in geography or occupation at all.  Probably one of the biggest influences of new ways of seeing something is as close as your library or bookstore.  Or it could be looking at a photograph or painting that fires your imagination and inspiration.  Reading the work of Joseph Campbell and listening to his interviews with Bill Moyer was life altering for me.  Watching the movie “What the Bleep Do We Know?” was another paradigm changer.  What have you read, heard or watched that has inspired key changes in your way of thinking or being?

Are there people whose relationships have influenced or changed you?  You may be fortunate in having an elder member of your family whose life example shaped you.  Or you may have had a teacher whose wisdom and teaching provided a mountain top experience in your life.  Sometimes it’s a brief and chance meeting with someone who says or does something that really sticks with you.  These brief encounters can turn a light on something that can guide you to a different way of thinking and a perspective that may change your life in big or small ways.

And of course, bear in mind that YOU may be that person whose ideas or life example may provide inspiration to someone else.  You may never be aware of it, but that doesn’t lessen the influence that you have.

You can increase the likelihood of “catching” inspiration by opening your mind to noticing possibilities around you.  Be willing to expose yourself to a point of view or opinion that is radically different than your own.  Getting entrenched in your own ideology may be a comfortable rut, but that’s not an enlivening or energizing way to live.

Start simply by taking alternate routes or back roads on your commute.  Get out and walk or bike ride through a neighborhood or country road that you usually drive.  Tune into an unfamiliar radio or television channel.  Browse through the library and choose a biography or novel by an author you have never read.  Reading biographies is a great way to catch inspiration or fresh perspective from someone you will never actually meet.  Take a trip to somewhere new to you.  Sign up for a class in a subject that is unfamiliar.

There is no end to the possibilities around you once you open yourself to them.  Your mind and your life will expand and never be the same.

 

Birds of a Feather

Recently I attended a conference about how the brain forms new habits.  A fascinating topic that seems to be right on time for those of us who need to make some lifestyle changes but may have trouble staying on track and motivated.

The psychologist who was presenting new information about brain plasticity (meaning that the central nervous system is capable of changing in response to internal and external environmental messages), included some takeaway tips at the end,

One of them was a suggestion that when working on making a lifestyle change, it is important to surround yourself with people who are living in a similar way, or have achieved the goal to which you are aspiring.

A proverb dating back to the mid-sixteenth century said, “Birds of a feather flock together.”  It’s an adage that holds true today, and while they didn’t know the scientific reasons for it, it was a keen observation of human behavior.  Our brains are equipped with mirror cells, which act as an instantaneous aid in helping us mimic behavior. Like most things, this can be used for good or ill.

My three year old grand-daughter was demonstrating to me how she could run fast.  She made a point to hold her hands in a certain way, elbows bent, fingers all aligned.  I asked her mother where she had seen that, and was told that she had observed it on a work-out program that her mother uses.  Anna Grace is highly interested in running very fast, and she instantaneously mirrored the behavior of some athletes who were running fast.

We can apply these mirror cells in ways that are helpful to us.  And we can be aware of how we are also being influenced, probably unconsciously, by negative behaviors that we want to leave behind.

Did you know that your relationships are affecting the level of success that you are experiencing?  Do you know that the people whom you hang out with are greatly determining how you achieve in your given field and how much money you make?

It’s true.  Studies show that we tend to earn about the same amount of money that our friends and family members do. We also tend to have similar expectations regarding lifestyle and achievement.

There are certainly exceptions to this, and perhaps you know someone in a family that has been the family hero in exceeding everyone’s expectations.  However I’ll bet that the hero found someone or a group who modeled successful behaviors and helped make the necessary connections which enabled her/his success.

Are you also aware that your companions are influencing the way you think and therefore your mood?  Yesterday I was working with two different women who are dealing with this issue.  And they are in completely different ages and stages of life.  Lillian is a recently retired woman in her early 60′s who came to see me because she was depressed and dissatisfied with her life.  Terri is in her 20′s, working in her first “real” job.

Lillian recognized that someone who has been a long time friend is both demanding and draining of her time and energy.  In fact, lots of people in her life depend on Lillian for help and advice.  In making some decisions about what she intends for her new phase of life, she said that she needs some new friends who are positive and involved in activities that she would enjoy.

Terri, as a young adult, is grappling with a similar situation.  Most of her friends work 9-5, and their time off is spent partying and shopping.  Terri has some goals for buying her own house and someday going into business as a caterer.  She is recovering from a stint of careless shopping and credit card abuse and is working hard to pay off her debt.

So what might the company she keeps be influencing each of them?  Thinking, behavior and moods are contagious.  As humans we rather quickly adjust to what is going on around us and even behavior that would have been abhorrent to us becomes “normalized.”  I believe this occurs on an energetic level as well as a physical one.

That expression about someone “giving off a vibe” is more than new age or hippie speak.  The vibrational level that we experience as a living being, is transmitted and received by those around us.  Some people are more sensitive to this than others, but we are all affected whether we are aware of it or not.

I’m suggesting that you DO become aware of it and make conscious and intentional choices about who you hang out with.  If you have goals that you are seriously intending to meet, or a lifestyle change that you are intending to incorporate, then you must have some like-minded folks at your side.  We never make this journey alone.

 

Seasonal Light

December is the season of light in many ways. The Christmas star and “the coming of the Light” for Christians, and the Menorah for Jews who celebrate the Feast of Lights, are familiar parts of our celebrations.  The winter solstice, the longest night, is just days away and will usher in winter.

I hear a lot of comments from folks who dislike getting up in the dark and driving home from work in the dark.  Did you know that for some of us, this lack of light exposure has a real effect on our mental health?  This goes beyond not liking snow and cold, or short days for that matter.  The lack of light actually results in Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for a significant part of the population.

It took years for me to figure out that I am one of those affected people.  I knew I didn’t like winter, although I couldn’t say that it was snow or even the cold that bothered me.  As it turns out, it really is a depression complete with symptoms that accompany a clinical depression that has been triggered by other causes such as long term stress.

Lack of energy, “brain fog” (my term for a sort of dull, slow cognitive function), sleep and appetite changes (carbohydrate craving anyone?), blue mood, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and lack of sex drive often are common.  A high percentage of people with chronic insomnia are depressed.

These symptoms may appear as early as late September and last until sometime in March, when the days are long enough to give us adequate light exposure.  SAD may be treated as any depression, with an increase in exercise and possibly even medication.  But the easiest, most effective and least invasive way to solve the problem is with light therapy.

This requires full spectrum light, just as the sun has.  Incandescent lighting that is typical for home use won’t work because they lack the full spectrum.  Placing full spectrum bulbs on the ceiling in place of fluorescent lighting is also not effective because it it too far from the eyes to work.

The source of the light must be close enough to pass through the retina of the eye, which means your face should be about 12-18 inches from the source of the light. The best way to do this is with a light box which was made for just this purpose.  There may be an advantage to having the light above the center of vision, at an angle, as a desk light might be.  You may read or write while you use the light, preferably for 30 minutes in the morning.

Research has shown that light therapy is highly effective for folks suffering from SAD.  Some will find an added benefit to taking Vitamin B-12.  It is not recommended that you use the light late in the day or you may have trouble sleeping.

The best resource for high quality light boxes is http://www.coach4lifechange.com/wp-content/plugins/url-cloaker/url.php?u=aHR0cDovL3d3dy5zdW5ib3guY29tLw== which is recognized by the National Institutes of Health.  They partnered with NIH in the research on the treatment of SAD, have been in business for 25 years.  I have been using one of their light boxes for over 6 years, and have recommended them to many of my clients.  If you contact them, you will find their customer service to be excellent, and they provide a money back guarantee on their products.

If you are feeling tired, glum and having trouble concentrating, using light therapy may be a solution.  I highly recommend it, and am happy to read your comments or questions.