Monday, November 23, 2009

In All Things, Give Thanks

This is Thanksgiving week and my teenage children have reacted in horror to the announcement that we are eating out for Thanksgiving dinner. Sadly, they don't comprehend the depth of my gratitude that others are cooking for us this year. One day . . .

This is the week, not too many years ago, when these same children would "host" a Thanksgiving feast at their preschool. Parents would arrive solemnly to the sound of Indian drumbeat and would sit in tiny chairs, knees to nose. We would be adorned with hand-crafted Pilgrim headgear and sing "We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing," accompanied by earnest, beautiful little voices. This ceremony was followed by a paper plate feast of turkey roll-ups, cheese sticks, and a juice box. In all things, give thanks.

I cherish this memory. I am grateful for the days of making pinecone turkeys and reading stories about the Mayflower and Miles Standish and the first feast with Squanto and the Indians. I am grateful for the days spent chopping celery and onions and yanking bags of innards from the turkey cavity, often after the turkey was cooked. This year I am grateful for a daughter returning home for the holiday, a house that doesn't have to be cleaned, and for those who will prepare the feast for me.

I am grateful for very simple things too. The view out my office window. The comfort of my own bed. The sound of quiet.

This is Thanksgiving week, and as you gather together with family and friends, reflect on those things profound or simple for which you are grateful. Count your blessings and remember the good in life. In all things, give thanks.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Are You Worried? (Part 2 About Your Brain)

Originally uploaded by hkvam
In my previous blog entry, I wrote about this amazing book, The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, M.D. As I continue to read it, I'm struck by how much control we really have over our mental and physical well-being. How our brains are malleable and can respond to visualization and repetitive learning or exercise. I just finished a chapter that applies to all of us at some point in our lives. It's about worry and how we can stop it.

Doidge begins by talking about people with OCD (obsessive-compulisive disorder). This is worry gone wild. Chronic anxiety caused by out-of-control, exaggerated thinking. Like Jack Nicholson in the movie As Good As It Gets. He's a germaphobic, constantly washing his hands and engaging in obsessive behaviors like avoiding sidewalk cracks and locking and unlocking his door multiple times. He's trapped in his loopy behaviors and worries.

OCD traditionally has been treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, having people focus on the content of the symptoms, then incrementally exposing them to the source of their fears. This has had mixed results, especially with severe cases. But the laws of neuroplasticity suggest that focusing on the symptoms only reinforces them in the brain. A new therapy is emerging that can unlock the OCD brain, growing new brain circuits that replace bad behaviors with better ones.

The therapy involves some specific steps. First, the person having the attack re-labels what is happening to him, realizing that his current experience is not an attack of germs (or whatever) but an episode of OCD. Re-labeling allows the person to get some distance from the content of the episode, the same way Buddhists "observe" during meditation and separate themselves from their minds. The next step is to refocus on a positive, pleasure-giving activity the moment the OCD attack begins, replacing fear thoughts with pleasure thoughts. This activity "changes the channel" and forces the thoughts in a different direction. It doesn't matter if the OCD sufferer is still feeling the anxiety. It's repetitively, intensively applying the technique that counts. After a time, the brain "unlocks" and the OCD episodes get less and less intense.

How does this apply to you? We all worry and get anxious. Sometimes it's mild, but often it can be debilitating. You fret, you think about the worst case scenarios, you dwell on the content of your anxiety. But this only strengthens the fear connections in your brain. Rarely does the content of your anxiety justify the suffering.

The next time you get into a worry phase, test out the neuroplasticity therapy. Re-label what's happening to you. The sky isn't falling, it's just an episode of anxiety. Then force yourself to refocus your thoughts on something pleasant, even if you don't feel it. You must use your will for this, refocusing for 15-20 minutes. Like exercise. You will weaken the worry link, and soon your mind will unlock and the anxiety will dissipate. You are free to be productive again. You have the power to change yourself. I challenge you to give it a try!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Go Grow Your Brain

Neurons in the brain
Originally uploaded by Hljod.Huskona
Did you know that you can use your mind to rewire your brain? What a mind-blowing idea. I've been reading this book, The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, MD. It's about the science of neuroplasticity and the discovery that our brain is not fixed or hard-wired. It is endlessly adaptable and dynamic and has the power to change its own structure, even for those with the severe neurological afflictions. People with problems like strokes, cerebral palsy, and mental illness can re-wire their brains through repetitive mental and physical activities and completely change their brains and their lives. Amazing.

Now here's the really exciting part. Our brains don't have to stop changing, even as we get old. Through continued learning, new connections can form between neurons, and the structure of existing synapses can change. In other words, areas in your brain keep growing if you keep learning through repitition and practice. In fact, brain deterioration can be reversed by twenty to thirty years. Just like exercise, you have to use it or lose it. The more adept you become at the skill you are learning, the more your brain grows and supports the learning. Go figure.

Does it get better? Yep. Thought and imagination also can change your brain and rewire it for positive change. Here's an example. In December 2007, Men's Health magazine detailed a study in which participants visualized themselves doing bicep curls. They did no weightlifting at all, yet their average bicep size grew by 13%. You can imagine yourself into all kinds of wonderful changes for the better. And think of the impact of imagination combined with action. You could soar. Studies also have been done related to meditation. Avid meditators can grow the areas of their brains related to compassion, peace of mind and happiness. If all of our world leaders meditated daily, we might have the prescription for world peace.

The unfortunate part of knowing your brain is changeable is losing your box of excuses for living in Mediocreland. I'm too old. I'm not creative. I'm not smart enough. I'm not good at that. Those don't fly anymore. If you keep learning, if you keep imagining, if you keep thinking, your brain will grow. Your possibilities will be endless. Your dreams will become reality. It will be mind-blowing. Go think on that!