GRATITUDE IS GOOD FOR YOU

With Thanksgiving this week, I thought it’d be appropriate to dive into thankfulness and gratitude a little more than usual. You see, there is a brain health aspect to practicing gratitude, as suggested by research, which links gratitude to personal well being. It’s also understandable that in actual practice gratitude can be hard to come by — or rather, hard to force. But perhaps knowing what little moments of thankfulness can do for you and your health will allow you to tap into that part of you, even in the toughest of times, without having to force it.

“Gratitude” and “Well Being”

Grateful CoupleAlthough gratitude is defined in several ways it is overall defined as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Well being is defined as “the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.” Surely, it’s no surprise that feeling gratitude would cultivate positive feelings, which then would naturally contribute to feelings of contentment and happiness. Thus, a heightened well being.

But what if gratitude is hard to practice? How can we try to practice gratitude for our own good?

Try Out Some Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the act of paying attention to moments of experience with an accepting and friendly attitude so as to observe with all the senses what is happening in each moment.” A lot easier said than done, practicing mindfulness can be very beneficial to one’s mental health and makes it a little easier to feel gratitude in that particular moment (with no pressure) and others going forward. Take a few minutes to nurture and nourish your mind, as it can help free up space for whatever life may throw at you.

Write It Down

Woman JournalingFor years, writing down one’s thoughts and feelings has been used in all types of therapy. Whether it’s writing a letter to someone and not sending it, keeping a dream journal, or perhaps just writing in a journal for contemplation, writing has long been a medium for healthy expression. In this way, it can also be used to practice gratitude. Even if it’s just a sentence, “I’m thankful for the blue birds outside my window this morning,” it’s the small moments that make up the big positive picture.

Say It Out Loud

Sometimes, it’s nice to be able to say how we feel, especially when we’re unhappy or going through something. How about when things are good? Or even when things are not good, what if we take a moment to think of something positive and express it out loud as we normally would, had it been something negative? Hearing that positive thing out loud could very well plant a positive seed in others’ minds as well as yours — a reminder that there are good small moments that, again, make up that bigger picture.

Spin the Negative

Again, easier said than done. And some things may be so difficult or so painful that you simply can’t “spin” it into “good,” or even find something good in it. That’s understandable. But for those moments when something feels like it’s just not going right, like maybe a family member unable to make it to Thanksgiving, try looking at it like this: “At least [insert other family member] will be able to make it this year,” or “at least they’re able to see their other family members this year,” or “this just means they will likely be with us next year.”

Helping Others Increases Gratitude

It’s true. Over the years, research has shown many documented examples of when volunteering or performing acts of kindness can be good for your mental health, increasing one’s sense of well being and lowering symptoms of depression. Even if it’s a small act, like making it a point to tell someone something positive about themselves, or holding the door, or even thanking them for helping you in a particular way in the past — it’s all good ways to practice gratitude.

Thanksgiving Resolution

I want to encourage you this Thanksgiving to start your resolutions a little early, and add to the list “Practice Gratitude,” as it can only be good for you and good for others. In hard times, seeing any little bit of good will help you stay afloat and will encourage others to try similar practices.

ALONE TIME WITHOUT THE GUILT

Women have come a long way in the workforce and family life, but Pew Research shows that women are still more likely to adjust their careers and work schedule to meet the needs of family and children. While men’s involvement at home has gone up significantly since the 60s, research reports that women are still giving more time to housework and childcare on average. As a result, it’s no surprise that women appear to receive less leisure time.

Leisure Isn’t A Luxury

Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. When the To Do List grows longer, our downtime gets shorter. In fact, it’s the first thing to go, as if it’s not a priority, but rather a luxury. What really is leisure? It’s freedom from “coerced” or obligatory tasks. It’s time to enjoy something for yourself.

Leisure, also known as “Me Time,” is necessary to one’s emotional and physical well-being. Lack of time to rest and relax directly affects one’s ability to cope and thrive in life. It’s the whole, “take care of yourself in order to take care of others” thing. Chronic stress eventually becomes a symptom of no downtime, as do other conditions, such as anxiety, depression, heart disease, digestive disorders, and sleep problems. Think about it. Someone who is sleep deprived, depressed, anxious, and stressed isn’t going to function optimally for their family, boss, friends, or spouse, are they?

Nope. But we’re expected to.

As women, we are much less likely to take time to nurture ourselves or partake in hobbies. In fact, some of us lose sight of what we even love to do, between helping others do what they love to do and helping them survive. Putting family first is great, but what happens when we over-function for them? As a result, we start to under-function for ourselves, which will eventually affect our quality of life, relationships, and the very ones we love.

Socializing is Great But…

…It doesn’t have to mean “Me Time.” Sure, you may not see your friends very often, and when you get a minute, it could be the best opportunity for it. After all, socializing with friends and family is one key to a happy and healthy life. All I ask is that you look inward at these rare moments. When was the last time you did nothing? When was the last time you painted or watched a movie just on your own? If there’s a craving in you for an emotional and social breather, do it. Don’t feel obligated to fill every minute of your time with an action, like finally getting to the gym or running that errand. You’ll drain yourself emotionally, mentally, and physically.

Alone Time Feels Guilty

Feeling selfish about taking some alone time for yourself results from unearned guilt. Many of us believe that, if we have any free time, it should be spent doing things for others. It’s important at these times to remind ourselves that simply taking a moment to ourselves isn’t narcissistic; it’s necessary. Cherilynn Veland, MSW, author of Stop Giving It Away: How to Stop Self-Sacrificing and Start Claiming Your Space, Power and Happiness suggests that we tell ourselves this phrase: “Life isn’t all about me, but it is about me too.”

Make Time for Alone Time

Alone time allows personal reflection, an opportunity to unwind, increases productivity, allows self-discovery, encourages deep thinking, and improves relationships. There are a lot of ways you can spend your “Me Time,” whether it’s watching a movie, buying something nice you wouldn’t otherwise buy, reading a book, or just taking a nap. It’s easier said than done, though.
To help you prioritize time for yourself, make a list of things you love (or used to love) to do and use it next time you have a free hour. In fact, schedule your free time before setting any other appointments or events for the week. Then, set alarms for the Day Of to remind you to stop, unwind, and reboot. Try for twice a week, at least. Ultimately, shift your view of your downtime from being “disposable” to being “valuable,” and make sure to keep whatever activity you choose positive. That way, you’re more likely to associate healthy feelings with your “Me Time,” instead of guilt or restlessness.
It’s high time we start making alone time, even if it’s in small amounts, to heal ourselves and maintain our personal health and happiness. It doesn’t mean we don’t love others; it just means we love ourselves too.

Think Happy, Be Happy

Our thoughts are central to our character. They determine our emotions, how we react to the world in tragedy or in celebration, and how we live mentally, physically, and spiritually. In other words, our deepest thoughts and outlook on the world can directly impact our well-being and our daily lives in a big way.

Positive Thinking Doesn’t Mean Never Feeling Sad

Woman BalancingPositive thinking is an attitude or mindset in which a person generally waits for or expects good or favorable outcomes, whether it’s about how you look at yourself, at others, or at situations you’re in. Keep in mind, though, that positive thinking doesn’t mean you never feel gloomy or pessimistic. It doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to be angry or sad. The key to having a positive outlook is balance–making sure you’re not leaning too heavily on the negative side to where it’s making you miserable.

What Affects Your Brain Also Affects Your Life

Our thoughts are released as brain signals, and thoughts that are positive cause the generation and reinforcement of new synapses in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of cognition, and the amygdala, which regulates emotion, work together in a framework to mediate emotional influences on cognitive processes. As a result, we experience increased brain functioning.

On the other hand, a heavier focus on the negative can slow your brain down, hindering one’s emotional wellness. Things like rumination on the past and situations you can’t change, or constant fear and worrying about the future can dim your brain’s functioning, as it leaves no space for pleasurable thoughts. Again, balance is key for your emotional wellness.

Signs of emotional wellness can be seen in one’s degree of resilience, which is the ability to bounce back from difficult situations. Another sign, according to studies, is the ability to hold onto positive emotions longer and appreciate joyous times. Having self-purpose and meaning, as well as knowing what is important to you, are also contributing factors to your emotional wellness.

Positive Thinking and Your Health

Happy WomanHaving that balance between positive and negative thoughts not only makes you emotionally healthy, but it’s also believed to improve physical health. Studies have shown that an “upbeat mental state” might be linked to “improved health, including lower blood pressure, reduced risk for heart disease, healthier weight, better blood sugar levels, and longer life.”

Similarly, negative thoughts can lead to stress responses, which can hinder your emotional wellness. Positive thinking in various forms, including those with relaxation techniques, can help with stress management and improve one’s health.

When Positive Thinking Doesn’t Come Easy

Identify the Negative

Start noticing your negative thought patterns. Are you blaming yourself every time something goes wrong? Do you let one thing ruin the rest of your day? Throughout the day, notice the areas of your life you’re negative about. That way, you can try approaching those areas differently.

Humor It

Sometimes, not-so-pleasant situations can have humorous aspects to them. Try to notice those, and allow yourself a moment of laughter at the situation.

See “Failures” as Opportunities

Everything we “fail” at, we can learn from. Try to view it as a learning opportunity.

Be Healthy

Having a healthy diet and exercise schedule positively impacts all areas of health. This sets you up for easier, more natural positive thinking throughout your days.

Surround Yourself with Positive People

Negativity breeds negativity. Try to surround yourself with positive mentors and friends who are realistic, but try to magnify the good, allowing it to outweigh the bad.

Practice Positive Self-Talk

This also means overcoming negative self-talk. It may feel unnatural and uncomfortable at first, but its long term effects are valuable. Here’s the best rule: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone else. If you do think something negative, look at it rationally and respond with positive things about yourself, as well as gratitude.

Start Off Positive

While waking up is hard early in the morning, try to start your day with a positive affirmation, whether it’s reading quotes or self meditation.

Live in the Present

It’s true; the present is a gift. Allow yourself to really dwell and live in the here and now, as it’s everything that was and will be. As you enjoy the moment, you’re freeing yourself from past ones and protecting yourself from future ones.

With that, I will leave you with this popular and meaningful affirmation:

Albus Dumbledore Quote

 

Note: This blog was previously posted in Prime Women here.

How Winter Affects Your Brain

Studies new and old have shown that, in fact, moods and behaviors do change depending on seasons, and similarly, brain activity also changes. Here’s what you should know about our brains as the seasons change.

The Season of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Cloudy DayI’m sure you’ve heard of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a type of depression that varies with the seasons, often being triggered in late fall and early winter, and subsiding in spring and summer. It is said the lack of light, more clouds, and shorter days in winter are the contributors to seasonal affective disorder, but the causes aren’t concrete. Researchers have found people with seasonal affective disorder may have an imbalance of serotonin, which is a chemical that affects your mood. A person with this disorder could also make too much melatonin (a hormone that regulates sleep) and not enough vitamin D. There are ways to combat the symptoms: through light therapy, exercise, eating right, and setting a healthy sleep schedule.

Pay Attention in Summer, Remember in Fall

In a 2016 Belgian study, researchers found that participants’ abilities to perform different tasks remained relatively the same over the year. However, the responses of their brains to the tasks were different depending on the season. For tasks that required sustained attention, brain activity peaked in summer and “bottomed out” in winter. It was nearly the opposite for brain activity in response to tasks that required working memory, as it peaked around autumn and “bottomed out” around spring. So, while neither is necessarily better than the other, they’re certainly different.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Seasonal Affective Disorder LightIt’s also possible the colder months are good for our decision-making abilities. Researchers, as reported by the Scientific American, tested this link and had results suggesting simple cognitive tasks, like decision-making, can be somewhat affected by “excessive ambient warmth.” They figured, as our bodies work hard to maintain a healthy internal temperature, they use up resources that would otherwise be available for mental processing. These findings, however, are not to say that those who live in hotter climates are more prone to poor decision-making; humans are incredibly adaptive to their environments, especially when exposed long term.

If You Have the Winter Blues…

While these are interesting findings, it doesn’t change the fact that some of us love winter and some of us hate it. Here’s how to embrace the colder months if you have the winter blues.

  • Use early morning or midday to your advantage and take a walk while the sun is still out. Get that vitamin D on your lunch break. Also, eat good sources of vitamin D when the skies are gray.
  • Soothe the soul with warm beverages and foods like herbal teas, coffee, and soups.
  • Keep your house and your toes warm, and if you need that extra kick of warmth, get a space heater and some of these thermal socks. This is also the perfect excuse to have mounds of comfortable throw blankets on every couch, chair, and bed.
  • Wear bright colors or just colors that make you happy. Often, red is associated with high energy and power. Orange is warm and inviting, and yellow is often associated with optimism and cheeriness.
  • Work on a project that will help you stay mentally active and will be a fun way to get you through the winter months.
  • Spend your time with optimistic people.

Don’t Let Winter Give You the Cold Shoulder

Ultimately, try not to let your spirit drop as the temperatures do. If winter gives you the cold shoulder, start focusing on self-care and the other coping mechanisms above. Your brain will thank you for it!

 

Note: This blog was previously posted in Prime Women here.

How to Have Some Fun and Increase the White Matter Integrity in the Brain

People have been obsessed with reversing the aging process since the days of Ponce de Leon and his ‘fountain of youth’. In the last few decades, we’ve seen huge shifts in longevity in developed countries.  More people are not only reaching old age, they’re reaching very old age.  Researchers have been focusing their studies on finding new strategies to meet the concept of ‘successful aging’ – the avoidance of disease and disability and the maintenance of physical and cognitive functions with an engagement in social and productive activities.

During aging, sensorimotor, cognitive and physical performance all decline, but new research indicates that they can improved by training and exercise, indicating that age-related changes are treatable. Dance therapy is increasingly used because it combines many diverse features making it a great tool for increasing physical performance – as well as brain performance!

For years, studies have been focused on programs aimed at improving aerobic capacity and cognitive functions in elderly individuals through physical exercise programs since there is a close relationship between physical fitness and cognitive performance.  But new research finds the benefits of dancing may go well beyond physical exercise therapy because dancing provides increased sensory, motor, and cognitive demands. Dancing is an activity that emerged from a need for social interaction and non-verbal communication, and it is a universal human expression consistent across generations, cultures, and social classes throughout the world. Compared to activities such as physical exercise or playing an instrument, dance comprises rhythmic motor coordination, balance and memory, emotions, affection, social interaction, acoustic stimulation, and musical experience apart from its requirements for physical activity.  This unique combination of properties makes dance a powerful interventional approach to aging. For these reasons, dance has also been established as a therapeutic tool for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, dementia, overweight children, and patients with serious mental illness.

Research has found that dancing is a promising neuro-plasticity tool that elicits activity in multiple brain regions.  A recent study compared the effects of dancing, walking and walking combined with a nutritional intervention to an active control intervention (stretching and toning) on the brain’s white matter integrity (WMI). WMI is a reliable marker of aging in the brain, and lifestyle interventions that promote maintained or improved WMI may be a key ingredient in protecting against cognitive decline and dementia.

Subjects who participated in the dance therapy, which offers a more challenging complex ideo-motor “workout” for the body and the brain, saw significant levels of increased WMI in the fornix, a pathway area of the brain associated with the hippocampus, a key location for learning and memory.  The conclusion was that a proactive program that combines physical, cognitive and social engagement may be a “best bet” for maintaining or improving white matter integrity across the aging process.

THE TAKEAWAY: Dancing is just one way to “up” the ante and offer workouts that not only challenge the body but engage the mind and offer social opportunities. This study confirms the added value of such complex ideo-motor activities over simple motor workouts such as walking, as well as the boost of social-based training for better brain health.

So don’t just sit there – get up DANCE!

 

6 Tips for Coping with Panic Attacks

1.     If you feel that you are about to have a panic attack, check your breathing. Breath slowly in and out of a brown paper bag or cupped hands.

2.     Change your lifestyle. Exercise, this helps burn off excessive adrenaline. Avoid cigarettes and alcohol, eat regular meals to keep blood sugar levels stable.

3.     Do not try to fight your way out of a panic attack – this will increase the adrenaline. Try to simply accept that the feelings will come and go, and allow the symptoms to play their tricks, as they will.  Visualize yourself floating over them. Eventually the panic will go away.

4.     Don’t bottle up your feelings. Confide in someone, such as a friend, family member or counselor.

5.     Listen to music or do a pleasurable activity while you wait for the panic to subside.

6.     Learn a relaxation technique. Close your eyes, and breathe slowly and deeply. Try breathing 5 to 6 breaths per minute. Locate the areas of tension and imagine them disappearing. Relax each part of your body, starting from the feet upwards.

For more info on panic disorders please visit National Institute for Mental Health.