Cultivating resilience

A potential client gave me a topic idea that I am exploring to create a workshop.  I realized I have 10+ books on my bookshelf about the neuroscience of resilience. Kind of crazy when you get to create presentations on topics that you’ve been studying for years just out of your own personal interest!

So in readying myself to organize the outline I wanted to share a few thoughts here as I work on that. I am hoping to partner with a yoga teacher I know in order to create some practices that people can implement on the spot as part of the workshop.

the chemistry of calm

As a person who has struggled with anxiety and depression in my past (and have come through a recent decade of robust mental health) I believe my experience can be helpful to others. I have read so many great books on this topic and will list some favorites here (this doubles as my bibliography for the session).

The Chemistry of Calm by Henry Emmons, M.D. (2010) – especially Chapter 3 on the Roots of Resilience. This whole book is a gem for anyone who has ever suffered anxiety.

The Chemistry of Joy by Henry Emmons, M.D. (2006) – see note below:

This latter book was referred to me by a kind Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselor for whom I am still grateful. He identified the hidden grief I was processing back in 2010. If it weren’t for him, I might have lost my job since I had been put on a performance improvement plan (giving only 90% at work instead of the 110% I customarily give). 

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W. (2010) – especially Guideposts #2 and #3 on Cultivating Self-Compassion and Cultivating a Resilient Spirit. 

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. (2014) – this book again brought me to yoga in its explanations of the physical mechanisms that keep trauma “locked” in the body (both physical and mental).

Overworked and Overwhelmed: the mindfulness alternative by Scott Eblin (2014) – I heard the author speak at a leadership event for my company and I knew he had important messages for me. Scott tells a powerful journey of his diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis and the steps he takes to manage it. He actually became a yoga teacher in order to teach some of the things he was learning to take good care of his body. Another inspiration for me.

Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body by Daniel Goleman, PhD, and Richard J Davidson, PhD (2017). I knew meditation was starting to have an effect on me when I made a commitment to practice in February of 2017. This was the evidence I was looking for, that thoroughly reviewed the science behind how these practices change not only our current state but also our gene expression.

My premise is that human beings are (by nature) resilient.  AND there are things we can do throughout our lifetimes to increase our own resilience in the face of difficult times.

I have many more. These are the ones that were top-of-mind as I scanned the shelves to work on my course outline. I will have WAY more than material than I can cover in a 2-hour session, but I can always hand out a reading list of suggested resources for those interested.

Have you read any of these books?

Thanks for reading!

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wellness Wednesday – cooling the brain

Happy Wednesday! It is time to focus on wellness and I shall return to a topic near and dear to my heart – sleep!

I started listening to a course recently on Insight Timer by Jennifer Piercy called “Your Guide to Deeper Sleep.” I really like how she describes sleep as a “cooling” of the inflammation in our body and brain. Getting good sleep is fundamental to healing and vitality in our lives. More research is being published all the time showing lack of sleep is connected to conditions such as diabetes.

I have struggled with insomnia in the past periodically. I am getting better in that regard but every now and then, typically in response to stress, I do struggle to get my zz’s. When that happens I know I need to cut back on my caffeine and/or cut back on my media consumption, which tends to churn the brain. I also find that I need to avoid any “weighty” topics of discussion just before bed.

Sleep amounts can vary naturally based on the season, and we typically expect to get slightly less during months where we have more sunlight. I have embraced the idea of early sleep on winter nights, snuggling with a book before bedtime and making sure my devices are powered down at least an hour before lights out. I actually have an alarm that goes off before bedtime to remind me to wind down, in case I am too absorbed in an activity to realize it is time.

sleeping puppies
Photo credit link

Yoga nidra is a practice I have recently discovered which can help me drop off into deeper sleep. I have used some guided meditations in order to let go of tension in the body and allow for mindful relaxation.

On the days after I sleep a nice, juicy 8-9 hours I notice that I have more consistent energy all day. I make decisions faster and with less agonizing. It also has an added benefit of allowing for greater weight loss as it reduces cortisol levels int he body. Who knew you could rest more AND take off extra weight?!?

The most important factor in getting restful sleep seems to be a good wind-down routine at night. Ariana Huffington explains her book The Sleep Revolution that she has a ritual of taking a bath or shower, escorting her devices outside the bedroom, and perhaps using lavender to create an atmosphere of relaxation.

Jennifer Piercy challenges the notion that when we nap, we compromise the quality of our sleep at night. Sleep has been domesticated in the service of “industrial life” and policed with an alarm clock (summary of quote). Dr. Sarah Mednick’s book Take a Nap! Change Your Life helps us understand that our state of being overtired can make us to wired to fall asleep effectively. So napping can be almost a “dress rehearsal” for sleep.

So, if you have the flexibility in your schedule to take a rest in the afternoon, consider a nap rather than fighting your post-lunch sleepiness. This multi-phasic sleep is actually quite natural, so embrace your body’s call to rest when you feel tired, especially between 1-3 p.m, when it could be especially nourishing.

When we treat sleep as a treasured event rather than a drag, we are more likely to enjoy the process and settle in a little deeper. We dream more when we sleep deeply, as it happens, and that can be an adventure as well.

What are your favorite sleep rituals? Do you make sure to get adequate rest every night? How often do you nap?

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

Daily rituals

Today I will return to work after the holiday break. I also have an appointment this afternoon for post-op check-up following my appendectomy surgery a few weeks ago. Though I usually wake up around 5:30, this morning I was awake at 4, so I opted to roll out of bed at 4:30 to start my coffee pot.

It is again a chilly morning at zero degrees F with a windchill of -15F.  I plan to go to the gym in a bit for some exercise. I am not yet “cleared” to get back to yoga so I will go again for a walk on the treadmill.

This past weekend I went a little stir-crazy after no exercise for a few weeks, so I just had to work up a small sweat by walking on the ‘mill a couple of days. Typically I do yoga 3-4 times a week, and I like to run at least a couple of times a week. I have not run since my last trip to Mexico early in December, when I managed a few short treadmill workouts.

I exercise for my mental health as much as my physical health. As someone with an attention issue, it is a highly recommended natural intervention for this condition. It also helps prevent depression and anxiety, which I have contended with in the past. It has been at least 7 years since I had a true “episode” of depression as categorized by the DSM-5. It was minor, fortunately, and responded well to a few sessions of counseling, and addition of healthy fats and protein to my diet.

A few years ago, when I was racing many half marathons per year (and even one marathon) I felt such a sense of relief from previous depressive symptoms. I think this was for many reasons but here are the top ones:

1) Exercise is good for the brain and this is documented in the research.

2) The running community and the friends I met were so positive, supportive and uplifting (this is actually how I met my husband).

3) A regular routine and training goals for races kept me in touch with friends, getting outside in the fresh air and sunshine regularly. Nature is such a beautiful balm for all that ails us.

2018-calendar.jpgAs I consider goals for 2018, I know that there are some daily rituals I will keep, that serve me well and contribute to my health and well-being. Getting good sleep (and patience as I gain mastery over insomnia) is a non-negotiable one. I will aim for 8 hours regularly, because I feel better with adequate rest. It helps maintain my weight, gives me more consistent focus during the day, and adds better decision-making. If you have one thing you do for the next year to commit to your health and you get routinely less than 7 hours a night – try to get 30-60 minutes more sleep each night. Your body and brain will thank you. Trust me.

My other daily habits are: meditating (I’m on day 333), journaling in a hand-written journal in addition to this blog, and doing some yoga or walking/running. I also typically end my workday with taking 15 minutes to plan the next day or two, review what is on my schedule and prepare myself mentally for what is head.

I enjoy my coffee in the morning, so even though it is half caf these days, that one is not going to change. I avoid caffeine in the afternoon since it does tend to mess with my sleep when I am not careful.

Calvin on lap
Calvin napping as I write my blog

Sitting with a cat on my lap and reading at home is another wonderful ritual that makes me feel especially happy in winter. Having time with my husband to chat and catch up on the day is another ritual that keeps me connected. On the weekends I typically make breakfast for us, since he leaves so early for work on weekdays. I enjoy that also.

As I consider whether I should add anything, I believe I want to continue the work on the de-cluttering project I began last Spring. This has gone in fits and starts for me, usually when I get too annoyed by not being able to find things that I go all “KonMari” for a few days, in a frenzy. But this time I will follow through to the end, and really put things away at the end of every day, as she recommends once the big de-clutter is over.

The month of January for me is typically one of reflection and consideration of where my life is and where I want it to go. I know a lot of people use December for that, but really I find it too stressful between holiday hoopla and social obligations. There is no hurry to begin something new for me. When I commit, I like to go all the way. So I allow myself a few weeks to plan and dream while I get my daily routines back into place, and get my head back into work.

I have a new planner with monthly and weekly pages instead of a daily list. I am experimenting with that, making my daily rituals more routinized and still working with a to-do list but working to schedule that time in my electronic calendar instead of keeping the endless list. We will see how that goes. Really I am trying to take away, not add to all the obligations I create for myself.

What are your favorite daily routines, that keep you grounded and sane? I love hearing about what works well for others.

Animal magnetism

Last week while in Miami for work, I was sitting in the courtyard of the hotel, visiting with the facilitator (“G”) we had worked with during our team meeting. We were reflecting on the week, and on our sense of how things had resolved themselves, or in some cases, not resolved. I was feeling a little disappointed with my part in the meeting, a little critical of not being able to bring us to closure in the way I had hoped. We had intended to remove things from the team’s responsibilities and focus in on critical tasks that differentiate our team from others at the company.

Instead I found myself shaking my head at tasks being added to my team’s responsibilities. I had openly reflected out loud this concern during the conclusion of our meeting. As the operational manager for that group, I have responsibility for making sure we deliver on our commitments. But I felt we had set the group up with more, not less. This had been the problem in the first place, and I had hoped we could solve it.

Lizard in courtyard

While in this state of contemplation and self-doubt, “G” and I noticed a tiny little reptile, adorable in her fine detail, approaching us with quick little darts in the courtyard. I pulled out my phone to capture her, slowly and gradually, not wanting to scare her off. I was delighted with her perfect tiny features, and wanted to share this little creature with my husband when I returned home. He is what I call an “animal magnet.” Animals of all kinds: dogs, cats, birds, and other creatures, seem to gravitate toward him as though he possesses some special energy, something they crave. In our household, this could be because he feeds our furry felines every time I travel, so they know they are dependent on his attention. However, it happens with other creatures too, our neighbors’ pets, the cats and dogs of family and friends, and farm animals.

I have always appreciated this affinity he has for nearly every kind of creature he encounters. I consider it a great gift and a great comfort to me, that animals trust him. He is kind, and has a gentle heart, and I am convinced that they are able to sense it. Certainly it is one reason I believe we bonded so strongly when we first met.

Lizard hello

For a few moments the facilitator and I watched this tiny creature, as it darted again, then poised briefly on the edge of my foot. I was amazed! I sat there breathless, trying not to move or react, since I never have had such an adorable miniature lizard perched on me like this.

I remarked to G that this was unusual and that it reminded me of the principle that neuroscientists explain to us, about our “two brains.” We have primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, which responds instinctively to situations. It is fast, it is built for survival and it is one great reason we are alive today, as individuals, and humanity in general. When it comes to fear or danger, this “reptilian brain” rapidly signals to the thalamus that action is needed. In only 12 milliseconds, this trigger is activated, and we are able to do what is necessary in the situation.

The other part of our brain, fairly well-developed in humans, is the neo-cortex, also known as the frontal cortex. It has a remarkable ability to acknowledge fear and name it, but it responds slower than the amygdala, in about 25 milliseconds. That may not seem like much, but the emotional response triggered by the amygdala has already begun triggering the “fear response” which is the body’s physical response to the stimulus, emotional and visceral, ready for fight, flight or freeze. When we truly are in danger, we do not have time to consider your options for long. We must act, run or hide, and this perfectly adaptable. Our brain is very efficient gets the job done.

Humans (and mammals generally) evolved other areas as well that are critical to their survival, particularly in developing connection to others and a sense of belonging. We have mechanisms for building our social connections, for developing trust and living in community. Dogs have these as well. They are pack animals. Cats live in prides (in the wild), and other mammals and birds live in groups, often critical to their survival.

As humans we have the privilege of making conscious choices about who we invite to be part of our tribes. Sometimes we must accommodate, at work or in other groups, where we are asked to interact with those we do not necessarily enjoy. But it is still a choice, and we can do this grudgingly, joyfully or even neutrally, when our neo-cortex runs the show. When our amygdala is particularly active, however, these interactions are not as productive or fruitful. Without trust, there is little ability to quiet that inner lizard that is yelling (internally) “run away! run away!”

Lizard comfy

But when we have the resources, sometimes time or shared experience with other individuals or groups, we can more easily calm this fear response. As we move through the world, we develop some intuition about which people can be trusted, and which ones might require some “reserve” so we protect ourselves. This is necessary and allows for preservation of safety. But it can also be limiting when we are armored up all the time. As a woman, I completely relate to this tendency. I long to be open, to trust and to invite others to do the same. I also know that people can take advantage of this openness at times, and it is okay and reasonable to protect myself.

Openness is magnetic, in a very visceral way. Vulnerability, when shared judiciously, can open up possibilities in other people as well as ourselves. It is not weakness, to acknowledge places we have struggled, or ways in which we failed. It takes enormous courage to do this, and to invite others to know our humanity. Brené Brown reminds us: “Courage is contagious. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver.”

That little lizard on my foot found a warm spot, and she knew I was no danger to her. She perched for a few minutes, and eventually darted off again while I delighted in this tiny lesson. In that moment I realized that my little lizard is always with me, but she can calmly sit even in uncertain conditions, waiting for the next indication of when it is time to move forward. That is what has kept her alive, and will allow her to thrive.

 

Fat rocks! Yes, more butter please

Really, it does! One of the most important discoveries I have made in the past 14 months that has led to a sustained 18 pound weight loss is that eating more healthy fats in my diet keeps me feeling more energetic, more calm, less distracted and less anxious. I grew up drinking skim milk and clinging to a low-fat diet notion that was in vogue at the time, based on dietary guidelines set in 1970’s that were based on an untested ideas devoid of scientific research. I thought it was really fascinating to read about the evolution of this understanding in Dr. Jason Fung’s book The Obesity Code, a well-researched look at how obesity is driven by our hormones, not by how many calories we eat.

The low-fat, low-calorie diet has already been proven to fail. This is the cruel hoax. Eating less does not result in lasting weight loss. It. Just. Does. Not. Work.

Dr. Fung takes apart the studies that have been completed on obesity, most of them focusing on time frames of less and a year. But obesity typically develops over decades, not in one year. He provides a compelling case for the hormonal obesity theory. Basically, obesity is not caused by an excess of calories, but instead by a body set weight that is too high because of a hormonal imbalance within the body. He goes into great depth about how insulin, cortison, leptin and ghrelin are the major chemical messengers that help determine how our body fat is kept regulated by the body. Please consult his book if this interests you; the science behind this is fascinating and he writes at a level that you do not have to be a clinical researcher to understand.

Insulin is a storage hormone. When we eat, the body releases insulin to store excess glucose from the blood stream into the liver as glycogen, where it can easily be accessed for energy. When there is no intake of food, insulin levels fall and the burning of sugar and fat is turned on. It is quite an elegant “homeostatic” mechanism that keeps our body in balance, and our weight stable. Most people’s weight remains relatively stable, and even people who gain weight tend to do so gradually over time, 1-2 pounds per year.

However, our diets, which have moved away from healthy naturally-occurring fats, toward highly refined carbohydrates (sugar and flour) tend to raise insulin levels to an artificially high level. This results in greater fat storage and a long-term propensity for weight gain. Combine this with the stress hormone cortisol, which also raises insulin levels, we begin to see how these factors contribute to a condition known as insulin resistance. There are some disturbing findings reported about how treatments for diabetes type 2 usually require insulin, and how, even though the blood sugars are better, after standard medical treatment the diabetes actually gets worse. I urge you to read The Obesity Code if you struggle with obesity or type 2 diabetes. I am not a health expert, but I found the research to be helpful in understanding nutritional and lifestyle interventions that lead to reversals in insulin resistance and sustainable weight loss.

For this post I will focus on the recommendation to increase consumption of natural and unprocessed fats in our diet. These include olive oil, butter, coconut oil, beef tallow and avocado. Nuts are also a healthy option, and full-fat dairy can be enjoyed without guilt. We must be careful to avoid inflammatory fats (aka “trans” fats) that are processed such as vegetable, canola, peanut oils, or margarine which are high in omega-6 fatty acids and may have detrimental health effects. Basically, we need to eat “real food” that is minimally processed and balanced in terms of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. It is actually simpler than it seems. If we shop mostly on the outside perimeter of grocery stores, typically we can find those vegetables, meats, full-fat dairy products, eggs and other fresh, healthy options.

butter

I realize some readers may be vegetarian, and while I tried to become vegetarian multiple times in my life, I now believe my tendency toward a.d.d. and anxiety probably do not lend themselves to a vegetarian diet in the long term. One positive side effect I have noticed from eating fat more freely is a sense of calm, satiety, focus on a more regular basis. This contrasts with my struggle with moods starting in my teens, and a cycle of being down, anxious, and more emotionally volatile when I was eating more sugar and flour in my diet. Sadly, so many people struggle with mood issues such as depression or anxiety, and healthy fats may be a key to helping our brains regulate and manufacture healthy neurotransmitters.

One helpful resource if you want to learn more is Nutritional Weight and Wellness and their podcast, Dishing Up Nutrition. As registered dietitians and licensed nutritionists, this team stays very up-to-date on the latest research about dietary interventions to help a variety of conditions. They explain in easy terms how to improve your overall health through dietary interventions. While you may also work with your primary care provider, please know that doctors do not receive much training in nutrition in medical school. Unfortunately, so many of the proactive things we can do to help our overall wellness are not a focus of the medical profession, and they often treat the effects rather than the cause of illnesses.

I work with outstanding nurse practitioner, who is open to supporting my personal experiments with nutrition, especially when based on sound research. She ordered blood tests every 6 months as I was making these adjustments and we both found that, contrary to popular belief, my high-fat diet did not lead to higher cholesterol. Actually my blood pressure was lower, my weight was down, triglycerides were normal and other numbers in the normal range.

Obviously, you need to find what works for you, not take my experience as gospel. Please work with professionals who have the experience and expertise to help you optimize your own health and wellness. For example, if you have nutritional deficiencies such as low Vitamin D (which almost all of us in Minnesota experience in fall/winter) or magnesium deficiency, there may be factors that would benefit from more personalized consultation. Also, getting pro-biotic supplement may help fight sugar cravings and balance your gut, making it easier to switch your diet to more healthy options.

Being willing to experiment with foods you once thought were forbidden, and realizing that you are actually allowed to enjoy food is a beautiful discovery.  Full-fat dairy added to my coffee in the morning is delicious! Knowing I can put half an avocado in salad, add butter to my vegetables, and be liberal with the olive oil has made all of my meals taste better and led to more satisfaction. I no longer have gnawing hunger between meals, and thus I do not have a tendency to overindulge on junk food or to snack. My sleep quality and quantity has improved as well.

Fat is a beautiful thing. I say that as I happily note the spare tire around my middle has been steadily shrinking and my body fat has been reduced. Since my body is no longer “starved” for this important nutrient, I do not hang onto extra fat, and my brain is so much happier and less anxious. Granted, the meditation, yoga and running do also help. But nutrition cannot be underestimated when it comes to keeping our overall moods balanced and our energy high. It has been life-changing for me to realize this, and I am a big proponent of doing a few experiments and mindfully noting how you feel when you make these changes.

Since everyone’s body is different (some people with a dairy sensitivity for example, should not opt for cream in their coffee), please be mindful and intentional with your personal experiments. Seek help for the any major health issues and have confidence that your body, when regulated normally, has wisdom within it. It will give you signals to help know what is nourishing and what is toxic. That said: enjoy the journey!