Author Archives: Leigh Mcdiarmid

Positivity opens up possibilities–after we overcome the limits of our own negative thinking

Shawn Anchor is a positive psychology expert who focuses primarily on how to use the insights from positive psychology to transform corporate culture, with the goal of helping people be happier, but also more creative, more socially engaged, and more successful.

HIs first book was The Happiness Advantage, and, as you might expect, it focused on finding happiness in work, and the resulting benefits in terms of energy, creativity, and success. (Also an easy and fun read.)

The current book, Before Happiness, is about making that happiness shift possible even when it looks and feels impossible. The book provides practical help for creating the mindset that allows our sense of what’s possible to expand beyond our perceived boundaries.

Although his focus is on the corporate world (he has a long list of big-name corporate clients), the practical stuff applies to any of us who want to make that shift into a more positive, creative, engaged way of living.

Does this sound familiar? I’m excited about his book partly because it validates a lot of what I’ve learned from working with individuals who want to change longterm habits, but even more because I can draw on his work to help clients redraw their own map of reality so it includes positive growth and change.

However, his frame of reference is grounded in business, as I mentioned. I found myself wondering if one of his statements about work-world challenges really applies in the personal realm I’m interested in—people who are changing habits or whose goal is maintaining healthy habits. He was talking about competition, and the research he quoted was a study of test takers.  It seems the test takers in smaller groups of people did better than those who were part of a larger group, because the people in the small groups felt they had less competition, therefore more possibility of success.

I think of habit change and weight loss goals as personal things that we choose to do not to  compete for a higher score or some other prize, but because we’ve decided that we matter enough to be as healthy in body/mind/spirit as we can be at the moment (internal motivation).

But that’s not always true, is it? Lots of times we have goals that revolve around comparing ourselves to others, like family reunions or weddings. And that’s not always a bad thing, especially in the short term. Perhaps what we need is to figure out how to make that sense of competition work for us, or maybe it’s to counter its effects in some other way. I’ll give it some thought, and if you have any comments, I’d be glad to hear them. 

In the mean time, if you’re interested in the book, it’s available at the Bellingham Library as well as Fairhaven Books and Amazon, of course. 

Using mindfulness with difficult emotions

When I first began to get a handle on my own issues with weight, one of the great tools I found was Jan Chozen Bays’ book Mindful Eating. I’ve used it ever since in my classes and with individuals—if you haven’t looked at it, do. (It’s available at the Bellingham Public Library, in case you’re in my area.) That led me to my own meditation practice, and to discovering other writers in the field, like Tara Brach, a meditation teacher and writer I admire, and Rick Hansen, a research psychologist and also a meditator and writer.

(At this point I doubt I’ll ever be a good meditator, but I am a meditator, and I think for me perhaps the whole point is being a bad meditator. Paradoxically, it means I’m doing something right, when I’m aware of my thoughts and feelings straying from whatever I’m focusing on.)

Rick Hansen wrote Buddha’s Brain, and Hardwiring Happiness, both worth reading. But it’s Hardwiring Happiness, with its focus on our ability to develop or strengthen positivity as a personality trait that led me to a powerful insight that’s helped me with lots of other issues or situations.

I think we all have a resistance to feeling difficult emotions—it seems natural to me that we don’t want to feel fear or grief or rejection, among others. But the cost of being unwilling to face and feel those emotions can be pretty high in terms of our own growth and wellbeing. Think of the lost opportunities when we make a decision or act from our desire to avoid being uncomfortable, for example. Some of life’s most powerful moments can arise from difficult situations, after all.

In Hardwiring Happiness, Hansen offers techniques for facing those difficult emotions; one of the techniques he suggests is practicing strengthening our connection with the most positive emotions we’ve experienced, and then, when we’re ready to, allowing ourselves to feel both a positive and a difficult emotion at the same time. (It makes sense, doesn’t it, that we can and do feel more than one thing at a time?) The positive sensations become a kind of buffer against the  negative impact of the difficult ones.

I’ve used the technique this way: dwelling on the sensations associated with feeling loved and supported when I am also feeling stress and fear over an upcoming event. When I do this, I am able to bring the stress reaction under control, in a sense, as I remind myself that I am as prepared as I need to be for whatever’s coming. It allows me to see the stress reaction as a natural and possibly (on my good days!) even a beneficial force in a new situation.

Which reminds me—I’ll be doing two new workshops this coming fall at Whatcom Community College: one for dealing with chronic pain, and the other for transforming our experience with stress—and yes, we’ll be talking more about mindfulness (as well as self-hypnosis) in those contexts. I’ll post details as they become available. 

Go outside! Don’t read this–just go outside and enjoy moving around on a beautiful day

I’m a big fan of green exercise; I’d much rather go out in the woods than go into a gym, even though I know there are great benefits to the kind of workout I’d get at the gym. But the walk in the woods has its own benefits, and they go beyond the physical. A walk in the woods is good for the mind and the spirit as well as the body.

It turns out it’s good for the brain as well. A study used ultrasound to measure blood flow through the carotid artery, and found that our steps cause a pressure wave that affects blood flow and diffusion in the brain.

We’ve obviously always known on some level that walking is good for us, but I’ve never identified the clarity of mind that comes with a good walk as a side effect of the increase in blood flow through the brain. How fascinating!

But here we are—on a holiday weekend, and the warmest, prettiest pre-summer day of the year! Let’s go outside! It’s a bike-ride day if I ever saw one. Enjoy!

Practicing small kindnesses

I haven’t been very good at formally tracking my experience with the 8 positivity traits I wrote about last week–I intended to do that daily. Nonetheless, I’ve found I notice things I don’t think I would have noticed before. For example, on Mother’s Day, I was making a pass through the grocery store and overheard a fragment of a conversation between a young mom and her grade-school-age son.  She was telling him that she would take her mom out for a pedicure, and he asked what his grandma was doing for her on Mother’s Day. There was a pause, during which I could see some wheels turning, and she said, “It’s not up to her to do something for me–she’s not my mother.” His response was classic. Slightly aggrieved, slightly surly, he said, “Maybe if I had an allowance I could buy you something for Mother’s Day.”

At that point our paths through the store diverged, but I could see that this was not a new topic for them–I’m sure most parents can relate. But I started thinking about the kinds of things we think about when we think about giving. Very often we do default to thinking about money, or using money to represent the desire to give a gift, to celebrate some person, event, relationship. It’s not a surprise. That can be fun, and significant, and heartfelt, there’s no doubt.  But there are other ways that we give every day.

When we take a few minutes to listen to someone who needs to talk, knowing that we may be late  as a result. The way we use food to show someone we care–making a favorite dinner, or maybe chicken soup for someone who’s sick. Even sometimes the things we do automatically should count, like every day making sure the kids’ lunch bags have something they’ll eat instead of trade away. When we respond genuinely to a rote statement like “Have a good day,” that’s an act of connection, and those small acknowledgments of our shared humanity really do matter.

Money and things can be great gifts, for sure, but so are the gifts of our time, and full attention, and genuine caring.

Positivity skills worth learning

Science Daily is a great resource if you’re interested in what’s happening in the world of science. I just read about a study at Northwestern University, part of a larger study by Judith Moskowitz on teaching positivity skills to enhance the experience of people dealing with illness or other high stressors. This study compared the benefits of teaching these kinds of skills versus prescribing (or increasing) anti-depressants for 159 patients recently diagnosed with HIV. About 17% of these patients were already on antidepressants.

Half the participants took 5 weekly classes focusing on eight positivity skills. After 15 months, the rate of antidepressant use had not changed in the group learning to cultivate feeling calm, happy, and satisfied, and 91% of them showed a reduction of the virus in their blood, compared with 76% in the control group, more of whom were then using antidepressants (35%).

Here’s the report’s description of the 8 skills they learned to practice:

  • Recognizing a positive event each day
  • Savoring that positive event and logging it in a journal or telling someone about it
  • Starting a daily gratitude journal
  • Noting a recent use of a personal strength
  • Setting an attainable goal each day and noting progress
  • Reporting a relatively minor stressor each day, then listing possible ways to reframe the event positively
  • Practicing a small act of kindness each day
  • Practicing mindfulness with a daily 10-minute breathing exercise, concentrating on the breath

Reading this, I’m reminded, once again, that there is a direct connection between active positivity and immune system function, and that we can support our own wellbeing—even when dealing with illness or other difficult stressors—with small daily actions.

Update: I have been doing a brief (10 minutes at most) self-hypnosis session in the mornings to remind myself of what I need to focus on–it helps with motivation, I find. Since I read about this study last week, I’ve been including using this list with a daily journal. It’s been great, although full of unexpected challenges, like focusing on when I’ve used personal strengths. One that I particularly appreciated is the reminder to be thoughtful about stressors; it feels really good when something difficult comes up to be able to view it in a positive way, instead of just trying to forget it as soon as possible.

Judith Moskowitz, the study’s author, is also doing the same work with diabetes patients, women with breast cancer, and caregivers of dementia patients. I imagine aspects of this could be helpful for people living with dementia as well.

An additional resource is a book I often recommend in my classes: Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. He’s a well-known psychologist and long-time meditator, and the author of Buddha’s Brain, about the neuroscience behind the effects of meditation on the brain. Hardwiring Happiness helped me make a breakthrough in realizing that I can move beyond my innate “negativity bias,” and giving me practical tools for developing and strengthening a more positive frame of mind.

Dementia rates falling

Aging is not for wimps. I can say that with confidence, from the vantage point of my sixth decade. That said, I’m fortunate to know people who exemplify aging well, and I’m doing my best to follow their example.

I just read an article in the New Scientist about dementia: “Defying dementia; it’s not inevitable” giving an overview about the types of dementia and what the current research has to tell us about the diseases and treatments. First the bad news: there isn’t a cure, although a number of promising drugs have been tested and found wanting. The good news is that we can fight back.

Aging is inevitable, and normal aging does involve slower but otherwise normal cognitive processing, but that is not the same as dementia, which affects memory, language ability, sensory perception, and executive function (focus, planning, etc.).

I’d read that there are fewer people with dementia in each age group than there were, and this article confirms that. Between the 1980’s and 2011 in England and Wales, the rate of people aged 65 and over with dementia dropped by 20%, and in the US, between 2000 and 2012, the rate dropped by 24%. The decrease is attributed to the populations’ increase in education level and in control of cardiovascular health.

It’s a great article; I recommend it, and I appreciated the clarity it brought to my lurking fears of impairment with aging. I really appreciated reading that there are so many ways to keep symptoms at bay: keeping to a healthy diet, getting enough physical activity, staying connected with others, sleeping well, keeping an active mental life. One of the experts put it this way: “walk, talk, and read.”

Another article, this one from Psyblog, looked at 3 groups of women who’d been sleep-deprived—one group drank coffee or cola, one group took a placebo, and the third walked the stairs for 10 minutes (this was a low-intensity effort—they weren’t running or even hurrying). Neither the caffeine group nor the placebo group reported any benefit in terms of energy and motivation for work, but the group on the stairs did.

It’s a bonus, isn’t it, to think that one small thing we can do to claim a little more motivation and energy in the moment is also something that serves us so well in the long run.

Can anyone be hypnotized?

I hear people say they can’t be hypnotized, but in my ten years of practice, I have yet to meet anyone who really can’t. Sure, some people take to it more easily than others, but isn’t that true of any skill we learn how to do? We get better at things through practice.

Some practitioners use a “hypnotizability scale” to determine how easily hypnotized their clients are. I don’t, because it doesn’t really make any difference to me how easily my clients go into trance, or how deeply into trance they are able to go. The value of the hypnotic state can’t be measured by how deep the trance is.

Here’s a definition of hypnosis, just to make sure we’re starting on the same page: it’s a natural state of deep relaxation and intense focus, or concentration. (It’s really very simple, even though attempts to explain what’s happening in the brain can get pretty complicated.)

The first benefit of this hypnotic state is being able to experience such a deep relaxation. If we do nothing else during a hypnosis session, I guarantee that we will feel the benefit. How often do we normally allow ourselves to relax deeply? Or how often do we take the time for it? The time we spend distracting ourselves from the cares of our day doesn’t have the same effect, though it can be pleasant.

The benefits of the relaxation itself—the side effects of hypnosis—are powerful. They include measurable things like changes in blood pressure or blood sugar readings, as well as less quantifiable things like a positive mood boost or a sense of increased energy, or being able to get better sleep.

Those side effects are reason enough to give yourself some time in hypnosis every day. If you know anyone who could use a boost in this way, let them know I have a class in Self Hypnosis on April 13 at Whatcom Community College. Here’s a link to the registration page.

A prescription for yoga

I’m constantly looking for new ways to help people who want to make the transition from a sedentary to a more active life. I’ve finally realized that the simplest thing I can do in my classes, for example, is add a couple of stretches for every hour of class. Maybe feeling the difference a couple of stretches can make will inspire us all to do a little more.

I’m like a broken record when it comes to the benefits of walking, especially outdoors (green exercise, it’s called). Mostly I talk about it because I love it, and I feel the benefits—it’s the best stress relief I’ve ever found, and I think it does more to support my health than any other activity I do.

Here’s what Psychology Today has to say about green exercise:

Outdoor exercise makes people happier, less fatigued and angry, more tranquil and relaxed, and bestows a more lasting energy boost compared to indoor exercise. Even five minutes of green exercise (like walking across a park or campus) is likely to boost self-esteem and mood. Green exercise is experienced as more restorative and is more likely to increase a person’s frequency of exercise compared to indoor exercise, and all these effects are enhanced with both duration and intensity of outdoor exercise.

Improved self-esteem and mood in 5 minutes? Who doesn’t need more of this?

However, a 2010 study from Boston University Medical Center compared the effects of Iyengar yoga classes against the benefits of walking on 34 healthy people.  The results showed that compared with walking, “yoga appears to be accompanied by greater improvement in mood and decrease in anxiety and a boost in the brain chemical associated with these benefits.”

The brain chemical referred to is the neurotransmitter GABA, low levels of which are associated with depressed mood and anxiety. The participants in the yoga groups showed higher GABA levels as well as reporting better mood compared to the walkers in the control group, who walked for an hour three times per week. In spite of the higher level of exercise in the control group, the yoga groups showed more improvement in mood.

Now, a new study from Boston University Medical Center looks at the effects of Iyengar yoga classes and deep breathing practice on 30 people with major depression. The study put participants in two groups; one attended yoga classes two times per week and practiced at home, and the other attended three classes per week as well as practicing at home. After twelve weeks, there was no difference between the affects on the two groups: all the participants experienced a reduction in their depressive symptoms. Good news, indeed.

Whether or not depression is an issue, any enjoyable way to reduce anxiety and improve mood is very welcome. We need those in our self-care toolkit.

A link between sugar and dementia?

A few years ago, if we’d looked at a graph comparing the rise of both diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease, we’d have been looking at the same curve. In fact, a theory began to emerge that Alzheimer’s was another form, or stage, of diabetes.

Here’s a page from a 2007 brochure about Alzheimer’s Disease:

Doctors don’t know yet what causes Alzheimer’s disease or exactly how Alzheimer’s and diabetes are connected. But they do know that high blood sugar or insulin can harm the brain in several ways:

  • Diabetes raises the risk of heart disease and stroke, which hurt the heart and blood vessels. Damaged blood vessels in the brain may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.
  • The brain depends on many different chemicals, which may be unbalanced by too much insulin. Some of these changes may help trigger Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • High blood sugar causes inflammation. This may damage brain cells and help Alzheimer’s to develop.

So, ten years later, the picture has changed, in that dementia rates in the US are decreasing, and the age of onset is later—good news. From a NY Times article: “The new study found that the dementia rate in Americans 65 and older fell by 24 percent over 12 years . . . . In 2000, people received a diagnosis of dementia at an average age of 80.7; in 2012, the average age was 82.4.”

But although the data is pretty convincing, no one yet knows what caused the changes. One theory is that the difference may be due to better management of diabetes. A brand new study has found a possible link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s: glucose in the blood binds to and inhibits an enzyme called macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF), which is part of a normal immune response to a buildup of abnormal proteins in the brain.

In other words, sugar in the blood inhibits a normal immune system response to abnormal proteins that could be involved with developing Alzheimer’s Disease.

Although I have strong opinions about the importance of eating real food and avoiding processed food, I also recognize that many people lead healthy and happy lives without being anywhere near so strict about what they eat, or perhaps more to the point, what foods they avoid. But to me this development reaffirms the need to be careful about sugar.

The placebo effect–an update

I’m fascinated by the placebo effect, and hypnosis as a way of activating it, so I was particularly interested in reading about some of the current research in Cure, A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, by British science writer Jo Marchant.

But first I should clarify what a placebo is. Here’s a very mainstream definition from Dictionary.com: “an inactive substance or other sham form of therapy administered to a patient usually to compare its effects with those of a real drug or treatment, but sometimes for the psychological benefit to the patient through his believing he is receiving treatment.”

Here it is in black and white, the prevailing assumption that physical ailments require dosing with a “real” medical treatment, and that “psychological” benefits from “sham” treatments affect the mind but not the body.

To me, the word “placebo” instead refers to the mind’s ability to activate the body’s natural healing abilities, including, for example, the immune system. This explanation makes so much more sense when I think about the way we experience everything in this life through the dual lens of our bodies’ experiences and our minds’ interpretations of those experiences.

Cure is a fascinating look at some of the cutting edge research into the interaction between our thoughts and our physical experience. In particular, the meaning, or value, we find in the experience or the treatment makes the treatment more powerful, and more likely to result in either a cure or a lessening of symptoms.

In some cases, the mind-body connection changes both our experience of our physical state and changes the underlying condition, as in IBS, for example, which responds well to hypnosis. In other cases, although the symptoms get better, the underlying condition stays the same. For example, the pain we experience from a slipped disk becomes less severe when we use hypnosis, although the damage from the disc injury is unchanged.

I loved the book—available at the Bellingham Public Library—and its thorough discussion of the current research that’s challenging the old model of a separate, mechanical physical experience and a separate psychological experience of the mind. I recommend it.