Category Archives: General

New classes: on transforming stress, and dealing with pain

Two new classes this Fall quarter at Whatcom Community College, one on the new science of stress, and another on dealing with pain. 

Want to transform your relationship with stress? The new science on stress validates the power of our minds over the way we experience stressful events. On Thursday October 12th, I’ll present some of the myths and the new science about stress, and we’ll discuss the ways we typically react when we experience stress. We’ll also learn some simple ways to mitigate the harmful effects and boost the positives—and contrary to what we’ve been told, there are many positives that come out of stressful times.

Occasional or chronic pain is a reality for most of us at one time or another, and yet most pain medicines are problematic when used regularly—in fact, there is no cure for chronic pain. Typical common causes for pain include headaches, low back pain, nerve damage, recovery from surgery or other medical treatment, and other disabilities. Any of these can affect quality of life, including things like getting the sleep or activity we need to stay positive and healthy.

Hypnosis is a proven method for mitigating or reducing pain, and hypnosis has no side effects other than relaxation. In this class on October 26th, you’ll learn how, by practicing at home, you can use hypnosis to get more control over pain and its effects.

Register for either class at Whatcom Community College, by email, or by phone at 360-383-3200.

And by all means contact me with any questions about either of these new classes.

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!

The secret to robbing cravings of their power?

The way I understand the phenomenon of cravings is like this: there’s a trigger, probably established through behavior that’s learned through diligent though not necessarily fully conscious behavior. In other words, over time, we create a habit of using something—a cigarette, a sweet, alcohol, etc.—to change our experience.

And after a while, when the part of us that’s learned this lesson decides that we need a distraction from some source of anxiety or other emotional challenge, it creates a craving to send us off in search of a reward. It doesn’t really care about the reward, it just wants us to feel energized and focused instead of whatever else we were feeling. It doesn’t care if the carrot it’s dangling is something we really do or don’t want; it just knows from experience that the shift in focus to whatever the false promise is—a piece of cake, ice cream, a glass of wine—is enough to temporarily take our minds off whatever we are feeling.

I’ve noticed both through my own experience and from talking to hundreds of people about their cravings that if we can consistently ignore them, they really do weaken over time. We may find that they come back intermittently when we are vulnerable, but the more we can “just say no,” the more power they lose.

A useful suggestion for dealing with cravings for foods that we don’t really want—that phenomenon of being driven to a behavior that we already know won’t make us feel good—is to distract ourselves, since a craving, though intense, is brief in duration.

A recent study used people’s real-world experience of fighting cravings by playing Tetris versus just waiting out the cravings. All the study participants reported their cravings, rating each one’s strength, vividness and intrusiveness. Then they either played Tetris or waited until the craving passed, and then they reported on how much the cravings had been affected. When the cravings began, both groups rated their cravings similarly, but after, the participants who had played Tetris had significantly lower craving and less vivid craving imagery—24% less, in fact—than the ones who had just waited.

The authors of the study suggest that one of the factors that makes this kind of distraction work so well is that playing Tetris engages what’s called the visuospatial working memory. “Working memory” refers to the function of memory when performing tasks, and in this case, the task also includes processing visual and spatial cues. In other words, they are suggesting that the task that draws on these two factors interrupts a craving, perhaps by diverting the brainpower that enables those cravings in the first place.

I’ve never played Tetris, but what I take away from this study’s finding is that we can further weaken cravings by making sure that our plan for distracting ourselves during cravings includes those elements of working memory and visual-spatial processing.

Lots of video games would include that, I think, although I’m not sure that would be a good recommendation for some folks—we wouldn’t want to replace one unhealthy behavior with another equally bad, or worse. So what else would work? Doing a few minutes on a jigsaw? Drawing something from memory? Knitting? Playing music? What about just watching a sunset? Any other suggestions?

Last night, just after I’d written these paragraphs, I experienced a real live craving as I was getting dinner ready before I had to rush off to an evening appointment. I thought about the options I’d just listed and realized that none of them would be helpful in my situation. But as I was making a salad, giving it my undivided attention—slicing red pepper, green onions, cucumber, a Bosc pear, some tomato—I unexpectedly found the activity very calming. It turns out that simply giving my undivided, mindful attention to the task at hand was enough to lessen the craving.

Maybe it’s really the mindful attention that sets up the processing and interrupts the cravings.

Forget about the sweeteners—for your own good

Happy Holidays! I’m later than usual putting up the tree and blasting carols as we pull out the ornaments and turn on the lights, but now that we’re here, I’m ready to love it!  Have a great holiday season–

I just wrote an article about developing a positive mindset to help us maintain a healthy weight (look for it in the January 2017 issue of Bellingham Alive!). In it, I said that although I have strong opinions about nutrition and the value of physical activity, it’s far more important that we each find our own best healthy foods and activities, because that’s how we discover the most satisfying and sustainable way to stay active and healthy.

I said it, and I believe it. But, as I said, I have strong opinions, especially about processed foods. I know it’s hard for busy people, and particularly hard for busy people who don’t like to cook. But here’s one more plea for avoiding processed foods, especially processed foods with artificial sweeteners. And this goes double for diet sodas, especially for children.

It’s harsh that we turned to artificial sweeteners because we thought they help us consume fewer calories, but the truth is out: that’s not how they work, and calories don’t mean what we thought they mean anyway. A study at Massachusetts General Hospital started with the question of why artificial sweeteners—specifically aspartame in this study—don’t work to support weight loss. The possibility this study looked at is the action of a gut enzyme called intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP), previously shown to prevent obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

This enzyme is the one that speaks to us about 20 minutes after we eat, producing the sensation that makes us wonder why we thought we needed another helping. It turns out that aspartame knocks out IAP activity.

The study used four groups of mice, 2 fed a normal diet, 2 fed a high fat diet. Half the normal diet mice had aspartame in their water, to equal the amount of 3 and a half cans of diet soda for a human adult. Half the high-fat diet mice had aspartame to equal 2 cans of diet soda. The others in both normal and high fat groups had just water.

After 18 weeks, there was no difference in weight between the two normal diet groups. Mice on the high fat diet with aspartame gained more weight than the ones who had plain water. Here’s the kicker: the aspartame mice in both groups had higher blood sugar levels and higher levels of the systemic inflammation associated with metabolic syndrome.

So much for aspartame. But another set of studies (described in the website STAT) looked at sucralose, aka Splenda, with equally horrifying results. The first study was done with flies, one group eating their fill of a normal diet, and the other eating their fill of a diet containing sucralose. In a few days, the sucralose group were eating 30% more calories. When both groups consumed normal sugar, the sucralose flies showed more neuron activity, suggesting a stronger taste for sweet as a result of their exposure to sucralose.

One of the study’s authors explained that the same neurons also make food taste better when we are starving. In other words, the neuron activity makes us think we need to eat when we don’t. The study was repeated with mice, whose response is more likely to be similar to humans’, with the same results.

I wonder if this is what’s behind the phenomenon that people are eating so much more sugar than we used to. I know so many people who’ve been drinking diet drinks to cut down on calories, only to find they’re craving much sweeter foods—much too sweet for my taste.

It’s kind of like our history with tobacco, which was marketed as good for us—“so relaxing!”—before it was seen as the health hazard it is. I think that’s where we are with artificial sweeteners and the ridiculous amount of sugar in processed foods. Just say no, folks.

When is visualization helpful, and when does it get in the way of reaching a goal?

Fantasy, a kind of visualization, is a chance to embrace a magical reality. It can be a wonderful experience—it can feel good—to lose ourselves in an alternate reality, when we can pretend that life is as we want it to be, maybe with a better job, fabulous success in your chosen field, better health, etc.

There’s only one problem with any fantasy: it doesn’t exist.

In 2002, a study evaluated four groups of people with goals, who either visualized what success looks and feels like, or anticipated a negative outcome. These groups’ four different goals were finding a job, looking for a romantic partner, acing an exam, or recovering well from surgery.

The study authors concluded that fantasy visualization leads people to feel as though they have already succeeded, while anticipating a negative outcome helps people to identify and deal with the obstacles or challenges they foresee. In other words, the pleasant feelings a fantasy evokes end up negatively affecting our motivation to pursue success—getting out there and applying for jobs, studying harder for exams, etc.

Another group of people expected good results based on their own past experience, and they also had a better outcome than the people who fantasized about success—presumably at least partly because they already knew the steps they would need to take to ensure success.

Fast forward to this year, and another study builds on the earlier research, this time focusing on the effect of positive thinking on depression. In this case, the study looked at the effect of positive visualization both in the moment and over time. What they found is that people did in fact feel better in the moment, as they experienced the positive feelings evoked by the fantasy, but the long-term effect (up to 7 months later) was an increase in depressive symptoms. The long-term reality did not live up to the fantasy, which remained just a fantasy. In this study, visualization of positive results not only didn’t provide a benefit, but over time it led to more depression.

So, positive thinking or visualizing success may not be an effective force for change in our lives.

In hypnosis, we typically use visualization. But a good hypnosis session involves more than visualizing the goal achieved—it’s not just fantasy. A good hypnosis session also explores any barriers to success—not just practical, tangible, obstacles, but also internal barriers like negative assumptions about our abilities and limits. With that basis, we use hypnosis to prepare for the work needed to achieve success. For example, a student who is struggling because of a negative assumption that he or she isn’t smart enough needs to reverse that assumption, needs to know that he or she has what it takes to do the work required to meet the goal. Hypnosis works well for that.

There are a couple of studies that I’ve written about before, showing that visualization under hypnosis involves the same areas of the brain that are active when people actually perform the activity. This doesn’t happen when people are simply thinking about it (fantasizing). Perhaps that’s part of the reason for a different outcome with hypnosis. When we’ve gone through the process under hypnosis, we are expecting a good outcome because we’ve experienced it before, rather than day-dreaming about how good it will feel.

Is it better to avoid bad foods or just eat more good foods?

Happy Pie-for-Breakfast Day! I do love Thanksgiving, and the next day’s pie for breakfast . . . .

I just read about a study that asked about 15,000 people in 39 countries about their diet. All these people had heart disease, and one of the questions the study addressed was, how effective is recommending that people with heart disease eat healthier, versus recommending that people avoid unhealthy foods.

It’s an interesting distinction, isn’t it?

The way they went about answering the question was to ask people about their eating habits, and then track their cardio-vascular health over a period of 4 years. (This is a huge oversimplification—if you want to see the full study report, it’s here.)

The study’s conclusion is that people who eat more healthy foods—vegetables, for example—showed better health over time than people whose focus was to avoid bad foods, like fried foods.

The study conclusion was that the health benefits of the good-for-you foods protect against the effects of eating the occasional bad-for-you treat. Here are their lists of good and bad foods:

  • Good: whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits and fish, and infrequent consumption of meat
  • Bad: refined grains, sweets and deserts, sugared drinks, and deep fried foods

This suggests to me that our best first step toward eating healthier is to increasing how much of the good stuff we eat. After all, we can all stand to eat more vegetables. Another good idea would be to focus on alternatives to meat—trying more legumes or fish for protein.

When we start to feel the benefits from that first step, it’s so much easier to take the next step—whether that’s eating more of the good stuff, or eating a little less of the bad stuff.

 

Beware the halo effect, or, don’t trust the promises on packages

November’s group session will be 6:30 pm, Thursday the 17th. Contact me for details.

The halo effect refers to our tendency to ascribe value to something because we consciously or unconsciously associate it with something else that we value.  It’s also another way we can unintentionally make it hard to build the habit of eating healthier.

I just saw this headline “‘Fitness foods actually lead people to eat more and exercise less, a new study finds.” The study it refers to used identical trail mix snacks with two different labels: one label said “fitness,” with a picture of running shoes, and the other label just said simply “trail mix.”

Some of the people in the study were concerned about their weight. People in this group were more likely to eat lots of the “fitness” trail mix, and exercise less afterwards.

It’s not surprising; we’ve seen this research before. The word fitness on the package leads us to assume that by eating this, we are doing something that supports our health, and we can then check that off the list for the rest of the day.

People who are not concerned about their weight, or people who get lots of physical activity already, are not likely to be taken in by that kind of advertising, since they have their own reasons—their own internal motivation—for keeping active.

The way to fight this kind of unintentional self-sabotage is to make a habit of reading the ingredients and looking at labels for the portion size, not the advertising. If you’re not in the habit already, give it a try. If you want to make it interesting, see how many packaged foods have 5 or fewer ingredients. Let me know how it goes.

You say placebo like it’s a bad thing . . . .

I recently heard hypnosis described as a placebo-effect delivery system, which I loved, since it does reflect how I think about what I’m doing when I do hypnosis.

There are as many ways to talk about hypnosis as there are ways to talk about the weather—no doubt partly because it’s just as natural, and just as likely to be misunderstood. But rather than talking about what hypnosis is, or perhaps more importantly, what it can do, I want to take a moment to talk about how I see hypnosis—through the lens of how I use it.

My intention, my focus, in facilitating a hypnosis session—yes, I said “facilitating”—is to induce a hypnotic state that allows the people I’m working with to activate their own healing, expansive, growth-oriented abilities.

That’s it. I work with all kinds of people, who are dealing with all kinds of issues. As it happens, I’m privileged to work with many people who are dealing with weight issues, and so that has become a specialty for me—I love working with people who are tackling this complex problem.

I also have a specialty in working with people with medical issues. Working with these differing concerns, I use the same hypnosis techniques, and they work, because the power of hypnosis comes from the power of your mind, your body, your spirit. I’m there so that my voice and my words can become the trigger for the change that comes from your innate ability and your desire for well-being and good health.

Simple. And yes, it can seem magical. Placebo, anyone?

 

Tapping is a great tool for managing cravings

Cravings are a cruel part of breaking a bad habit–they can be painful, and they tend to lead to self-shame and other negative, unhelpful feelings. I’m thinking about sugar cravings here, but there are lots of other things that fit the description.

One thing  I know about cravings, after dealing with them first with smoking and later with food, is that as we persevere, they do get less frequent and eventually go away.  In the meantime, however, it’s helpful to have techniques to deal with them in the moment, when they first strike–when they are hard to ignore.  EFT (emotional freedom technique, or just tapping) works really well for getting through the cravings without giving in.

If you’re one who struggles, here’s a link to the Tapping Solution how to video. it’s very easy to follow if you’ve never done it, or you’ve forgotten where all those pesky tapping points are. (This  technique has also helped me with sleep issues, too.)

Making mindless eating work for you

I mentioned an article by Brian Wansink in a previous post, and after reading his article, I checked out his book, Slim by Design. The book is a great resource—he has useful suggestions for diverting the train wreck of bad choices that can sneak up on us when we’re not paying attention. I’ve been able to strategize my way through some of my own problems in this area—like moving the peanuts to a different shelf, out of my sight—but it hadn’t occurred to me that could use similar strategies to steer my family’s choices towards healthier options.

Following his advice in Slim by Design, I moved the least desirable snack things—cookies, crackers, bread—out of sight. (I had to leave the toaster where it is, because space constraints wouldn’t allow me to hide it.) I moved the fruit bowl into the main flight path through the kitchen, and made sure it was stocked with apples, oranges, and pears. (This was new since I usually prefer to keep them in the frig to maintain freshness.) I put yogurt—the lowest-sugar, lowest-fat yogurt I could find—on eye-level in the fridge, along with some good quality cheese sticks. I was already a believer in having celery, carrots, radishes, and red peppers washed, cut up, and available for snacking, but I added baby carrots because they are guaranteed to appeal to some other members of the household.

So the kitchen landscape now has some inviting and healthy choices in plain sight. The next bit of advice I followed was to institutionalize his half plate rule, which says you can have anything you want, but half the plate has to hold vegetables and fruits. Okay, you want a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch? Sure, just make sure to fill half the plate with vegetables and fruit. You want breakfast cereal? Okay, but you’re going to eat the same volume of fruit along with it.

There are a number of payoffs in this new approach. As a family, we are definitely more consistently getting good amounts of protein, fruit, and veg. But the unexpected thing I’m finding is that I can let go of the feeling that I need to intervene in others’ food choices—nagging is not what I want to do. No one really needs a load of my disapproval or a guilt-trip over food choices. This way, instead of nagging people to eat the way I want them to, I’m just quietly supplementing the available choices, and that is so much less stressful for the whole family, especially me.