Category Archives: Living well

A Morning Gratitude Practice

Well, January is almost over, and I remember promising to give an update on my resolve to start each day with an expression of gratitude.

It’s been a seriously mixed experience. It’s been a crazy mixed up month, with our new president electing to disregard rights and protections that we have taken for granted for many many years.

I don’t need to go into details here, since anyone who cares is already following these events, except to say that it’s time for all of us to educate ourselves. History is full of examples of the folly of appeasing demagogues.

I’m not going to claim that there’s anything to be grateful for in this current political situation, since so many people are already suffering, and unfortunately so many more people will suffer. But I am grateful that I personally know people who have concrete suggestions for positive steps to deal with and hopefully change the situation for the better.

I lost the impetus to keep my morning record as the month went on, but this is what I did write down:

  • After starting the day with a focus on gratitude, it’s easier to notice what I’m grateful for during the day
  • Grateful for a wonderful night’s sleep, waking relaxed and restored, and I noticed how that feeling in my body changed as my thoughts came back online.
  • Grateful for the B vitamins that I’ve started taking again—because I had another night of great sleep and I think they contribute to that.
  • Grateful for the help I have from health providers—doctors, dentists, and therapists.

And that’s as far as the written record went. But I’m aware that other things that came to mind more than once included the support of my husband and a couple of good friends.

As I write this, I’m grateful that I have health insurance, and I can still afford it, although it is the single biggest expense—more than twice my mortgage payment. But that didn’t occur to me during my morning gratitude experiment.

This has been a difficult couple of months for many people—I’ve seen more people struggling with anxieties, and I’m sure it’s a common reaction. So anything we can do to stay grounded, and positive, and focused on the need to take good care of ourselves and each other is good. Gratitude as a practice can help us with that, I’m sure.

Weight loss goals that matter

Last night was our monthly drop-in-for-a-refresher meeting, open to anyone who’s taken the hypnosis for weight control classes that I lead at Whatcom Community College. Some of the regulars have their own names for it. I’ve heard “brainwashing,” and “tune up,” for example.

It’s always fun for me to see who comes—it could be someone who took the classes years ago and wants a refresher before an event like a holiday or a trip. Or it could be a few of the regulars, and that’s always cozy. Every once in a while it’s a bigger group, and it gets a little cramped, and that’s fine too. I look forward to this every month.

We talk about how things are going—it’s usually a mixed bag, of course, just like everything else in life. And then I lead a hypnosis session focused on whatever concerns are highlighted.

Last night was nice—just two good friends sharing updates and challenges. The highlight for me, though, came after, as we were all walking to the door. One friend said, “I have a goal.” Her goal is an adventure, not a set of numbers. It’s a fun adventure, to be shared at a date in the future, as a celebration. (I’d give the details, but it’s not my story to share, and if I’d thought of this last night, I would have asked her permission to give those details, but since I didn’t, I won’t.)

But I loved it! So many of us focus on the numbers, and that can be a real source of stress, especially when it’s a set of numbers that’s tormented us in the past. How much better to focus on something that has its own meaning. Meaning that is much more personal—an activity that’s been out of reach in the past, that can be shared with the people we love, who love us. It’s exciting to think about this kind of goal—it’s really about growing into the person we have the potential to be—and bringing our friends and family along for the ride.

Happy Holidays all!

Now that the longest night of the year is over, I’m ready to count my blessings–we’re turning the corner, heading slowly but surely toward the longer days of Spring. (And I’m ready to think about something other than dangerous processed foods–it gets depressing!)

Other than more daylight, most of the blessings I’m counting are people, and I’m feeling lucky to be able to celebrate the holiday with so many of the people I love and care for, who love and care for me.  There are other blessings, too, like the opportunity to do work that matters, work that makes me happy.

And today I remind myself that, although I have the ordinary human desire for more, more of everything, the basic stuff, the food and shelter and clothing and safety and enough money–all of that–I know how lucky I am just to have enough, and how lucky to be able to take that for granted.

We’re human, and impermanent, and inevitably all things will change, but it sure feels good right now to stop and cherish these gifts, the blessings of the day.

Happy Holidays, all.

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.

 

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

Fantasizing, 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, where we pretend that life is as we want it to be, maybe with a better job, fabulous success in our 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, or who anticipated a negative outcome. The four different goals of these groups had to do with job hunting, 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 the fantasy evokes end up negatively affecting our motivation to take the steps 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 one focusing on the effect of positive thinking on depression. In this case, the study looked at the effect of positive visualizations 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 alone, visualizing success, may not be a powerful force for change in our lives after all.

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 in order to do the work to meet the goal.

A couple of studies that I’ve written about before show that visualizing an activity under hypnosis lights up 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 more like the people who expect a good outcome because they’ve done it before, rather than people who are day-dreaming about how good it will feel.

 

Which would you choose: walking, dancing, running or working out?

A study of most-tweeted words about food and activity, referenced on the UK blog healthiestblog.com, lists the top ten most popular items. On the food list, the top four are coffee, beer, pizza, and Starbucks. In fact, the only healthy thing on the whole list is chicken.

Oh dear.

No wonder it’s sometimes very hard to keep our focus on doing what will keep us healthy. It does get easier as we figure out that better choices do add up to genuinely feeling stronger, happier, and just generally better . . . but we can add exposure to tweets like this to the long list of things that just don’t help—like advertising, for example.

What we can do to counteract the stuff that doesn’t help is choose to remember that although that stuff may sound good, what we really want is something genuinely good—something that tastes good and makes us feel good and helps keep us healthy—long-term.

On the positive side, the same study looked at the most common physical activities people tweeted about:

  • Walk/walking/walked
  • Dance/dancing
  • Running
  • Workout
  • Golf
  • Pool (swimming)
  • Hike/hiking
  • Yoga
  • Swim/swimming
  • Bowling

If you are looking for a way to get moving—that is, to find an activity you might enjoy adding to your list of healthy habits, this list could be a great way to start. If so many people love walking, you might be one, too. You won’t know for sure until you try it. For that matter, you could just work your way down the list and see which ones are the most fun.

It helps me to have more than one activity I enjoy, since life has a way of interfering with our plans and preferences. If I can’t do one thing, there’s another on the list. And speaking of favorite activities, can I put in a plug for biking? It would be on my personal top ten list, and it has the added benefit of reducing the time (and money) I spend when I’m using the car. Off the top of my head, other benefits include that I love the way it feels to fly along on 2 wheels, I love discovering transportation as a feel-good, meditative way of enjoying my surroundings, and it’s good for my knees. If road or trail biking isn’t possible for you, you can still get the other health benefits on a stationary bike.

The important thing is to start moving, and keep going. It sure feels good.

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.)

Do you struggle with motivation?

The other day I was thinking about some research showing that questioning our ability to reach our goals can actually increase our intrinsic motivation. (Intrinsic motivation doesn’t depend on what anyone else thinks about your project or goal—and so of course it’s the motivation that is the best predictor of success.)

I wrote out a list of questions on the topic of a project I’ve had in mind for years—a project I haven’t been able to make much progress with.

Here are some examples from my list of questions:
Will I succeed in finishing this project?
Never mind that, will I succeed in making time to regularly work on the project?
Will I be able to organize the material?
Will I find the time to do the research?
Will I be able to do a good job?

I also wrote more specific questions about my fears, but I started with general ones like the ones above.

As I wrote my list, I wasn’t surprised to find that each question brought up feelings: anxiety, excitement, doubt, fear—a host of strong feelings about my goal and my ability to achieve it. Asking questions in this way forced me to take a closer look at my fears rather than hide from them. In the process, I discovered that I really do have answers for each one—not always great answers, but hey, we work with what we’ve got, right? They were answers like, That’s not going to happen!, and So what?, and Oh well, I can live with that, and, finally, But this is what I want to do anyway.  This is what I want to do, whether I reach the goal in the end or not.

One thing I didn’t feel was overwhelmed—and this surprised me. Instead, the process of raising the questions and exploring  my fears, feelings, and vulnerabilities was liberating.

Arriving at that last answer, confirmation of the importance of doing this project regardless of the outcome, really did put me in touch with my intrinsic motivation. It’s as if those fears were sapping the strength of my real motivation. Or perhaps the stronger motivation emerged from putting the fears, feelings, and answers together in one document with the goal.

I’m not sure how or why it worked, but it did, and I’m looking forward to exploring this tool for change.  If you decide to try it, please let me know how it goes for you.