Mind-Body Connection

This area of the Wheel of Health relates back to the inner ring of Mindful Awareness. It focuses on mind-body practices that can help you be more present and enhance your physical, mental and emotional health. It includes techniques that activate the body’s relaxation and healing response, such as breathing practices, meditation, yoga, and guided imagery.

History of mind-body connection

Awareness of the mind-body connection is not something new. For centuries, almost every system of medicine throughout the world treated the mind and body as a whole. But during the 1600s, the Western world started to see the mind and body as two distinct things. In this view, the body was considered more of a machine, with no connection to the mind at all.

There were some benefits to this Western viewpoint, including advances in surgery, trauma care, pharmaceuticals, and other areas of mainstream medicine. However, it also reduced scientific inquiry around humans’ emotional and spiritual life, and downplayed their innate ability to heal. Fortunately, this perspective started to change again in the 20th century. There was an increase in research related to the mind-body connection and scientists were able to demonstrate the complex links between the body and mind. In addition, this research confirmed the medical and mental benefits of meditation, mindfulness training, yoga, and other mind-body practices.

How does the mind-body connection work?

The mind-body connection is closely related to stress and how you deal with it. The body’s response to stress begins in the brain and spreads through the autonomic nervous system causing the release of powerful hormones, particularly cortisol and adrenaline. The autonomic nervous system controls involuntary body functions such as breathing, blood pressure, and heartbeat. It has two components: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems.  The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car – it triggers the “fight or flight” response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers.  On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake – it promotes the “rest and digest” response that calms the body down after the danger has passed. Each of these responses has a different impact on the body.

The hormones released during the “fight or flight” response have an impact on many systems within the body, including the immune system. Research has demonstrated that prolonged exposure to stressful events or situations contributes to serious diseases such as high blood pressure, heart irregularities, anxiety, insomnia, persistent fatigue, digestive disorders, mental health issues, and diabetes. In addition, stress can also impact lifestyle and behaviors that affect one’s health and wellbeing. For example, many people are more likely to eat poorly and neglect healthy activities, such as exercise, when they are under stress. The good news is mind-body therapies and practices can help reduce or even prevent the stress response from occurring in your body.

As mentioned above, mind-body practices involve techniques that activate the body’s relaxation and healing response.  When you are exposed to a stressor (say, rush-hour traffic), your response to the stressor determines how your body reacts. You might normally get tense, angry and honk or yell at other drivers who cut you off. However, you can deliberately change your response, through simple techniques like taking some deep breaths and relaxing the muscles in your neck and shoulders.  This response engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which decreases your heart and breathing rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.

Examples of mind-body practices

There are many strategies to help reduce stress and promote the relaxation response. Below are some of the more common techniques. At first, it may seem challenging or awkward to engage in these activities, but they are skills that develop over time with practice. It may also take some time before you experience positive changes, so patience is key. Try a few different approaches until you find the one(s) that feel most comfortable to you.

Progressive muscle relaxation: This technique involves slowly tensing and then releasing each muscle group in your body, starting with your toes and finishing with your head (or vice versa).

Meditation: The two most common forms of meditation in the United States are transcendental meditation and mindfulness meditation. In transcendental meditation, students repeat a mantra (a single word or phrase). In mindfulness meditation, students focus their attention on their moment by moment thoughts and sensations.

Paced breathing: When we are stressed, we tend to take shallow breaths. We can change this constricted breath and stress response by changing our breathing pattern. The 4/7/8 pattern is one example of paced breathing. To practice, breathe in through the nose for a count of four. Hold for a count of seven. Exhale through the mouth for a count of eight. Repeat these steps four times.

Guided imagery: This technique is a way of focusing your imagination to create calm, peaceful images in your mind, thereby providing a “mental escape.”  You can use an instructor, tapes, or scripts to help you through this process. You can achieve a relaxed state when you imagine all the details of a safe, comfortable place, such as a beach or a garden.

Sources:

University of Maryland Medical Center Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide

University of Minnesota Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing

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Mindful Parenting

I recently had the opportunity to facilitate a program on Mindful Parenting. I thought it might help to share some of the highlights, for those of you looking for a calmer, less reactive approach to raising your children.

The need for Mindful Parenting

How many of you have experienced any of the following:

  • You’re trying to make dinner, surf Facebook and answer your kid’s questions about homework all at the same time?

 

  • You’re reading your child a bedtime story while in your mind you are making a list of things to do after she goes to bed?

 

  • After arguing with your teen to come out of his room, get off his phone and engage with the family, five minutes later he calls you out for responding to a work email on your phone?

As author Kristen Race shares in her book “Mindful Parenting,” modern life is different than a generation ago. Many parents are struggling to juggle multiple roles. There are multiple electronic devices to distract us 24/7. Parents and their kids have demanding schedules, with little “down time.” For many of us, there are lingering financial worries as we continue to recover from the most recent recession. It’s no wonder she coins us “Generation Stress.”  And unfortunately, that stress is contagious – studies have shown that our children pick up on our stress even if we think we’re doing a good job concealing it.

Disengaging auto-pilot

Due to the many demands that we face in our day-to-day lives, many of us move through life on “auto-pilot.” Think about your daily commute to work – have there been times when you left home and arrived at work only to think “How did I get here?”  You know the route so well that you don’t have to consciously think through every turn along the way. You can tune out and run through that never-ending “to do” list in your mind. This automatic, mindless mode is not always a bad thing – it can be very helpful in establishing healthy habits like brushing your teeth or completing simple tasks like tying your shoes. It would be burdensome if we had to think through the steps every time we performed those tasks. But when autopilot takes over in more important areas of our lives, like how we engage with our children, it can lead to frustration and disappointment – for us and our children.

So how do we learn to disengage the auto-pilot and live more consciously? In one word: mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” It’s about awareness and intention. The folk singer Jewel (who has practiced mindfulness from a young age) describes it as “the gap between perceiving a thought and acting upon a thought, so that you can choose your action rather than have a reaction.” It is a way to create space so that we are less reactive to whatever life throws our way.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness, but they are typically broken down into two categories: formal and informal practice. Formal practice consists of dedicated time that you set aside to focus on awareness. Examples may include sitting meditation, breath awareness exercises, yoga, mindful walking and mindful eating. Informal practice refers to times when you are completely engaged in moment-to-moment awareness in a less structured way. Examples may include watching a sunrise, drinking a cup of tea, brushing your teeth, or washing dishes. Using an exercise analogy, think of formal practice as going to the gym or working out for a designated amount of time, whereas informal practice is like taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking further away at work. It helps to include both in your mindfulness practice and you may find that the more you engage in formal practices, the more you find yourself being mindful in your daily activities.

Mindful Parenting

It’s probably no surprise that mindful parenting begins with you, the parent, committing to a mindfulness practice. In doing so, you will model positive behaviors for your children and you will approach your interactions with them in a different way. To modify a popular quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the person you want your children to become.”  If you’re feeling skeptical, there are studies that have demonstrated positive outcomes from this approach. Most notably, in a study conducted at UCLA, parents who practiced mindfulness for one year reported being dramatically more satisfied with their parenting skills and interactions with their children even though they had learned no new parenting practices. In addition, over the course of the year, their kids’ behavior also changed for the better. They got along better with siblings, were less aggressive and their social skills improved.

In preparing for my presentation, I relied on two main sources of information – the book by Kristen Race I referenced above as well as a book by Carla Naumburg, PhD, called “Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family.” Both books have helpful tips about how to build your own mindfulness practice as well as numerous examples of ways to engage your children in a mindful fashion. Below are two of my favorites – one for younger children and one for older children.

For younger children, consider trying “Stop, Drop, and Breathe.” This is an easy, quick and fun way to disrupt a difficult situation and breathe your way back into the present. Whenever you find yourself or your child spinning out of control, lost in thoughts or overwhelmed by emotions, remember to stop, drop and breathe: stop, drop whatever you are doing, and breathe deeply and intentionally. You can literally drop to the floor, which may get your children laughing, regardless of how grumpy anyone feels.

If you have older children (tweens and teens), does it drive you crazy how much they use the words “like” or “ya know” when speaking? It can be a challenge for all of us to eliminate filler words from our speech. Try an exercise to help focus on mindful speaking. You can even turn it into a game, in which family members gently remind each other when they mindlessly pepper their speech with filler words.

Getting Started

The key to mindful parenting is establishing a mindfulness practice that works for you. Many people ask how much time they should devote to formal practice. It is based on what works best for you, what you will do consistently. This is a skill to be learned – it will take practice. You can start small, maybe 5 or 10 minutes a day, and build up from there. Feel free to include a combination of formal and informal practices and most of all, remember there is no right or wrong way to do it. Give it a try and see what happens.

Being Present is A Gift

It is hard to believe we are coming to the end of the year already.  It seems like once we hit Halloween, the rest of the year just flies by…which is why I chose the topic of being present for my final post of 2017.

I am taking time off to be with family over the holidays. I don’t get to see my extended family as often as I’d like due to distance, so visiting them is a source of joy. However, it can also be stressful: lots of people crammed into a relatively small house, many (usually too many) tempting, high-calorie treats, and difficulty keeping up with my usual exercise routine and sleep habits. It’s only for six days so I usually give myself a little leeway, knowing I will get back on track once we return home. However, there is one practice that I won’t sacrifice even when I travel and that is my daily morning meditation.

Sure, I may have to make some adjustments when I travel – finding a quiet place to practice, and choosing a time when I can do so uninterrupted. Fortunately, I am an early riser whereas many of my family members like to sleep in, so I am usually able to finish meditating before anyone else is awake. I love the peace and stillness in a house when everyone else is still deep in their dreams.

The reason I maintain my practice even when I am out of my normal routine is the benefits I reap from taking time to sit and be still. I have noticed a profound change in how I engage with the world since I started meditating regularly. I am calmer and less reactive. I don’t sweat the small stuff nearly as much as I used to (and believe me, I used to worry about it ALL). I have created space – literally and figuratively – that allows me to experience life in a different way. I am more aware of what’s happening to me and around me – and the coolest part is that I notice this awareness. Some people describe it as living more consciously. I prefer to describe it as living more mindfully versus mindlessly going about my day, missing out on most of what transpires from dawn to dusk.

My wish for all of you in 2018 is to find ways to be present in your life. One of the best ways to do this is to do one thing at a time. Study after study has shown that multitasking is a myth – the brain cannot focus on more than one task at a time. It merely switches back and forth quickly from task to task, giving us the illusion of productivity. In reality, it actually takes more time to complete the tasks we’re switching between and we make more errors than when we focus on doing one task at a time in order.

So, during this holiday season, as well as throughout the new year, consider the following advice as you go about your day and see if you notice a difference:

When sitting, just sit.

When eating, just eat.

When walking, just walk.

When talking, just talk.

When listening, just listen.

When looking, just look.

When touching, just touch.

When thinking, just think.

When playing, just play,

And enjoy the feeling of each moment and each day.

From “When Singing, Just Sing – Life as Meditation” by Narayan Liebenson Grady

 

 

 

Relationships and Communication

Relationships

As the holidays approach, it means many of us will be spending time with family, friends and other loved ones. Depending on your relationship with these individuals, this togetherness may bring feelings of joy and happiness, but it can also bring sadness, disappointment and even pain. Our social relationships have a direct impact on our health and wellbeing, for better or for worse.

Research has shown that individuals who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer. It is beneficial to periodically assess the quality of your social relationships and how they are impacting your health and wellbeing.

A few questions to consider as you assess the stability and satisfaction with your current relationships include:

  • Does the relationship contribute to a sense of belonging, security, purpose and/or self-worth?
  • Do you have a variety of social outlets, from casual acquaintances to one or two close friends who can provide support when needed?
  • Do you foster those relationships in which you feel supported and energized? And conversely, do you minimize contact in those relationships that are conflicted and/or drain your energy?

You may also want to think about the impact of your relationships based on the other areas of the Wheel of Health. For example, do you have relationships that can support you in meeting your nutrition and exercise goals? Are your spiritual beliefs and experiences supported, or perhaps challenged, by your relationships? What impact do your close relationships have on your personal growth and development?

Communication

One of the most important factors in maintaining healthy relationships is effective communication. Whether you want to sustain your supportive relationships or improve your difficult ones, improving the way you communicate can be key. Below are three components of effective communication skills you may want to assess personally:

Listening. Think about the last time you thought someone really listened to you. How did it feel to have their complete attention? Most likely, that person demonstrated the following behaviors or characteristics:

  • The listener was not in a rush, paid attention to what you were saying and held space for you to share what was on your mind. S/he was present with you, mentally and physically.
  • The listener did not rush to judge or criticize what you were saying, and refrained from injecting his or her own opinions about what you had to say.
  • The listener let you know you were heard by reflecting or paraphrasing what you said and/or by asking clarifying questions.
  • The listener used non-verbal behaviors, such as consistent eye contact and nodding, to indicate that s/he was present and focused on you.

The next time you want to engage in active listening, select one of the above characteristics and consciously practice it. See if it makes a difference in the relationship to the person to whom you are listening.

Inquiry. True inquiry comes from a place of genuine curiosity about another person. It is not just asking questions for the sake of carrying on a conversation. It can be accomplished using open-ended questions, that are not easily answered with just a “yes” or “no.” Open-ended questions typically begin with “what” or “how.” For example, rather than asking “Did you have a good day at school?,” you might ask “What was the best part about school today?”

If you want to practice the skill of inquiry, consider the use of “I” statements. This approach allows each person to have his or her own opinions, thoughts, and beliefs. Some examples include:

“You” statement: “You don’t understand me.”

vs.

“I” statement: “I’m not sure I am making myself clear.”

 

“You” statement: “You are no help at all!”

vs.

“I” statement: “I feel overworked and would appreciate some extra help.”

 

“You” statement: “You are always late!”

vs.

“I” statement: “I feel anxious when you don’t arrive on time.”

If you are not already using “I” statements, you may want to try this approach and see if doing so has a positive impact on communication with your colleagues, friends and family.

Communication styles. Being aware of your communication style can help you choose the one that best fits the specific circumstance and promotes open and effective communication. There are four basic styles of communicating:

  • Aggressive: Getting what you want at another person’s expense. This style typically involves a loud voice, insults, dominating posture and a lack of listening.

 

  • Passive: Allowing another person to have what they want at your expense, often to avoid conflict. This style usually involves a quiet voice and demeanor, a meek posture and little room to express your own feelings or desires.

 

  • Assertive: Balancing what you want with what another person wants. This style generally involves a firm, moderate tone of voice, and communication that includes both listening and the use of “I” statements.

 

  • Passive Aggressive: Attempting to get what you want in an indirect or calculating way. Communication is often not direct but leading and manipulative. Tone of voice and posture vary depending on what you think will get you what you want with the other person or in that particular moment.

Different situations call for different communication styles. There is benefit in being competent in more than one style, and being able to use the style that the situation calls for. Being aware of what style of communication you are using and choosing intentionally can be beneficial in promoting the kinds of relationships you want to have.

Gratitude

Although many of us get swept up in all the hoopla around Thanksgiving – the turkey and trimmings, the football games, the parades, and yes, even the holiday shopping – it behooves us to pause and remember what the holiday is really about: giving thanks, expressing gratitude for all that is good in our lives.

This recent Time magazine article highlights several benefits to our health and wellbeing from practicing gratitude, including being more patient and experiencing long-lasting happiness. Amazing how a few small acts, like saying thank you to your partner for washing the dishes or writing down three good things that happened to you each day, can reap such big benefits.

In the spirit of the holiday, I’d like to take a moment to share the top 5 things I am grateful for, today and every day:

  • My family, near and far, for keeping me grounded and helping me succeed.
  • My friends, for the joy and laughter as well as the hugs and support.
  • My home, for providing warmth, comfort and shelter.
  • My morning quiet time, when I can turn inward and just be.
  • My Nia practice, for helping me rediscover the joy of movement.

And one – actually two – more things, just for fun – my feline “goddesses,” Artemis and Athena (below left and right, respectively). These little kitties remind me every day to look at the world with wonder and curiosity – to see everything as if for the first time. They teach me patience by often testing my patience, but who can resist their sweet little faces?

I wish you and your loved ones a Happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

cat pic

 

 

Spirituality

For many people, spirituality is a central component of how they experience life and view the world. For this reason, considering spirituality in the context of health is critical.

Spirituality is a way to find meaning, hope and inner peace in your life, but it can mean different things to different people. For many, it is tied to the practice or beliefs of an organized religion or faith to which they belong.  For others, it may not be linked to a particular religion or faith, but can be found through music, art, or a connection with nature. Although spirituality is very personal, the role that it plays in our lives can inform – and transform – our health.

The relationship between spirituality and health

There has been a significant increase in interest in the relationship between spirituality and health over the past few decades. Many research studies have demonstrated that spiritual practices are associated with better health and wellbeing for a number of reasons, including:

Contemplative practice is good for you. Many of these practices guide you to direct your attention inward, to quiet the mind or to increase compassion or empathy. These practices may include prayer, meditation, yoga or journaling. Meditation and yoga have both been found to help decrease depression and anxiety, while prayer and journaling may help you find meaning in life’s challenges and become more resilient in the face of obstacles.

A spiritual community can improve your life.  Many of us find community through participation in spiritual activities such as attending religious services or belonging to a meditation group. These communities can be sources of social support, which may provide a sense of connection and security as well as improved health and wellbeing.

Spiritual people make healthier choices. Some spiritual traditions have rules about treating the body with kindness and avoiding unhealthy behaviors. Research shows that people who practice a religion or faith tradition are less likely to smoke or drink, commit a crime, or become involved in violent activity. They are also more likely to engage in healthy habits like wearing seatbelts and taking vitamins.

Spirituality may help you live longer. A comprehensive review of research that compared spirituality and religiousness to other health interventions found that people with a strong spiritual life had an 18% reduction in mortality. Although there is not yet consensus about the extent of spirituality’s benefit on health, most researchers agree that there is a positive relationship between religious/spiritual practices and better health outcomes.

(The above information was adapted from the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing.  Please visit their site for references, if interested.)

Finding spirituality in every day moments 

As noted earlier, spirituality is very unique and personalized for all of us. There are many ways we can seek and find spiritual experiences – and sometimes they just occur on their own. This happened in a number of ways for me recently.  It began with seeing two living legends in the music world – Marc Cohn opening for Michael McDonald. It was an awesome show – from Marc’s rousing rendition of “Walking in Memphis” to Michael opening with “Yah Mo B There” and closing with an encore (including Marc and his band) belting out Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and of course, The Doobie Brothers’ “Taking it to the Streets” – it was both soul-stirring and soul-soothing. I have loved Michael’s velvety voice for as long as I can remember. And the songs he writes are meaningful, with themes of love and compassion for one another. Seeing him live was on my bucket list and I am grateful I had the chance to do so.

A few days after the show, I traveled to Wilmington to attend a health education conference. Since I don’t get to the coast very often, I was determined to find a little bit of time to walk on the beach. I don’t particularly enjoy the beach in the summer, but I love being by the water in the fall, my favorite season. After sitting almost all day during the conference, I went back to my hotel, grabbed my sneakers and made my way to Wrightsville Beach. I arrived in time to see some surfers making the most of the last hour of sunlight. I walked along the beach, enjoying the sound of the waves and the cool breeze on my face. I laughed at the woman trying to stop her dog from chasing the waves. I smiled at the little sandpipers as they hurried to pick their food from the sand before the water could wash them away. I then took a moment to stop and sit on the sand, taking in the sights and sounds, and silently expressing gratitude for my good fortune to be here, enjoying the splendors of this earth.

And last weekend, I attended Sunday service at the Unitarian Universalist church that is my spiritual home. We have a new minister, and this was only my second time hearing him preach. His sermon was titled “V is for…” and he spoke about the violence and hatred we are seeing across our country and the world, through mass shootings and terrorist attacks. He reminded us of the Golden Rule: to treat others how we want to be treated. He invoked the spirits of Buddha, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their collective messages of non-violent resistance. He reaffirmed that the only way to fight hatred is with love. It was a sobering message, but one that is needed now more than ever.

Three totally different experiences, all spiritual moments for me. I invite you to explore the ways that spirituality presents itself in your life and the impact it has on your health and wellbeing.

National Board Certification for Health & Wellness Coaches

I’m taking a brief detour from my journey around the Wheel of Health to share some exciting news! I found out yesterday that I passed the new national certification exam for health and wellness coaches. I am now officially a National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach (or NBC-HWC, for short). I am very proud to be one of the inaugural coaches to hold this distinction – and I want to share a few thoughts on why this national certification is so important.

Until now, anyone could essentially hang a shingle and call themselves a health coach regardless of whether they have had any education, training or experience as a coach. There are many individuals who are passionate about health and wellness, and long to share that passion with others based on their own experience and self-study. I think that passion is wonderful and that’s where I started back as a young adult in high school and college, taking ownership of my health and wellbeing for the first time.  However, I quickly realized that there was a lot that I did not know when it came to health and the science of behavior change, so I chose to pursue formal education and training in that profession.

I earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in Public Health, with a concentration in Health Behavior and Health Education, and I have held the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES®) credential since 1998. I have always identified as a health educator even when my official title may not have reflected that role. A few years ago, I decided to pursue additional training as a health coach. I have to admit that before I completed my coach training at Duke Integrative Medicine, I thought a health coach was essentially the same thing as a health educator. I would advise people about how to improve their health. I would share resources and essentially tell them what changes they needed to make around their diet, exercise, sleep and so on to be healthy. Boy, was I wrong.

My health coach training was eye-opening, even for someone who has been in the healthcare field for 20 years. I learned that coaching is a client-centered process – that the client is the expert on his or her own health, not me. As a coach, I am the expert in the process of health behavior change, but I am here as a partner and a guide for my clients. I help them define their personal vision of optimal health, create goals and action steps to achieve that vision, and provide support and encouragement as they incorporate new health behaviors into their lives. I don’t tell them what to do to be healthy, I empower them to find the answers within themselves. And I do this mostly by listening carefully and asking key questions to help reveal those answers. Simple, yet so powerful.

I share all this to help you understand that there is still great variability among health coaches right now, as these new national certification standards are just starting to be implemented. For this reason, I encourage you to do your homework and review the credentials of any coach with whom you may consider working. Although this is not medical care, where you could be harmed if treated by a professional that does not meet minimum professional standards, it is in your best interest to work with a coach who has had adequate training. After all, you want to achieve the best outcome possible – to be in your best health – especially if you are paying out of pocket for your coaching experience.

The International Consortium for Health & Wellness Coaching (ICHWC) has been working since 2010 to create these national standards for health and wellness coaches. In 2016, they partnered with the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) to establish a national certification for individual health and wellness coaches. The NBME  has been credentialing medical professionals for 100 years, and they applied the same rigor to the health and wellness coach exam as they have for other medical professional credentialing exams. Therefore, this national certification will allow proficient coaches to stand apart from coaches who have not received adequate coach training or assessment of their coaching skills and knowledge.

You can learn more about the Consortium and the National Board Certification of Health & Wellness Coaches here. The Consortium will soon be creating an online registry to include all health and wellness coaches who are National Board Certified, making it easier to find a qualified coach to assist you on your journey to optimal health. After all, if you are going to invest in your health, why not choose a partner who can best help you succeed?