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

 

 

 

Nutrition – Part 2 – How to Eat

In the last post about nutrition, I discussed some of the general recommendations around what kinds of foods to eat to promote or maintain good health. Today we are going to look at the topic of nutrition from another angle, one that I believe is equally as important – how to eat to maintain a healthy weight and stay healthy.

Weight loss/weight management is a heavily debated topic, and one that is also very popular based on the number of books, websites, and programs that exist to help individuals on this journey. Again, my goal with this post is to provide general guidelines that are supported by sound research that can help if you are struggling to maintain a healthy weight. As some of the latest science has revealed, there are several surprising factors that play into whether someone can lose weight and keep it off. There is no “one size fits all” approach and what works for one person may not work for someone else. The researchers also concluded that it can take multiple tries to figure out what works for you. My hope is that you’ll find one or two solid strategies that fit your needs and lead to success.

 The Dieting Paradox

 It is probably no longer a shocking fact to hear that 71% of American adults are overweight. A 2017 study found that obesity now drives more early preventable deaths in the U.S. than smoking. This has fueled a weight-loss industry worth $66.3 billion, selling everything from diet pills to meal plans to fancy gym memberships. And yet more and more research is demonstrating that traditional dieting, such as cutting calories or restricting certain kinds of foods, DOES NOT WORK.

There is a body of research dating back to World War II around dieting and the ensuing cycle of losing weight and regaining weight (sometimes more than was lost). The impact of this “yo-yo dieting” is to ratchet up the baseline weight even higher, beyond the individual’s original weight. Researchers at UCLA conducted a meta-analysis of 31 long-term studies on the effectiveness of dieting. They concluded that dieting is a consistent predictor of weight gain – up to 2/3rds of people regained more weight than they lost. So yes, dieting can actually put you at risk of gaining weight. Let that sink in for a minute.

There are neurological, hormonal and metabolic changes that occur when you engage in dieting behaviors and/or lose weight. For example, your metabolism slows down when you lose weight, but researchers have found that if you gain some or all of that weight back, your metabolism does not increase accordingly. So, the bottom line is, unfortunately, that biology is working against you when you diet.

A mindful approach – changing your relationship with food

So, what is the good news, you ask? There is another way! It is a slower, but more sustainable approach to weight management. You’ve probably heard the advice that in order to be successful at losing weight and keeping it off, you can’t succeed with short-term fixes – you have to make lifestyle changes that are sustainable over time. This is solid advice and the basis for what many have now coined “mindful eating.” This approach is not about making external changes such as restricting calories, but rather adopting an inner-oriented process where you tune into your mind and body for cues about hunger and eating.

Changing eating behavior is difficult because it is an automatic behavior that we’ve been doing for decades. How many of you have experienced eating on “autopilot” – when you intend to just have a handful of chips and next thing you know, the bag is empty? And you can’t remember eating them all? Mindful eating is about disengaging this autopilot and bringing awareness and intention to the act of eating. It takes time and practice to be mindful, but by learning to tune into your body, noticing hunger and fullness signals and the way food really tastes, you can radically change your experience of eating.

Some helpful tips, tools and resources

 As you have probably figured out, mindful eating is rooted in the practice of mindfulness. I touched upon mindfulness in my post highlighting the various areas of the Wheel of Health, and we will explore it further in a future post. Mindfulness is about paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and without judgment. Building a mindfulness practice in general will help you eat more mindfully. For now, we will focus on some basic strategies you can explore and adopt to help move you along your path to mindful eating.

  • Be present at meals – stop and focus on eating when you eat. Turn off the TV, put down the newspaper, book or phone, sit down at the table. Slowing down and being present while eating can prevent overeating, eating unhealthy foods, and help you tune into your body’s hunger and fullness signals. This may be a challenge if you are used to eating on the run or multitasking while you eat. If so, start small – try it for one meal and notice how it feels when you give yourself permission to simply be present and eat.

 

  • Stop judging – judgment plays a powerful role for people trying to change their eating habits and/or lose weight. We often turn a simple fact (“I ate the whole pint of ice cream in one sitting!”) into a condemnation of ourselves (“I have no willpower and will never lose weight”).  Being mindful can help break through this “all or nothing” thinking and the failure-shame-avoidance spiral that is common in weight loss (“I pigged out at the buffet. I have no willpower – it’s useless, I’ll never be able to lose weight so I might as well quit trying.”)  Rest assured, this is not about letting yourself off the hook or making excuses for less than optimal choices. As you increase awareness and cease to judge, you will learn to shift course before or while engaging in the unhealthy choice or habit; it actually allows for accountability.

 

  • Be kind to yourself – compassion will get you further than punishment. Think about a baby learning to walk. He is bound to stumble and fall, but do his parents judge or criticize him and tell him he’ll never learn to walk? No, they respond with love and encouragement to keep trying. We need to do the same for ourselves. This can be difficult as our society tends to favor finding the problem and focusing on what needs fixing. This works sometimes but not always. We also find it easier to treat others with compassion but not ourselves. If you had a friend struggling to lose weight and she shared her difficulties and setbacks, you most likely would empathize and encourage her to keep working toward her goal. Why not extend that same kindness to yourself?

If all of this seems a bit overwhelming, it may help to start by trying a simple tool that you can use anytime, anywhere. It is called the Hunger-Fullness Scale and it helps you tune into your body’s natural signals around the need to eat or stop eating. Here is one example that you can use.

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Sample Hunger-Fullness Scale

Before you eat, pause for a moment to assess where you are on the scale in terms of hunger or fullness. The recommendation is to eat when you are moderately hungry (around a 2-2.5 on the scale) and to stop eating at the first sign or signal of moderate fullness (around a 5-5.5). As you may be aware, it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to signal to your brain that you are full or starting to get full. Thus, slowing your pace of eating can also help you tune into signals of fullness, as will using this scale after you begin eating and when you finish your meal.

If you are interested in learning more about mindful eating, there are a number of excellent resources available on the topic. Two of my favorite books are “The Mindful Diet” by Ruth Q. Wolever and Beth Reardon and “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life” by Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung. In addition, there is an excellent website called The Center for Mindful Eating.

Learning to eat mindfully is a process and a journey, but I believe you will find it is worth the effort. Start small, explore and see what works best for you – one bite at a time.