Friday, August 27, 2010

What Color Is Your ... Cantaloupe?

If someone were to give you a magic wand, and to tell you it really had the power to instantly transform your world, you would use it, right? You would have to be crazy not to. Well, you do have one, but it is shaped more like a cantaloupe than a sparkly long stick. It is your brain.

Since our interpretation of all experiences in life emerges from the brain, any change in our brain, in turn, changes our reality. Reality, after all, is your brain’s unique way of making sense of what happens around you.

Merely by changing your thinking, you can change your world. It is that simple. Through neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change its’ physical form and function in response to actions, perceptions and even thinking and imagining) whatever you do repeatedly becomes the default pathway in your brain. Any situation, any person, can be seen from many perspectives. You can choose your view and, with enough consistent practice, this becomes the norm in your brain. Ta da!

Take, for instance, someone in your life who is a royal pain in the ass. I can think of a couple really quick with no problem. Yes, this person may provide lots of situations inviting grief and aggravation. You can see them only from that point of view or you can back up, broaden the view, and look at them more objectively. Acknowledge the attached emotions, but do not let them color your thoughts. This person can also be seen as a teacher. Yep. You read that right.

I am used to living by myself. Recently, I not only had my two sons here, but also another 19 year old male. Boy, I thought I was this serene, centered, enlightened being…until then. I found myself getting agitated at stupid, petty things. I found I am really sensitive to the sweaty boy smell in a not so good way. Instead of pointing the finger at them, I had to look at what this activated in me and what this experience had to teach me. Patience. Tolerance. Compassion. Working on it.

On a much bigger scale, while I have been divorced for around 6 years, my ex-husband finds far too many reasons to continue to disagree. Stupid me! I thought divorce was supposed to put an end to all the bickering. It just makes it much more expensive because, now, we have to do it through lawyers and can’t just scream directly at each other. He has been and continues to be one of my greatest teachers. Seriously. He has provided me with countless growth opportunities. I have grown in strength, courage, and self confidence tremendously each damn time. One day soon, I am gonna graduate.

Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun philosopher, gives the unique advice of going directly into the situations from which you want to instinctively run in her book “The Places That Scare You.” Therein lies the opportunity for the biggest personal growth.

According to her, we always have a choice. We can let the people and circumstances of our lives harden us and make us increasingly angry and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us more compassionate. This wisdom (or magic wand) is always available to us. We tend to block it with habitual reactions and unconscious living.

So, pick up your magic wand, wave it in the air with a big “Whoop!” and get busy. This does not mean that *POOF* you can make everything just as you want it. It means that *POOF* you are able to find peace, joy, and acceptance no matter what happens.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Into The Fire

I love the myth of the phoenix. Do you know it? In it, the giant, beautiful, colorful bird builds a nest and sets it and itself on fire. (Don’t even ask me how the hell a bird sets a nest on fire. It makes for a good story. OK?) The bird emerges from the ashes a totally new, reborn bird. The phoenix has become my symbol over the past 3 years.

I downed over 90 pills in a very real attempt to kill myself. There are some things at which it is good to fail. They found me too late to pump my stomach. All the drugs went completely through my system. Mostly brain drugs – sleeping pills, tranquilizers, anti-anxiety drugs and anti-depressants (ironic, I know.)

At first, I was seriously mentally impaired. I had a hard time putting thoughts into words. It was a painstakingly slow process. I could barely talk. It sounded like a drunken slur. I shook uncontrollably. I did not know what to do with my arms when I walked. My balance and coordination were way off. With lots of determination, lots of hard work and discipline every day, lots of reading and learning, lots of self examination, lots of doing things differently, and through the miracle of neuroplasticity, I have emerged slowly from the chaos I created stronger, happier, and healthier than ever. I am a phoenix.

In her book Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, Elizabeth Lesser calls such a transformation the Phoenix Process:

Surviving the Holocaust, enduring the loss of one’s child, learning to live with an incurable illness, witnessing terror, or experiencing trauma—these are Phoenix Processes of the tallest order. Come through one of them with an open heart, and you will light a path through the woods for all of us.

She goes on to say that a person must make the journey by themselves. They must go into the flames alone to burn away the illusions of the ego and arise from the ashes with their true, authentic, new self. A person can choose to go into the fire, through the unknown, through the darkness and do the gut wrenching work or they can choose to turn away and remain frozen in an empty relationship, a soul killing job, a difficult loss, a numb life or whatever. Should they go into the fire, they stand to emerge with a new level of strength, power, and courage and with an awakened sense of empathy and a softer heart.

My choice initially was to do neither. I just wanted out. Surviving the suicide attempt and the resulting brain injury flung me right into the fire. It put me in a situation where all I could begin to try to control was how I dealt with the reality of the circumstances psychologically. Therein is the magic for anyone in any situation. The whole recovery has been a transformative Phoenix Process for me and a blessing in disguise. I would not go back to being who I was before for anything — even though she didn’t talk funny and had much better penmanship.

As a symbol of all I have been through and the promises I have made to myself going forward in my life, I got a tattoo of a phoenix. My first one. At my age!?! It is small and in a discreet place. I just love it! It is my own, private badge of honor and courage. I am ready to fly.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mental Gymnastics

You can’t see your brain or anyone else’s for that matter. (Thank goodness!) So, we tend not to think too much about what shape it is in. It doesn’t have to fit into a bikini or squeeze into some tight jeans. So what does it really matter? If your brain is not in tip top shape, it can effect almost any aspect of your life. Believe me, it is one of those things you take completely for granted until something is not working right. Then you notice big time.

Brain fitness has to become a part of our culture just like physical fitness. It is already starting to somewhat. Brain gyms and brain fitness classes are popping up here and there. However, it is not necessary to go to a brain gym to keep your brain in shape. There is plenty you can do on your own.

Just as for your heart, breaking a sweat is about the best thing you can do for your brain. Exercise increases the oxygenated blood flow to the brain and promotes the birth of new neurons. A study at the University of Illinois found that something as simple a three vigorous, 40 minute walks a week over a 6 month period improved participants memory and reasoning.

Complex and diverse mental challenges are next on the list for brain fitness. Doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku are good, but they are not near enough. They ask a person to recall things already known. The brain stays healthy by doing new things and by being challenged.

The idea is to push your brain beyond its comfort zone. Learning new skills, hobbies, or sports, continuing to educate yourself, putting yourself in new social situations, and traveling to new places are great for the brain. Even seemingly simple things like taking a new route to a familiar place, sleeping on the different side of the bed, or brushing your teeth with your non dominant hand will give your brain a little work out.

There are many companies offering brain boosting products these days. Luminosity ( ), Advanced Brain Technologies ( ), and Posit Science ( are some recognized names in this field. Studies showing the hard, definitive results for such activities are still being conducted but are generally encouraging. Most are proving, just like with physical fitness, consistent practice over time does produce positive results.

I can tell you, from my own experience, such products have been an invaluable and amazing part of my recovery from a serious brain injury. I can’t say enough good stuff about Posit’s products. In doing their Brain Fitness Program software, I more than doubled my mental processing speed. This made a huge difference for me. I still do brain training consistently.

Last, but not least on the list is nutrition. All the same recommendations for a heart healthy diet work for a brain healthy diet. Eating lots of dark colored fruits, especially berries, and myriad of vegetables provides the brain with antioxidants and many vitamins and minerals. Including fish and nuts regularly and often will give your brain the omega-3 fatty acids it needs to be at its best. A highly intelligent diet would include lots of lean proteins, complex carbohydrates and good fats. Supplements are a great aid here. Water is SO important to your brain’s optimal functioning.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Older and Better!

I bought my first pair of reading glasses a couple of weeks ago. Red. I think they are kinda fun and funky. While, amazingly, I do not have any gray hair yet (just had to throw that in), the half century mark is looming not too far ahead for me. The good news is that it is not all down hill and doom and gloom for my brain from here.

Recent research is showing that our brain gains skills as we age - reorganizing itself and using more parts to problem solve and multitask. Barbara Strauch, in her book The Grown Up Brain , says studies are revealing that the brain peaks in middle age somewhere between ages 40 and 68. Yipee!

While the aging brain does lose 45% of the kind of dendrite spines responsible for learning and remembering new things (Where in blue blazes did I put my keys?), it does not loose any of the other kind of dendrite spines that are linked to core knowledge.

A myelin sheath coats nerve fibers in the brain, insulating and protecting them. Myelin continues to grow into our 60’s. Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change its functioning and to grow new neurons and synapses, continues throughout life.

The elderly brain is less dopamine dependent. Dopamine is the feel good neurotransmitter involved in the reward/pleasure rush as well as wanting and craving. This means the older brain is less impulsive and less driven to seek immediate gratification. Patience really does come with age. Hallelujah to that one!

All of this points to an older brain that is slower, for sure, but also wiser with some enhanced depth and abilities. There is growing acceptance of the idea of a “cognitive reserve” that builds as we age.

Younger people do score better on standard brain tests in the lab, but the older brain may fare better in real life. It really boils down to what exactly is being measured and what is defined as “better.” While a 20 something year old may be able to find the next letter in a sequence of letters faster, is that really going to help them to be a better CEO of a company?

Some of the long standing, bad news beliefs about what happens to the brain as we age are beginning to be questioned and debunked. A lot of the differences may have more to do with generational factors rather than mental decline. It is beginning to look like a brain that declines with age is becoming almost optional.