Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Self-Regulate! Yes You Can!

In the past weeks, I have been covering the chapters of my ebook which just happens to follow the same process that I use with my wellness coaching clients and mental health therapy clients.  Perhaps the most important aspect of the plan I use for health and healing in mind and body is self-regulation.  This is the process of adjusting your mind and your body as needed, according to internal and external stimuli.  Think of it as you being able to control the thermostat on your furnace and air conditioning.  Things get too hot, you turn down the heat or turn up the air conditioning.  Too cold?  Turn up the heat or turn down the air conditioning.

Self-regulation is the ability to read what is happening with the nervous system, the mind, and the rest of the body and do something about it.  It doesn't include everything, but it includes more than you might guess.  Thoughts and senses trigger reactions of the nervous system.  You might think of a beloved pet or child and feel a sense of love which is the release of oxytocin, among other hormones and chemicals.  You hear the voice of a certain co-worker and feel the stress and tension in your body immediately.  A song reminds you of a difficult time in your life and suddenly you feel sad.  Again this is a chemical reaction in the body - the nervous system responds, hormones and chemical messengers are released, and digestion, immunity, muscle tension and more are affected! 

One way to self-regulate is to be able to control your thoughts, to create thoughts that make you feel good and avoid thoughts that make you feel bad.  I will address this more in a future blog on cognition.  However, changing thoughts through meditation needs to be addressed here. One of the most powerful self-regulators is meditation.  People tend to freak out when I use the "m" word, but there are many ways to meditate and some are really enjoyable and not all that hard.  The goal of meditation is to quiet the mind.  In doing so, you learn to actually control what goes on in your mind, which, in turn, controls how you feel.

This can happen by learning mindfulness which is a powerful and simple meditation technique for beginners.  The goal is to be present and focused on exactly what is happening now.  This can be done with mindful breathing, walking, or whatever you happen to be doing.  The goal is to keep the mind from wandering into worries about the future or regret about the past.  The more the brain connects to worry and regret, the easier it is to stay there. 

Also, you can learn to use imagery.  Imagery takes the brain into imaginary territory, invoking the senses - see it, hear it, smell it, feel it, and/or taste it.  Choose actual memories or create something completely unreal, doesn't matter.  What you create triggers the brain, creating a feeling.  The brain sends out different messengers and hormones in response to the sensory input you've imagined.  And,  the brain now finds it easier to connect to all this good stuff!

Breathing techniques are another way to control the nervous system.  I spoke briefly about breathing in the previous blog "Let's Get Physical..."  Let me say a bit more here about what's actually going on.  We have a sympathetic nervous system and a para-sympathetic nervous system.  To make it really simple, think about the sympathetic as your hot water and the para as your cold water.  Stress, anxiety, frustration, anger, etc. turn on the hot water/sympathetic nervous system - you might feel sweaty, your heart races, your blood pressure rises, etc.  It is then the job of the para-sympathetic/cold water to balance things out as needed.  Let's say you have a physical activity or a competition, a little adrenaline is helpful initially, so the cold water isn't necessary until later or perhaps not until the competition is completely over. The energy of the sympathetic nervous system is necessary for motivation.  It helps us get things done and keep out of danger.  However, the cold water needs to be turned on so we can relax and sleep, so we can slow down and do low energy activities.

When the nervous system gets out of balance, as it is for so many of us, the para-sympathetic doesn't balance out as needed.  We can, however, turn it on ourselves, by using the breath.  Various breathing techniques can be used to get the para-sympathetic turned on or turn it down when you need energy.  Deep breaths are relaxing.  Quick inhales create energy.  Retaining the breath between inhales and exhales can do both.  Experiment with breath and use it as a tool for manipulating these two aspects of the nervous system.

Relaxation is a general term for a variety of ways to turn on the para-sympathetic nervous system and keep it low for the sake of releasing the tension so prevalent in the mind and body.  Practicing relaxation techniques such as savasana in yoga, yoga nidra, Yin yoga, guided relaxation audio or video, and progressive relaxation (tensing the muscles on the inhale and releasing on the exhale) all teach you to understand and control your nervous system.  Spending more time in a relaxed state keeps the brain familiar with relaxation and makes it easier for the brain to turn toward a relaxed state of mind.

The goal is that you begin to learn to be in charge of the body's responses to stimuli, you learn to create your own stimuli, and you learn awareness of the brain's triggers and the body's reactions.  There are more ways yet to do this. I am going to stop here this week.  More to come in future posts.  In the meantime, try these techniques and see what you learn!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving: Make Every Meal a Meal of Gratitude and Mindfulness

Mindful eating is getting some attention recently as a weight loss tool. The unconscious eater is prone to over-eating, while the mindful eater, chews slowly and enjoys every bite. What isn't often included in our Western variation of mindful eating is gratitude.

Mindful eating is not just meant to make the process of eating a very conscious event, but it also helps us to be more aware of our food's origins. In addition, we should have a relationship to food that is not so fraught with love/hate, should I/shouldn't I? Wouldn't it be nice to have a healthy and respectful relationship to food?  We take our food for granted which allows this neurotic relationship.  Think about where it came from.  How it got to the store or the market and who all had to participate for you to have the food in front of you?  It is a sad state of affairs that some children are unaware that a carrot grew in the dirt, that hamburger comes from a cow, and even worse that the food in the box is a mish mash of often unknown origin!

Start by being really grateful for the meal in front of you, whatever it is, wherever you are. It doesn't need to be a formal prayer of thanks, any statement that recognizes how great it is to have a meal in front of you will do. You can evolve this into whatever you like. Occasionally, I like to thank everybody that was a part of some meal - if it came from my garden, I see that whole wonderful growing process. If it came from the store, who all helped it get to me? The farmer's market? Who is the farmer and what methods is she/he using to grow?  This way I am thankful for sunshine and rain, the bees, the workers, and so much more! It's really hard to be neurotic about the food I am eating when I am filled with so much gratitude!

Next, while you are eating, biting, chewing, allow yourself to enjoy the smells, the colors, the textures, the subtle flavors of each bite and be grateful for all this deliciousness, all this nutrition and health! This will allow for more enjoyment and more of the good feelings we all want to feel when we eat.  Begin your meal by looking at all the colors and shapes of your food.  Then smell your food.  The sense of taste is greatly enhanced by the sense of smell, so really take a nice big whiff!  Next, take a bite a vary, vary slowly let the food roll around in your mouth.  See if you can notice layers of flavors.  Now, say what you are thinking:  "Yum!  This is delicious!"  Or, maybe it needs something - a dash of salt or pepper, a pat of butter.  Make it perfect and enjoy!
Food is not so plentiful in other parts of the world.  Nor is there so much variety.  Maybe this is part of our country's inability to create healthy food relationships.  Try some mindful eating for a month, not every meal, but one meal per day and see how big the change will be! 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Falling Sleep

This weekend we "fall back" one hour for Daylight Savings.  So, it's a great time to start some new sleep habits!

I have been talking about the ways that you can rewire your brain and create mental health and wellness in the past few blogs.  Last blog was all about exercise and physical activity.  As part of that topic, sleep is another definite way to improve mental health and wellness.  Sleep can be one of the most powerful mood enhancers.  But, it can also be a great challenge to many.

In general, we are told that we should sleep 8 hours a night and that sleep should be uninterrupted and free of chemicals (alcohol, sleep medications, etc.).  Everyone is different and the variety of needs and methods makes sleep, which is a daily, regular, very ordinary event, a sometimes extremely challenging activity.  However, it is one of the first concerns I have when it comes to clients who come in unmotivated, gaining weight, with low mood/depression symptoms, and with lack of focus. 

Insomnia is a quality of life issue.  Get a good night's sleep and feel a sense of hope and happiness in the day.  A lousy night's sleep?  Dread, cynicism, and general crabbiness are likely and sometimes depression and hopelessness are present.  It's no fun at all for something so mundane.  Not only does lack of sleep effect a mental sense of well-being, but it also effects heart health, risk of diabetes, immune weakness, and more.

As I said earlier, sleep is a very individualized thing and when it goes in a negative direction, it seems to spiral out of reach and out of control until we feel like we might never get it back on track!  However, there is some hope.  First off, make sure there isn't something medically present.  Sleep apnea is a serious health concern, talk to your doctor.  Also, menopause and other hormonal effects might be the cause, talk to your doctor.  Restless leg?  Talk to your doctor.  Taking a medication, check the side effects, many interfere with sleep.  In general, if you think there might be something serious going on, talk to your doctor.  However, if you think you are just a rotten sleeper, then it is time to introduce some better sleep habits.

It is easy to take the sleep thing for granted and just assume your body should do what it is supposed to do.  The problem is we are taking what the body does naturally and influencing it with so many new and strange external inputs, it is not sure when sleeptime is anymore!  Therefore, some strict habits need to be put in place until you are able to get back on track.

Start first with sleep hygiene.  Set a bedtime.  Look at your schedule and set an alarm of some type to go off one hour before you need to be in bed.  Then, turn down the lights, turn off the TV (this is a good time to learn to use your recording devices), put on some light music, and get ready for bed.  Prepare for the next day, so you are not lying in bed wondering if you are ready to get out the door on time.  Sometimes it helps to journal, make a list, or in some other way get out any thoughts you might have running around in your head.  Those folks who lie in bed thinking need some way to get the thoughts out.  This may not work at first, but if you create a nightly habit, it will.

I hear people say they can't sleep without the TV.  I understand this as a way to tune out.  The TV helps one to zone out, to let go of anxious thoughts and patterns of stressful thinking and worry.  However, there are much better ways.  The TV also inflicts stress, noise, and light which prevent the brain from turning on natural sleep readiness.  There are so many relaxation resources out there right now.  Start trying them!  CDs and other audio resources walk you through the process of releasing muscles and calming the mind.  It may take some training, but the results can be used then for more than just sleep.  As you learn to relax for sleep, you learn to relax in general.  It becomes a habit!

Next, make sure you are not ingesting something that interferes with your sleep cycles.  We cycle through about 4 (depends on the professional as to how many there are) different levels of sleep usually 5 times per night (depending on the number of hours you spend in bed), each with its own function for creating a morning in which you feel well rested.  Ingesting caffeine may not prevent you from falling asleep, but it does affect your ability to fall into these levels and cycle through for a good night's sleep.  Alcohol and other depressants are the same.  They may help you fall asleep and stay asleep, but you have completely changed your ability to go into the levels of sleep needed.  Go back to learning relaxation techniques and using the good hygiene suggestions above.

Exercise during the day can help!  Now, the weather is getting chilly and will keep getting chilly and this will help even more.  The body works harder to stay warm, using more energy and helping create the tiredness needed before bedtime.  However, any type of exercise will help, even if you do so indoors.  Find a yoga class with a relaxing tempo and a nice long savasana practice at the end to get you relaxed later in the evening.  The benefit there is it is also teaching about body awareness, breathing, and relaxation!

Don't take sleep for granted!  It might not happen without some serious changes that you need to put in place and stick with for 3-4 weeks.  Don't worry if you can't keep yourself to the plan 100% at first, just gradually keep working at it, learn what works and give it time.  The benefits are huge!  Sleep equals mental health.  It is well worth the effort.