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What your cells want you to know

Cradle_of_Humankind_039Your cells want you to know that they are living, breathing, and sentient.

They want you to know that they hear everything you hear, see everything you see, and feel everything you feel.

They want you to know that they are affected by all the choices you make, from what you choose to eat, to who you choose to marry.

They want you to know that they want so much for your health and happiness, because when you are happy, they are happy.

Continue reading “What your cells want you to know”

Coping with grief

file0001465861740Grief passes through us in waves, taking us over in rhythmic contractions. It can come over us at any time after we have experienced a loss, whether it is the death of a loved one, the ending of a relationship, or the change of a situation we had grown to be comfortable in. Whatever it is that we grieve, the feeling is the same. It is like a vice grip around our heart, as if an old bitter woman’s deformed fingers are clawing at us, reaching into our lungs, causing each breath to travel into us with the exquisite torture of knowing we are still alive while what we loved is not. Usually, if we stay with this feeling and breathe through it, we find that the old woman eases her grip a bit, forgetting us for a brief moment in her slumber. But eventually she wakes, and remembers.

This process of grieving is universal, and something we cannot experience without first calling ourselves human. It is felt at all ages and life circumstances. Grief is the cost of being alive in this world. At some point, we will lose someone or something close to us. And while we often grieve the absence of others, what is hidden within the layers of that grief is the sense that we have lost a part of ourselves. Even if we are grieving a loved one’s death, it feels like a part of us has also died.

What I have learned from experiencing my own grief, however, is that rather than representing a death, it actually is a form of giving birth. Grief is experienced in waves, like labor pains, contractions meant to bring forth new life. In the midst of a grief contraction, the only thing I can do is breathe. I focus on my breath, allowing it to flow through me along the waves of pain I feel that travel through my body in a very physical way. Eventually, the contraction subsides and I am fine again, until the next wave. Intense periods of grief consist of these contractions that may occur over a period of days, weeks or even years. It will last as long as needed to birth what is wanting to be born. The more we turn away from it, the longer our labor; and those who never face it may even die with a part of themselves trapped within, yearning to be allowed even one breath of this wonderful life.

Grief is a process that the spiritual and physical body undergoes to bring new life into this world. The life we choose to bring forth is up to us, but it will usually be greater than anything we could have imagined.

To anyone experiencing a loss, here is a guided meditation that I have found helpful for myself:

Breathe through the waves of grief you are feeling like a mother in labor breathing through a contraction. Let the feeling pass. Once you find stillness, ask yourself this simple question: What am I birthing into the world right now? It’s ok if no answer comes to mind, or if several come at once. The point is to acknowledge that you are in a transition phase right now, between death of the old, and life of the new. You have the strength and courage to accept all of your feelings, no matter how painful they may be, because you are delivering into the world a part of yourself that is very much loved and needed at this time. Envision this part of you existing right now in the core of your being. Breath into your core, relaxing your body, so that you can allow this new life to emerge.

How I lost my spirit in medicine (and what I did to get it back)

file1291253622910Over the past several years, my perspective on myself and life has slowly undergone a shift. In my late teens and early twenties when I was going through medical school, I felt like I had little time to work on self-development and so I didn’t. I figured going through medical school was development enough, and in some ways it was. I pushed the limits of my knowledge further than I ever had before. I accepted that I wasn’t the “best and the brightest”, in the group of talented individuals I was blessed to call my peers. But what I didn’t realize happening was that I was slowly becoming a more and more negative person. I was surviving in a difficult environment, and when we are thrown into survival mode often our perception of threats looms much larger than it should, because it seems our life depends on it. When we become adept at identifying potential threats, we stop living in a balanced world and instead blend into the negativity the way a chameleon blends into the leaves he hides behind.

There is probably no other training out there more efficient in making a person feel inadequate and small as medicine. It’s unfortunate, because this is the profession based on teaching and healing others. No doctor should come out of the process worse for wear, no matter how much information they have to memorize and how sick the patients are that they see. But what often happens is that we enter our esteemed profession with a more negative mindset than what we came in with. We now try to anticipate all the things that can go wrong, not just with our patients, but with ourselves as we are learning. What if we get asked a question that we don’t know the answer to, and it’s the mean attending on rounds today? What if in our attempt to learn a new procedure, we screw it up and get yelled at, or worse, cause harm to the patient? And in some scenarios, the questions are even harder to answer, especially for women. What if we are sexually harassed by a superior? When I was a student, a surgeon used my body as a sweat rag for his forehead in the middle of a case. Years later, a chairman inappropriately placed his hand on my thigh when asking me a question. Worse has happened to other women. If that doesn’t teach you to survive by being on the lookout for threats, I don’t know what will.

It wasn’t until I made it out of residency and fellowship training that I finally could take stock of what I had even been through for the past decade. I was looking at a landscape within myself that I didn’t even recognize anymore. I finally had the time to evaluate what teachings I wanted to keep from that time, and what I wanted to throw out. It was a mental and emotional clearing of my closet (or medicine cabinet, if you will). I got rid of any thought that I wasn’t smart enough, I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t a hard worker, I had to get everything right (especially the first time), and that if I didn’t know the answer to something then that meant I was a failure. None of those thoughts were original to my self-concept when I started medical school, and yet each one had grown its roots into my psyche by the time I started private practice. It’s one thing to prepare future physicians for the stresses they will face in their medical careers; it’s another thing entirely to short circuit their brains with fear and negativity.

What I wish I had known back then, all those years ago, was that I didn’t have to go through the experience like velcro for other people’s negativity. I was sensitive and young, and took very seriously my experiences with those who were older and wiser. It took several years before I realized that attendings, professors, senior residents or even administrators were still capable of acting like children, ruled by their egos. Because I gave them all the benefit of the doubt, and myself none, I learned a way of being that ultimately kept myself small and dormant. This is not to say that everyone experiences what I went through, but those who are more emotionally sensitive (often women) share similar stories. Practicing meditation, self-compassion, loving detachment and other stress resilience techniques might not have changed my circumstances, but they would have helped me cope with them more effectively, leading to a lot less suffering. I was detached from my spirit, and only reconnected to it once I had time to breathe.

No one is perfect, and this career takes a toll on everyone. You can’t go through medical training and come out the same person as you went in, nor should you. What we live through changes us on a fundamental level, but if it isn’t changing us for the better, how can we really contribute to positive change in the world? It’s not a lofty or naive goal at all to go to medical school in hopes of making a difference in the world. I would hope that most of us in medicine are humanitarians on some level. After years of delayed income, sleepless nights, mental and physical strain, and often failed relationships in the process, it’s certainly not all about the “money”. There is a deeper purpose, a spiritual seed, that is ready to germinate and nourish ourselves and others, but only in the right conditions. It is the responsibility of each individual involved in medical education to understand that ultimately, we are all in this together for a purpose larger than ourselves.

In any circumstance we face, there is truth and there is illusion. Differentiating between the two in my medical career has been the only way to keep the strong connection to my higher Self, while progressing in an institution that is still very much in its spiritual infancy.

Your plastic brain

Your brain is plastic.

By that, I don’t mean that your brain is made of synthetic material that clogs up landfills. I mean that your brain is moldable. Its able to change, contrary to what most of us have thought for years. Conventional thought is that our brain is made up of more or less fixed neurons, that we can’t actually regenerate neurons and after childhood, changing our established neuronal patterns is extremely difficult. But none of these notions are actually true. Your brain is markedly fluid, it responds to its environment (your thoughts and behavior) and changes accordingly. Probably a better term is that it “adapts”. It is an organ that has evolved to respond to you and your thoughts, and this is the best possible news any of us could hope for. This means that we can literally change our brains.

You are probably wondering why you would want to change your brain. That’s a good question. The answer lies in looking at what you want to change in your life. Are you struggling with the same pattern in dysfunctional relationships? Are you overweight or dealing with a chronic illness you can’t seem to overcome? Are your finances a mess, with no way out of debt? These are all situations that can be improved by changing your brain. These are all situations that can respond to your conscious effort to change them.

Neuroplasticity is the emerging science that is showing us there is way more to our brains than what we previously thought. And, interestingly enough, it is re-affirming what ancient traditions have known for millennia. Practices such as meditation, compassion and mindfulness are the key to harnessing the plastic potential of our brains, ultimately leading to positive change and better life outcomes. Whether you choose to approach this issue from the neuroscience perspective, or from the eastern spirituality perspective, it truly doesn’t matter. What matters is that you harness the neuroplastic potential of your brain to benefit your life and achieve what you ultimately desire the most.

My guess is that the majority of us have more than one area we long to see improve, and yet we feel resistance or a block in how to accomplish that change. This is a normal experience, and while it can definitely be discouraging, there is so much to look forward to if we understand what tools we can use to help our brains change. Our brains are like radios that we have believed are fixed on one single station for our entire lives. We keep hearing the same static, chopped words or grating noise that maybe at one time in our lives sounded like music, but now keeps us feeling stuck and restless. Suddenly, someone comes by and shows us how to change the station, and not only can we change the station, but we can change it to anything we want. The only thing we have to do is pay attention to what we want to listen to the most, and change the station to that frequency. By making what seems like a small and minor adjustment, with total commitment, we can change our experience. We can begin to dance, our movements as fluid as they used to be, twirling and dipping ourselves into a new realm of health and fulfillment.

Take advantage of your glorious, plastic brain. Figure out what areas of your life you have been living in a stuck, dysfunctional pattern and start changing the radio station. Your brain is there to adapt to what you ultimately want from life, and as it changes, so will you.

Stay tuned for my next post, in which I describe exercises that will help you change your brain for the better.

The challenge of moving forward

Curved country roadEven though we know that life is continuously moving us forward, our experience of time can be more that it is stagnant rather than fluid. Especially when we find ourselves in the same jobs, same relationships, same locations etc…the lack of change almost makes it seem like time stands still, until that day we look in the mirror at a face being reflected back to us which we no longer recognize. At some point, we encounter situations that force us to change and propel us in forward moving directions that we might not have pursued on our own. How can we harness the energy of the impending change in order to guide us into life’s next phase?

The first challenge is accepting that change brings with it uncertainty that is often uncomfortable. We place so much importance on the sensory information received by our five physical senses, that we forget to listen to the inner sixth sense about our lives. Because we are looking at our immediate surroundings, whether it be within the home, job or relationship, we fail to see beyond at what might be possible. Or when we do, we think of all the obstacles and pitfalls that await us. There is no mystery why we think this way – our minds have evolved to identify threats to ensure our survival. This has been of great benefit to us, but at a cost. The single hardest thing about embracing change is our fear of what is yet to come. That even if we try to get our dream job, either it won’t work out or we’ll show up and realize it wasn’t what we really wanted. It’s the classic choice between the devil you know, and the devil you don’t.

This is a challenge that reaps huge rewards if we accept it. If we can calm our nervous system enough from the fear of change, we might benefit from looking back at our individual histories and noting when uncertainty brought us the greatest treasures in our lives. Not knowing exactly what is to come is probably life’s greatest gift to us, for it allows anything to be possible beyond our wildest dreams.

When moving forward in any endeavor that brings with it uncertainty, it is helpful to connect to those core things about ourselves we can still be certain of. For instance, no matter what situation we find ourselves in, we can be sure that we will always try to be kind to others. Or no matter how alone we feel living in a new town, we can be sure that we will get involved in the community and see what happens. In the midst of uncertainty, we can always be sure that we are worthy of love and belonging. These things, that do not change, are really all we need to feel grounded in life. Everything else that does change, just allows our wings to open so that we can take flight.

Why I stand at work (and have a bigger butt because of it)

file9271337413144Being a pathologist in private practice means a lot of long days at the microscope. Most of us have jobs that require prolonged sitting, and that takes a toll on our bodies. I’m not just talking about our waistlines, but the effects of prolonged sitting are so detrimental, that it can result in excessive lumbar curvature (lordosis), low back and hip pain, and gluteal atrophy.

Yes, you heard me right. Gluteal atrophy, or as I like to call it, vanishing butt syndrome. Unless you have a Kim Kardashian butt, my guess is you don’t want to lose whatever nice curves you’ve got back there. But if you are sitting down for hours at a time every day, most likely some of your butt cells are starting to wither away. And if there is one thing I know well, it’s cells. (You thought I was going to say butts, didn’t you?)

Not only does your butt slowly atrophy from prolonged sitting, but other muscles are affected too. The mechanism by which this occurs is pretty well known in exercise science. Prolonged sitting causes a tightening of your hip flexors, which in turn anteriorly rotates your pelvis causing the low back to curve unnaturally. This position of the pelvis also results in the hamstrings being lengthened, which by autonomic inhibition, results in decreased firing of the nerves to the muscle fibers to prevent injury. Basically, your whole lower body becomes unbalanced. If you have ever done leg extensions and hamstring curls in the gym, you’ll notice quite a difference in how strong the front and back of your legs are as a result of prolonged sitting and muscle imbalance.

In the sitting position, your gluteal muscles are completely inactive. Muscular inactivity has a whole host of negative effects, from the obvious atrophy and cosmetic appearance, to metabolic derangements that lead to a high likelihood of developing chronic illness. Combine prolonged sitting with the typical work stress most of us face, and sitting becomes downright dangerous to our health.

So what is the solution? Luckily, there are several. The one I adopted, and which I would recommend, is to create a standing workstation. While there are companies that manufacture specialized standing workstations (as well as treadmill desks), it might be difficult to get this approved by your boss. I ended up buying fifteen dollar wooden shoe racks that I assembled myself, and placed these on top of my already existing desk to create a comfortable workspace.

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If that doesn’t seem plausible in your situation, then just make sure you are getting up and walking around frequently, at least every hour. You want to activate those glutes, get your blood flowing, and break up the monotony of prolonged sitting. Better yet, run some stairs, do some pushups or get a round of squats in. The more movement you incorporate on an hourly basis, the better. Studies show that even regular exercise in off-work hours is still not enough to counteract the effects of prolonged sitting.

Butt health is an extremely important topic. If there is one muscle group you want to keep firm and strong throughout your life, focus on your derriere. Your return on investment will not only ensure you never fall prey to vanishing butt syndrome, but that you also enjoy better health overall.

Why your cards are stacked against feeling good (and how to reshuffle the deck)

file0001393493040In my previous post, “Is it natural to be negative“, I introduced you to the concept that the mind is primed toward a negative reality as a survival advantage to us. Basically, we can’t slow down and smell the roses if we are dead. So the ability of our minds to predict, identify and warn us of threats, even those that aren’t real, is an evolutionary advantage despite coming at what is supposed to be a short-term cost. The cards are stacked against noticing the pleasant in favor of the threat.

The problem with this mechanism today is that we are much more likely to act based upon our fears, than on love. In particular, our perception of suffering or loss is more strongly motivating than our perception of joy or gain. Studies show that when it comes to losing money, we view the loss of a certain sum as 2.5 times greater than if we gained that exact sum. Other studies have shown that when it comes to relationships, counteracting a single negative interaction with a person requires an average of five positive interactions following it. No wonder it stings so much when we find we overspent for some product, or feel let down by a loved one. We might even rationalize that the situation isn’t as bad as we think, yet we still feel the way we feel.

Said another way, comparable negative and positive experiences don’t carry the same weight in our minds. This means we suffer far more than what it seems we logically should. Not only do we not attribute the same degree of meaning to positive experiences as we do to negative ones, but we also are less likely to even notice the positive experiences happening in our every day lives. Even though we have evolved reward mechanisms to prompt us towards positive situations that also enhance survival (the flood of dopamine when we bite into a sweet apple, for example), our minds view the need to identify, and avoid, negative threats as more important. Basically, we notice negative experiences more frequently than positive ones, and negative experiences carry more weight than positive ones do. The end result is a stressed out, unhappy, unfulfilling life that leads to disease of the mind and body until the sweet release of death.

Okay, that is probably too dramatic, but it is certainly how some people feel. And it is how many live their lives, whether they realize it or not. But where do we go from here, knowing this information about how our minds work? How can we use it to our advantage?

It takes practice, but it is possible to gradually shift your reality from a negative to a positive one. The first step is cultivating mindfulness. This means paying attention in a non-judgmental manner to what is happening around you. You know that you will automatically seek out the negative during your day, because this is what your mind is skilled at. By being mindful, you will also notice more positive, providing a balance. When you do encounter an experience in your day you would call positive, focus on it! The second step is to express gratitude in that moment, whether it is for the first snow of the season, a tasty and healthy lunch, or catching up with an old friend. By experiencing the good mindfully, you experience the good more. This will help offset the natural negative tendencies of your mind. Need a reminder to feel grateful? Then try setting one! Leave yourself post-it notes, or set an alarm on your phone that will prompt you to take a few minutes out of your day to be appreciative.

A third step is to come up with a list of activities you enjoy, and rate them on a scale of 1-10 in terms of how fun they are. The number is the “fun quotient” for each activity. Since it’s easier to feel grateful when we are enjoying ourselves, pick at least three days this next week to do something that has a fun quotient of 7 or higher. (Be careful that you aren’t picking “numbing” behaviors, as explained here.) Engaging in an activity you enjoy will help calm the threat sensors in your brain, allowing your viewpoint to shift, even if just for a few minutes or hours.

Knowing that negative experiences carry more weight in your mind, you have your work cut out for you. For every one thing that disappoints you, you might have to find four or five things that you feel grateful for. You might even have to have fun more often! But if you start, from today, with just noticing one more positive experience and really feeling it, you will be well on your way to changing your reality. Ultimately, your reality is a subjective experience, as is mine. So why not design it so that each day is filled with hope, love and blessings? I can assure you that you will never lose the survival mechanisms that have so successfully gotten us where we are today. But you will make the switch from surviving life, to truly living it.

Emotional intensity as a gauge for staying still

file0001755540776Most of our lives are so hectic that it is a struggle to devote time to staying still. It can feel like we are actually wasting time, when there are so many things that need our attention. We might agree in theory that stillness would actually help us accomplish the tasks on our to-do list by making us focused and efficient, but in reality it rarely feels this way. When you only have 30 minutes to run to the grocery store, pick up the dry cleaning and get to the post office before it closes, being still isn’t even an option. Days can blend together without our realizing that we never managed to find stillness once.

Being still is being mindful. It is quieting the body so that we can take a breather from our surroundings and connect inwardly. It’s not about thinking anything, or doing the work of stillness. It is simply being fully present, who you are, in the moment. Even one conscious breath taken in this way can be transformative. Scheduling time to be still is one great way to make this practice a lasting habit, but it can be hard to stick to the schedule when life gets really busy (although that’s likely when you need the practice the most). One way to incorporate stillness regularly without a defined schedule is to link it to your emotions.

For me, one benefit of practicing mindfulness on a regular basis is that I have become much more in tune with my emotions. I have always considered myself a sensitive person, but my mindfulness practice has dramatically increased my awareness of my sensitivity. This means that my experience of being moved by a song, for example, is several fold what it used to be. We all feel our feelings on a spectrum of intensity. By getting to know your own spectrum of emotional intensity, you can get a better sense about what triggers your feelings, and in turn, where you find the most meaning in life. The way you can enjoy that meaning even more would be to practice stillness when something triggers strong emotion.

Think of a scale, where 1 is being dead and 10 is the height of emotion (extreme grief, or extreme ecstasy). Most emotional states that fall on the low end of the spectrum are likely not within our conscious awareness when we experience them. On the other hand, emotional states at the high end of the spectrum can completely consume us until we are aware of nothing else. Figure out where your 5 is, and what that feels like for varying emotions. What is your middle of the road emotional intensity? This would be a sense of feeling at which point you are clearly aware that you are experiencing emotion, but it’s not so overpowering that it forces an interruption of the moment.

When you go throughout your day, try to pay attention to your emotional states. When you find that you feel something at a 5 or higher, pause for a few seconds and be still. Take a deep breath and just be with that emotion. Experience it. Stop any extraneous movements, close your eyes if you prefer, and tune in. What this does is connect your conscious awareness to your emotional state at a threshold level of intensity. At this level, your day is likely affected by these level 5 feelings, but you might not be aware of it or appreciate in what way this happens. So if you are feeling a positive feeling, it will feel richer and can be a source of gratitude. If you are feeling a negative feeling, you can acknowledge it and release it right then.

This doesn’t take more than a few seconds, but using your emotional intensity as a gauge for finding stillness can be as beneficial as an hour of meditation trying to quiet your mind.

I love feedback! If you have tried this technique, please comment below and let me know how it worked for you.

Inner Balance: Meditate like a video game

If you are new to meditation, you might be finding that it’s not as easy as it looks. It seems great on the outside, sitting in lotus with your eyes closed, but on the inside there’s a wild monkey rattling the cages of your brain, wanting your attention. For some reason, the quieter you get, the louder he gets, until you give up in frustration.

Or, you might find that meditation is an excellent practice….for falling asleep. The minute your body relaxes, you zonk out, snoring and/or drooling slightly until you fall over and the floor wakes you up.

These experiences are normal, and part of the process for many meditators. There is no goal in meditation. You aren’t any more successful on a day when you find perfect stillness compared to a day when your whole practice has been spent worrying. With that said, I do understand the feelings of disappointment and struggle that arise, because I have often felt them myself. I encourage you to keep up your practice, but I also want to share with you a tool I have used to supplement my meditation practice, developed by the Institute of HeartMath.

The Institute of HeartMath (IHM) is an internationally recognized research and education organization focused on understanding the role of the heart’s electrical activity in our overall emotional and physical health. The heart generates its own spontaneous, measurable, electrical field that has been shown to be affected by our internal emotional states. The term “coherence” describes the state in which our positive emotions affect this electrical activity, which in turn is associated with a beneficial physiologic state in the body. This is a relaxation state, associated with stress resilience, improved hormonal balance, and a variety of other health benefits. You can learn the quick coherence technique here, which I highly recommend for everyone, whether you meditate or not. You can use the technique to develop stress resilience, as preparation for meditation, or as a meditation itself.

If you want to go a step further, you might be interested in the devices IHM makes that provide biofeedback information about your level of coherence. (The sign of a true nerd is if the word “biofeedback” gets your heart racing with excitement, like mine does). Inner Balance is my favorite tool to use to practice coherence. I find the visual display to be stunning. It’s about $100, which is pricey but not as expensive as the other devices IHM makes. Right now it is only compatible with Apple products like the iPhone, iPod and iPad, but when I talked to IHM’s founder, Doc Childre, last year, he said the eventual plan would be to adapt it for Android products. The device itself is a heart rate sensor that plugs into your Apple device, with an app that you can download from iTunes. It’s extremely simple to use, and portable (which for me is a huge plus.)

You begin each session by calling to mind a positive thought, feeling the accompanying emotions, and then focusing on this state for as long as you can. As you can see below, the colors are vivid and the graphics are very pleasing to the eye, which definitely helps when trying to stay in a positive state. You can see your real time heart rate variability, and each session’s data is recorded so you can measure progress over time. As you focus on the positive thought, the device monitors your level of coherence with the colors red (low), blue (medium) and green (high).

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There are additional views of the same information, if you prefer a different look:
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This view is more analytical, I find that I drop down a coherence level looking at the graphs - I guess this is where my nerdyness draws a line

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Your heart rate variability is recorded, along with your pulse and your level of coherence, which is translated into a numeric score and charted on a graph. Throughout the session, you receive this biofeedback information so that you can learn how to subtly shift yourself from low to high coherence. The visual display you choose to look at is up to you; I tend to prefer the very first image. While I love the graphs, I find that when I switch to the data view, my coherence drops a level. The waterfall provides a soothing image for those who would rather not see the shifting graphs and colors of the other views.

I will say that while the biofeedback is great, any tendency to criticize your “performance” is not. The biofeedback is merely to provide you with information; the information itself is neutral. If you find yourself feeling competitive or disappointed if you don’t reach the coherence scores you want to, then using this as meditation would be counter productive. But if you can remain detached from the outcome, and remain focused on a state of positive coherence, then this can be a very effective (and fun!) way to practice meditation. Five to ten minutes daily can be enough practice to help you reach a state of inner balance. Used as meditation or not, the device trains you to tune into your inner emotional states so that you can shift yourself into a positive, relaxed state more easily.

So if you are struggling to meditate, check out this device and see if it might work for you. It can help you improve your stillness and focus, which will aid in any formal meditation practice you commit to later.

 

(Disclaimer: I do not receive any monetary compensation from Institute of HeartMath for recommending their products.)