Novelty is Triumphant – Change Part Three

Part one of this short series on understanding change, argued that change is something we should all wholeheartedly embrace.  Part two, elaborates on why we are often unsuccessful in our efforts to effect change – the familiar safe/change lethal default directive, and suggests that awareness of the directive is the first step to making change.  

Simply being aware there is a potentially self-sabotaging familiar safe/change lethal default directive can have a huge impact on our ability to change.  

Fortunately we have another innate default drive, that helps us change despite the change lethal default directive.  That is our innate drive to explore; we love novelty.

Novelty trumps safe and secure.  Otherwise, we would still be hiding out in damp, dark and cold caves, not temperature controlled luxury condos! Someone ‘back-in-the-day’ was tired of living with spiders and little critters, and she decided an upgrade was necessary.  A ripple was started, and many centuries later – luxury condo! 

So how can we incorporate novelty into the changes we want to make?  

When I first started exploring the idea – novelty is good for your brain – I was really disheartened.  I read a lot.  All kinds of non-fiction stuff – motivation, willpower, learning, perfectionism, mood related matters, and all about brain neuroplasticity.  New, intriguing and useful info for me and my musings.  But as it turns out, it’s NOT novel!  Reading is old hat for the brain since  I learned how to read decades ago!  

And resistance training bores me immensely!  I KNOW it is an activity that is really good for me and my future health and well-being.  But that does not make it less boring and it certainly does not make it novel!

I did read that learning a new language or learning to play a musical instrument ‘counts’ as novel for the brain.  I tried learning French (I am Canadian after all) but nope, not interested. Perhaps because I took French throughout high school it’s not novel.  So, I took up the cello, which I totally and thoroughly love!  I am several years into lessons and of late, practicing can be hit or miss.  Which makes me wonder if the novel bit is over?  Hmm… I wonder how long novel stays novel?

I have yet to find a solution on ‘how to keep novel, novel.’  

I wonder, what is the cold cave to luxury condo equivalent nowadays? No doubt someone somewhere has already started a ripple… I wonder where it will lead centuries from now?

Time For An Upgrade – Change Part Two

Part one of this short series argued that change is a good thing – something we should wholeheartedly embrace.  

Why then, do we resist change so vehemently?  It’s our brain.

Our brain was designed several millennia ago when we lived in a hostile environment where  vicious predators roamed freely.  Back then, simply venturing out in search of breakfast was a life threatening event.  As such, the brain developed a familiar safe/change lethal default directive specifically designed to keep us safe and alive.  And this familiar safe/change lethal default directive did an absolutely spectacular job.  Back then, it kept us alive in a very hostile world for a very long time.  It’s why we were able to rise to the top of the food chain and dominate the planet.  

Bravo brain.  

In fact, the familiar safe/change lethal default directive was so successful, we no longer live in a hostile world.  Vicious predators no longer freely roam the neighborhood.  An over-exuberant friendly labrador retriever may be the greatest threat we encounter over the course of a day.  

I am trying to effect change in my life.  In some areas I am progressing (writing – LOVE it!)  In other areas, not so much (snacking)  Other activities are hit and miss (cello practice) and almost absent (resistance/strength training.) These are all activities I ‘say’ I want to incorporate into my life and activities I believe will help me build a vibrant and meaningful life and a future I love.

And yet the familiar safe/change lethal default directive is unconsciously running in the background of my mind, influencing my daily decisions, sabotaging my efforts to effect change.

Well come on brain!  Get with the program.  We are no longer living in an eat or be eaten hostile world.  

“No brain, it is okay, we are not going to die because I wish to strength train in the morning.” 

“No brain, it is okay, we do not need to eat until morning.  We are not going to die without an evening snack.” 

“No brain, learning something new is fun, not something that could potentially kill us!”

That is my pre-frontal cortex (thinky-brain) chatting with my unconscious, primitive brain (lizard-brain.)  Thinky is the CEO part of my brain that can be intentional, make decisions, plan, organize, focus attention and delegate.  It’s the last bit – delegate – that is problematic. 

Thinky kindly and patiently delegates the execution of a brilliant, intentional plan to Lizard brain. 

Lizard brain nods and agrees.  But because lizard brain’s mandate is to keep us alive in a hostile environment, in the heat of the moment – when it’s time to change, the ‘familiar safe, change lethal,’ default directive gets activated and <<BOOM>> “No, that’s not how we do things!” – plan aborted!

Our brain and its familiar safe/change lethal default directive is in desperate need of an upgrade.  Which, as far as we know, is not coming any time soon.

While we wait, what’s to be done?  It’s not like we can place an order on Amazon for an instantaneous download.

Simply knowing the program is unconsciously running in the background wreaking havoc with our decisions, stirring up unnecessary emotions, can have a big impact.  Awareness is often (if not always) the first step.  Afterall, if you are not aware of a problem, you are unlikely to fix it.  And, once you upgrade from unconscious to conscious, you can choose otherwise.

And choice, is a beautiful thing!  

Perfectly Alright As It Is – Change Part 1

I love, love LOVE the quote by Timothy Gallwey…

“The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is.”

I find the ‘it is perfectly alright as it is’ particularly powerful.  Add to that ‘contains its whole potential’ and VaVa-Boom – exceptionally powerful concept.  We hold within us, our full potential for who we are meant to become.   Our full potential is within us, whether we are 5, 50 or 75.  Whether we fulfill that potential or not depends on the environment we create for ourselves.  If we insist on treating the rose like a morning glory, forcing new growth to twist and climb, while buffing off the thorns as they appear, it’s going to perform quite poorly.  It’s probable the plant will still grow, and may even blossom, but it’s utterly impossible it will become a morning glory.  

But if we nurture the seed, as it grows unhindered, transforming through each stage from seed to sprout to seedling to blossom to bud, and finally to a rose, that seed yields its full potential, through a constant state of change. 

So many of us – myself included – fear change.  And yet, change we must.  A seed cannot express its full potential and remain a seed.  The seed yields to the next and the next and the next stage, losing itself as it becomes more of itself as it ‘changes.’  Such a paradox.  

What if it were true that we are perfectly alright as we are right now, back then and going forward?  What if being constantly in the process of change, is a normal part of being human?  

Contains its whole potential, constantly in a state of change, and perfectly alright as it is.  Transformative right?

Without change, our potential is hindered if not lost completely.

Change is not to be avoided.  Change unleashes potential.  

Embrace it, thorns and all, at every stage along the way!

Learning a new skill

I am learning a new skill.  And it’s really hard for me.  And it frustrates me that it is hard.  Because it shouldn’t be hard.  And I do hard things.  Or, at least I used to.

Learning a new skill is an incredible brain-gain activity.  Learning a new skill primes the neurons in our brain.  It gets them all fired up and ready to sprout out little feelers in search of neighboring neurons.  And those little feelers make connections that get stickier and thicker and stronger each and every time you repeat the new skill.  

Did you know that your hippocampus (the learning new stuff/memory forming part of your brain) can sprout around 1500 new neurons everyday?  Everyday!  That is a lot of neurons.  Contrary to centuries of belief that adult brains cannot make new neurons, we can!  We absolutely can sprout new neurons.  The trick is keeping them.  You may have heard the ‘use it or lose it’ adage. In neuroscience circles they say ‘connect it and keep it.’

No doubt you have heard “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  That has been my experience with my beloved dogs, but that’s more likely due to my lack of trying than their lack of ability.  The same is likely true for humans.  We struggle to learn because we don’t put in the necessary effort. 

I cannot refute the fact that children are magnetic sponges for information.  And it is certainly true that some brains retain information with greater ease than others.  This I know, because medicine tends to select for individuals with high speed digital photographic memories, while my brain labored along with old fashion stone and chisel technology.

Given my 60+ year old stone and chisel technology, learning my new skill is proving challenging.  Perhaps, at the very least, it’s time to sharpen my chisel and get a fresh piece of stone!

To paraphrase Jim Kwik (Author of Limitless, unlock your brain, learn anything faster and unlock your exceptional life), ‘there is no such thing as a bad memory, only an untrained one.’   How freeing is that?  I wish I had known that when I was chiseling away in medical school (but sadly Jim had not even been born at that time!) 

So what do the experts suggest we do to upgrade our stone and chisel?  There are literally hundreds of ‘how-to’ books on improving memory.  Read Jim’s book for those details.  

I believe we should learn from the true experts – kids.  

How do kids learn?  They make it fun – they squeal and giggle with delight.  They fail and try again and again.  They experiment and adjust.  They explore.  They share their success.  And there is a lot they don’t do – at least not until we teach them.  They don’t judge.  They don’t quit.  They don’t fear failure.  They don’t criticize their efforts.  They don’t compare themselves with others.

Kids have an innate drive to learn, to explore and to be curious.  Guess what?  So do adults.  We have just learned to ignore that drive.

Tap into your curiosity. Explore.  Have fun.  Make it important.  You just might discover that your chisel and stone technology is just as fast as the high speed digital technology.

So what is my new skill? Board governance.  Snore!  I know, right?  My course starts next week.  Time will tell how the squeal and giggle philosophy will work.

UNDER REVISION – MORE SOON!

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Love Your Brain!

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary health is the condition of being of sound body, mind and spirit; or freedom from physical disease or pain.  While that may be true,  I much prefer the definition of optimal health by Dr Molly Maloof: Optimal Health is “the ability to adapt and self-manage in the face of adversity.” I would add ‘and create a vibrant and meaningful life you love.’

Optimal health is all about YOU managing (self-management) and adapting (changing) to your own adversities (life stressors.)  Optimal brain health would be included in that definition, more specifically toward your changing and managing your thinking/mindset and caring for the actual grey and white matter that comprise your brain.

MINDSET

Mindset is the buzz word of the decade.  In essence your mindset is a set of beliefs about what is possible in life.  In her book Mindset, The New Psychology of Success Dr Carol Dweck identifies two distinctly polarizing mindsets – a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

A fixed mindset, as the name suggests is unchanging.  You are what you are, that’s all there is.  A growth mindset is, in stark contrast, capable of growth and change.  You can grow and learn and with effort and persistence, effect transformative change.

To quote Henry Ford “If you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.”  It’s all about your mindset.  You get to choose, and choice is a beautiful thing!

CARING FOR YOUR BRAIN

Yes you can care for your brain, just as you might care for your body.   There are loads of ‘things’ you can do to care for your brain, which will be discussed over ensuing blogs, but for now suffice it to say, what is good for your body is good for your brain.  Proper nutrition, avoiding toxins such as smoking or excessive alcohol, exercise for cardiovascular health, achieve and maintain ideal body weight, manage blood pressure, sleep hygiene, minimize stress etc.  All of it.

CONCLUSION

As with weight loss, there is no one size fits all approach for optimal brain health.    Structurally and functionally, all brains are similar – Einstein, Mother Teresa or just you. But our thoughts, our memories, our imagination, our mood – the ‘products’ of our brain make each and every one of us unique!

What will you do with yours?

Live life, love life, Always….
Dr Karen

Happiness – its more elusive than we think

Ask almost anyone what they want for their life, and more often than not the answer boils down to some version of “I just want to be happy.”  In fact, we do all the things we do because we believe it will ultimately make us happy.

HAPPINESS CONFUSION 

The word happiness is derived from the Greek “Hap” which means by chance or luck.  But somewhere through the generations, we have adopted as truth, the notion that happiness is our natural default state and quite incorrectly believe if we are not happy, there must be something wrong with us.

But consider this – what if it is our desire for happiness that is actually the cause of our own unhappiness?  It’s quite the paradox.

In his book, The Happiness Trap, Dr Russ Harris poses the paradox and explores three intriguing questions:

  1. What if everything you believe about finding happiness turned out to inaccurate, misleading and false?
  2. What if those beliefs were making you miserable?
  3. What if your efforts to find happiness were actually preventing you from achieving it?

It is well worth the read.

(These are great questions to ponder for yourself.)

ARE WE HAPPY?

In a recent blog I posted that in 2017 the World Health Organizations ranked depression as the 3rd leading cause of non-fatal health concerns world wide.  I’ve even heard that it has moved up to first place in the ranking over headache disorders and low back pain.

But even more concerning, the number of people suffering from clinical depression has surpassed the number of people with heart disease as well as the number of individuals diagnosed with cancer (podcast Impact Theory with Dr Susan David – July 2020).

Dr Harris sites some very sobering statistics as pertains to the US population:

  • at any given time 1/10th of the adult population is suffering from clinical depression;
  • 1 in 5 will have clinical depression at some point in their life;
  • 1 in 2 people will consider suicide at some point in their life;
  • and 1 in 10 people actually attempt it.

WHOA!  Happiness is more elusive than we think.

THE PROBLEM WITH HAPPINESS

Life is full of ‘stuff’ that creates suffering.  Without suffering there would be no joy, just as without dark there would be no light.  Without the contrasts in life, our existence would be mundane.

What if it is just as normal to feel unhappy as it is to feel happy?

In her book Emotional Agility, Dr Susan David argues that our emotions, neither good nor bad – are just emotions we experience.  She discusses the tyranny of positive thinking – “…trying to change them from negative to positive is an almost surefire way to feel worse.”  A surefire way to feel worse.  We cannot simply switch I love chocolate to I hate chocolate in our effort to minimize sweets.  We cannot trick our brain that way, it knows it’s a lie.

A negative feeling – such as feeling unhappy – is telling us something is up.  Feelings, positive or negative, provide us with information about something important in our lives.  Think about it, if you do not care about something, you do not get upset about it.  Though it may be tragic that the Rhino at the local zoo is having difficulty conceiving while living in captivity, you probably will not have many sleepless nights over it.  (Unless you are the zookeeper).

So, negative feelings give us loads of important information, often related to our underlying values, whether we have identified those values clearly or not.  Negative feeling let us know when we are out of alignment with our authentic selves.

Perhaps we should pay closer attention!

SKIP THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS… PURSUE FULFILLMENT INSTEAD

Since the pursuit of happiness seems to be an ineffective route to happiness, perhaps its time to shift focus.

Both Dr Harris and Dr David recommend the pursuit of fulfillment, meaning or purpose in our life (the subject of another blog).  And in that pursuit, perhaps – just perhaps, happiness will ‘hap’ along as a most welcome feeling.

Have a fantastic week!

Live Life, Love Life, Always
Dr Karen

 

A No Journal

I follow blogs and podcasts from Peter Attia, MD.  If you are interested in hearing a podcast that gets into the nitty gritty details of longevity – his podcast The Drive, is all about the Science and Art of Longevity.  Be forewarned though, his podcasts do not shy away from basic science/research/medical jargon and are heavy on the science. I love it.  It speaks the language of my training.

I mention him today because his most recent blog offered up an idea that I believe will be a game-changer idea for women who struggle to prioritize themselves – The No Journal.  So many of the women I coach have a really hard time saying No, even when they are already fully aware they are overwhelmed and sleep deprived.

The power of saying “No,” is not a new concept.  Nor is the idea that when you say yes to an activity you are also saying no to other activities.

Keep a No Journal for 30 – 60 days and track, as Dr Attia suggests, “all the asks I said no to… and how much time it opened up for the future.”

Keeping a journal, specific for when you say No, is such a great idea.  It helps you track reclaimed time in the future… time that would otherwise have been spent on the activity you said no to.  Brilliant.  That reclaimed No time, is in a way, free-time.  It has been prioritized, based on your values and goals. So instead of finding yourself at a charity dinner to help save the whales – something your best friends’ wifes’ first cousin is passionate about – you are sharing some quality time with your daughter.

Here’s what to do.  Whenever someone asks you to do something and you say No, write that request down – give it a date.  A simple one liner of the request, perhaps who made it, and the date you gracefully declined.  Just start a list – perhaps on your phone or a page in your calendar.  Then ‘ghost’ out the time you would have taken to keep the commitment if you had said yes.  This is time you have reclaimed for your future self.  This is also the activity that you would have been saying No to had you said yes to the request.

With time you may find that people are making fewer requests, as your priorities become clear to everyone as well as yourself and you may find you actually free up time for your future self to do the things you deem truly important.

A No Journal, what a great tool for uncovering the power of ‘No.’  Give it a try.  Don’t say no to this game changer idea.

Have a fantastic week,
Live Life, Love Life, Always
Dr Karen 

Sleep – mandatory, not a luxury

Sleep… it’s almost become a four letter word! 

Whenever life gets busy, the first casualty is sleep.  Just one more thing added to the day, just knock off 20 minutes in the morning… Just one more email to answer… skimp on the slumber.  Sleep deprivation is rampant in society – it’s getting to be our over-caffeinated new norm.

Yet according to Harvard Sleep expert and Psychiatrist, Dr Robert Stickgold “If you don’t sleep, you die.”

WHOOSH – that, is a sobering thought for sure!

HOW MUCH SLEEP IS ENOUGH SLEEP?

The million dollar question, and like all important questions, the answer is… It depends.  It depends on your age – babies and teens need more sleep than adults.  As we move into the later decades of life, we start to need less sleep.  Fitness levels will impact the quality and the quantity of our sleep.  Underlying medical conditions can impact the quality and the quantity of sleep.  Stress… well seriously what about life doesn’t excess stress impact?

Overall, most sleep specialists recommend between 7 – 9 hours of restorative sleep.  Bit of caveat that ‘restorative’ qualifier.   You may well get 7 hours of shut eye, but the restorative bit is somehow lacking.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE SLEEP?

When we sleep our brain progress through 4 stages – very creatively named, stage 1, stage 2, stage 3 and stage 4.  The first three are non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and the 4th and deepest stage, is REM.   Stage 1 is the transition from awake to sleep; Stage 2 the heart rate slows and we start to relax; Stage 3, the muscles are relaxed and our breathing slows down; and Stage 4, the brain is very active, we dream, and except for the eyes which are rapidly moving, the body is essentially paralyzed (presumably to prevent us from acting out our dreams).

Sleep is by no means a passive activity for the brain.  When we sleep, it resets itself. Sleep is a crucial factor in learning and forming long term memories – something psychologists call long term potentiation.  So those all-nighters cramming during college/university were counter-productive.  Just imagine how well you could have done with adequate sleep?

Not only does the sleeping brain consolidate memories, it sorts out and makes sense of the day, processing the vast amounts of sensory input encountered throughout our waking hours.  It’s likely you have experienced what I call The 3am Epiphany, where you have wrestled with a problem all day without resolution, and then, at 3am POOF! Why didn’t I think of that earlier? Problem solved.  That is your brilliant brain, doing it’s thing.

The brain is made up of neurons, the work horse of our thinking but those neurons are supported by scaffolding-like cells, called glial cells. These cells are also believed to have immuno-protective and nutritive roles, maintaining healthy brain function.

But recently, it has been discovered that glial cells also have a brain cleansing function that occurs while we sleep.  When we doze off, those supporting scaffolding cells shrink and widen the space around neurons (imagine wider corridors within our brain).  This additional space, allows our cerebrospinal fluid  to wash and slosh around the neurons, removing toxins that may have accumulated throughout the day.  It’s like running the dishwasher overnight – rinse off the residue.

This has huge implications for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.  Imagine if we could increase the wash and slosh cycle while we sleep and remove the damaging toxic bits that wreak havoc with our neurons.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE DON’T SLEEP?

From the above discussion it’s obvious what happens when we don’t sleep.  We don’t sort through the days’ sensory input, so we don’t reset the brain, we interfere with long term potentiation (memory formation) and we will not effectively wash and slosh our neurons.

Further it is well known that sleep deprivations contributes to weight gain and makes weight loss virtually impossible.   When you are tired, are you more likely to reach for a hefty bowl of steamed broccoli or a Mars bar?  The latter I am sure and that is because sleep deprivation increases our cravings for sugary carbohydrates and it does so by messing up our appetite regulation hormones.

WHAT TO DO?

We live in a society that devalues sleep to our own peril.   Value your sleep and learn to manage your circadian rhythm – your internal sleep – wake cycle.  Pay attention to and respect your sleep cycles.

  1. Go to bed at the same time every night, and get up every morning at the same time, including weekends.
  2. Prioritize your sleep.  Commit to a minimum of 7 hours nightly and on the occasion when you fall short, implement a ‘never miss twice’ rule.
  3. Plan to get 10 – 20 minutes of early morning sunshine – sip your coffee in a sunny window, or get outside for a brisk walk.  Sunlight helps to regulate melatonin our sleep time hormone.
  4. Dim down the bright lights and blue lights for the 1.5 – 2 hours before bed.  Blue light disrupts our melatonin regulation.
  5. Cozy up your sleep environment – cool but not cold, dark but not pitch black, quiet or with soft white noise preferably of nature sounds, get yourself a comfortable mattress – you won’t regret it!

The bottom line… If you are sleepy, sleep!

Treat yourself to amazing sleep.  It is free – and mandatory not a luxury.

Live Life, Love Life, Always
Dr Karen

  1. (Science. 2013 Oct 18;342(6156):373-7. doi: 10.1126/science.1241224.)

Longevity – Intrigued and conflicted

I have been thinking a lot lately about longevity.  The deeper I delve into the various factors which contribute to longevity, the more intrigued, yet conflicted I become.

Intrigued because longevity is very much a doable goal.

Conflicted because generally speaking, as a society, we are living longer, but not healthier.

THE LONGER WE LIVE, THE LONGER WE ARE SICK

In 2017, the World Health Organization reported

“Across the global landscape, increased non-fatal health loss paradoxically reflects both success in terms of diminishing rates of premature death but also failure in terms of maintaining health care for diseased and injured individuals.” (study on the Global Burden of Diseases, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation)

(https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)32279-7/fulltext)

In non-medical jargon, that means – the longer we live, the longer we are sick.  We are extending life span better than we are extending health span.  This is truly disheartening news.

The goal of longevity – in my view anyway – is to extend the vibrance and energy of youth not extend the fragility of old age.

Surely we can do better.

GENETICS VERSUS EPIGENETICS

Perhaps we cannot change much on a global level, but I absolutely believe that as individuals, it is possible to take ownership of our own health and narrow the gap between our health span and our life span significantly.

But how?

The length of our life, may well be predominantly determined by our genetics.  Statistically, there is a 7 in 10 chance that if your mother and grandmother lived to 100, then you just might too.  “Good genes.” But if they both also had early onset dementia, then you just might too.  “Not so genes.”

But what most people do not know is that there is a growing field of research called Epigenetics, which is the study of factors – like the environment, or our behaviours – that impact the expression of our genes.  So just because you got a copy of the ‘presenilin dementia gene’ from your mother doesn’t mean you have to make use of it.

Dr Danial Amen describes well – “Genes only load the gun, your behaviour pulls the trigger.”

This is fantastic news.  You may have a 7 in 10 chance of developing dementia, but you can choose lifestyle related behaviours to decrease those odds.

NARROW THE GAP BETWEEN HEALTH SPAN AND LIFE SPAN

So many of the chronic diseases that have us all terrified – obesity, diabetes, dementia – are amenable to lifestyle related changes .

Those behaviours include things like adequate sleep, diet and nutrition/weight management, routine moderately intense exercise, appropriate levels of stress, avoiding environmental toxins and maintaining meaningful social connection.

All behaviours we know we should do, and all behaviours many of us put off until later.

Often until much later.

I for one, waited until I was well over 200 pounds, prediabetic, hypertensive, perpetually sleep deprived and chronically stressed.  I was playing roulette with my loaded gun.  Fortunately for me, I pushed away from the game (hopefully not too late!) and changed my diet, lost weight, reversed my pre-diabetes and hypertension and I am correcting my sleep patterns (tricky business after decades of deprivation) and increasing my daily exercise (click here if you want to join a 21 day exercise challenge.)

Being over weight, sedentary, stressed and moody (depressed/anxious) significantly impacts our health span, as well as our life span.

Truthfully, I feel better now at 60y than I did at 50y and I intend to keep that particular trend going.

So can you.  Honest.

Have a fantastic week!
Dr Karen