December 8, 2015

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Have you had your DDD (a.k.a. Daily Dose of Disaster) today?

Lately, it has felt as if we wake up every morning to a DDD. What is today’s DDD? Will it be a mild supplement or a mega dose? What are we to do with the constant news streams, alerts, and updates? How do we process the surreal images of horrors across the globe or close to home?

As the holidays approach, some of us are overwrought with fear, disgust, and sadness. Others try to block out the noise and go about life as if nothing is happening. Most of us are somewhere in between, searching for balance. We want to make some small difference but feel so much of what is transpiring in the world is outside our individual control. We feel helpless and scared.

Fear can incite the portion of our brain that fuels anxiety and leads us to react with aggregation and isolation – our fight or flight response fully engaged. But what separates us from other animals is our anterior insular cortex, which allows us to access the human qualities of empathy, sympathy, and compassion.

As Thanksgiving approaches, we have a unique opportunity to gather with those we love, express gratitude, and set our intention to change our world one thought, word, or act at a time. We can each identify one small way to live our lives better.

We are all familiar with the highly touted power of a gratitude journal. By simply ending or beginning our day focused on our blessings, our perspective changes and mental and physical barometers shift. Personally, I have found gratitude to be powerful, but not enough. Last spring, I became concerned that I wasn’t doing enough or making a big enough impact on the people and issues that I care about. Many have accomplished and are accomplishing so much more. At that time, I made a personal commitment to expand my scope while asking myself at the end of each day, “How did you make a difference today?”

While we still may wake up to a DDD, we can go to sleep counting our blessings and recognizing what we did to make our small piece of the world a better place.

Live well/Be well

September 21, 2015

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“Set a goal so big that you can’t achieve it until you grow into the person who can.” ~Anonymous

I read this today and it resonated instantly. While I don’t personally have an astronomical goal in mind, I firmly believe that we each have the capacity to grow into the person we aspire to be. Not only the capacity to grow but, the physiological need.

We have each experienced times in our lives when we have felt stagnant. It could be for an hour, a week, a year, or a decade. We succumb to the status quo, the comfortable and familiar, but we inevitably become restless; we need to feel relevant, inspired, and connected.

When we are young, growth comes easily, naturally, organically – it is what we do. We have countless opportunities to challenge ourselves and plan our adulthoods. We work towards better grades, a stellar performance, or admission to a particular school. Growth is inevitable, expected, and celebrated. Years out of school, our focus often turns to the mundane trappings of daily responsibilities and routines, punctuated by the occasional novel experience. It is hard to recognize growth day-to-day, and it is often only in retrospect that we see our personal metamorphosis.

Who do you see when you look in the mirror? What stories have created the person you have become? How do you want to grow today? What do you want to change?

Today, I was taking our dog, Skylar to the groomer. As I sat in the car allowing the rain to subside a bit, a random thought crossed my mind, “You said the word “I” too many times this morning,” I said to myself. I’m not sure what train of thought led me to that thought, but I heard it and it stuck! I never want to be that person, the “I” person. So, I set a goal so big that I can’t achieve it until I grow into the person who can. I’m going to work to grow into the person who does not feel the need to remind my children, “I taught you that,” my husband “I did that,” or my mother, “I know that.”

As I sat down to write this article, the story of a modern day Thelma and Louise was being reported on the 6:00 newscast. “Two Michigan women are embarking on a journey to fly to every state in the lower United States. The pilot is 90, and the co-pilot is 86 years young.” Case and point – it is never ever too late!

Society and humanity are in a constant state of change, yielding us the opportunity and responsibility to grow a little each day. By aspiring to be, do, or live better, we are incentivized to become more.

Live well/Be well

August 11, 2015

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We have often heard, “It’s not how you start, but how you finish.” When it comes to my day, it is how I start and how I finish. Before I knew the term, “bookending,” I was actually doing it. And perhaps we all do it. We start and end our day essentially the same way, day in and day out. Over time, our routines change as we transcend the seasons of our lives: college student, young-adult, parent, empty-nester, etc. Still, most of us fail to recognize the real power of our simple, yet significant, daily disciplines.

Bookending is the idea that you start your day with a morning ritual before moving into the working/productive part of your day, and eventually end your day with an evening ritual (a.k.a., your family/leisure/bedtime routine). There are countless benefits of segmenting your day this way, one of which is assuring that you achieve what my insightful client refers to as your daily “non-negotiables.” By ritualizing your morning workout, planning time, meditation, breakfast, news update, or daily meal planning, you guarantee that those things get done before the unpredictability of the day begins.

Darren Hardy, editor-in-chief of Success Magazine and author of The Compound Effect posits that a person’s morning and evening routines are the “bookends” of a successful life. There are significant ripple effects of consistently applying small smart choices over time. While these small changes may initially require focused discipline and energy, they soon after require little thought – they are simply what you do. Instead of requiring willpower to decide whether or not you’ll work out that day, you work out because that’s part of your morning routine. Routines take the decision-making out and thus, greatly increase the likelihood of success.

We have the opportunity to create morning and evening routines that add balance, energy, meaning, and control to our day. We find comfort in knowing precisely how our day will start and how it will end. When we honor morning and evening routines that nourish and support our mental, physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth and health, we are better equipped to manage life’s daily curveballs. An evening routine can begin on your way home with a simple thought, “It is time to leave my workday behind, and look forward to the evening ahead.” This can be effective even if your routine includes another hour or so of work later that evening.

Questions to ask yourself as you create your daily bookends:

What’s realistic and important to me?
How do my best days start and end?
What time do I need to get up in the morning to have a peaceful and productive start to my day?
What time will I unplug each evening?
What evening routine facilitates my most restful sleep?

Live well/Be well

May 1, 2015

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When we think of “story,” we tend to think of three bears, a boy with magical powers, or the latest novel we’ve read. But story is so much more than that. Story guides our personal lives, as well as our collective culture.

The U.S. was established as a nation whose shared story was “equality for all,” and hundreds of years later it is that story which remains the foundation of our society. Our individual lives are shaped in much the same way – by our personal stories. Eknath Easwaran, author of Your Life is Your Message, describes a time Gandhi was traveling on a train in India while observing a day of silence and was asked by a British citizen what message he could take back to his people. Gandhi took out a piece of paper and wrote, “My life is my message.”

Gandhi lived the story of his life, one based on peace and equality, and he was comfortable with the message that his story conveyed. His message radiated joy, peace, and love throughout his life.

If my life is my message, what message am I conveying? Is it consistent with who I am and aspire to be?

Change Your Story – Change Your Message
In past blogs and client sessions, I have often discussed research supporting our ability to transform our lives by changing our thoughts. This transformation is facilitated by the recognition that our thoughts are part of an organized structure of reality—a story—that we are living. Rather than having to catch endless chaotic thoughts midstream, we can examine the story we tell about ourselves to ourselves and decide how we want to rewrite it.

Jim Loehr, author of The Power of Story: Rewrite Your Destiny in Business and in Life, says the success of our lives is at stake: the stories we tell about our work, relationships, accomplishments and shortcomings become our destiny. In essence, they become our message.

Here are some exercises to facilitate awareness of the stories that shape your life, and to diminish the influence of stories that are inconsistent with the message that you want your life to convey:

Discover your stories. Divide a piece of paper into two columns. On the left, list significant stories—your version of events that occurred—from all stages of your life. Perhaps you experienced a death in the family, divorce, birth, move, new school, great victory or defeat, or career change. In the right-hand column, write a brief description of what you learned or decided as a result of that experience.

Transform your stories. Now, reflect on a difficult incident from your past that prompted you to make an unhelpful or undesirable decision, and write it down. What happened? How did you feel? What were the implications of your story’s interpretation? Now, rewrite that story with a positive ending. Be imaginative. Any outcome is possible!

Explore your core stories. Explore how you see yourself in these important areas: Family, Health, School/Career, Community, and Love. Write a page on each subject. What does it mean to you? How do you feel about this area of your life? What did you learn as a child? Does the story you tell in one area sabotage your values and beliefs in another? If any story does not support the message you hope to convey, start telling a different one.

Intentionally authoring your personal story is a powerful way to create and live a life that is your message! I am no Gandhi, but I am inspired to live my life as my message.

Live well/Be well.

April 1, 2015

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Do you NEED a study break or do you just THINK you do?

“The body achieves what the mind believes” ~Jim Evans

Research from a group of Stanford University psychologists led by Dr. Veronika Jobs supports the idea that you only “need” a study break because you have been conditioned to believe you do. With willpower widely regarded to be a limited resource, you have been encouraged to take study breaks to recharge and support your ability to learn and concentrate. Yet, Dr. Job’s research revealed that students convinced that their willpower – ability to control oneself and suppress impulses – was unlimited, studied longer and more effectively than students who were convinced that it was limited. In addition, students who were convinced that their willpower was limited tended to take more study breaks, consume 24% more junk food, and procrastinate 35% more than the other students in the study.

While human physiological limitations are legitimate – we all need proper nutrition, exercise, and rest to function at our best – we cannot dismiss the incredible impact that our mindsets have on our success. If you think you can or you can’t, you are likely right!

It appears that willpower isn’t driven as much by a biologically based process as it is by our own expectations. So with less than half of the spring semester remaining, you may consider re-addressing your beliefs about willpower to get the most from your study sessions. When you begin to feel tired or fatigued, consider it a time to dig into your willpower reserves, not a bag of Oreos or string of text messages!

Study well/Live well/Be well

April 1, 2015

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“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” ~William Durant

If excellence is a habit, so is complacency. How do we move away from negative habits that do not serve us and toward habits that restore and support our growth and happiness? Most of us respond to this question with one word: willpower. Fill in the blank: “If I had more willpower, I would…”

Of course we all have willpower and use it every day. But willpower, much like a muscle, becomes fatigued and depleted with overuse. We begin our day with a finite amount of willpower, or a limited amount of energy to exert it. As a result, we often run out of self-control before facing pivotal decisions at day’s end. That is likely why we reach for the refrigerator door the minute we walk in the house! Studies reveal that repeatedly resisting temptation in any realm of our lives often drains our ability to withstand future enticements.

Several studies have shown that personal choice, active response, self-regulation, and other acts of volition may all draw on a common internal resource: willpower. But don’t let this discourage you! Just as our biceps and quads are strengthened by regular exercise, regularly exerting self-control may improve willpower strength and confidence over time. The key is to use willpower wisely to create desirable habits that ultimately become “autopilot” responses. Reinforcing and maintaining our new habits requires far less willpower than initiating them. Once new automatic responses and habits are created in one area, our willpower, energy, and attention can be directed to a different area.

What is the one change that you can make that will most satisfy you? What is your motivation for committing to that change? How will you feel differently physically, mentally, or emotionally when you make that change?

Now, go for it! Whether you choose to add 5 minutes of exercise to your morning routine, make your lunch three days per week, or respond more thoughtfully to your partner, acknowledge yourself for any progress made and commit to stick with it. Slipping up on your habits doesn’t make you a failure; it makes you human! After making a mistake, resist the urge to berate yourself. Instead, remind yourself, “I am better than this.” and move forward, It will take less willpower to recommit to a freshly established habit than it did to initiate the new habit. You’ve got this!

Live well/ Be well

February 16, 2015

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Question: Are you more willing to go a week without your car, best friend, or cell phone? I’m pretty sure I know what most of you would say!

A study conducted by Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business and reported in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions revealed that on average, college students spend 9 hours per day on their phones. Of that time, approximately 94.6 minutes are spent texting, 48.5 minutes emailing, 38.6 minutes checking Facebook, and 34.4 minutes internet surfing. What are you looking for? Approval? Entertainment? Distraction? Connection? The reason you reach for your phone is less about the phone and more about your “checking habit.”

Each notification, beep, or buzz doesn’t just provide you with a new “like” or “friend,” it provides a satisfying hit of dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that our body releases when something good happens unexpectedly – like a smart phone notification. Dopamine is so satisfying that it reinforces our pleasure-seeking behavior. “I’ll just check Instagram one more time before I start studying”

80% of college students say that their smart phones interfere with learning and 25% say that their phones have affected their grades. Not to mention what they do to your health, relationships, and sleep habits.

Challenge:
Day One: Count how many times you check your cell phone. (Why are you checking? Is it merely boredom or habitual, or are you looking for something more?)
Day Two: See how long you can go between views before you feel anxious and have to check your phone again. (To give yourself a fighting chance, turn all notifications off)

Here are some small changes that can make a big difference (choose one to try this week):
Use an alarm clock and move your cell phone away from your bed
Turn your notifications off so that you only check your phone when you choose to.
Turn your ringer off for 25-minute study intervals, allowing yourself a 5-minute “tech check” between intervals. After four 25-minute intervals, reward yourself with a longer “tech check,” if desired.
Put your phone away at meal times and appreciate your friends and food!
Don’t let the dopamine dope you! Live well/Be well.

February 16, 2015

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It’s a beautiful Friday, the sun is shining, and all is right with the world when you run into an old acquaintance and stumble over her name. She not only remembers you, but your husband, children, and what you wore to HER wedding. You cannot get away from the encounter soon enough and leave feeling incredibly embarrassed. For much of the evening you are wondering, “Did she notice that I completely fumbled her name?” “Did I hurt her feelings?” “Does she think I’m a self-centered blankety-blank?” The positive feelings that you enjoyed for most of the day were quickly overshadowed by the negative emotions encasing you now. This is what we call The Negativity Bias.

Most of us experience more positive emotions than negative ones, but the negative ones tend to scream at us and demand our attention. Negativity bias is a vital part of human vitality, and is linked to our fight or flight response, warning us of imminent dangers. But positive emotions are equally as important as negative ones in their life-sustaining role. It is the positive emotions that open us to wonder, growth, engagement, relationships, creativity, and exploration. Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build Theory posits that positive emotions broaden our thought patterns and allow us to acquire intellectual, social, and personal resources to nurture learning and growth. Biologically, positive emotions may not “scream as loudly” but that only shifts responsibility to us to make an effort to hear them.

Dr. Fredrickson recognizes ten positive emotions: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love. We experience many of these emotions multiple times per day but we usually overlook the comfort and peace that they yield us. Positive emotions are fleeting (sometimes only a second or two) and the opportunities to notice them can easily be missed. By committing to recognize and savor positive emotions, we nourish our mind and learn to deflect negative bias. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness explains, “pausing to let good events sink in for 10-20 seconds allows them to become part of you and this habit can rewire your brain.”

What positive emotions have you experienced today but failed to notice? Did someone hold a door for you? Did you send/receive a nice text? Did you give or earn praise? Did you complete a task or plan a date? Each moment is a blessing and an opportunity to feel, notice, and savor the often quiet and discrete positivity that surrounds us.

Live well/Be well

January 3, 2015

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At times, we each experience overwhelming and stressful circumstances that burden us physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and/or financially. We may be unhappy in our careers, fighting illness, or feel disconnected from friends, family, and community. Sometimes it is less obvious and we think that we should be happy, but still aren’t.

Our circumstances, and those of our family, friends, and community, greatly impact our mental and emotional health, yet changing them is rarely an easy task. Our first challenge is often to precisely identify the source of our discomfort. How do we change something when we are not sure what needs to be changed? We feel trapped and frustrated. As discomfort persists, we seek ways to cope: another glass of wine, sleeping pill, or anti-depressant, an angry gesture, impatient phone call, or curt dialogue. Ultimately, we may find ourselves struggling with the original issue as well as a drinking problem or angry spouse. With time, unhealthy suppression and coping techniques merely compound mental stress while the original source of unhappiness persists.

Eric Maisel, PhD has written a series of articles entitled, “Rethinking Psychology.” In one of his recent excerpts he states, ”It is common for folks who know that they really must make a certain change to take…five years to make that change. Sometimes the change never happens and the pain persists forever.” He goes on to share that change is risky. We have all intended to change or set a goal and have fallen short, or perhaps the change didn’t yield the desired outcome. The first and often the most challenging step is to identify the source of our unhappiness. What is making the status quo so uncomfortable and unsatisfying?

It is still January, the month of “fresh starts” and a perfect time to identify what is encumbering us. It may be something as concrete as needing to look for a new job, or as abstract as needing to adopt a more healthful perspective. Either way, our intention is the same: to honestly and nonjudgmentally take a look at the source of our distress. We don’t have to commit to making an immediate change, merely to looking at our personal circumstance and beginning to understand its true nature and origin. In essence, we are demonstrating the courage to be authentic with ourselves – to look ourselves and personal circumstances clearly in the eye and say, “I see you.”

Live well/ Be well.

December 20, 2014

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“This is just the way I am.” How many times have you said that? Sometimes as an excuse, other times as an explanation. “This is just the way I am…I worry, procrastinate, am impatient or sensitive, become anxious or act impulsively.” What does “just the way I am” mean? Just because we have always been or acted a certain way, does that mean that we are that way? After 20, 40, or 60 years can you really change aspects of yourself that are fully engrained and habitual? The answer is “yes.” A resounding, “YES!”

The way we are is the culmination of the experiences, people, cultures, and networks in our lives. Influenced by our families, friends, schools, communities, and life events, we create ideas and preferences that ultimately lead to habitual thinking patterns and define our “normal.” While scientists once thought that almost all brain growth and change occurred in early childhood, they now realize that the brain has an amazing ability to rewire itself. In fact, our brains are constantly reorganizing themselves as our neural pathways and synapses respond to our thoughts, behaviors and environments.

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to rewire itself; taken a step further, self-directed neuroplasticity refers to our ability to re-wire our brains! By changing our thoughts, behaviors, and environments we can create new neural pathways, much like paving a new road. While these pathways may never become a “super-highway” or as worn as our original paths, with mental focus and mindful attention, they become established and accessible thinking patterns and habits.

We all know someone who used to be “lazy” and now regularly works out, someone who used to be painfully shy who has become a community leader, or someone who couldn’t make it to class in college but has never been late to the office. When we work to repeatedly direct our focus in a new direction, we can turn “this is just the way I am” into “this is the way I have chosen to be.”

Who do you want to be? What do you want to change? Identify your desire, create a small goal, and start clearing your new path with patience, persistence (not perfection), and focused repetition.
Live well/Be well.