Zen And The Art Of Context

“The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.”-Unknown

This simple expression, commonly quoted from Zen philosophy, is a metaphor describing how most of indexus think. It points out a characteristic of human thought that often gets us into trouble and sometimes leads people to seek psychotherapy. I’ve been a psychotherapist for 17 years and can’t help but notice how frequently misunderstanding the basic meaning of this parable brings people into treatment. The entire parable goes as follows:
“Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”

In all branches of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the basic premise is that the way we think about life events and interpret those events determines the quality of our life experiences. CBT challenges one to adopt a wide lens angle on the events of our lives. Seeing the bigger picture can lead to introspective reflection and a different interpretation in meaning. A disproportionately large amount of people who enter psychotherapy do so because they are struggling with the meanings that they attach to events which happened in their lives. Life throws thousands of things at us every day. Fortunately, for us, most are pretty simple and we can make sense of them. The beauty of this dynamic is that the longer we live, the more events we process, and the better we get at making sense of what goes on in our world. We learn to attach meaning to these events that are consistent with our values and our world view. Occasionally, something will happen in the lives of everyone that they struggle to interpret.

I often tell my clients that, “The meaning of events is more important than the events themselves.” Often, the therapeutic challenge is to allow time to process what has brought them into therapy. A wait and see attitude is often helpful and is illustrated in the following Zen tale:
4951752980_55a3e5c454_zOnce upon a time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.
“Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.
“Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
“Maybe,” said the farmer.

All of us have to decide what things happening in our world mean to us. Common, every day, events can mean different things to different people. Sometimes, they can even mean different things to us. For bliz78_janexample, something as simple as rain means different things to us at different times. During that July heat wave, that cloudburst is a thing of joy, that cold rain three days in a row in November? Not so much. That first coating of snow in early December is “beautiful,” those 3 feet in late January “suck.” Why the difference? And, why does that become a story that makes you smile the following Fourth of July? The context in which an event occurs can completely change its meaning. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. One man’s war criminal is another man’s national hero. What makes the actions of the person different is interpretation and context.

When life throws surprises at us, it challenges us to make a decision whether we are aware of it or not. Asking yourself the question, “What does this mean to me?,” is a good starting point for more rational decision-making and logical thoughts.

“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”
― Viktor E. Frankl

John

P. S. Contact me if interested in online mindbody coaching or cognitive behavioral therapy. Please check out my author’s page at amazon.com/author/johnsannicandro or using the Amazon link on this page. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and social media. Email me at john@mindbodycoach.org.

This Is Your Life On Cortisol

If you are reading this article, then it is a guarantee that you are quite aware of the impact that cortisol has on your life. You are at a computer, which means you probably have Internet access, a job to pay for indexit, a decent lifestyle, and more than likely, a lot of obligations, deadlines to meet, and a host of things that are out of your control. You know what “stressed out” feels like. Some of us even take a type of perverse pride in our stress, believing that it makes us more important and that it is evidence of our productivity. Some of us may even brag about how we put in “60+ hours per week” at our job, “Can get by on less than six hours of sleep per night,” or are involved in the three extra curricular activities that each of our children have.” While, no doubt, some of this frenetic level of activity may be necessary, there is a cost that we all need to be aware of and need to decide if we are willing to pay it.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by our adrenal glands. Like a lot of bodily functions that work beneath our conscious level of awareness, it only gets noticed when it is out of balance. Cortisol is necessary for proper functioning and survival:
⦁ Cortisol helps balance the effect of insulin, keeping blood sugar at the correct levels
⦁ Cortisol helps the body regulate and function during times of stress
⦁ Cortisol assists in the regulation of blood pressure
⦁ Cortisol helps in the regulation of the immune system

From an evolutionary standpoint, cortisol exists in order to wake you up in the morning, adapt more effectively to life-threatening danger, and cope with sudden emergencies. A sudden spike in cortisol gives the human body potentially superhuman capabilities. We are literally faster and stronger under the influence of cortisol. Unfortunately, 21st century life does not give us many opportunities to appropriately exercise this kind of power surge. In fact, excess levels of cortisol in your body can have a deleterious negative effect, called Cushing’s Syndrome, which often leads to:
⦁ Mood swings, depression, and irritability
⦁ Digestive problems
⦁ Heart disease and high blood pressure
⦁ Sleep disturbance
⦁ Weight gain
⦁ Premature aging

If this were a commercial, this would be the point where the voiceover says, “If you suffer from any of these side effects, contact your physician.” Not bad advice by any means, but before you go through the stress of making the appointment, three hours in a waiting room, a hefty co-pay, and two or three prescription medications, there are a lot of things you can do on your own to bring your cortisol levels under control. Here’s a few to get you started:
⦁ Get your diet under control. Cut back on all beverages and foods that have caffeine in them. This includes not only coffee, but soft drinks, energy drinks, tea, and chocolate. Caffeine causes spiking of cortisol levels. While you do not need to cut out caffeine entirely, it’s a good idea to use caffeine judiciously.
⦁ Reduce processed foods, simple sugars, and carbohydrates. These cause a spike in cortisol levels, increase blood sugar, and cause you to feel anxious. Anxious feelings and thoughts promote increase cortisol to prepare you for the perceived disaster. Try to avoid white bread, pasta, white rice, and pastry products. When you do indulge, lean towards whole wheat.
⦁ Keep yourself hydrated by drinking lots of pure water. Dehydration causes spikes in cortisol, as waterdehydration leads to stress and stress leads to higher cortisol levels. No need for all those funky, expensive flavored waters unless you prefer them. Regular tap water works fine. Just try to consume 1 ounce of water for every 2 pounds of your body weight.
⦁ Use fish oil regularly. Fish oil has been linked to moderate levels of cortisol as well as with a host of other beneficial results. If you prefer real food to supplements, lean towards salmon, mackerel, sea bass, and sardines. Fish oil has been shown to aid with brain functioning and reduced levels of inflammation. It is one of the cheapest and least invasive things you can do for good health.
⦁ Learned to meditate in some fashion. Just learning to sit quietly, focusing on your breath, for 10 to 20 minutes per day can bring down stress and cortisol levels dramatically. There doesn’t have to be anything mystical, magical, or religious about it. Just find the time and a place to sit quietly each day. If you find it difficult, try doing it outside as often as possible. Meditation is an acquired taste, but well worth the time and effort.
⦁ Exercise, exercise, exercise! Yeah, you knew what was going to get around this eventually. Exercise does not have to be intense or painful, but it must be absorbing and done consistently. Some exercises are much better than others for lowering cortisol levels. Yoga, tai chi, and Pilates, for example, are better for lowering stress than intense cardio or weight training. While cardio and resistance training are necessary for a complete program, a simple stretching routine and a little bit of walking on your off days will do the trick in lowering your cortisol and stress levels. Don’t under estimate little things like parking your car a quarter of a mile from your destination, a brief 10 minute walk at lunch, or a few minutes of yard work.
⦁ Laugh, smile, and hug when appropriate. All three of these activities drastically reduce cortisol. They dalai-lama-laughare your physiology’s “proof” that everything is okay, if not now, at least soon. Find ways to do all three.

Cortisol is a powerful, internally produced, necessary drug that we need for survival. Learn to control your cortisol levels or your levels will control you. It is estimated that as much as 70% of primary care physician visits in the United States are due to stress related illnesses. Before you sit in that waiting room, try some of the solutions suggested here for at least 30 days and see how you feel. Be consistent and you will find that you feel the difference. While you may not become the Dalai Lama, I’m sure you’ll feel a lot better.

John

P. S. Contact me if interested in online mindbody coaching or cognitive behavioral therapy. Please check out my author’s page at amazon.com/author/johnsannicandro or using the Amazon link on this page. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and social media. Email me at john@mindbodycoach.org.

George Carlin, Michelangelo, And The Pursuit Of Stuff

Michelangelo Buonarroti, the great sculptor, artist, and engineer of the 15th century remains to this day indexone of history’s greatest talents. Legend has it that an admirer, after viewing his sculpture of David asked him in awe how he had done it. Michelangelo allegedly replied, “David was always they are in the marble. I just took away everything that was not David.” Whether this conversation took place and not is not the point of this article. Maybe we can learn an important lesson about that chunk of marble which is our own life.

Minimalism is a lifestyle choice that some have chosen as a reaction to the materialism of post World War II American life. Baby boomers and their children have enjoyed incredible opportunities for the accumulation of wealth, possession, tools, and utensils of all varieties. Middle-class Americans and even lower middle-class Americans are able to accumulate incredible amounts of what comedian George Carlin would call “stuff.” Here’s his take on our fascination with accumulation:

Initially, it may be hard to see what Michelangelo and George Carlin have in common. Upon further examination, you may notice that they are giving us the same advice. Perhaps we can lead a healthier, happier, and more fulfilling life if we prioritize what is essential is important to us. Many of us spend far too much of our waking hours doing things we don’t like to accumulate stuff that we are led to believe that we need in order to be happy. A lot of stuff that we own we have used a handful of times, maybe two or three times per year, and store way somewhere in our homes. If you are honest, you probably have a jigsaw, coffee grinder, sledgehammer, breadmaker, or some reasonable facsimile collecting dust somewhere in your living quarters. While the product may be top-quality, do you really need it? And, more importantly, would you be better off if you had less stuff to worry about?

Minimalism is a radical approach that some have taken where they strip away the nonessential possessions, tools, and artifacts to simplify lifestyle. For some, it is almost a countercultural pursuit, analogous to the Hippie movement of the late 1960s. While there’s no need to join a commune, stop bathing, and smoke a bunch of weed to be happier, there may be some mental health benefits from paring down some of the stuff that has become a burden to your life.

Here are some of the benefits of incorporating a minimalist attitude toward your lifestyle:
1. You’ll spend less money. If you’ve ever had a yard sale and walked away with a few hundred dollars, then you are acutely aware of the monetary value that your useless stuff can have. You’re also probably very aware of that exhilarating feeling you get when a lot of your junk is removed from your life. One person’s junk is truly another person’s treasure.
2. You’ll have less stress and day-to-day living becomes easier. No need to store, maintain, clean and dust around a lot of useless stuff. Living simply means less stress.
3. More freedom. By having less and wanting less you free your mind from desire. Think about how often an advertisement on TV makes you initially say to yourself , “Wow, I’d love to have one of those.” Next time you have that thought, ask yourself some probing questions. Maybe Janis Joplin was right when she said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
4. More available time. The pursuit of and maintenance of stuff is time-consuming. Most of us complain on a daily basis that, “I don’t have time for _______________.” You can fill in the blank with your own personal excuse. Less stuff = more available time, and coincidently, less excuses.
5. Improved quality of the stuff that you do own. By spending less in total costs for a whole lot of stuff that you don’t use, you are freeing up available cash for better quality stuff that you will use. Minimalism doesn’t mean that you go without. It does mean that you go with what is essential.
6. Minimalism is the ultimate in Going Green. If the environment is important to you, then the basic premises of minimalism should make clear sense to you.
7. Minimalism can lead to a better sense of self-esteem. Most people who suffer from self-esteem problems do so because they are comparing themselves, unfavorably, to others. As adolescents, they begin to compare themselves, unfavorably, to others with regard to attractiveness, grades, athletic abilities, and talents. As adults, these same people begin to compare themselves unfavorably to others with regard to material possessions. Once a person can wrap their mind around the the idea that self-worth does not come from material possessions, self-esteem becomes less of an issue.

No one’s advocating that you give up creature comforts and live in a tent in your backyard. It’s probably10593207_10204991268168534_138724077173579226_n safe to assume, however, that you have accumulated, over the course of your life, a lot of stuff that upon further examination is just that, a lot of stuff. Take a look at that chunk of marble that is your life and try to find what’s really there. As Bruce Lee said, “It’s not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” Chip away, removing a little from here, take away a little from there, and see what emerges. Maybe focusing on who you are, as opposed to what you have, will become what you’ve been pursuing all along.

John
P. S. Contact me if interested in mindbody coaching or online cognitive behavioral therapy. Please check out my author’s page at amazon.com/author/johnsannicandro or using the Amazon link on this page. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and social media. Email me at john@mindbodycoach.org.

Media Madness And TMI

“All media exist to invest in our lives with arbitrary perceptions and arbitrary values.”-Marshall McLuhan

The year 2014 is entering its final phase. Autumn is here, and winter will soon be upon us. Once again,pc-140906-ebola-liberia-mn-1050_f3a0febfd3e2fd689b919385c5d00a81  the media and news sources are informing us of all the things we should be aware of, worried about, prepared for, and afraid of. It often seems that this time of year is the only time that the Center for Disease Control does any work or research. The latest perseveration is focused on the Ebola virus and the onset of flu season. Media experts would argue that they are merely informing the American public to take caution, use good judgment, and stay healthy. On the surface, this seems plausible. However, as someone who works in the field of mental health, I can also see another side.

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”-Marshall McLuhan

Tv-Violence2It’s a basic principle of the human mind to see what it looks for. The human brain is wired towards recognition of evidence that confirms what we already believe. It’s a way that we navigate the world and maintain our sanity. Much of what 21st century people believe is influenced and shaped by others and has very little to do with our own, personal experience. Most of us have very strong opinions on politics, sports, medicine, and entertainment that are largely influenced by people we have never met, and things that we have never experienced. We have the perception that we are in the loop on a lot of these things, because we have instant access to almost anything going on, anywhere on the planet, at any time. We believe we are being educated and informed, creating a perception that we are intelligent, aware, and living life fully. Are we? Or are we being negatively influenced by sensationalism in order to keep us tuned in?

“Television is the opium of the people.”-Edward R Murrow

The fact is that, while a secondary goal of the media is to inform and educate, the primary goal is to sell products and make money. Advertising drives the media. In order to keep us tuned in, media outlets use what is called the “teaser,” which keeps us watching over a longer period of time. You’ve seen it and heard it, “What are the chances of the Ebola virus appearing here? We’ll have the details tonight at 11.” Statements like this one are designed purposely to rent space in your head and get you to stay up till 11 to find out. Since people tend to focus on negative stories such as this one, media experts know that a teaser like this works well. As humans, our survival instinct tells us that we need to be prepared for potential catastrophes. In the 21st century, the media tells us what those catastrophes are. Is it any wonder why stress related illnesses and sales of anti-anxiety medications are at an all-time high?

“In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”-Andy Warhol

In 1968, when Andy Warhol made this often quoted statement, this seemed implausible. In 2014 it is entirely possible. The Internet has made it possible for anyone, anyplace in the world, to become famous for 15 minutes or even more. And, if you can’t be world famous, you can become famous among your 453 Facebook friends, and all of their friends, and their friends friends, and so on. While social media has tremendous opportunity to bring people together, it also has greater potential to do the opposite. (See http://mindbodycoach.org/?p=1187) Unintelligent use of contemporary technology has the potential to leave people more isolated, anxious, and fearful than perhaps at any time in man’s history.

The facts are, if you believe in statistical analysis, that we are living in the safest time in all of human history. Here are some facts:
Fewer people are dying young, and people are living longer. In 1950 the average age of death worldwide was 47. In 2013 it was 70.
The standard of living, worldwide, has increased by all major indicators over the last 20 years.
People, worldwide, in many research studies, are reporting greater senses of happiness and life satisfaction than at any other time in human history.
War is becoming less frequent, and less deadly. While this doesn’t make sense to many of us, it is statistically true. I often recall the quote that Nazi mass murderer, Adolph Eichman, made in 1960, “When you kill one person, it’s a tragedy. When you kill 1 million, it’s a statistic.”
Rates of murders and violent crimes have declined markedly since the year 2000.
Discrimination, in the form of racism, sexism, homophobia, and ageism has declined drastically. Studies show that most people consider these issues to be of importance to them, not only in the United States, but worldwide.

Whether you find these statistics comforting or not is irrelevant. While it is important for all of us to remain informed and aware, we must also be cognizant of the fact that there is a tendency of the news media toward sensationalism and trying to create an emotional reaction. To get the audience more deeply involved they must emphasize the negative aspects of the story, no matter how low or risky. News outlets are literally competing with thousands of other sources of information, and their goal is to get you to tune in to them exclusively. Gone are the days when a newscaster told you facts and relayed information. Today, they must move you emotionally, entertain you, and hold your attention. As the Eagles said years ago, “Get the widow on a set, give us dirty laundry.”

The negative impact of this brand of journalism is a population walking around in a heightened state of anxiety, worried about things out of their control, waiting for the next media inspired disaster. Make no mistake about it, we must be informed and aware. There can be a healthier, more logical, middleground:
Limit the amount of television news that you watch each day. Don’t fall for the “teaser.” Decide what imagesnews stories are important to you and read about them on the Internet and in print journalism. Studies show that print journalism provides more memorable information with less emotional involvement. Those who get most of their news from television are bombarded with the same story over and over again, imprinting negative images on the brain. Those who read their news tend to view situations more rationally and less emotionally, clearly a better choice.
Rely more on radio news and commentary. Unless you are adamantly liberal or conservative, use talk radio judiciously. Talk radio tends toward the same sensationalism that television does. Listening is fine, but just be aware that there is probably a particular political slant of the programs that you are listening to.
Try listening to 30 minutes of radio news, decide what stories are of interest, and read about them. No need to go to a library, or even by a newspaper or magazine. Everything you need to know is available in print, on the Internet.
Use the Internet for information, doing your own research and formulating your own opinions. Not only is this likely to give you a more rational outlook on the world, it’s good for brain health. Keep in mind that there is more to the Internet than Facebook, social media, and celebrity gossip. Certainly these things are not bad for you, but a steady diet of this is definitely mind numbing.
Question the information that you get from the media. As young people, we are told to “Question authority.” It’s probably a better idea to “Question the media.” Just because we heard it on the news or read it in print doesn’t mean that it is true. Do your own research, find out for yourself.

Careful use of technology has the potential to make us more connected to our world and other people than ever before. The world of the 21st century is potentially that Global Village that many talked about 20 years ago. Pay attention to what you choose to focus on, as that will become your view of reality. Seek to balance your need to be informed with your need to know the truth.

John
P. S. Contact me if interested in mindbody coaching or online cognitive behavioral therapy. Please check out my author’s page at amazon.com/author/johnsannicandro or using the Amazon link on this page. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and social media. Email me at john@mindbodycoach.org.

The Power Of Pets

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”-Anatole France

I have been a practicing counselor and psychotherapist for almost 20 years and I have a confession toindex make about my profession: some of the best therapists I know have never been to college, never read a book about theories, counseling technique, or diagnostics. They often drool, sometimes fall asleep during sessions, and occasionally make over the top demands. They violate professional boundaries, giving inappropriate hugs, kisses, and even an occasional lick on the face. Yep, you guessed it, they’re pets.

If you own a pet of any type, then you are probably well aware of the immediate benefit and joy of pet ownership. You know what it’s like to have a day from hell and be greeted lovingly and non-judgmentally at the door by a wagging tail or a purring, unofficial greeter. You also know how quickly this daily ritual can turn around your mood. Homer, returning home from the Trojan Wars never had it so good. What you may not be aware of is the benefit that your best friend can provide to your physical and emotional health.

Increases in health costs over the past 30 years have resulted in numerous studies designed to increase awareness of the more inexpensive ways to maintain health. Studies have shown that one of the most cost-effective things that one can do for health maintenance is to own a pet. Consider some of the following examples:
Psychologists at the University of Miami have found that pet owners are more conscientious, more social, enjoy better self esteem, and have healthier inter-personal relationships.
One study found that dog owners are 54% more likely to get their recommended amount of weekly exercise than people who don’t own dogs. They also find that kids are more likely to be physically active if there is a dog in the home.
A study of New York City stockbrokers found that adopting a dog or cat brought down blood pressure levels better than medication.
A university study done in Sweden showed interaction with pets led to a reduction in heart rate and the stress hormone cortisol.
Another study found the act of playing with a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, two hormones that help regulate depression and motivation.
Pet owners tend to have lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, factors in the development of heart disease.
Heart attack patients who own pets survive longer than those without.
Pet owners over the age of 65 make 30% fewer visits to the doctors than those without pets.

While studies consistently show that people who own dogs enjoy the greatest health benefits, a therapeutic pet doesn’t necessarily need to be a dog or a cat. Any living creature that you interact with can give you health benefits. Even watching fish in an aquarium can help reduce tension and lower heart rates. (Remember Bill Murray’s pet fish Gill in the movie “What About Bob?” There is a reason that your dentist has that cool aquarium in the waiting room.) Many nursing homes have programs where various types of “therapy animals” are brought in for residents to connect and interact with. The physical contact with a dog or cat in particular have been proven to lower levels of depression and increase levels of oxytocin, and important hormone in happiness and feelings of connectedness.

If you’re one of those parents who has been hesitant to get a dog or a cat for your kids consider the indexfollowing:
Kids who own dogs and cats are more empathetic than those who live with just one or the other, or neither.
College students who live with a dog or cat are less lonely and depressed than those without either.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison found that children growing up in homes with dogs and cats are at significantly lower risk of developing allergies or asthma.

Dogs were shown to be one of the best ways to attract a date in a study conducted by Emory University in Atlanta. Researchers found that dogs are natural conversation starters and can help people who have social anxiety connect with members of the opposite sex. The dog can be the reason that conversation gets initiated, a reason for both to meet at the same place regularly, and enables prospective partners to witness how their prospect interacts with a living being.

I could go on and on with the health benefits that pets provide, but there’s no need to. We also, if we are looking for them, can learn some life lessons from our four-legged teachers. Consider the following boss attentiveexample which happens to me at least four or five times per year:
I wake up early in the morning to the sound of rain pinging off my bedroom window. I suddenly realize that the windows of my car or truck are wide open. Despite the fact that the damage has been done, I decide to run outside and close them. My dog, a four year old boxer named Boss, without hesitation or consideration for himself, decides to run outside with me. That’s what he does. Anywhere I go is good enough for him. We run back into the house, both soaking wet, of course he has to shake off and the walls and I get a secondary shower. I yell at him, he looks at me with those questioning eyes, shrugs it off, spins around in a few circles, and lays on his rug. I go off to work sitting in a wet car, day ruined. He forgot about it somewhere during his second rotation before he plopped down on the rug. So who’s the idiot here?

If you have a pet already, pay attention to the benefits that you receive every day from having one. If you don’t have one, consider getting one of some type. Adopting a rescue dog or cat, buying a puppy or kitten, or even getting reptiles or fish will enrich your life in countless ways. Research shows that unconditional love and acceptance is the most healing of all medicines.

John
P. S. Contact me if interested in mindbody coaching or online cognitive behavioral therapy. Please check out my author’s page at amazon.com/author/johnsannicandro or using the Amazon link on this page. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and social media. Email me at john@mindbodycoach.org.

Taming The Monkey Mind

“Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night.”- Buddha

The title of this article and the quote above are not meant to be merely humorous. It is, however, rather imagesironic that a guy who live in the fifth century BC described the human mind perfectly for those of us who live in the 21st century. He used the monkey as a metaphor for the way that a troubled mind processes things and functions. He often describes the mind as being filled with drunken monkeys jumping from branch to branch, screeching, and endlessly chattering and carrying on. I’m sure this analogy makes a lot of sense to you. One can only imagine the metaphor that this 5th century BC philosopher would use if he were alive today.

Over the last 2,600 or so years, this statement by Buddha has been reviewed, interpreted, and analyzed. Contemporary Buddhism contends that the monkey mind is a product of the human ego. Not ego merely in the sense of pride or narcissism, but in the sense of self deprecation as well. The human ego, if there is such a thing, is usually bad. People with an “over inflated ego” think they more important than they really are. We all know them, the “hey, look at me,” type that work the room at every social event we go to. They shake hands and back slap with everybody, kiss and hug every member of the opposite sex, and mail you those obnoxious Christmas cards where they send you a three-page newsletter about how great their family is doing. Pretty gregarious stuff for someone that you see once a year. There is, however, another way that ego gets in the way of serenity. Some people believe that they are responsible for everything bad that happens around them. It’s that they carry a “what did I do wrong, it’s my fault, I’m not good enough, smart enough…,” mindset that sets them up for misery. While it looks different from your backslapping buddy at the New Year’s Eve party, it is a variation of the same thing, an over developed ego.

If you’re with me so far, or are a regular reader of this blog, you are probably quite aware of the role that thoughts play in creating our life’s reality. Most, if not all, of our views of life are because of the meaning imagesthat we attach to them. Many of us know this, but still struggle with the episode of Wild Kingdom that we carry around inside our heads. Recognition of this internal primate cage is the first step in taming the troop. Consider some of the following examples:
Your phone rings at 6:30 AM on Saturday morning. What do you say to yourself immediately?
Your boss greets you, first thing in the morning at work, and says,”We have to talk this afternoon.” What’s the rest of your day like?
You open your mailbox and there is a letter there from the IRS. What’s the feeling in your chest at that moment?
Your 10-year-old car has to pass the state inspection. What’s the monkey telling you as the mechanic drives your car into the garage?

Yeah, I know, each of the above statements makes you feel like you are hiding in a wagon, covered with hay, trying to flee Nazi Germany. Most of us have been there. Most of us can relate to Buddha’s analogy of mind as monkey. So, how we bring those monkeys under control?

Here’s some practical, how to strategies, to implement into your daily life that have been proven to help:
1. Become an observer to your own life. By that I mean learned to view what’s happening from a third person perspective, observing your own reactions without judgment or labels. Notice the words that you say to yourself about these events. For example, is the traffic really “awful,” or is it only going to make you three minutes late for work? Notice the impact that your internal judgments and evaluations have on your perception of events. You’ll often find that these events are what you tell yourself they are. Also consult Therapies from the Categories section to the right of this blog post. (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/?p=936 for more on the observer strategy)
2. Be careful of what you pay attention to. The human brain is wired towards pattern recognition, so we tend to notice what we look for. In other words, what we focus on becomes our reality. Noticing the good in situations creates an entirely different reality for us. Notice things that create an attitude of gratitude and focus on those. Sounds simplistic, but compiling a daily gratitude list of three different things, no matter what they are, over a 30 day period can lead to a profound change in one’s outlook on life. (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/?p=742)
3. Exercise daily. While you don’t have to overdo it, a little enjoyable physical activity each day can Karate-Chimpground you, slow the world down, and engross you in your physical body. Any activity will do, but you may find that mind-body activities such as a yoga, dance, tai chi, or martial arts are best. Anything where you have to think before moving tends to give the result that we are looking for here.
4. Learn to breathe correctly. A few minutes every day engaging in the practice of deep breathing slows down your thinking significantly. Focus on the breath in a circular manner, breathing easily on the inhale and just a little more forcefully on the exhale. The goal is not to hyperventilate, but to calm. Over time, the breathing will become more localized in your abdomen, rather than in your chest. Placing your hands, folded, over your abdomen will give you feedback. Proper breathing is not New Age nonsense, up to 70% of the body’s waste is eliminated through the respiratory system. Some of this waste can be negative thinking.
5. Learned to meditate. There are numerous ways that one can attain the relaxation response that we refer to as meditation. The breathing activities outlined in number 4 above qualify as meditation. Starting with an awareness of breath focus, 2 to 3 times per day, for as little as five minutes will bring the response that you are looking for. If you want to plunge into meditation more deeply, there are literally hundreds of YouTube videos, MP3s, and iPhone apps that can walk you through the process. Find something that resonates with you online and commit to it over the next 30 days to get started.

Be patient with your monkey mind. Realize that it will always be there to some degree, as it is part of being human. Your goal is to put those monkeys in the cage and continue to function effectively when they get out of control.

John
P. S. Books from mindbodycoach.org are available in the search box located to the rights of this post. Please check out my author’s page at amazon.com/author/johnsannicandro. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Email me at john@mindbodycoach.org.

No Reason to be SAD

“Winter is not a season, it’s an occupation.” – Sinclair Lewis

Winter and seasonal change is one of those things that people are rarely neutral about. More often thanindex not, people either love it or hate it. For many of us, this time of year means a little more work and a little more preparation. We’ll soon be raking leaves, putting away our summer toys, and preparing for the cold season just like squirrels, birds, and the rest of the animal world. In a few months, we will be shoveling snow, Christmas shopping, and enjoying the holiday season with our loved ones.

For others, the onset of winter brings with it a unique type of mood disorder that has become known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. People who have seasonal affective disorder enjoy normal mental health throughout the year, but experience depressive symptoms in the winter. Once thought to be coincidental, seasonal affective disorder is now referred to in psychiatry as,”depression with a seasonal pattern.” While the seasonal pattern can be for any of the four seasons, it’s far more likely to occur in the winter months. Studies indicate that it is statistically significant. As few as 1.4% of Florida residents experience it, and as many as 9.7% of New Hampshire residents. Those suffering from seasonal affective disorder are likely to experience a serious change in mood, sleep too much, have little energy, and feel depressed. Those suffering from the disorder during summer usually have symptoms accompanied by anxiety. The symptoms can be severe, but they usually clear up as the seasons change.

imagesThe origins of seasonal affective disorder lie within human evolution. It is believed to be a remnant of the days when humans hunkered down for the winter, conserving energy through decreased activity and longer periods of sleep. These behaviors would be a reaction to food shortages, as decreased activity meant less calories needed and less food required. Evolutionary psychologists believe that seasonal affective disorder is an evolved adaptation of this hibernation response. Since more women suffer from seasonal affective disorder than men, it is also presumed that the response somehow regulates reproduction.

Most adults are aware if they suffer from seasonal affective disorder. Even if the symptoms are not severe enough to be labeled a “disorder,” many can identify with the seasonal changes in mood and physiology that occur from October to March. Most people assume that these feelings are “just something I have to deal with each year,” and do little to combat them. Whether your symptoms are severe or not, there’s a lot you can do to make winter more enjoyable and more productive.

Here are some suggestions of lifestyle changes that can make seasonal change less impactful on you:
1. Remember that seasonal affective disorder is, first and foremost, physiological rather than psychological. Your body is reacting to seasonal change. You may have negative thinking patterns and negative expectations that have developed over the years that contribute to the low mood, but it is primarily physical.
2. Get as much sunlight as possible. Seasonal depression tends to set in most profoundly when the clocks change in late October. Most who have it complain of “getting up in the dark, going to work, and coming home in the dark.” Sunlight has a positive effect on mood. Bundling up and going for a walk during midday,or opening the window shades and sun roof on your car can have a positive impact. Try to find as many ways as possible to be exposed to sunlight. If your symptoms are very severe, ask your doctor about a Light Box and Light Therapy. Also consider keeping more artificial lights on in your house.
3. Keep a consistent routine. If you do well on eight hours of sleep the rest of the year, then don’t bump your hours up to nine just because you’re bored. Too much sleep can be as bad for your mood as too little during the winter months. Little things like making your bed, doing dishes immediately after eating, shaving, showering, and brushing teeth at regular times are simple and effective ways to cope.
4. Pay attention to your diet. If you get by most of the year on 2200 calories, then eating 3000 makes no sense. Avoid the natural tendency to consume more sugars and carbohydrates as a result of the cold. Increase the amount of protein and water that you consume, and be careful of your alcohol consumption. Try to eat at regular times.
5. Stay connected to supportive family and friends. Have planned activities with your tribe that you look forward to. If possible, avoid people that bring you down. The trifecta of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s doesn’t mean that you have to be surrounded by negativity and negative people. It’s okay to refuse some of those holiday invitations. Plan carefully who you spend your time with, but be sure to spend it with people.
6. Exercise, exercise, exercise! By this I don’t mean to increase your exercise, just be sure to do it imagesregularly. Tracking your workouts, on paper, is more likely to keep you on a regular exercise regimen. If at all possible, do some of your exercise outside in the sun and fresh air. Exercise has been proven to be, by far, the most effective behavior that one can engage in to fight all types of depression.
7. Seek to develop coping skills. Although you may not necessarily suffer from debilitating depression, virtually everybody can benefit from having coping skills for low moods. Use the Categories link on this page and search the Therapies and Motivation sections for more useful information. If your symptoms become overwhelming, consult an expert.

Although you may not enjoy winter the way you did when you were a kid, there’s a lot that you can do to make it more bearable. Follow these suggestions and plan ahead. It can be one of the most enjoyable times of year regardless of where you live.

“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”-Percy Bysshe Shelley

John
P. S. Contact me if interested in mindbody coaching or online cognitive behavioral therapy. Please check out my author’s page at amazon.com/author/johnsannicandro or using the Amazon link on this page. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and social media. Email me at john@mindbodycoach.org.

Cheating Yourself In Life

“The way that you do anything is the way that you do everything.”-Anonymous

I’ve grown up in New England, and lived my entire life in Massachusetts. September is that month thatimages gets a lot of us who live in the Northeast to question our place in the world. Literally, our place in the world. We know that, within three months, temperatures will plummet, there definitely will be a lot of snow, crawling commutes, and a lot of work. It’s a rare New Englander who doesn’t ask themselves, at least a few times between December and April, “Why do I live here?” I began to think about shoveling snow, scraping car windows, and trying to navigate yet another long winter. As I thought  about this question yesterday, I thought of the great motivational quote cited above from some anonymous thinker. If you live in an environment like New England, then you know what it’s like to suck it up for 4 to 5 months of every year. My thoughts drifted to getting motivated and how to sustain effort.

“If you cheat in sprints, you’ll cheat in life.”-Ron Reardon

The quote above did not come from a noted thinker, rather it came from a statement made many years ago by a college teammate. It was shouted out during a football practice by one of my teammates, a indexhard-working tackle, who was one of the more motivated guys that I played with during my glory days. At the time, I remember a lot of us breaking out laughing, finishing our sprints with 100% effort, and heading into the locker room. It was enough to break the tension,you know, those silent times when athletes are pushing themselves and there’s no talking because no one has anything left to give. In retrospect, what was a spontaneous and enthusiastic thought from a teammate still provides a lot of food for thought for all of us. There we were, 40 or so 18 to 24-year-old athletes who thought we wanted to be winners. The Zen koan in all of this is that, if we really wanted to be winners, why would we cheat in sprints anyway? Why would we not do whatever it took to become winners? Years later, it still brings up the question: Why would we take shortcuts with goals that we are trying to achieve? If we’re honest with ourselves, we can probably find far too many examples of self sabotage and self defeating behaviors that prevent us from achieving what we say we want for ourselves. Why do we do this? Human nature? Fear of success? Fear of giving 100% and still failing? Who knows, but if we’re brutally honest most of us do this. Why do we give less than our best in pursuit of our goals?

“I’d give anything to look like that.”-Anonymous newcomer at a gym admiring the fit members

A lot of people over this next few months will put on approximately 10 to 15 pounds. If you’re not careful, it’s impossible not to. Our bodies sense the coming of winter, we begin to crave “comfort foods,” enter hibernation mode and hunkered down for the season. Come January many of us will decide to “get back into shape,” and that anonymous quote from the newcomer at the gym might come from our mouths or at least enter our thoughts. Ask yourself, “Really? Anything?” Be sure you don’t fool yourself. Notice how long it takes before you come up with some rationalization for why “anything” is no longer possible. Be aware of the “Curse of the Toos,” i.e. too early, too cold, too tired, too busy. If you really would do “anything,” then why aren’t you doing it?

“Quality is what happens when no one’s looking.”-Henry Ford

Henry Ford certainly knew little something about motivation and quality. If you read any biographical imagesinformation about him, you’ll realize he was a pretty quirky guy, but he certainly knew a lot about quality and quality of effort. A good test of your motivation and commitment is asking yourself “What do I do when no one’s looking?” How do I conduct myself at my job, as a parent, as a husband, wife, or partner, as a teammate, etc. when no one is looking? How much better would I be in all of these roles if I just pushed a little bit more? While you may not invent the next Model T, you’re probably capable of much more than you’re getting from yourself right now.

“Effort is between you, and you. No one can take away effort.”-Ray Lewis

This quote is one of my favorites. While Ray Lewis is not a philosopher by any means, he certainly knows a fair amount about giving a best effort. And, effort is something that cannot be taken from you. When you have given 100% to your efforts, that’s it, that’s all. No second guessing, no woulda, coulda, shoulda, yeah buts, or any other type of excuses. If one can honestly say I have given my best, then even defeat and failure can be sources of personal pride and self-esteem.

Written goals, pursued doggedly, are the way to make your life’s dreams your life’s realities. In pursuing your goals, just be careful to give yourself a gut check now and again. “Am I really giving my best?”

John
P. S. Books from mindbodycoach.org are available in the search box located to the rights of this post. Please check out my author’s page at amazon.com/author/johnsannicandro. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Email me at john@mindbodycoach.org.

“He Who Hesitates…”

“He who hesitates is lost!”-Harold “Grump” Walker

The first time I ever heard this quote was as a high school freshman during football practice. The quote imageswas vigorously brought to my attention by my freshman coach, a 77-year-old coaching legend by the name of Harold Walker. Grump, as he was better known, was past his prime as a coach, but still had a lot of of enthusiasm and energy. He could quote Shakespeare, philosophy, science, and one of his claims to fame was he was once a minor league baseball teammate of the legendary Jim Thorpe. In addition to everything else, Grump was completely deaf. He probably threw that quote at me at least five times that afternoon. Over 40 years later his advice still has relevance.

One of the best remedies for many physical and mental health problems is taking action. Most of us humans have a built in denial system that kicks in when we are facing something in our life that is challenging. It can be personal relationships, job related, financial, physical, you name it, one of the first things we instinctively do is deny and wait. We suffer from analysis paralysis. Often, an opportunity is missed, a problem gets bigger, or someone else steps up and seizes is our opportunity. If you lived in the 70s, couldn’t you have thought up something better than the pet rock or the chia pet?

“Action beats reaction every time.”-Unknown

This expression about action versus reaction is commonly cited in self defense and personal protection imagestraining courses. In those venues it is applied to physical self-defense. It probably has more utility in protecting us from physical and emotional maladies. Most emotional issues that people are plagued with are more predictable than we would imagine. As a psychotherapist, I spend a lot of time with clients asking them to “tell me what goes on with you with regard to _____________.” The blank is filled in with your anxiety, depression, fear, sadness, marriage, job, etc. After listening for approximately 20 to 30 minutes a clear pattern emerges and after a few weeks a client realizes that the problem is a lot more predictable than they would ever have imagined. The therapeutic goal then becomes being prepared and/or taking action before the times when the problem, predictably, becomes difficult. The funny thing is that clients often know what to do, they simply need permission to act in the way that they intuitively know will be the most effective. The therapist, i.e. “expert,” gives them permission to take action.

When I was new in the field of mental health, I worked part-time on a locked psychiatric unit in a hospital in the greater Boston area. I worked 3 to 4 shifts per week over a three-year period, learning a lot about mental health problems of all kinds and degrees of severity. Because my shifts were spaced out over the course of a week, I was easily able to see the progress that clients made from day to day. It was fascinating to see the response that most had to their treatment. It became obvious to me that one of the major factors in patients getting well was a routine that all patients adhered to. They were encouraged to get up in the morning, clean up, eat, socialize, rest, and recreate on a regular schedule. Patients who were “too depressed to get out of bed” would be gently encouraged by staff to get moving, to take action. It became quite clear to me that it was action, as much as anything else, that brought them to a state of wellness. Action leads to wellness.

An exercise that works well to create insight and leads to the development of an action plan is to write out a history of your identified problem. This is what a therapist does in one of the early sessions of a course of psychotherapy. Writing, if you are brutally honest with yourself, can serve the same purpose as a self-help exercise. Ask yourself the tough questions.
What is the problem that I am having? Be detailed, but just identify the problem.
When do I experience the problem? Where, when, and with whom? Pay attention to particular people, time of year, anniversary issue, and environmental details. If possible, detail the last few, specific times you’ve experienced this difficulty.
What are the patterns? If you are honest with yourself and have done your introspection diligently, you will probably notice that some patterns have emerged. You may notice, for example, that you almost always have difficulties in a particular month of the year, at a particular place, or with the same people over and over again. This exercise done carefully virtually always will create insight.
What actions can I take? What thoughts or behaviors are in my capacity to change? How can I view this differently? What can I focus on to feel differently? Can I view this more productively? Can I quit the job, leave the relationship, plan things out better etc.? Writing out the pros and cons of a course of action usually leads to clearer, more well thought out decisions.

After engaging in this self reflection, you will more clearly see what your best options are. It is necessary that this activity be done in writing. There is something brutally honest about the written word. You see your own thoughts, on paper, in black and white, in your own handwriting. Your words become your own call to action to initiate change.

So, if you struggling with some difficulty, heed Grump’s advice. When you’re feeling lost, don’t hesitateimages to take action.

John
P. S. Please check out my author’s page at amazon.com/author/johnsannicandro. Kindle books from mindbodycoach.org are available using the link to the right of this post. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Email me at john@mindbodycoach.org.

Life Lessons From American History

“If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.” Theodore Roosevelt

A little-known secret of American History is that many of the great historical figures who made our nation great suffered from the same kind of doubt and indecision that we all do. More often than not, a biographical study of a great American leader is more likely to reveal overcoming a great physical or psychological obstacle than not. We often think that these leaders were somehow gifted, and greatness was just a part of their makeup. Not true, these men were great because of the grit and tenacity that was developed through overcoming those obstacles.

Theodore Roosevelt, although born into a wealthy family, was plagued with ill health and almost died gty_theodore_roosevelt_ll_120213_wmainmultiple times in childhood from debilitating bouts of asthma. When his father could find no medical cure for his son, he built a gymnasium for young Teddy and instructed him to work out. Young Teddy embarked upon what he later called “the strenuous life,” built-up his self-confidence and went from the proverbial 97 pound weakling to the president of the United States. Tough love, or great advice?

“A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”-George Patton

General George S. Patton is known as one of the great, can do, characters of American History. He was imagesnicknamed, by his own troops, as “Old Blood and Guts.” His enthusiasm, optimism, and ability to lead was inspirational. As a child in the pre-learning disability American schools, he suffered from an inability to read or write. He was tutored from home, learned to read, and would have been known today as a military history geek. He eventually decided to emulate the heroic figures that he had studied since childhood, developed into an accomplished athlete, and was admitted to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Although slight in stature, he became an Olympic athlete, competing in the 1912 Olympic Games in the modern pentathlon. Patton was another example of someone who refused to accept the hand that life had given him.

“Most folks are as happy as they make up their mind to be.”-Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, had he been running for president in the 21st century, would be considered unelectable. Lincoln suffered from bouts of depression throughout his life, a problem known in the 19th century as “melancholia.” If he was alive today he would be diagnosed with clinical depression, labeled as unstable by the media, and have virtually no chance of getting elected to any major political office. In 1838, Lincoln wrote what a close friend called a “suicide poem,” and Lincoln was watched round-the-clock by friends until he emerged from the depressive episode. In 1841 his engagement to future wife, Mary Todd, broke off and once again friends stepped in to keep him from self harm. Eventually, Lincoln and Mary Todd married, but not before she had a brief dalliance with his political nemesis, Stephen A. Douglas. If these events occurred today,TMZ and the entire Internet would have gone viral with these stories, and Lincoln probably would’ve ended up a sorry character on a reality TV show.

Lincoln worked extremely hard to overcome his dark side. He learned to compensate with humor, oftenaddres2100 self-deprecating. When he was on top of his game he worked hard, didn’t take himself too seriously, and made conscious efforts to take action to avoid slipping into the abyss that was his depression. Always a voracious reader, Lincoln was inspired by Stoic philosophies from the book, “Meditations,” by Marcus Aurelius. In other words, Honest Abe got honest with himself, took responsibility for his mental illness, and forged ahead. Think about how different our nation would be today if Old Abe decided to pull the covers over his head and stay in bed.

While certainly physical and mental setbacks will occur in the lives of many, these three great Americans can inspire all of us. It is likely that they became great because they conquered their problems. After overcoming death, ridicule, and mental illness, other obstacles in their lives seemed a little less daunting.

My first career was as a high school history teacher. It’s been a while since I gave a homework assignment. Your assignment is to consider the reactions of these three men to their setbacks, compare and contrast their problems with yours, and choose a new way to attack the obstacles in your own life.

John
P. S. Please check out my author’s page on amazon.com/author/johnsannicandro. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Email me at john@mindbodycoach.org.