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.

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“Let Me Sleep On It”

“Let me sleep on it, I’ll give you an answer in the morning.”-Meat Loaf

We spend one third of our lives sleeping. With a little bit of luck, that means that most of us will spend toy28 years of our lives asleep. During sleep our minds are more active than they are during the daytime. Sometimes we toss and turn, but it is our brain’s most creative period of our circadian cycle. Our conscious, critical, mind shuts down, our creative and playful side takes over, and we have bizarre, funny, disturbing, and sometimes horrible brain experiences that we call dreams. Often, the secret to good sleep is accepting that this is merely a part of the sleep process. Learning to roll with these events is very helpful. Learning to make practical use of our brain on sleep is even better.

Each of us has the potential to use our slumber time to solve some of our problems that we have when awake. Many of us are aware that this occasionally happens spontaneously. We go to sleep with some minor issue on our mind, such as where are my car keys, and wake up knowing exactly where we left them. Usually, we don’t make much of this, pass it off as a coincidence, and go on with our day. We have missed a valuable lesson here. This is an experience that we can duplicate consciously should we choose to do so. The reality is that brilliant minds throughout history have done this for centuries.

Author John Steinbeck said that “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved guyin the morning after the committee of sleep have worked on it.” The French poet St. Paul Boux had a sign over his bedroom door that read “Poet at work,” and many inventions such as Elias Howe’s sewing machine, and J. B. Parkinson’s computer-controlled anti-aircraft gun were conceived while sleeping. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” from an idea that came to him in a dream. Golfer Jack Nicklaus credited in improvement in his golf game to dreaming of a new way to grasp his club. Inventor Thomas Edison went so far as to ask his subconscious mind to answer his problems before he closed his eyes to sleep. Singer-songwriter Billy Joel often dreams musical arrangements, and Mary Shelley dreamed the Frankenstein story before she wrote her novel.

While many would pass these examples off as anecdotal evidence of coincidences that happened to geniuses, there are a number of studies of regular, everyday people that show all of us may have this capacity. A study completed in 1978 studied this phenomenon calling it incubation dreaming, and found that within five weeks 38% of subjects studied could conjure up answers to daily problems while dreaming. In 1986 a study of 76 college students was conducted asking students to incubate dreams addressing problems as a homework assignment in a class on dreams. They were asked to develop a problem based on personal issues that would have a recognizable solution. They would ponder the problem before bed at night briefly, clear their mind, and go to sleep. They recorded every dream that they had over a seven-day period. At the end of the study 76% believed that there recorded dreams provided a definite answer to their problem. It’s also quite possible that this percentage would be higher if the subjects repeated this procedure and consciously worked to develop this as a skill.

There are many ways that a person can use sleep to problem solve. Studies show that information inputted before bedtime, whether through listening, reading, or writing, is better retained if one goes to bed immediately after. It is believed that the information is better digested because there are no interfering events that follow it. The brain gets to save the information in the same way that a computer does. It appears that sleep improves insight as well as retention, and unlocks creativity that leads to the development of new ideas.

While it’s unclear why this happens, there were a number of theories as to why this occurs. Dr. Joanne Cantor, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes that “It’s as if your conscious brain makes a commitment to go in a certain direction, and it resists the mind wandering that might bring up novel approaches. It’s only when you quit that concentrated focus and that your brain is more open to far-flung ideas that might be residing in the remote corners of your brain.”

What’s the best way to make use of your sleep for problem solving? Your expectation that this strategy will work is vitally important. Brain scans performed on subjects while sleeping show that the brain literally relaxes and allows new neural pathways to develop while recruiting different parts of the brain to solve the problem. You must be relaxed and expect success, maybe not the first night, but expect it over the course of seven days.

The strategy that you choose will be influenced by the type of problem that you are trying to solve, but here are some general strategies:
1. Keep a notebook at your bedside. Jotting down random ideas before bed and recording your dreams immediately upon awakening is very helpful to this process. Focusing in on the problem before bed and then letting it go is crucial. Rather than worry about the problem as you toss and turn, write it down, and remind yourself that “there’s no need to worry or ruminate about that, it’s written down so I can let it go and sleep.” Recording dreams upon awakening is also important because most dreams are forgotten within seconds after waking. If you wake in the middle of the night, jot down whatever dream content you can remember, forget about it for the moment, and go back to bed. Remember, “there’s no need to worry about it, I’ve written it down.”
2. Make use of weekends for this practice initially. This strategy works best when you wake up naturally, without an alarm.
3. Make the problem one of the last things that you think about before closing your eyes. Don’t dwell on it however. Remember, no need to, you wrote it down.
4. If you are working on the development of a physical skill then the strategy will be slightly different. For example, if you are learning to play the guitar then picturing your fingers hitting all the chords correctly while you doze off is helpful. If you have a job interview coming up, or a speech to make, visualizing and mentally rehearsing a successful performance before slumber can help create neural pathways that will allow you to succeed in real time when it counts. Just be sure that your visualization is in the present tense and completely positive.
5. Look for patterns and symbolism in your dreams. This is where recording the dreams over a period of consecutive nights gets interesting. Dream content often consists of bizarre interpretations of events that occur during the day. Since the days are occupied with conscious problem-solving, then it makes sense that when sleep unlocks your critical mind, the solution has a chance to emerge. Learning to interpret your dreams opens up incredible opportunities to solve many of your problems and can give you great insight into yourself. Remember, the solution to your problem may not be resolved over one night, although it’s possible, but it may emerge over the course of a few.

Give these suggestions a try. I’m sure you will find it incredibly interesting and useful. Gaining insightimages into your unconscious mind can be fascinating and exciting. This is a skill, like anything else, and can be developed. You’re sleeping, how hard can it be?

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you will join us.”-John Lennon

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The Pause That Heals

There is probably no more disturbing or unsettling experience that one can have in life worse than a panic attack. A panic attack is a period of intense and out of control fear or anxiety that is accompanied by racing heart, dizziness, sweating, shortness of breath, and the feeling that one is losing their mind. This horrifying experience lasts anywhere from a couple of minutes to a few hours. If you ever experience these, or witnessed someone having one, you know how terrifying that it can be. While I have written numerous articles about how to cope with anxiety, this article is about a simple action that each of us does multiple times per day that can disrupt the chain of cognitive and behavioral events that we call a panic attack. This simple action also interrupts less destructive emotional reactions, such as anger, confusion, frustration, and milder forms of panic. The action? Take a drink of water.

David Grossman is an American author and psychologist who specializes in the psychology of killing andimages post traumatic stress disorder. He is a retired lieutenant colonel in the US Army, a former psychology teacher at West Point, and the author of two books on the subjects, “On Killing,” and “On Combat.” He is also a former Army Ranger and parachute infantryman. Although he readily admits that he is not a psychotherapist, his resume indicates that if he is talking about the subject of anxiety and panic, those who experienced these emotions probably ought to listen.

Grossman teaches that post traumatic stress is the linking up of a memory with an emotion. The memory, if not properly processed, reoccurs and triggers the same disturbing feelings that the original event had. The memory triggers a feeling that one is literally back confronting the troubling event. There are many behavioral strategies that have been used with a fair degree of effectiveness to bring these feelings under control, the most used one being to stop and take a few deep breaths. In the debriefing of hundreds of first responders, Grossman has found that asking them to take a drink of water is more effective. He admits that he has no solid research supporting the utility of this, but swears by the technique and says that he’s never failed to see it work.

In Neurolinguistic Programing there is a behavioral strategy called the Pattern Interrupt, where a person imagesin a feedback loop of repetitive behaviors or thoughts is pulled out of that pattern by something unexpected. Asking them to do something that makes no sense in the context of what they’re experiencing is often enough to break the pattern. Something unexpected and non-threatening is presented to the person and their pattern is broken. You’ve probably done this instinctively when you’ve got someone to laugh during an argument, ending the argument. Grossman’s take a drink of water strategy  is brilliant in its simplicity. He argues that taking a drink of water triggers a response that everything is going to be okay, as taking a drink of water is necessary for the survival of all animals, including humans. “If a deer is being chased by a wolf and it becomes thirsty,” Grossman says, “does it stop for a drink of water? No! It doesn’t want to get killed! When the threat is over, then it will stop for that drink.” By stopping for that drink of water a person’s brain receives the signal that the threat is over, I am not experiencing it now, and I am safe. He also notes that it is impossible to take a drink without taking a deep breath. He says, “The act of drinking sends a message to the midbrain that things are going to be okay. Separating the memory from the emotion is the path to healing.”

Grossman has used this strategy and others to debrief thousands of first responders who have witnessed horrific events over the past 20 years. He is often called in as the expert to debrief police, firefighters, and soldiers. He believes that the increase in instances off PTSD among American military personnel is because of modern technology and the way that soldiers are so quickly reintegrated into society after being exposed to trauma. “A soldier can be killing someone in Afghanistan and back in the United States within two days,” Grossman says, “this does not give him time to process and separate his emotions from the events. Until 100 years ago, soldiers had weeks and even months to process traumatic events during the long march back to their homes. They had evenings of eating and drinking around a campfire to process with their comrades what they had been through. When they got emotional during these discussions, they processed and took a drink, separating the events from their emotions.” These weeks and perhaps months, Grossman asserts, are necessary to appropriately debrief one who has been exposed to trauma.

Certainly the treatment of PTSD is far more complicated than this, but Grossman’s research provides indexsome solid advice for all of us. Whenever we are in a pattern of destructive thinking that leads to feelings of anger, fear, anxiety, or any other emotion where we are engaging in repetitive thinking or behavioral patterns, it makes sense to stop and change those patterns. We can stop and take a breath, remove ourselves from the situation by taking a walk, or disengage in order to regroup. Grossman’s strategy is brilliant in its simplicity, particularly if you are trying to calm down someone else. Asking someone to “take a drink of water” may be enough to return them to more rational ways of thinking. Grossman calls this strategy “just a tool to have in your toolbox” of coping strategies. It is by no means a solution to extreme anxiety, panic, or PTSD. It is, however, a simple tool to keep in mind to help yourself or others regain control.

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“Stop Being A Pain In The Neck!”

“Stop being a pain in the neck!”-Theresa Sannicandro (daily advice given to this author from 1954 to nec1972)

As a kid growing up in an active family in Massachusetts, I got this advice from my mother practically every day. I remember being little and wondering “How can you get a pain in your neck? Is that even possible?” Scraped knees and elbows, bumps and bruises I could understand, but come on now, a pain in the neck?

Years later playing high school football, I came to understand just what that pain felt like. Neck pain was something that I lived with four months of the year for the next eight years. Football stopped, but neck pain continued in some way, shape, or form. To this day, almost 40 years later, the snap, crackle, and pop in my morning isn’t from my rice krispies. Fortunately, I’ve learned ways to control this unhappy remnant of my glory days.

Chances are you can probably relate to the idea of neck and back pain. The facts are that 8 out of 10 people will suffer from chronic neck or back pain at some point in life, and there is a good chance that the other two people lying. Virtually nobody escapes at least one of these two conditions. Contemporary American life and the creature comforts that we enjoy are perfect breeding grounds for back and neck pain. Chronic pain and orthopedic diseases have become to this generation what smoking was for the 1960s and 70s. (See also “Death By Desk” May 15, 2014 from this blog) While we can readily understand the physical problems that this causes for millions, we don’t often consider the impact that spine related problems have on mental health. An international research study conducted among 85,000 participants around the world, in 17 countries, showed that instances of mental health problems were significantly higher in those with spine related issues. 42% of participants with mental health problems reported spine or neck problems during the previous 12 months. While the correlation between this and spinal pain is a little unclear, it’s no stretch to assume that back and neck pain play a role in emotional distress.

Fortunately for those of us that struggle with neck and back pain, the Internet has hundreds of sites with very sound preventative and palliative advice. It’s kind of ironic that the same technological advances that contribute to this problem also could hold the solution. Some of the biggest factors contributing to problems are that modern man has lost his ability to sit, stand, and move appropriately. The Mayfield Clinic for Brain and Spine provides the following how to advice:


Figure 1. The proper way to stand with your head up, shoulders straight, chest forward, hips tucked in, and your weight balanced evenly on both feet.

Avoid standing in the same position for a long time.
If possible, adjust the height of the work table to a comfortable level.
When standing, try to elevate one foot by resting it on a stool or box. After several minutes, switch your foot position.
While working in the kitchen, open the cabinet under the sink and rest one foot on the inside of the cabinet. Change feet every 5 to 15 minutes.



Figure 2. The proper way to sit with your hips and knees at a right angle (use a foot rest or stool if necessary). Your legs should not be crossed and your feet should be flat on the floor.
Sit as little as possible, and only for short periods of time (10 to 15 minutes).
Sit with a back support (such as a rolled-up towel) at the curve of your back. When you are not using a back support or lumbar roll, follow these tips to find a good sitting position:

1. Sit at the end of your chair and slouch completely.
2. Draw yourself up and accentuate the curve of your back as far as possible. Hold for a few seconds.
3. Release the position slightly (about 10 degrees). This is a good sitting posture.
Sit in a high-back, firm chair with arm rests. Sitting in a soft couch or chair will tend to make you round your back and won’t support the curve of your back. At work, adjust your chair height and workstation so you can sit up close to your work and tilt it up at you. Don’t hunch or lean over your work. Rest your elbows and arms on your chair or desk, keeping your shoulders relaxed.

When standing up from the sitting position, move to the front of the seat of your chair. Stand up by straightening your legs. Avoid bending forward at your waist. Immediately stretch your back by doing 10 standing backbends.

The Mayfield Clinic’s website is well worth a look see if you are one of those eight out of 10 with back and neck pain. Don’t ignore their free advice. For more check out their website at:

The neck and cervical spine also need attention in order to remain pain free. Most of us pay no attention to our neck until we have pain there. We usually do nothing in the way of exercise, ibuprofen the heck out of it, and wait until the pain passes on its own. Neck pain can have several causes, poor posture, muscle imbalances, or old injuries. It’s one of those disturbing parts of the body that can get injured during sleep. You go to bed feeling well, and wake up with what I call a “sleep injury.” These sleep injuries usually occur because we sleep in ways where our bodies are misaligned. The Mayfield Clinic’s website mentioned above has great advice that can prevent sleep injuries.

Even those of us who exercise quite frequently never think to exercise our necks. Neck exercise should increase flexibility and motion in the neck, shoulders, upper back, and cervical spine. The following is an excerpt on neck exercise taken from the University of Utah’s Department of health sciences website:
Before you begin a neck exercise, it’s important to find the proper starting position for your head. This helps prevent exercise-related injuries. Do this by putting your head squarely over your shoulders, then move it straight forward and then back. This back or base position is your starting point. For each of the following exercises, begin with 5 repetitions and build up to 10.
Rotations. Sitting or standing, turn your head slowly to the left and then to the right as far as you can, comfortably. Hold each stretch for 10 seconds to 30 seconds.
Shoulder circles. While standing, raise your shoulders straight up, then move them in a circle around, down and back up again. Circle in both directions.
Side stretches. While standing, stretch your neck slowly to the left trying to touch your ear to your shoulder. Repeat on the right side.
Resistance exercises. Place your right hand against your head above your ear and gently press, resisting the movement with your neck. Do the same with your left hand on the other side.
Head lifts. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Lift and lower your head, keeping your shoulders flat on the floor. Next, lie on 1 side and lift your head toward the ceiling. Repeat this movement on your other side and while lying on your stomach.

Another great resource is provided below. It is a 16 page booklet made available by the North American Spine Society. It is a simple, how to booklet on maintaining cervical spine health.

fnIf you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably do take care of yourself and are aware of the role that mutually exists between your physical and mental health. However, I bet you don’t do much of anything to keep your neck in shape. The exercises provided in the resources above can be added to your day easily, and can be done pretty much anywhere. Give them a try, and don’t worry about developing an NFL neck. My mother was right about virtually everything she ever told me, so “Stop being a pain in the neck!”


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Hearing Life’s Music

“Those who dance are considered insane by those who can’t hear the music.” – George Carlin

Music is one of the world’s great cultural universals, something that moves, inspires, motivates, and indexentertains people all over the world. For most people, music is a huge part of life. While people cannot always agree on what constitutes good music, most can agree that our lives would be less rich and less meaningful without it. In fact, there has never been a single human culture anywhere that has not lived with music. We use music to entertain us, celebrate births and marriages, babysit our children, relax, get motivated, cope with relationships breaking up, cheer on their favorite teams, help us sleep, and even to bury our dead.

At the risk of being Captain Obvious, there are incredible mental and physical health benefits to be gained through the power of music. There is a lot of solid, scientific research that has proven the benefits of music to be as good for us as we think it is. As a psychotherapist and coach, I often ask my clients to purposely use music in a therapeutic way. The fact is that particular types of music have the ability to move us, motivate, and inspire us in specific ways based on our unique responses to that music.

“One good thing about music, is when it hits you, you feel no pain.”- Bob Marley

Research indicates that music has the ability to lower levels of both anxiety and the stress hormone cortisol, factors in our perception of pain. Research studies have shown that listening to just 50 minutes of uplifting music increased levels of antibodies while decreasing perceptions of pain. The type of music was irrelevant, as research subjects were allowed to choose their own. Research done at Drexel University showed positive benefits of music therapy in cancer patients. Patients showed improved ability to cope with pain, decreased levels of anxiety, better blood pressure, improved mood, and quality of life.

“You know where you are. You’re in the jungle baby!”- Axl Rose

trumpMusic has incredible power to inspire and motivate people physically. In ancient times, music was used to direct and inspire troops as they went into battle. The trumpet player and drummer boy were important parts of military life and a part of successful armies throughout most of mankind’s history. Most of us intuitively know that there are types of music that can amp us up, inspire us to bravery, and simply get us pumped. Walk into any locker room or gym and you will probably hear sheer, raw, pulsating music designed to inspire listeners on a primal level. During the 1990s, you couldn’t walk into a pregame locker room anyway without hearing Axl Rose shrieking “Welcome to the J ungle.” Research shows that Axl was onto something. Research published in 2009 by the National Institute of Health showed that male college students riding stationary bikes performed on the average of 10% better while listening to music. Results varied based on the intensity and beats of the music. In other words, the heavier the music, the better the result.

Music also has an ability to distract us from experiencing unpleasant feelings. A study published in the Journal of Obesity Related Metabolic Disorders found that obese youngsters, who listen to music while working out on a treadmill, showed improved rates of endurance. Researchers referred to the effect of music as the “distraction effect,” inspiring them to push through and stay on the treadmill longer.

“Music has charms to soothe the savage beast. To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.”-William Congreve

Music can reduce levels of day-to-day emotional and physiological stress, changing brain chemistry kidalmost instantly in some cases. Headphones have been proven to enhance the positive benefits. Research done with varied age groups from infancy to adulthood have shown that headphones playing certain types of calming music-folk, lullabies, classical-reduced the anticipatory stress levels prior to, and during medical procedures. Here the type of music listened to was very important to the desired outcome.

A study done by Stanford University indicates that slow musical beats can alter brain waves in the same manner as meditation and hypnosis. These states can be purposely induced by listeners, creating similar effects as meditation. Musicians, religions, and shamans throughout history have been intuitively aware of this. Appropriate music, listened to regularly, can give you benefits equal to meditation. Find the music that works for you if meditation is too difficult.

Music has been studied quite extensively as a method to improve ability to fall asleep and sleep quality. Classical music, played softly, has been proven to improve these areas in people between the ages of 60 and 83 who listened to 45 minutes of music prior to bedtime. Subjects reported that they were able to “drift” into sleep more easily.

While I have never conducted any research studies on the benefits of music and health, I do have anecdotal experience that seems to fit well into this article. When I was a college student in the 1970s, my friends and I used to joke that we could tell who had just broken up with their girlfriends by the music that they listened to. If a guy was isolated in his room listening to hours of Jackson Browne, you knew enough to leave him alone for a few days. Eventually, after he wore a groove into the album, he’d be okay.

7150-JobForACowboy-24Nov12-900pxI am not a musician myself, but I’ve raised four sons, all musicians. I probably paid more money for guitars than any nonplayer in the country. I’ve witnessed firsthand the therapeutic value of music in my sons lives. They have performed publicly, as well as professionally, but I’ve seen the benefit as going beyond that. All of them have spent and still spend, hours of time playing and composing in a way that can’t help but be beneficial. For musicians who have music in their blood, it is a grounding, life enhancing practice. I guess it’s worth all that I paid on instruments and lessons.

I’d suggest you study the impact that different types of music have on you and begin to use music in a therapeutic and life enhancing manner. Find what motivates, enhances, and enables you in your day-to-day life. Chances are, you’re listening to music anyway. Might as well use it more specifically.

“Rock on out!” – Janis Joplin

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Can You Drive A Car?

“Can you drive a car?”

As a psychotherapist, coach, and educator, I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to get others to do things that they want to do but are not sure they can. In most cases, they have more than enough ability to achieve what they desire. The problem is that their feelings and emotions get in the way, their logical brain shuts down, and they either don’t try, half try, give up too soon, or sabotage their efforts. Sounds illogical but, trust me, I see this dynamic repeated every day.

Most of us have considerably more strengths than we realize. We also are aware of our weaknesses. When taking on a new challenge in our lives, our awareness of our deficits often takes on a life of its own. We become acutely aware of what it feels like to be defeated and often subconsciously do whatever it takes to avoid experiencing that feeling again. We become so motivated to avoid pain that we don’t try, kind of try, avoid trying too hard, then we fail, and we experience that feeling anyway!

In order to get my clients to put forth their best efforts and try I often ask them, “Can you drive a car?” I indexdon’t blindly ask the question, as I try never to ask a question that I am not pretty sure I already know the answer to. My client will usually answer with a puzzled look and say, “Well, yeah, of course I can drive a car.” I then take them for a trip down memory lane as I ask them to remember what it was like for them when they first learned how to drive. I asked them to recall how it felt for them mentally, emotionally, and even physically by asking questions like: “Remember going through that first intersection? Remember that first time you stepped on the gas pedal and the car responded? Remember that day you took the driving test?” Inevitably, these memories are indelibly burned into their minds, as they recall vivid details of these vehicular rights of passage. I usually respond with the typical therapist response, “Wow, that must have been quite a challenge.” Then I segue into the take away point that I’m trying to make-this is yet another of those difficult challenges that my client has the ability to overcome.

My daily commute from my home to my day job as a director of hospital-based programs in Boston involves a 40 mile round-trip drive each day. I live in an area that is half way between Boston and the imagescity of Worcester. Yesterday while driving to work I learned that Worcester Massachusetts ranked number one in the nation for having the worst drivers, while Boston ranked number two. The route that I drive daily, Route 9, is one of the most congested roadways in Massachusetts. The news story got me to thinking about how difficult driving can be and, as I sat in bumper to bumper traffic, I realized how many people are willing to take this challenge on despite the inherent difficulties, and can do it with ease. Every day I witnessed people talking on their cell phones, eating breakfast, putting on makeup, shaving, and occasionally even reading books. I’m sure all of these drivers once had a considerable amount of fear and doubt that they could ever learn to drive. The fact that they all can now drive, and take such a casual attitude towards it, shows that fear and doubt can be overcome.

Learning to drive can be a metaphor for learning to do the impossible. If you drive, I’m sure you can relate to what it felt like as a student driver, passing the driving test, getting back behind the wheel afterimages your first fender bender, and getting to the point where you are able to drive miles and miles while your mind is completely somewhere else. The reason that you got to this point is because you were persistent. When I use the learning to drive metaphor with my clients, the more resistance among them will say, “Well yeah but, I had no choice. You have to be able to drive.” At this point I typically respond with a brilliant tactic I learned in graduate school involving a look, 10 to 15 seconds of silence, and a “hmmmm.” If if my client is a little on the slow side and doesn’t get where I’m going with this, I ask “So, how is this challenge different?”

The point I’m making is that the way we think about challenges and obstacles that we face determines more towards our success than even our abilities. All of us have a reservoir of strength, potential, and capabilities that the human mind enables us to tap into if we allow it to do so. If you can get to the point where you can navigate a 2 1/2 ton weapon while wielding a cell phone, a cup of coffee, and listening to the radio, I’m pretty sure you’re capable of much more than you think. Consider this next time you’re taking on something challenging and doubt and fear begins to creep in. You are certainly far more capable than you’d ever imagine.

Please use the category and search box of this blog for more articles on goal setting and motivation. And, as Nike told you years ago, “Just do it!”

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The Food Mood Connection

moodBad moods are considered by most of us to be just part of being human, something that we can simply ride out and wait for them to pass. Occasionally, these moods are more long-lasting and problematic. We experience feelings that we describe with words such as depression, being a little down, anxious, agitated, and other descriptive expressions. If these moods and emotions last a long time, we may consult medical help. We usually look for things in our environment that are creating these disturbances. Maybe the problem is all in our head or, more accurately, in our diet.

“You are what you eat.”-John De Cola

We are, in fact, greatly influenced by what we eat. The food-mood connection is a vastly underestimated and overlooked part of our mental health. In the last 50 years, the medical world has become more aware of the role that what we eat plays in our physical health and well-being, but we still have a way to go in using our diets to improve our mental health. When we are having a bad day or a bad period in our lives, we can often identify an outside cause. Sometimes, however, there is none that we can pinpoint. Sometimes we are simply overreacting to external events that we normally handle quite well. If we are craving specific foods at these times, most of us grab something unhealthy such as fast foods or a sugary snack. Others reach for something with alcohol in it. The problem then goes away for a while, but soon comes back with a vengeance.

When stressed and overwhelmed very few of us think about grabbing a lean steak with a side of broccoli,fish or a piece of grilled salmon and some kale. Maybe we should. What we eat affects our feelings and reactions because certain foods produce brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that allow parts of the brain to communicate with each other. They are the reason that we process things the way we do, have feelings and emotions that we experience, and perceive life in a unique way. The way these parts of the brain communicate creates our individual personalities. While external forces have certainly influenced our personalities, our neurotransmitters play a vital role in our day-to-day moods, motivation, and in general satisfaction with the state of our lives.

The two main neurotransmitters involved in mood regulation are serotonin and dopamine. These two hormones are largely responsible for the regulation of our levels of happiness. Let’s take a look at the role these two play:
Serotonin plays a major role in regulating mood, sleep, cognitive abilities, sexual behavior, and appetite. We are more resilient to life’s up and downs when our serotonin levels are high. We have a more positive attitude and handle stressors more easily,while low levels of serotonin can result in depression and a tendency to be more impulsive.
Dopamine plays a role in your perceptions of pleasure and pain, emotions, and controls the brain’s reward’s and pleasure centers. Whenever you see something you want, dopamine levels rise giving you the motivation to go after it. In addition, your body needs dopamine for such normal activities like walking and maintaining your physical sense of balance.

Maintaining a healthy diet allows the brain to produce adequate amounts of serotonin and dopamine by converting essential amino acids into these neurotransmitters. Don’t worry, this article is not going to turn into a science class, the solution to this is pretty simple. You not only are what you eat, but you feel as you do because of what you eat. A healthy balanced diet, while no miracle cure, will allow you to cope with life stressors much better. Certain foods contain these essential amino acids which the body converts into these neurotransmitters. Here’s a how to explanation:
Serotonin – The amino acid tryptophan is the building block of serotonin. It’s found in poultry, meat, and most types of fish-salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, and sardines. If you’re not into flesh eating then you can obtain adequate amounts through consuming nuts and seeds such as flax seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, and in fruits like bananas, kiwi, and pineapple. Vegetables and legumes are also good sources.

Dopamine – Dopamine levels can be improved by decreasing your intake of sugar. Excess sugar intake is responsible for that feeling that we call “sugar high.” The reason we often crave sugar is to increase levels of dopamine which excessive amounts of sugar deplete. In order for your body to make dopamine, it needs appropriate levels of the amino acid tyrosine which can be found in foods like almonds, avocados, bananas, low-fat dairy, meat, poultry, lima beans, or soy products. You should also increase your intake of antioxidant producing foods such as green leafy vegetables, asparagus, broccoli, and peppers.

A regular program of exercise combined with at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night will also help optimize levels of serotonin and dopamine. Cutting back or eliminating alcohol is also important as too much alcohol can wreak havoc on these neurotransmitters, especially dopamine.

chocolateFood supplements can also enhance levels of these brain chemicals. Some physicians recommend vitamin B6 supplementation and L-Phenylalanine, two supplements that can be found in stores such as Vitamin Shoppe, GNC, Whole Foods, or your local pharmacy. Dark chocolate is known to be a good source of L-Phenylalanine, just be sure that the chocolate is at least 65% cacao. Sorry, and over-the-counter Hershey bar doesn’t cut it. Dark, cacao rich, chocolate is available in health food stores and is an acquired taste. It is, however, a natural way to boost both serotonin and dopamine.

I realize that parts of this article may be confusing for some. It does not have to be. Changing your snacking habits, making food substitutions, and adjusting a few simple aspects of your lifestyle can optimize your brain chemistry to give you a fighting chance to more successfully cope with life’s battles.

Next time someone asks you, “What’s eating you?,”ask yourself, “What have I been eating?” Remember, you are not only are what you eat, but how you fuel your brain effects how you think.

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I’d Love To Change The World, But….

“I love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do, so I’ll leave it up to you.”- Alvin Lee

Change, is perhaps the only constant of human life. Despite this law of nature, it is something that changehumans resist. We want change in a lot of areas but, on a deeper level, we fear it, we resist it, and we often engage in subtle self sabotage which prevents it from occurring. Why is this, and how can we get ourselves to bring about change to improve our lives?

Change is a basic principle of the universe, the only truly constant thing in existence. It is in conflict with another universal principle, homeostasis. Homeostasis is the tendency for living things to stay the same through a pattern of adjustment, internal regulation, and resistance. When it comes to human beings trying to initiate change, homeostasis tends to win more often than not. It’s easier for humans to stay the same in the face of a behavioral change that is desired. Homeostasis wins because it’s far easier for us to fail than it is to succeed. In other words, failure is easy, changing is a lot more difficult.

The psychology behind human change has been studied rather extensively over the past forty years. In 1977 James O. Prochaska of the University of Rhode Island and his colleagues developed what they called the trans-theoretical model, since known simply as the Stages of Change. While the model was originally applied to drug and alcohol addiction, it has been adapted to all types of human behavioral and lifestyle changes. It has been referred to as “arguably the dominant model of health behavior change” of the last 50 years. The Stages of Change model is a simple one, and understanding it can help all of us make change a lot more easy.

The Stages of Change are:
1. Precontemplation-In this stage a person has not yet acknowledged that there is a problem behavior that needs to change. The 300 pound man has not yet acknowledge he is overweight, the pack a day smoker doesn’t realize it’s a problem, the person living on minimum wage doesn’t think that things could be better. In this stage a person is not necessarily happy, but oblivious to the idea that change is possible, probably because they are not yet ready to attack the process of change.
2. Contemplation-At this point a person acknowledges that there is a problem, something is wrong, but is not yet ready for sure that they want to change. They weigh the pros and cons of change, and change usually gets delayed. I’ll start tomorrow, next week, next month, when X happens and so on. This getting-ready-to-get-ready stage is often where homeostasis wins and change is defeated.
3. Preparation-This stage is characterized by preparations to bring upon the change. A person is now jennette_fulda_fat_pantsdetermined to begin a process of change within the next 30 days. Commitments are made to themselves, and frequently others. The smoker promises his wife and kids that he will quit, the 300 pounder promises a friend that they will walk every day at lunch. At this stage positive self talk can make or break the process, especially when a person goes public with their plan. Thoughtful preparation is the key to getting through this stage. Breaking goals down, keeping them simple and doable, sets up a person through a successful ride through this stage. The “what ifs” and “yeah buts” need to be overridden by achievable action steps which generate confidence.
4. Action-At this point a person has engaged in steps towards the desirable outcome for a six month period on a fairly consistent basis. People in this stage have shown improvement and have made strides towards achieving the desired outcomes. When progress has been made, a person needs to make note of it and celebrate their successes. Noticing what works, and doing more of that, rather than noticing what does not, becomes the key to making these positive changes permanent. A question that I often ask clients in this stage is “What are you doing now that you want to win before, and what have you stopped doing that you were doing before?” The purpose of this question is to show the client that they are doing it. Progress is not luck, but is the result of their own consistent efforts. When a person realizes this, change becomes internalized, self image improves, and a person is ready for more of the same.
5. Maintenance-at this point a person has incorporated and internalized the desired changes. They have been successful with maintaining their change goal for over six months. In this stage it is important that a person is aware of thoughts and behaviors that could lead to their slipping back into their original patterns. Being aware of stressful situations that will arise and being able to cope with these stressors successfully, is what is necessary for maintenance.

Some strategies to keep in mind during the process of change are:
1. Getting education and how-to information about desired change. This can come from reading, professional help, and honest feedback from people that you trust.
2. Acceptance of what you are feeling. Realize that it is okay to have feelings of doubt, shame, and guilt. Accept that your feelings are not facts, they are merely interpretations and are not necessarily true. The goal is to notice these feelings and to continue to act appropriately despite them.
3. Getting help from supportive friends, colleagues, and professionals may be required to initiate or maintain positive momentum. If it gets tough, don’t go it alone.
4. Counteract your negativity. Replace unhealthy attitudes and behaviors with healthy ones. For images   example, replacing your morning cigarette with 10 minutes of deep breathing outdoors is one example. Replacing that second 20 ounce cup of coffee with a large glass of water is another example.
5. Notice and celebrate your successes. As with all behavioral changes, success builds upon success, and tends to bring more of the same. Change is a slow, gradual, yet steady process. Think in terms of “this is a process, not an event.” Find appropriate ways to reward yourself along the way to the desired goal.
6. Pen and paper are important tools to utilize during this process. Identify where you are in the process of change, writing out the obstacles and challenging them, and identifying appropriate steps to take, in writing, will help. If you are doing this without professional help, in a self-help format, then writing is imperative.

So that’s the science behind human behavioral change. This model of change works, and works well. It has been tested, researched, and studied in thousands of experiments. Knowing where you are along the way to a desired goal, and knowing what steps to take, will get you where you want to be.

“It works if you work it.”-Anonymous

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The Problem With Positive Thinking

“Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”- James 2:17

In contemporary counseling, personal development, and self-help, positive thinking and affirmations are considered to be part of the process. Much has been written about the power of belief, expectation bias, the power of intention, and many other types of thinking that promise life changing results simply by changing the way we think. Undoubtedly, our thought processes play a huge role in the successes and failures in our lives, but there is certainly more to it than mere want-to.

I’m sure most of you are more than familiar with the power of positive thinking. The Power of Positive catThinking was actually the title of a well-known self-help book written by Norman Vincent Peale, a minister, author, and radio personality of the 1930s. He popularized the expression, the power of positive thinking, through his work as a Sunday host of a radio show. He, like many positive thinking advocates, made some pretty hefty claims about what positive thinking can do for us. Millions of people benefited from his thoughts, ideas, and teachings.

Affirmations are positive self statements made with the intention of changing harmful self talk and self beliefs. In and of themselves, they are beneficial, but in recent years the concept of how to use affirmations has changed. In 2006, a best selling book called “The Secret” came out and reinvented the way that most people think about and use affirmations. The book sold well, as there was a something for nothing mentality that the book implied. All one had to do was believe and wishes would be granted, attitudes would change, and you would soon be living the life of your dreams. The missing part of the equation, however, was good old fashion work.

Initially, positive thinking and affirmations do seem to work. Changing your thought processes from negativity to positivity quickly results in a change of attitude. A light goes on, one gets a wave of “yeah, I can do this,” and does feel differently. Using positive thinking and affirmation works…. until it doesn’t. Positive thinking and affirmations stop working when one’s goal exceeds one’s capacity to attain it. For example, if your goal is to drop 15 pounds for your 30th high school anniversary, your daughter’s wedding, or the beginning of track season, all the positive thinking in the world is not going to help unless you have a systematic plan of action to get that 15 pounds off of you. If your goal is to get a new job, you probably should begin to look for one. If you are hoping for a significant other with an “if it happens, it happens” attitude, then it probably ain’t going to happen. Positive thinking and affirmations work best when combined with a solid behavioral plan of action, A.K.A work.

In any process of goal attainment, there will be a point where doubt creeps in. We all know what that feels like. It’s that “this isn’t what I expected’ moment where rubber meets road, and men and boys, and women and girls get separated. This happens because positive thinking and affirmations can only have lasting utility if one works on the beliefs behind them. For example, that 15 pounds we talked about is more likely to be lost if affirmations and positive thinking are combined with a behavioral plan. Rather than repeating the mantra, “I will lose 15 pounds… I will lose 15 pounds..,” it makes more sense to repeat more realistic affirmations such as, “I will eat 2000 calories per day,” or “I will walk every day for 30 minutes at lunch.” Combining this more realistic mantra with some positive imagery and visualization will change your belief that it is possible.

sunPeople who gravitate towards positive thinking and affirmations usually don’t go into the process with a solid belief system in place. They are often people who have a tendency towards negative self talk. They usually are the kind of people who have an internal critic telling things like they’re not good enough, smart enough, good-looking enough, or worthy of success. They view a satisfying life as something that others have, and they’ll never have. When doubt creeps in to their plan of positive thinking and affirmations, they fold like a house of cards because it is simply what they do and how they react to a challenge. They can’t help it, their negative thinking is such a part of their world view.

So what is the corrective action here? How does one get to the point where they can utilize these techniques and reap the benefits of a more positive mindset? Here are some action steps:
1. Examine your beliefs about yourself. These are what we need to change. If you hold the same negative belief systems about your abilities, then when real life challenges your positive thinking you are likely to give up with an “I knew it!” type of response. Examining beliefs about yourself can be difficult and painful. It’s one of those things that you might want to do with a psychotherapist or coach, but it can be done alone if you can get yourself to be brutally honest. A pen and notebook are needed here, as seeing these negative beliefs in writing can be an eye-opener. You must work to improve your self image if you are going to be able to maintain positivity in multiple areas of life. You probably have some areas where you do feel competent, and others not so much. Examine the self talk that you have in areas of competence, and compare it to self talk in areas where you do not. What’s the difference? Identify ways, in writing, that you can realistically change the negative areas. Review this list at least two times per day, morning and evening, and consciously work to improve the negative areas.
2. Set realistic goals. Goals should be just slightly out of your comfort zone, not goals that are insurmountable. Here is where most affirmations and positive thinking fail. Accomplishing a goal that was slightly uncomfortable creates a higher baseline from which to work. For example, if your goal was to land your dream job then breaking that down into a plan of action is more realistic. Start with a subgoal of obtaining three interviews in the field in which you want to work. Focusing on subgoals slowly but surely increases your confidence that the perfect job is attainable. Set realistic time frames. If you just graduated from college, then that six figure dream job is going to take time to obtain. Setting yourself up for a series of smaller successes increases and grows your sense of confidence, making positive thinking and affirmations more useful. Use the search box and categories section to the right of this post to learn more about useful methods for goal setting. Use the SMARTER goals method, and adjust quite frequently as needed. If you are not getting the results you’re looking for, don’t change the goal, change the strategy to get there. This process is where positive thinking and affirmations will become useful tools.
3. Action, Action, Action! Actions do in fact speak louder than words. Noticing your successes, blog_skinny_kidrecording and writing them out creates lasting change. Beliefs aren’t real, actions are. Without taking action you will know, on some level, that affirmations and positive self talk are merely trying to fool yourself. Notice the action steps that you take towards your goals. Create affirmations and positive self talk along the way to attaining subgoals. Noticing your positive actions, even if some result in failures, will change your self image. Celebrate the actions and the process, and begin to speak positively to yourself about your efforts.

Again, I highly suggest you use the search box and categories section of this blog to build upon the ideas in this post. Positive thinking and affirmations are useful tools in the changing of human performance, but the emphasis should be on the word performance. Get out there and go after what you want. Learn to coach yourself realistically along the way.

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Back To The Future

technologyThe 21st century has proven itself to be an incredibly interesting time in which to live. Modern science and technology is progressing at a rate that, up until a few years ago, would have been unfathomable. I recently heard a statistic that is mind blowing: more new information has been produced during the last 10 years than all the previous years of mankind! While I am not sure that this is actually true, it does point out the obvious, we are living in the world of George Jetson. We are more connected and plugged in than ever before yet, at the same time, many seem to be more disconnected. Many appear to be disconnected from themselves.

Alienation from the self is one of the fundamental reasons for human emotional discomfort. Without question, modernization has brought alienation. We use technology to try to satisfy some basic, fundamental human needs. We need to connect to larger groups and use technology for that purpose. How many of you have a greater connection to family, friends, and formerly distant relatives through Facebook? How many of you have your cell phone on your person, or at least nearby 24/7? Used properly, these innovations can be incredibly healthy and useful. We were able to reach out to others anyplace on the planet in ways that would have been unimaginable even 25 years ago. As with all new technical developments, there is an upside and a downside.

Some people have become disconnected and removed from their physical selves. Psychiatry has discovered that this disconnection has led to maladies that previously did not exist, at least not on a recognizable scale. Seasonal Affective Disorder, Seasonal Depression, existential alienation, and emotional disturbances caused by a lack of connectedness to the physical self and nature are very obvious to those of us that practice in the field of mental health. In the 20 years that I have worked in the field I’ve noticed this change. What’s going on? What are some of the causes of this, and what are the solutions?

A recent trend in the fields of psychotherapy and counseling has been a return to some of the wisdom of previous generations. Despite all the new psychopharmacological solutions, innovations, psychotherapy, and research studies, results are often gained with age old wisdom. Here is some of that wisdom distilled down into usable parts:
jetsons1. Get connected. Up until the mid-20th century most humans had more contact with others than they do now. While we have more ways to connect to people than ever before through the Internet and text messaging, these methods are not as therapeutic as face-to-face, physical, contact. Using contemporary technology is incredibly beneficial, but sometimes conversation is better. Seeing the person that you’re speaking to makes a heart-to-heart conversation more powerful and meaningful. If you have friends that you communicate with over long distances, consider Skype as a way to increase your connectedness with them. If you haven’t done this, I’d suggest you give it a try. It’s free, visual, auditory, and far more personal than either a phone call or email can ever be. If you are a baby boomer, this is a variation of the George Jetson telephone conversation, George speaking to Judy on a telephone/television type device. Next time you make contact with that old friend from high school give Skype a try and see what you think.
2. Get outdoors. For over 99% of the history of the human race man was intimately connected with nature. People had to be outdoors to get a lot of basic human needs met. There was wood to be gathered to stoke the fire, out houses to walk to for bathroom purposes at 2 AM, cows to be milked, eggs to be gathered, and a variety of things that put people outdoors daily. Getting outdoors was a necessity, today it has become a luxury that many of us don’t have time for.
Meditation and mindfulness-based practices have been shown to cause significant, positive changes in the lives of those struggling with moderate levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. There is a learning curve with meditation and such practices that often frustrates a person and leads them to quit the practice before they develop adequate skills to benefit from it. A simple solution to this is to get outside every day. Yes,EVERY day, regardless of weather or time of year. If you can exercise outside the benefits are even more powerful and magnified. A simple routine of walking, stretching, and calisthenics done outdoors would serve the same mood elevating purpose that Abe Lincoln got chopping wood. If you are not Lincolnesque, then getting outside for 5 to 10 minutes for some deep breathing will also do the trick.

3. Spend some time in the company of people that are important to you. Through most of mankind’s Fireplace-Deskop-Wallpaperhistory fire was a source of communal connectedness. People had to be together, huddled around a fire, for warmth and food. The byproduct of this was human connection, meaningful conversation, and a sense of tribal community. As recently as 100 years ago the fire, wood stove, or family kitchen was the central focus of daily life. Finding ways to re-create this in your life is beneficial, providing good feelings instantly. Just remember, no texting or phone calls!

4. Be open to strangers. Yeah, I know, in the modern world “stranger danger”is often good advice, but I’m talking about people that are safe. People that work in your building, the guy that works at the convenience store you frequent daily, the mailman, the secretary at your doctor’s office etc. Ever notice how people seem to open up to others during times of common stress such as snowstorms, power outages, long lines at the bank, and getting stuck in an elevator? People begin to talk to people, connect, and commiserate. People feel good doing during these times because they feel that “we have something in common, we are all in this together,” type of connection. Simple eye contact, and a how are you today attitude can make you, as well as them, feel better.

5.EXERCISE! If you are a regular reader of this blog you knew that I’d eventually get around to this. fredExercise is one of those things that used to be built into daily life. A cave man didn’t have to go to the gym, all he had to do was live his life. In previous eras of human history, the very act of getting basic human needs met provided a reasonable level of physical fitness. In fact, if you are a member of the Baby Boom generation, you probably ate a lot of Hershey bars, Twinkies, and drank “sugary drinks” quite regularly,and you probably had and acceptable BMI. I’d also guess you were reasonably fit, at least as a child, from doing some dangerous things like running in the schoolyard at recess, climbing trees, riding a bicycle, – horrors, without a helmet – and walking home from school. It wasn’t until the 1960s that President John Kennedy realized that American kids were getting out of shape.
Exercise is a basic necessity for physical and emotional wellness. Everyone should have something that they do on a regular, if not daily, basis to elevate their heart, utilize their muscles, and break a sweat.

As with many things, balance is a key element. Trying to keep a balance between old school wisdom and the modern culture of technology is a challenge for everyone. Combining old-school with new school can make better students of us all.

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