I’m No Angel (And That’s OK)

8739307295_caa69029a5_bWhile driving around the other day, I was playing some old cds I haven’t listened to in ages.  One of them was the British singer-songwriter Dido’s No Angel which was popular around 15 years ago.  (Dido, No Angel, Arista Records, 1999. CD.)

I remember playing the cd non-stop during a time in my life in which I was miserable, hopeless, and kind of clueless.  Despite being comfortably married for 16 years, living in an impressive home in Florida looking like it came right off of the pages of House Beautiful with a pool in the back yard, a Porsche in the garage, and two precious, young sons, I found myself depressed and lost in my own life.

Notice I didn’t say happily married.  I said comfortably.  More like comfortably numb.

By that point, we were having major problems in the relationship and going to couples counseling.  I was also seeing a therapist individually and just beginning to get real with myself. The illusory shell that I’d spent thirty some years perfecting so much so that I didn’t even know who the real me was, was breaking open with the flawed me oozing out of the cracks.

I was tired — damn tired — of rejecting, shaming, and trying to hide the parts of myself that my husband, and therefore I, considered “bad” and feeling guilty for being less-than-perfect. Dido’s song from that cd, I’m No Angel, became my anthem because I was finally ready to admit something I’d always known deep down: I wasn’t who my husband wanted me to be and who I’d tried so hard to become in attempt to keep the peace.  I was a completely different person with my own opinions, dreams, and needs that mattered, that longed to see the light of day, that needed to be heard.

I can remember singing along with gusto, pouring my heart and soul into the words as if she’d written them just for me.

’cause I’m no angel, but please don’t think that I won’t try and try
I’m no angel, but does that mean that I can’t live my life?
I’m no angel, but please don’t think that I can’t cry
I’m no angel, but does that mean that I won’t fly?

When I timidly began to peel back my shell to reveal glimpses of my true self in our couples counseling sessions, it became very clear very quickly that the real me was not going to be OK with my husband. It’s not that he or she was a horrible person.  It’s just that she wasn’t who he thought he’d married.

Despite his rejection and disapproval, something inside of me knew that I was still a valuable person deserving of love, compassion, and happiness.

When Dido’s song, “Hunter,” came on the other day, I broke out in a victorious ear-to-ear grin and felt a surge of joyous energy as I remembered singing its words years ago feeling the longing, the ache, the pain of wanting to be free, wanting to live an authentic life, wanting to be me, and wanting that to be enough.

If you were a king up there on your throne
Would you be wise enough to let me go?
For this queen you think you own

Wants to be a hunter again
Wants to see the world alone again
To take a chance on life again
So let me go

I felt triumphantly giddy to be where I am in my life now, ten years on the other side of leaving the marriage and taking a chance at life again.  Although the years since then have been anything but a picnic and life now is not without its challenges by any means, it feels great to be a hunter again.  I’m still no angel, and you know what?  That’s OK!  :)

image:  Michael Schaffner, Angel Of Grief,  https://www.flickr.com/photos/mwschaff/


Garbage In, Garbage Out


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“Garbage in, garbage out,” a term originally coined in the technology industry, applies to your brain and body as well.  Both can can only function as good as what goes in them.

Despite making up only two percent of the body’s weight, your brain is an energy hog gobbling up more than twenty percent of daily energy intake. Because of this, the foods you consume (and don’t consume) greatly affect your brain’s functioning, including everything from learning to memory to emotions.

Your gut has a “second brain,” called the enteric nervous system, made up of sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of the intestines, which play a key role in your physical and mental health.  Studies suggest the quality of the foods you consume over your lifetime affects the structure and function of your brain.

Your brain needs the right nutrients to function optimally.  A brain healthy diet based on plant-fed animal protein, good fats, and lots of organic, leafy greens, and a rainbow of other veggies and fruits is a good start to giving your brain the nourishment it needs.

However for many reasons, it can be difficult to get the needed vitamins and minerals from our daily diets. Although I eat very healthy, I just don’t consume enough food in a day to give my brain and body all the good stuff they need.  Children who turn up their noses at vegetables and older adults with diminished appetites also have a hard time fulfilling nutritional requirements. As if it wasn’t challenging enough already, the nutrient value of produce has declined over the years as crops have been engineered for higher yields.

For these reasons and to aid in my healing from a brain injury, I began taking dietary supplements years ago.  I know that they helped my brain recover faster and further, and I can still tell a difference when I skip them.

Recently, I discovered a shake-on nutritional supplement made from organic vegetables, ENOF, which I love and want to tell you about.  ENOF makes it easy to add vitamin power to my and my teenage sons’ diets. (Shhh! Don’t tell them!) And what’s even better is that the company was co-founded by my yoga buddy and donates a percentage of their profits to charitable organizations providing nutrition to populations in need.

Unlike synthetic vitamins, ENOF comes from real food: spinach, broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, beets and shiitake mushrooms, making it easily processed and absorbed by the digestive system (your gut brain, remember?)  It’s also important to note that ENOF doesn’t have any yucky stuff or known neurotoxins found in many vitamins like GMO’s, high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, gluten, or aspartame.

Virtually undetectable, ENOF can be sprinkled on prepared food, in drink, or in whatever’s cooking imparting almost no flavor.  In addition to supplying 60% of the daily vitamins your body needs, one serving, just three shakes, of ENOF supports your brain health as follows:

  • Vitamin A is essential to a developing nervous system and for brain function throughout life.  Research has established a link between vitamin A and learning ability.
  • Vitamin C is an antioxidant aiding in the removal of toxins and wastes from brain cells which may help prevent Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and is essential to neurotransmitter production.  Supplementation with vitamin C has been shown to improve IQ, memory, and other mental functions.
  • Vitamin D affects your ability to think, concentrate, and problem-solve, is essential for normal brain development, and may help prevent disorders of the brain.  Lower vitamin D blood levels are linked to a higher risk of cognitive impairment.
  • Vitamin E is another essential antioxidant which protects cell membranes from oxidative damage and neurodegeneration.
  • Vitamin K, which has been known for its role in blood clotting, is showing evidence of being important to the nervous system.  Vitamin K is an essential ingredient in making brain cell membranes and its role in sphingolipid metabolism gets really complicated.  (Read more here.)  Let’s just say it’s good for your brain, and low levels have been associated with diminished cognition.
  • Vitamin B6 is vital for brain function and has anti-inflammatory effects.  B6 is required to make the myelin sheath insulating nerves and numerous neurotransmitters regulating mood and behavior.  While the link is not entirely understood yet, low levels of B6 are connected to depression, poor cognition and memory, and associated with higher risks of senility and Alzheimer’s.
  • Thiamin, vitamin B1, plays a key role in the maintenance of the brain health and aids some neurotransmitters and brain enzymes in functioning properly.  A thiamin deficiency can lead to decreased brain function and neuron loss.
  • Folic acid, vitamin B9, is crucial for proper brain function, plays an important role in mental and emotional health, and is often found to be deficient in older populations. Supplementation of folic acid has been shown to increase processing speed and memory.

The bottom line is that you literally are what you eat, and your brain functions best when you feed it what it needs.   ENOF makes it easy. Click here for more information about ENOF.  Use the code “Bestbrain20″ for a 20% discount.

When Being Positive Is A Negative

6905633389_33782972bf_zWhen thinking positive means plastering on a forced smile and latching onto one specific result that we’ve decided is more favorable than another one, that you think will bring happiness, we are only setting ourselves up for disappointment and unhappiness. Thinking positive in this way is really forming expectations and attachments to outcomes and almost always is a negative.

It’s like wishing that leprechauns will magically intervene to make sure everything turns out as we want while unicorns frolic in the flower-filled meadow under a rainbow.  ’Aint gonna happen. Then, when things don’t go as we hoped, how can we help but be mad and sad?

This kind of positive thinking puts pressure on a person to control or manipulate events to try to make them go a certain way, which is frustratingly impossible and a sure prescription for anxiety and worry. (See blog: Life Gets Easier By Managing Expectations and The Dark Side Of Hope)

I’ve found a better way. When any situation presents itself, I consider the possible probable outcomes, both desirable and those which may seem less-than-perfect, and stay open to and attempt to find the positive in each of them.  There is always some good if you look for it. (See blog:  Look For The Good And You’ll Find It) In my own life, I’ve witnessed time and time again where something, which initially looked like an “oh crap!”, turned out to be awesome and even better than what I’d hoped for.

I don’t pretend to begin to know what is “best” anymore.  ”Best” is what I make of what happens. It’s up to me.  I can make any situation good or bad with my thinking about it and my response to it. My experience and the ultimate impact of any happening in my life is determined by my thoughts about and response to the situation. (See blog: Responding Rather Than Reacting)

When I open up my thinking, consider the possible benefits of any circumstance, and ask myself “How do I make this work for me?” (See blog: One Little Question), the positive possibilities become endless. Next, I can move forward taking mindful steps, being receptive to unforeseen paths and choices that may present themselves as events unfold, and having faith in myself and the universe.

Then, I think positive and take positive actions.

No matter what’s present, I’m positive about my ability to handle and work with whatever comes my way and make something good of it.  I’m positive that whatever happens is in my highest good and that I can learn from it. Then and only then is being positive, to have confidence and trust in yourself and whatever higher power you believe in, always a positive.

I saw an image saying “Positive thoughts are not enough.  You have to have positive feelings and actions.”  Now, that one didn’t make me cringe!

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sheridan120/

You’re Not Stuck With The Brain You Were Born With

8684533456_baec82041a_zHow many times have you heard someone say, “That’s just the way I am” or “I was born this way?” Those statements may be true, but do not mean that the person is fated to stay that way forever.  Contrary to what used to be believed and was a rather convenient excuse, our brains are not hardwired at any age.  You are not stuck with the brain you were born with.

In The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: How I Left My Learning Disability Behind and Other Stories of Cognitive Transformation, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young tells of being born with severe learning disabilities earning her the labels of slow, stubborn, and worse.  (See blog: Behavior Problem Or Brain Problem) Although obviously intelligent, she read and wrote backwards, struggled to understand language and abstract concepts, was always getting lost, and was terribly physically uncoordinated.

By relying on sheer memory and will, she made it to graduate school where she discovered research inspiring her to invent cognitive exercises to fix her own brain. She has spent more than thirty years since sharing that knowledge working with children and adults to better their brains at the Arrowsmith Schools she started.

Dr. Michael Merzenich, co-founder of Posit Science and professor emeritus neuroscientist at the University of California, has proven time and time again that no one is stuck with the brain that they are born with.  Dr. Merzenich was on the team that invented the cochlear implant which translates sound into electrical impulses that can be interpreted by the brain allowing deaf people to hear.

He was one of the research scientists to develop the Fast Forward program, offered by Scientific Learning, a computer-based reading intervention which rewires and improves the brain to treat the underlying causes of language and reading difficulties permanently.

Fast Forward has proven research and results with adults and children showing that it can raise reading skill level up to 2 years in as little as 3 months. In some instances, people who have had a lifetime of cognitive difficulties see improvement after only 30 to 60 hours of doing the program.  Fast Forward has also quickly moved autistic children from severe language impairment to the normal range.  It has also improved attention span, sense of humour, eye contact, social interaction, and other autistic symptoms.

What both the Arrowsmith Schools and Fast Forward take advantage of is the ability of the brain to rewire and reconfigure itself, known as neuroplasticity.  Neuroplastic change happens from cradle to grave. Radical improvements in cognitive function – how we learn, think, perceive, and remember – are possible even in the elderly.  Merzenich has been known to claim that neuroplasticity may prove as useful as drugs.

In The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, Norman Doidge writes:

The brain Merzenich describes is not an inanimate vessel that we fill; rather it is more like a living creature with an appetite, one that can grow and change itself with proper nourishment and exercise.  Before Merzenich’s work, the brain was seen as a complex machine, having unalterable limits on memory processing speed, and intelligence. Merzenich has shown that each of these assumptions is wrong.

Our brains are changing all the time in response to our behaviors, emotions, and thoughts whether for our benefit or not.  (See blog: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly) To work consciously to harness this process, called self-directed neuroplasticity, can transform brains, lives, and the world for the better.

Please take the time to watch this awesome TED Talk by Barbara-Arrowsmith Young.

image source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/buttonup6/

The Baffled Brain

downloadThe Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

by Wendell Berry, from Collected Poems, 1987


Upon reading these insightful words by the American novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer, Wendell Berry, my baffled mind immediately relaxed a little.  I felt like he was talking directly to me saying, “It’s OK not to know.”

Maybe, just maybe, my standing at this precipice at 50 years old, not sure of the next step,  making it up as I go is exactly where I’m supposed to be right now.  As Wendell suggests, maybe venturing down my next path, whatever it may be, is the start of my real work and journey.

I went to college, got married, had kids – all like I was “supposed to.”  In my early 40s, depressed and living a numb existence, I completely shattered that life when I got divorced, tried to commit suicide, sustained a serious brain injury, and lost custody of my kids.  Whew!  That’s one way to do it, but I wouldn’t advise it.

After the suicide attempt and resulting brain injury, my life didn’t look anything like “supposed to”  anymore, but surprisingly that’s when I found the most meaning and purpose. My everyday became all about my recovery, physically, mentally, and emotionally as I was forced to make the changes I’d been needing to make in my life long ago.  Despite poor odds and dire predictions, through mindfulness, meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, neurofeedbackthought reframing, physical exercise, brain training, and a brain healthy diet, I did heal fully to become happier and healthier than I’d ever been.

With that arduous journey behind me, I have newfound confidence and faith in myself and the universe.  I often tell myself that “If you can figure your way out of that one, you can handle anything.” However, even knowing this doesn’t always squelch that gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach or stop my anxious mind from asking “What’s next?  How are you gonna provide for yourself?  Are you gonna be alone forever? What’s the plan?”

When my thoughts go in that direction, I remind myself to come back to the present moment, get OK with the uncertainty, let happenings unfold in their own time, respond to them as they do,  and TRUST.  Trust, breath, and relax.  I remind myself that a person can drive all of the way across the U.S. in the dark only seeing the 20 feet illuminated ahead of them.   Yesterday, today was out of the scope of those headlights.

Thank you Wendell Berry.  My brain is definitely employed.

Sometimes, It’s Best To Just Stop Thinking

thThere are generally two types of people in the world when it comes to decision making.  The first takes the time to gather information, evaluates and analyzes several options, and,  makes a decision backed by sound methodology and reasoning making sense to them.  The other type, of which I tend to be included, makes decisions based on little information with reasoning along the lines of “It just feels right.”

More Information + More Time =  Better Decisions?

Gathering more information and taking the time to make calm, careful decisions is better, right? Not always. There is an implicit belief in our society that more information is better which is supported by basic economic theories.  Economist do concede and make the exception that this is not true when the information is not free.  The general rule is, according to economics, that more information is always better unless the cost of acquiring further information exceeds the anticipated gain from it.

In his book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, Gerd Gigerenzer proposes that this is not true even when the information is free and that, while the belief that more information is better is accurate in some cases, there is a range of situations in which less time, less information, or fewer alternatives can actually lead to better decisions and outcomes.

In 2000, he asked 100 random pedestrians in Berlin to pick 50 stocks they recognized out of a list of 100.  Taking the ten stocks most often chosen, he created a portfolio and submitted it to an investment magazine, Capital, to take part in a contest they were conducting. More than 10,000 participants, including the editor-in-chief and professionals with sophisticated computer stock picking programs and insider information, submitted portfolios.

Even in the down market which followed, his portfolio, based solely on collective recognition, gained 2.5% and out performed 88% of all the portfolios submitted.  The editor-in-chief of the magazine lost 18.5% on his portfolio.  In a second similar experiment, the results were almost identical. Given that some 70% of mutual funds perform below the market in any given year, these results were not totally surprising.

Unconscious Intelligence

These experiments depict a concept Gigerenzer calls “a beneficial degree of ignorance” where a gut feeling can outperform a considerable amount of knowledge and information because oftentimes, we make decisions based on  intuitive judgements which have a real basis in the unconscious mind.  In the stock example, something he calls the “recognition heuristic” was at work.  The recognition heuristic implies that when a person recognizes one object but not the other, then, they infer that the recognized object has a higher value.

This kind of unconscious intelligence has actually been identified to be located in the anterior frontomedian cortex of the brain by functional magnetic resonance imaging scans. Although the exact functions of this area of the brain are still not specifically known, the region is widely associated with unconscious intelligence. Such intuition is not impulsive, but is believed to be a form of unconscious evaluation and can be consciously over ruled.

When Too Much Thinking Can Be Deadly

Similarly, too much information and too much thinking can be detrimental – even deadly – in other cases.  For example, imagine a marine on the front lines of combat in a war zone with bullets whizzing by and bombs exploding.  Trying to gather too much information before acting could prove deadly.  An airplane pilot could crash before they analyze multiple options and arrive at the best one in an emergency situation.  The gut feelings of trained professionals are based on unconscious skills which can be impeded by too much deliberation.  In such cases, thinking too much about the processes involved or using more time, thought, or attention can slow down and disrupt performance disastrously.

In the book, The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success
by Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske, they write:

New York City firefighters receive over 600 hours of training and a multitude of written exams before they are eligible for assignment.  By the time they encounter their first fire, a lot of what they need to do is so practiced and ingrained they could practically perform their job in their sleep. …this is no different for FBI agents…(650 hours of training), doctors (an average of 11 years), and many other professionals that call for performance under pressure.

Thinking Can Lose The Game

The same is true for experienced athletes.  In his book, Gigerenzer tells of studies of novice and expert golfers.  Under timed pressure, novice golfers, not surprisingly, performed worse while expert golfers actually did better when they had less time. With repetition and practice, motor skills become unconscious and are best when performed outside of conscious awareness.

For this reason, gymnasts, professional tennis and basketball players, and many more put a lot of time into practicing; so they don’t have to consciously think about everything in the moments when they need to perform at their best.  They can rely on the quick, intuitive decisions of their unconscious brains.

Permission To Stop Thinking

You do this too.  Think of tying your shoes, riding a bike, or driving a car.  While learning, you need to consciously pay attention and concentrate on every detail.  After that, having to consciously think of the steps involved would be detrimental to actually performing the task at hand. Once some one is skilled at something, it’s best to just stop thinking.