Stress on the job – & why culture matters

High blood pressure, insomnia, heart attacks, anxiety, depression – these are just a few of the real costs of workplace stress. And according to a new book by Jeffrey Pfeffer, outcomes such as these make the workplace the 5th leading cause of death in the United States. In “Dying for a Paycheck,” Pfeffer makes the point that it is underlying management practices that are the culprit, and no amount of spending on wellness programs can make a difference if those don’t change.

Every day in my work (supporting wellness programs!) I meet people who suffer from high blood pressure, or who tell me about the stress of their jobs. These are not generally the people in top management; these are the people on the middle and bottom rungs of the organization. Where does that stress come from? Often it’s about a lack of control – when employees are subject to many demands, but can’t exercise control over them, research shows they are at increased risk for heart attack and hypertension. The American Institute for Stress published statistics about other sources of workplace stress from a 2006 survey of EAP providers:

  • Workload 46%
  • People issues 28%
  • Juggling work and personal lives 20%
  • Lack of job security 6%

Pompei (60)Stress reduction programs and personal choices such as meditation, exercise or disconnecting from email can only alleviate symptoms. The root cause of much workplace stress — corporate culture — is not something that any one individual can change. People are willing to work hard, and even to work long hours, if they see the work as meaningful. In a MIT Sloan Management Review article, Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden write that meaningfulness is more important to employees than salary, advancement, or even working conditions. Meaning is something that people often discover for themselves. Good leaders can’t make it happen, but research shows that poor leadership can almost certainly destroy it. What makes people feel that the work is meaningless?

  • The work isn’t aligned with their personal values
  • They feel that they’re being taken for granted
  • They perceive unfairness in the workplace
  • They are asked to do pointless or risky work
  • They don’t have supportive relationships at work

In 2010, Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappo’s, wrote a book called “Delivering Happiness,” which became a bestseller. His message was that corporate culture can not only support a company’s success, but may even be a prerequisite for it. Since then, Delivering Happiness has morphed into its own business as a coaching and consulting organization. Their research shows that there are three main elements that lead to employee happiness and greater engagement:

  • Connectedness
  • A sense of progress
  • A sense of control

Think about how much time you spend at work every day – eight, ten, twelve hours? Why would we want to spend that much time each day not feeling connection and empathy for others? We need to have friends at work – people to bond with, people who have our backs. In fact, DH research shows that “having a best friend at work increases engagement seven-fold.”Close-up of human hands clasped together in unity against white backdrop

Seeing progress in the work is also important. Personal progress needs to be measured and affirmed more often and in different ways than just an annual review. In addition, having a sense of the role each of us plays in the growth of a project or of the organization also leads to greater commitment and engagement. People want to feel that they are making a contribution.

Control may be the most important of the three elements. When people sense that there is transparency in the organization, that their ideas are respected, and that they are empowered to make decisions, it builds trust and motivation. Trust is incredibly important in itself because without it, no one will speak up about problems or safety issues; fear, disconnection and hostility often increase.

Changing the corporate culture begins with the emotional intelligence of its leaders. Can they embed and support policies within the organization that lead to connection, progress and control? Can they see the organization as a community in support of a mission – a community where people spend at least a third of their lives?

My suspicion is that most of us don’t work for organizations that are excelling at delivering happiness. I have no fear that my job in workplace wellness will be ending any time soon. Long ago, Aristotle wrote that, “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” At the very least, maybe that is something to strive for.

 

 

 

Let others break barriers, what I need are boundaries

After a particularly stressful few days, I realized for about the umpteenth time that I don’t set enough boundaries. I let work intrude on personal time, I let worries intrude on sleep, I say “yes” to too much, I pay too much attention to the barrage of email, and I let my to-do list pull me out of being present.

Yet when I do a search on the word “boundaries”, what concerns most people is pushing past them, breaking through the barriers that hold them back, and living to full potential. To them, boundaries are something to overcome. Am I the only one who feels the need to erect a few more limits around my self?

Boundaries are often physical, but they can also be mental, emotional or spiritual. They provide a sense of order to our lives. Kids try to push boundaries as a way of testing not only their parents, but their own ability to exist outside of them. Often, they are all too glad to retreat back inside the parental limits after one of those test runs. It’s safer there.

A 2011 study showed that people select aesthetic boundaries more often when they feel out of control. At those times, they choose “highly-bounded” objects such as framed pictures and fenced yards as opposed to open spaces or objects. On the other hand, people who have strong spiritual beliefs, and the sense of order that those often provide, don’t seem to need as many physical boundaries as people who do not have that kind of grounding.

Technology has blurred the lines between work, play, home, school, leisure and learning. We mostly perceived it as helpful, allowing us more flexibility about when and where we earn a living, but it can also lead to a feeling of being out of control, especially to those who have more difficulty managing the work/family boundary. A 2016 study showed that integrating our various domains may lessen the impact of moving between home and work; people eventually develop ways to transition more smoothly if the boundaries are more fluid. But I don’t know if that works so well for someone like me with high distractibility and an overly-developed sense of responsibility. I don’t feel like I’m good at either compartmentalizing or integrating. Sometimes I feel like I’m just running back and forth.7-Co. Wicklow-Glendalough (24)

Tom Friedman, in his book, “Thank You For Being Late,” writes about walls, in his case an actual border wall like we hear so much about. Friedman says we need to have a big, strong wall so that we feel secure, but the wall needs to have a really big door in it. The idea isn’t to keep people out as much as it is to know who we are inviting in. This is the way that I feel about my mental and emotional boundaries right now. I need a wall with a big door so that I feel more in control.

My “52 Lists” book has an exercise for week 10 which asks you to list the things you should ignore. Here’s my list:

  • The people who are second-guessing me
  • My phone/email
  • The news (sometimes)
  • My monkey mind
  • The things I can’t control

Last week when I was in a yoga class, I set an intention to hit “pause” more often. Not just by taking a break, but actually pausing more before speaking or reacting. The pause button gives me the opportunity to respond rather than react; it helps me recognize what I’m actually feeling in the moment. It gives me a moment to ask, what is the best use of my time right now? What is the best use of my energy? Can I mindfully deal with the situation at hand, or do I need to shut the big door for a while?

Soren Gordhamer writes that, “Because how we leave one moment is how we enter the next, it helps to expand instead of squeeze during times of transition.” Mindfully expanding during the transition time is like hitting the pause button, doing less in order to do more.

 

 

 

Writing is hard. So why do I do it?

Why write? Who do we write for and what does it achieve? Is it the “antidote for loneliness” as Steven Berkoff says, or the “art of discovering what you believe,” as Gustave Flaubert expressed?

I started dwelling on this question a few days ago when a friend mentioned that my blog posts had changed since the 2016 election. She noted that they had become less frequent and perhaps darker, less joyful. I was somewhat surprised because while I notice changes in my writing at turning points in my life, I don’t ever know if others are aware of them. But if, as Meg Rosoff says, “Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are,” then it’s natural for such momentous events to hold a mirror to our strongest beliefs and give voice to our most closely held feelings.

Man writingSo why do we write? We write to tell stories, to set the record straight, to express emotions, to clarify our thinking, to discover a path forward, and simply to be heard. Sometimes we just vent, other times we are thoughtful; sometimes we write knowing no one will read it, on other days, we seek as many readers as possible. Usually we have no idea what the effect of writing will be on ourselves or others. Consider Anne Frank, who wrote a diary just for herself, but now millions of people have read it. Writing to “Kitty” probably gave her great solace during her time in hiding, but I’m sure she had no idea how many it would touch.

Writing is a way of rehearsing future action, trying out different ways of thinking and being. Sometimes you start with a vague idea and see where it takes you, learning as you go, making sense of where you are. Studies have shown that people who worry a lot can free up some of that cognitive space by engaging in expressive writing, better enabling themselves to deal with stressful situations. Creating a narrative around emotions has also been shown to protect the heart from stress during divorce. At its best, writing helps us grow.California-June (8)

Why write? Because it is both a discovery and an antidote. Writing shines a bright light on the inner self. We can use it to face fears, to recognize love and hope, to confront hate and anger. Writing provides a pause from all our sensory inputs and gives form to the 50,000 jumbled thoughts we have every day.  Yes, sometimes that illumination takes us to dark places, but it can just as easily show us the way back out.

 

12 days of holiday meditation

Many of us have the same guilty little secret: we look forward to holidays with just as much dread as with joyful anticipation. Yes, we love the parties, the decorations, the food, the family — but it’s such an overload that it’s not uncommon to wake up each morning with just a little bit of anxiety.

What’s on the to-do list today? What problems are unresolved? How many more hours do I have? What’s expected of me? Will everyone get along? Can I accept things as they are?

Wait a second! Where’s the joy?

To stay calm and to help me keep my eye on the goal — a happy holiday — I’ve been starting each morning with 5-10 minutes of meditation this week. I’m four days into it, and maybe, just maybe, I’m starting to feel just a little more centered.seesaw_balance

Day one: My guided Yogaglo meditation with Giselle Mari focused on relaxing the struggle and embracing the resistance I feel. Negative emotions are a valid part of my experience. I visualized being rooted to something bigger than myself, but staying “buoyant on the breath.”

Day two: While the coffee was brewing, I sat for 10 minutes and listened to the sounds coming from outdoors and within my home. I set an intention to stay present with the day and accept what it brought me.

Day three: Another morning meditation on Yogaglo, this time with Tiffany Cruikshank. This one was about noticing the sensations in my body. A great way for me to send some attention and breath to the achy places where I hold tension.

Day three bonus: An evening yoga class full of shoulder and heart openers. Heart-opening is not just a metaphor. Think about how your chest tenses up when you’re worried about someone you love; these postures help release that stress and make us more receptive and free to give and receive love.

Day four: Ten minutes with a Sally Kempton practice that had some similarities to day one. I worked with the idea of the “upward shift” of energy from the deeply rooted part of myself up through the heart and head. “Watching” the breath move up and down in a shower of energy helped me practice staying firmly rooted while still allowing my love and energy to flow up and out for myself and others.

What will the next 8 mornings bring? Perhaps sitting with the ideas of loving kindness, trust or grace. Maybe considering how attachment to certain ideas or outcomes sets us up for disappointment. I just want to take one more step each day toward the place in the center where life feels balanced and harmonious.

I’ve been reading Baron Baptiste’s book, “perfectly imperfect,” in which he talks about the emotional energy attached to the words “yes” and “no”. Yes offers possibility while no bears the weight of resistance. Holidays carry the risk that while we’re saying “yes” on the outside, our inner voice is saying “no.” But that resistant energy can affect our actions no matter what words we say, which is why it’s so important to be a “yes” to the experience at hand. As Baptiste writes, “The energetic vibration of yes carries the emotional energy of enthusiasm, which translates into action…yes allows for a sense of timelessness and the joy of being fully in my experience.”

I wish myself and all of you joy and peace this holiday season. Can you be a “yes” for that?

Reaching for gratitude amid chaos

One year ago, in the aftermath of the election, I wrote here about values, attempting to make sense of what had happened in our country. From my perspective, many of our country’s shared values had been put to the test and failed. Twelve months later, I’m no closer to understanding and my head is still spinning.

Things get crazier by the day.  Lying is an everyday occurrence in the White House. We now know that the Russians meddled in the election in a big way, enabled by our own social media companies. Powerful men are dropping like dominoes in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations. Evangelical Christians, the group who used to most strongly believe that moral character was important in our leaders, are now the group least likely to profess that belief. Hypocrisy reigns supreme. Maybe there are no shared values.

In some ways, the Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow gives us a pass on seeking shared values. Because it centers around the family and the table there’s no requirement to celebrate with someone who looks different or has opposite beliefs. Sure, there can be plenty of dysfunction and strife within families, but we accept that. They belong to us.

So this Thanksgiving when I consider what I’m grateful for, I think it’s important to look outside the cocoon of my own family and my personal life. Not that I don’t have plenty to appreciate – all the people closest to me are happy, healthy, and doing pretty well. But as Gilbert K. Chesterton once wrote, “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” Here are just a few of the people and organizations that we can’t afford to take for granted anymore:

Our free press. Under a constant bombardment of tweets calling them “fake news,” our major news organizations continue to do a mostly good job of reporting things just as they are. For about a year, The Washington Post has used the slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness” on its masthead. That about says it all.

The ACLU. Perhaps no organization is more important when it comes to defending our liberties under the constitution. Whether it’s LGBT protections, sanctuary cities, people with disabilities, or aggressive policing practices, the ACLU is on the front lines.

Planned Parenthood. With women and their health needs under attack, Planned Parenthood is continuing their 100-year history of providing care and advocating for women, from their local community health centers to their global partnerships.newspaper

The women who are coming forward. It takes a lot of strength and bravery to speak out against powerful people and to discuss painful and uncomfortable incidents. My hope is that the women who are speaking out now will put predators and misogynists on notice, so that our children and grandchildren will live in a safer world.

The Southern Poverty Law Center. With hate crimes at a 5-year high and a president who is reluctant to fully separate himself from extremists, the SPLC’s mission to fight hate and bigotry is more important than ever. Their Teaching Tolerance project helps educators reduce prejudice and sow understanding in schools.

Local food banks. Too numerous to name them all, local organizations who focus on food insecurity are the angels in every community. From the Capital Area Food Bank and Martha’s Table, who I work with in Washington, to the Houston Food Bank, which was there for people after Hurricane Harvey, these groups provide critical support 365 days a year.Fairchild Airmen volunteer at local food bank

Sometimes when I’m overwhelmed by the news of the day, it’s difficult not to feel something like despair. Can we get through this time? Will people learn to trust again? Will civility return? But then I remember all the good people and organizations who are powering through, and I have a little bit of hope and a lot of gratitude. Thanks to all of you, from the bottom of my heart.Cloud White Blue Love Heart Sky Loyalty Luck

 

Where does stress show up in your body?

Sometimes people are skeptical when I say that stress always manifests itself somewhere in the body. They don’t recognize their symptoms – the muscle aches, stomach aches, headaches, or autoimmune conditions – as being related to stress in their lives. But even when we can’t draw a perfectly straight line from one to the other, they are connected. Stress shows up and it hurts.

For me, the left side of my neck and sometimes my left shoulder are where I hold tension. I might think that the chronic neck pain was something “more serious” if it didn’t almost totally disappear when I go on vacation. What a cliché! All I have to do is go somewhere, anywhere, other than home and voila! No neck pain. The fact is that pain and tension caused by stress is serious, not least because when it becomes chronic, it can start to be a stressor in and of itself.

Where do you hold on to emotions? Marlynn Wei, writing on the Psychology Today web site, explains how our bodies hold emotional memories, outlining research that shows how specific emotions are experienced in certain parts of the body. Yoga, for instance, teaches that negative emotions are often held in the hip area; something I’ve experienced by feeling very emotional after an intense hip opening yoga practice. It is as if something has been unleashed that was held in for a long time.

My therapist used to ask where in the body I was feeling something when I talked about a particularly difficult emotional experience. At first, I struggled to figure out where I felt it. I wanted to say, “nowhere”. But over time, I became aware that I was feeling it in my body, usually my chest, which, the research shows, is where anxiety and fear often show up.

When we hold this tension in certain parts of the body, and it becomes our “normal,” it can be hard to develop a new pattern of being. Humans, unfortunately, don’t come with a reset button – we have to work a little harder for it. As one yoga teacher put it, you have to “give the tissues permission to let go.” A possible way to do that is to move the energy to a different part of the body.

A Dahn yoga teacher once told my husband that his chi (or energy) was too much in his head, and needed to be moved down, more to his gut. Many of us live too much in our heads, and not enough in our hearts and physical bodies. The whole idea of “chi”, or “chakras” in the yoga tradition, is to keep energy flowing through the body, rather than having it be stuck in one place. Sometimes when my neck hurts, I feel like my head is too heavy to carry around, or that even a scarf around my neck is too much weight. How can I move that energy to a different part of the body? How can I stop carrying the weight of the world on my neck and shoulders?

Sydney_69

A good first step is the Body Scan (instructions here). By mindfully bringing awareness to each part of the body, we realize where discomfort exists and we can then bring some extra love to that area. Because muscle tension can lead to decreased blood flow, and therefore less oxygen, focus on “breathing in” to that area. Visualize blood flowing to the sore muscle, bringing restorative oxygen. Then on the out breath, let go of it. This is what Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to as bringing “wise attention” to our symptoms.

Progressive muscle relaxation also teaches how to recognize tension in the body by deliberately tensing and then relaxing each muscle group, one at a time. Another thing it teaches is that one part of the body can be energetic and strong while the rest of the body stays relaxed and soft. So, for example, I can hold a strong yoga warrior pose in the legs, while allowing my shoulders and head to relax in a languid reverse warrior. That brings ease to my effort, as Soren Gordhamer would say.

Yoga has proven helpful to me. With my subscription to YogaGlo, I can try all sorts of classes, from 5 minutes to 90, that focus on just one part of the body. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of short practices for the neck and shoulders. The most valuable thing I’ve learned is how connected one part of the body is to another. One 10 minute class didn’t even involve the neck directly; instead, I worked on the curvature of my spine and practiced walking around the room with my shoulders back and my chin up like a model!

Of course, ultimately we have to address the underlying triggers for the stress. When I feel tense and I do a quick mental review of what could be wrong, often there isn’t anything specific. So I remind myself to ask, “What’s right?” instead.  It helps me focus on letting go of the background fears, and just being in the present, unguarded. As Thich Nhat Hanh says,

When you let go mentally, you relax physically, because the body and the mind are two aspects of one reality….Through stopping, whether in walking or sitting meditation, you are in control of the situation…you regain sovereignty over yourself.

 

 

 

Use the breath during times of change

The fall equinox is always a time of change, whether it’s as simple as putting on warmer clothes or as challenging as starting a new school or a different job. This year many people have had even greater hurdles in September, as they have been hit with hurricanes, floods, fires and devastating earthquakes. Although there are plenty of stories about people bouncing back, rebuilding and starting anew, the reality often is that people struggle a great deal, and for a long time. This can have a ripple effect on overall well-being.

Whether we’re dealing with a change we’ve chosen or a change that has been thrust upon us, we usually do best by utilizing both problem-focused, actionable strategies, as well as emotion-focused methods for reducing anxiety. One of the most accessible ways to calm anxiety is with the breath. Recently I did an online yoga practice called “Metamorphosis” with teacher Claire Missingham. As we relaxed into the practice, she said,  “Let your breath begin to soothe you.” Even though I use breathing techniques a lot when I am stressed or anxious, I had never framed it as self-soothing. But I realized that, of course, that’s really exactly what it is. So what follows are some of my favorite breathing practices (I’ve tried to give credit where it’s due).

“Don’t forget to breathe”

In the 1985 movie, “Follow That Bird“, Grover gives Big Bird a piece of advice as he is leaving Sesame Street. “Don’t forget to breathe,” he says, “in and out.” Sometimes when anxiety strikes, the first that happens is that the breath gets shallow, or we even hold our breath. So the best way to start any breath practice is just to notice your natural breathing, in and out.

“Letting Yourself be Breathed”

Do this while lying on your back:

1. Close your eyes, letting your arms rest alongside your body and focus your attention on the breath without trying to influence it.
2. Imagine that with each inhalation, the universe is blowing breath into you and with each exhalation, withdrawing it. Imagine yourself passively receiving the breath. As the universe breathes into you, let yourself feel the breath penetrating every part of your body, even your fingers and toes.
3. Try to hold this imagination for ten cycles of exhalation and inhalation.

(Recommended for once a day. Adapted from Andrew Weil)

universe

4 – 7 – 8 Breathing

This is particularly good for relaxing before you go to sleep at night:

1. Close your eyes, relax your jaw, and rest the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth just above your top teeth.

2. Take one or two deep breaths to start.

3. Now begin counting as you breathe: Inhale to the count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 7, then exhale slowly for a count of 8.

4. Repeat this 4-7-8 sequence three or four times.

(Recommended for once a day. Adapted from Andrew Weil, 8 Weeks to Optimal Health)

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Balances the nervous system. Hillary Clinton says she used this technique after the election.

1. Sit comfortably with eyes open or closed.
2. Use the thumb and forefinger to alternate closing off one nostril at a time.
3. Beginning with an exhalation, use the thumb to close off one nostril. Keep it closed off as you take your next inhalation.
4. Then release the thumb and press the opposite nostril closed with your forefinger as you exhale. Inhale through the same nostril, then switch the finger and thumb again.
5. Continue alternating from one nostril to another in exhale-inhale cycles for as long as it feels comfortable.

(Adapted from Olpin & Hesson)

Anti-Stress Breathing

Sit comfortably as you would for meditation:

1. If you would like to use a “mudra”, touch the tips of your pinkie fingers and thumbs together, while keeping the other fingers on each hand together but not touching the opposite hand.
2. Close your eyes or focus on the tip of your nose.
3. Inhale deeply through the mouth, and then exhale through the nose. Then inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth.
4. Continue with this alternating pattern for several minutes.

just breathe

 

Books + beach + baby turtles = respite

Sometimes we need a respite more than we need a vacation, or even before we can be fully present for a vacation. What’s the difference between a respite and a vacation? The dictionary tells us that a respite is a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant, while a vacation is an extended period of recreation. When I left my home in Washington 10 days ago and headed for the beach,  I was fleeing from a stressful and frustrating situation. What I didn’t foresee was how many days it would take before I really felt like I was on vacation.

I knew I had to lower my stress level, and so I set some intentions from the start, the most important being to limit my email. I turned the mail function off on my devices and decided to only turn it on twice a day to check for things that were important. The rest of the time, I vowed not to check it at all.

Here are my other intentions:IMG_2188

I had been neglecting my yoga practice at home. In addition, I needed to spend some time learning how to use my new camera and updating my continuing education credits, as well as this blog. But it turned out to be many days before I could focus on the more mentally-tasking intentions.

On my first morning, I went to a yoga class and felt some of the stress begin to lift. On my second morning, I began a week of going out with other volunteers to monitor sea turtle nests on the beach. Each day at sunrise when we would begin our walk down the beach, a feeling of complete well-being would come over me and I would utterly relax. When we released some straggler baby turtles near the ocean one day, and people gathered to cheer them on as they made their way, I was filled with gratitude to be part of something so simple yet so much bigger than myself.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The remainder of my first four or five days was spent reading books. I couldn’t seem to bring myself to do much more than that. Overcast weather justified my couch potato tendencies a bit, but if I’m honest I admit that I just didn’t have the energy or interest to do more than that. I finished three books in rapid succession, and would have read more if they had been available. Other people’s stories have always felt like a refuge for me when I needed one.

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By the fifth day, the sun came out, and with it my readiness to be “on vacation.” I finally felt like I could enjoy the recreation part of my stay — the swimming, boating, biking and other fun. I took my camera out and experimented with its different settings. I spent the hot part of one afternoon doing an online class to fulfill my CE requirement. I went kayaking with my husband, and enjoyed that wonderful feeling of physical tiredness that comes from exertion. It was such a welcome change from the mental and emotional exhaustion I was feeling a few days earlier.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that,

The purpose of a vacation is to have the time to rest. But many of us, even when we go on vacation, don’t know how to rest. We may even come back more tired than before we left.

I feel lucky that I had enough time to give myself both that respite and a vacation. But what I learned is that I need to build in more respites for myself at home, and probably more boundaries to keep myself from getting to the point of so much stress. Time to set more intentions!

 

How colored chalk changed my brain

Marian Diamond is best known for studying Einstein’s brain, as well as her penchant for carrying around a hatbox with a human brain inside. But my memories of her revolve around the color-coded lectures she used to give in her anatomy class at U-C Berkeley. Before we had PowerPoint, we had Marian Diamond and her colored chalk.

We would arrive in the lecture hall and find the chalkboard covered with an outline of the day’s class, complete with drawings of anatomical structures. Several different colors of chalk were used to separate parts of the lecture or demonstrate various pathways. I never knew exactly what I would see when I walked in, only that I would be mesmerized for the entire class period by the clarity of her presentation and her dynamic teaching style. Of all the professors I had in college, she is one of only two or three whose classes I vividly remember.Diamond-Zhukova750-410x273

So when I heard that Dr. Diamond died last week, at the age of 90, I was sad for only a moment, and then I smiled, thinking back to that Berkeley lecture hall. Marian Diamond was an expert in brain development, and I realize now that she wasn’t just teaching us about the anatomy of the brain, but actually changing our brains too. She was one of the first scientists to demonstrate neuroplasticity and to test theories of how the right stimulation can promote brain development at any age.

In the introduction to her book, “Magic Trees of the Mind,” Diamond wrote that “The brain, with its complex architecture and limitless potential, is a highly plastic, constantly changing entity that is powerfully shaped by our experiences in childhood and throughout life.” She believed, and showed, that nurture is every bit as important as nature in determining how our lives turn out.

Back when I was in Marian Diamond’s class, I was contemplating a career in nursing, but unprepared for the competitiveness of Cal pre-med students. My laid-back studying habits weren’t a good match for the tough courses I was taking, and I ultimately switched majors. Little did I know that many years later I would go into the field of health education. Now I rely on Diamond’s work all the time in the courses I teach on stress management.

The critical factors in nurturing healthy brain development, according to Marian Diamond, are a healthy diet, physical exercise, being challenged, having new experiences, and being loved – especially love in the form of touch. In studies of rats, she showed that those living in an enriched environment had thicker cerebral cortices, the biggest part of the brain and the one most important for attention, memory and learning. She also learned that rats who were held and petted every day lived longer than others. While much of her work focused on children’s brain development, especially the negative effects of growing up in impoverished environments, she also realized that we retain the capacity for growth throughout life. As she wrote,

“Perhaps the single most valuable piece of information learned from all our studies is that structural differences can be detected in the cerebral cortices of animals exposed at any age to different levels of stimulation in the environment.”

People know this already, even if they don’t know anything about science. A Gallup survey several years ago showed that “learning something new” was one of the biggest predictors for whether someone thinks they had a good day. We’re bored if we’re not challenged, and we languish if we’re not loved. We know we feel better if we eat healthy food, and think better when exercise gets blood flowing to the brain.

Daniel Defoe wrote that, “The soul is placed in the body like a rough diamond, and must be polished, or the luster of it will never appear.” What we learned from the diamond that was Marian is that the brain needs its own share of polishing and nourishment for us to lead a rich, fulfilling life.

 

Why you need to declare independence

We observed Independence Day all over America yesterday, celebrating our freedom as a country. Yet, as individuals, we still put ourselves in chains a lot of the time. We imprison ourselves with judgment, and with the dreaded “should, ought and must.”

As often happens, I started thinking about this in a yoga class. One day last week, a teacher said, “Allow your eyes to close,” which is typical language in yoga class. But the use of the word “allow” got me thinking. Then I heard a teacher say, “Give yourself permission to….” Hmm – I was starting to see a pattern. It didn’t seem like the words were meant just to let us know that we had a choice; it seemed more like the words were an acknowledgment that we don’t often let ourselves relax, or choose to do less than we are capable of.Woman Closing Eye

At another point, the teacher asked us to do tree pose, which involves resting one foot against the opposite leg while balancing on the other foot. Usually people will use a hand to assist them in getting the foot high up on the inner thigh of the other leg; but this time the teacher asked us not to use our hands, even if that meant that we wouldn’t be able to get the foot as high. It was interesting to me to watch as some in the class couldn’t seem to bring themselves to “settle” for the foot just resting against the ankle or calf — they had to use their hands to bring the foot as high as possible. They just couldn’t allow themselves to do less than their max.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes that the two parts of Buddhist meditation are stopping, and looking deeply. It’s the stopping that’s the hurdle, because once we can do that, the looking deeply will naturally follow. But as he says, “If you’re like most of us, since you’ve been born, you’ve been running. Now it’s a strong habit that many generations of your ancestors also had before you and transmitted to you — the habit of running, being tense, and being carried away by many things, so that your mind is not totally, deeply, peacefully in the present moment.”

The constant running can lead to “wrong perceptions,” including the self-judgment that results in constant striving.  For some of us, the constant striving comes from the mistaken belief that we have to be the best at everything we do — the best in our professional lives, the best parent, the best athlete, the best host, and yes, the best in yoga class. But why? If there is one, or maybe two or three, area of life where we really give 110% to be our best, why can’t we just let ourselves be…okay at some of the other things?

In their book, “Five Good Minutes,” Jeff Brantley and Wendy Millstine have a practice called, “Retire the judges in your mind.” It’s all about letting go of the self-judgment and self-criticism. They suggest that while you are sitting quietly, and with that intention, that you notice the judgmental thoughts and say, “Thank you, you may or  may not be true, but thank you anyway.”Brisbane_85

If you stop striving for a moment, and let that foot rest a little lower on the leg in tree pose, maybe you’ll notice something about tree that you couldn’t see when you were using so much effort. Maybe stopping and looking deeply for a moment allows you to grow your tree differently the next time you do it. Thich Nhat Hanh compares the release of tension that comes from letting go with soaking mung beans: “You don’t need to force the water to enter the mung bean. You let the mung bean be in the water, and slowly, slowly it goes in….The same is true for you.”

Here’s a radical thought — sometimes maybe we should do less in order to do more. So declare your independence from the tyranny of “I must,” “I should” and “I have to.” Allow your eyes to close, give yourself permission to stop, take whatever it is you need.