Here’s what’s wrong with the seemingly endless and yet so fascinating lists of things that are either good for you or bad for you: They give me anxiety. Here’s this list about the 7 most compelling books I should read. And then there’s the one with the 10 most delicious dessert recipes without sugar. Even news organization now publish a daily list of “5 things to know for your new day”, covering everything from winter weather to the fighting in Ukraine.
Every day I am bombarded with – probably even quite useful – information about all the things I am supposed to do better. The problem is: it’s too much.
Don’t get me wrong: I too am frequently drawn to articles headlined “5 Ways To Increase your Mental Strength” or “6 Breathing Techniques That Help You Fall Asleep”. I have read many fine articles by equally fine writers that contain helpful information about anything from healthy foods to why smiling is good for you. I even wrote an article some years ago about “5 Dating Tips for Introverts”.
The problem is: it doesn’t stick. I love reading what I could do to lose those five pounds or to make my brain stop forgetting random pieces of information. I go down the lists, thinking: yep, I know that already. Oh, that’s actually interesting. Wait, I haven’t thought of that one before.
But as soon as I click on another article I have already forgotten what 5-item-list I just read. The lists are a great seduction to lure us into the kind of bite-size infotainment that makes us believe we learn something new. But the brain doesn’t learn from reading 50 different things in as short a time as possible. It learns by repeating the same things over and over.
Some people say it takes 17 repetitions – for example to learn a new word in a foreign language, or get the hang of a new habit. Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell talks about 10,000 hours of practice to attain mastery, and how even geniuses like the Beatles had to practice in order to become …
Breath is the source of life. Ancient yogis have built much of their wisdom on how to utilize breathing not just as a spiritual practice, but also a means to enhance physical and emotional well being.
“Take a deep breath” has become a ubiquitous formula to meet many challenges: it’s a popular – and effective – go-to remedy to calm yourself down, to handle the anticipation of bad news or to get ready and take a dive. Breathing techniques are a common tool to contain pain, most frequently in child birth. But what may seem to some like new age advice to avoid more heavy duty solutions is actually based on hard science.
Deep, slow breathing has been proven to increase oxygen flow in the bloodstream, which in turn triggers the relaxation response. What is usually meant is abdominal breathing, where the inhale is focused on the abdominal area rather than the chest and shoulders.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal praised the benefits of deep breathing and its potential benefits for multiple conditions, starting with stress reduction and anxiety, and improving physical conditions like inflammation, high blood pressure, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, heart health and the entire immune system.
Most techniques focus on deep breathing versus shallow breathing. Shallow breathing is usually associated with stress – the fight or flight trigger. Howard Kent, founder of the Yoga for Health organization and author of the book Yoga Made Easy, states that, “One of the most common problems in our society is shallow breathing. The process that we call hyperventilation can be a response to many challenges: emotional, environmental, and physical. As a result of these challenges, there is a tendency to take small breaths — a sign of unease with life — using only a small upper part of the lungs.”
Taking the time to redirect the attention to the automatic and effortless dynamic of the breath is a soothing and easy way to calm yourself in a self directed manner. No experts or pharmaceutical help necessary.
Another set of breathing exercises come via the …
Sometimes the mind is too confused or too overwhelmed to give us useful information about what the right thing to do is. We get trapped in self doubt and anxiety and may end up doing nothing at all, which makes us feel depressed and not in control.
When the mind is too wrapped up in thinking, listening to the body can provide relief.
I sometimes get upset about silly things. The neighbor did this, or a friend said that… it’s easy to get caught up in making assumptions about what other people do, and we tend to think their actions have something to do with us, when in reality they don’t.
When that happens I check in with my body. Am I really upset about my friend not calling back at the desired time? Or is it just my paranoid mind telling me stories that she doesn’t want to talk to me, is trying to tell me something blablabla.
When my body is relaxed and doesn’t give me any signal, I attribute the thoughts to my reptile brain, which is programmed to dish out warnings when there seems to be danger, but isn’t very good at differentiating between what is really dangerous or just related to a past experience. So when the body is calm, I try to let it go. It’s so tempting to give in to fearful thinking even when there isn’t the slightest evidence that harm is being done.
It’s different, when my body gives me warning signs. For example, if I have a conversation with a friend and something that was said doesn’t sit right with me, I wonder if I should bring it up to that person or let it go. When I feel a knot in my stomach or a tightening of the muscles in my chest, then I know that something is up. Maybe something from the past was triggered that needs soothing or simply being talked about. Then I try to bring it up in a non-threatening way, by talking about my experience rather than blaming the other person.
It’s important to take a closer look at these physical …
Introverts and shy people all over rejoice: there is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with needing space and quiet, and preferring a low key dinner with a good friend to a loud and extravagant party.
There is nothing wrong with needing time to retreat from the world and recharge your internal batteries, or to feel overwhelmed by too much pressure or too much information.
I’m a latecomer to Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s been out for a while, but that doesn’t make its message any less important.
One major point she makes is that introverts are thinkers and creators. “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement”, science journalist Winifred Gallagher is quoted. He concludes that neither Einstein’s theory of relativity nor John Milton’s Paradise Lost was “dashed off by a party animal.”
Susan Cain adds more great achievements by venerable introverts: Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, Chopin’s nocturnes, Charles Schulz’s Charlie Brown. Even techno revolutionaries like Google founder Sergey Brin or Facebook creator Marc Zuckerberg are included. The list goes on to include Al Gore, Warren Buffett, Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi.
Many of us turn to the mind. We are called cerebral, innovative, brooding, creative. But also spiritual, psychologically minded, curious about the inner workings of all things. Endlessly fascinated by the wonders of nature, and inspired by the journey of discovery.
Of course, not all introverts end up famous. Many of us struggle with feelings of loneliness, fear of conflict, depression and low self esteem.
Many times, our negative self image goes back to the messages we received from our families and our culture. Extroverted children are deemed preferable to quiet ones by lots of parents, for fear that their kids will end up as outsiders or loners. The angst they are putting on their children ends up creating just that: youngers who feel bad about themselves …
Codependency is defined as one partner being dependent on the control and the needs of another, like when a self defeating partner falls for a narcissist. For the codependent person, the needs of the other become paramount, and one’s own needs and desires – sometimes even the whole personality are obliterated.
The primary task of a codependent person is individuation. Becoming one’s own priority. Knowing and realizing one’s desires. Discovering the self. And eventually standing on your own feet within a partnership.
The way a person becomes codependent often goes back to childhood, when a parent or an important family member or a caretaker used the child as an extension of the self and did not allow the child to develop his or her own personality.
The most important job of the child was to attend to the narcissistic parent’s needs – be it directly by obeying whatever the parent said, or indirectly, by becoming the person the parent wanted us to be: be good, be quiet, be compliant, be like them, become the better version of the parent and so on.
Parent and child became emotionally fused. There is no independent will the child may pursue. There is only the needs and fears of one person, the all powerful and dominant parent.
Even when the parent outwardly rejects the child, because he or she doesn’t seem to live up to their expectations, the child will still try to gain the approval of the parent and won’t be permitted to become an individual.
Children of emotionally fused parents will end up in codependent relationships later in life. Becoming aware of this dynamic is very painful. The first task is to grieve the lost self, and to find the pillars on which one’s own personality rest.
Even if it feels like all energy goes into the needs of other people, there is still a fundamental inner core that represents the true self.
Go back and look at old pictures. Maybe there was an aunt or a grandparent that fostered independence and ideas in you. Maybe there was a game you played with other kids, or an art project …
Most people who seek psychotherapy believe that they are weak, that their life force has been shaken to the core, that they can’t face the world and its challenges. But it’s quite the opposite. Daring to look at oneself and one’s imperfections really is an act of heroism.
Most of us don’t like to admit that we often are in need: we crave to be in a loving relationship, grow roots and find stability in a community, want the security of having a financial cushion and so on. So much of our self exploration focuses on our needs and how we can avoid the pitfalls of never saying no to anyone.
And not just that. Sometimes we are weak. When our child is in pain and we can’t help, we feel each pang of that pain with them. When we are exhausted and run down, we don’t have it in us to stand up to whoever we feel treats us unfairly.
Defeat cannot always be averted. All there is to do is to admit that we have failed. There is no way to pretend otherwise. We need to be able to face the truth of our human existence.
Admitting to feeling vulnerable and confused automatically takes the aggression out of a fight. Saying calmly “that really hurt me” or “I just don’t have it in me” deflects anger and opens the door for dialogue and cooperation. It avoids defensiveness and the typical downward spiral of self righteousness and stonewalling.
Seeing our weaknesses enables us to move past them, because we first have to become aware of our limitations before we can try to do something about it.
Knowing that we are vulnerable makes compassion with others possible. Everyone appreciates compassion, kindness and gentleness.
Every feeling is temporary. All things must pass, as George Harrison said. And there will be an end to feeling weak and incapacitated too. It’s all part of the human experience. The sooner we can accept that, the easier we will move past it.
We’ve long known that soft candle light generally triggers a gentler mood, and grey skies can make us more gloomy. Some people tend to be depressed in the winter, when the sun sets early.
The same dynamic takes place inside our homes and offices. The artificial light that comes from the ceiling or floor lamp will have an impact on us. Especially the harsh light of fluorescent bulbs creates a cold, stark atmosphere.
Researchers at the German Fraunhofer Institute are now testing what kind of moods are associated with colored lighting. They found out that red light has more of a relaxing effect that will make us want to lie down or go to sleep. It’s the same red tones that appear on the sky at sunset. For our hunter and gatherer ancestors who lived mostly outdoors this was the signal to retire into a sheltered space.
In contrast, blueish light will wake us up, make us more alive and increases the drive to move. Yellow is said to increase concentration.
Research concludes that when workers in an office were forced to work in a space without windows, their levels of tiredness were much higher than of those who were exposed to daylight. The researchers then created a virtual ceiling with blue light and moving clouds, and the effect was immediate: the test subjects reported a significantly lessened decrease in well-being when exposed to the virtual sky.
Human beings are not made to be exposed to artificial light all day long. Exposed to TV screens and computers, our internal clock gets thrown off, and sleep disturbances are on the rise. “We’ve lived and worked outdoors for almost 200,000 years” says Oliver Stefani, light researcher at the Fraunhofer Institute. Exposure to light at night has been linked to depression, learning issues and sleeplessness.
A number of companies are beginning to tap into the market and are offering colored LED light bulbs that can be set to any mood, and even simulate the colors of the sunrise in the morning to wake you up gently. New technology makes it …
You know that old adage that “we see whatever we want to see?” Turns out, there is scientific research to back this one up.
Compelling evidence is delivered by British neuroscientist Beau Lotto in his Ted talk “How our minds shape perception”. In his talk, Lotto demonstrates how reality always depends on context by showing a variety of colored patches, surrounded by differing backgrounds.
The eye will perceive the colored patches differently, according to whether they are offset by a white or a black background. Sensory information, Lotto concludes, is meaningless because it only becomes meaningful when there is something to compare it with. And the same goes for everything else. “There is no inherent meaning in information. It’s what we do with that information that matters.”
The whole thing is just as applicable to psychological dynamics. The backdrop to which we all compare our experiences is our past. We are biologically conditioned to base our decisions and perceptions on previous experiences, and to form patterns. Says the neuroscientist: “The brain doesn’t see the world as it is, the brain sees the world the way it was useful in the past.”
Which brings us to mental health, relationships and specifically to couples. When a couple starts fighting, it’s often about differing subjective perceptions of the two parties involved. One person may even accuse the other of lying, while the blamed one sees nothing wrong in his or her actions.
That is where perception comes in. Let’s say a young man grew up with a volatile mother who needed to be pleased at all times in order to prevent violent outbursts of anger. To him, it may have become a highly useful strategy to please and flatter any older woman in some type of authority position.
Say his wife grew up with an unreliable father, who disappeared in the neighborhood bar when things got difficult and flirted with the bartender there.
To him, behaving slightly seductive around women was a survival strategy, even though it may have been completely devoid of actual interest in that person. To her, any form of seductiveness …
“Why Do I Do That?” is the title of a new book by fellow blogger Joseph Burgo which deals exclusively with the ways we try to deal with difficult feelings and situations in life: It’s our defense mechanisms that make us look away when things get dicey or hard to deal with. The book is released on October 29th and will be available on Amazon in print-on-demand and eBook versions. In this interview, Joe Burgo explains how he got fascinated by the topic.
What do people defend against?
In the broadest sense, they always defend against pain. Donald Melzer said that defenses are lies we tell ourselves to evade pain, which is a very elegant way of saying it.
There are different kinds of pain. In my book I divide it into three areas. We are primarily concerned with what it’s like to need and depend on other people, which can lead to frustration, hurt and disappointment. Secondarily, we are concerned with being able to manage a lot of intense feelings that come up in relationships. And we try to develop some sense of personal self worth, to feel that we have value, and when we don’t, that leads to shame, a deeply painful experience. So need and dependency, strong feelings and self esteem, those are the areas where pain comes up and we rely on defense mechanisms.
What are the classic defense mechanisms?
Well, there are repression and denial. All defenses rely on repression, even though it’s a defense in its own right. Displacement, reaction formation. Splitting, idealization. Projection. And then there’s a bunch of other ones that are secondary, like defenses that involve ideas of control, and lastly defenses against shame.
What are these?
Narcissism is the primary defense against shame.
Narcissism is a defense?
Pathological narcissism is a defense against shame. There are people who are currently writing about this connection, its kind of out there in the profession right now.
How do you work with patients in terms of defenses?
As I was writing the book, I didn’t really think that I am working on defenses but I guess …
Exercise can be just as effective against depression as medication, especially in mild to moderate cases. Study after study has come to this conclusion, and it can even help with major depression and to prevent reoccurring episodes of it.
Many alternative health professionals talk about how “food is medicine;” now, the corresponding view is “exercise is medicine.” A recent news item claiming that exercise is more crucial in managing diabetes than food, is an example of this new viewpoint.
Having a stronger body increases overall well-being, even in people with low self esteem. Body and mind cannot be seen separately – an insight that athletes back in ancient Greece were well aware off.
Of course, it’s difficult to motivate yourself to move when you are depressed. It’s important to find an activity that suits the pace you are comfortable with. If walking is all you can do, then walking it is (especially when done in nature). If dancing feels possible, do that. If you like Yoga, great.
You don’t have to hit the gym. Find something that appeals to you. Being active on a regular basis (say two or three times a week) is much more beneficial than doing something strenuous once in a while.
If you can avoid medication and exercise regularly instead, even better. Drugs can have serious negative side effects, especially when taken over a long period of time. Some studies even suggest that antidepressants can lead to chronic depression.
This phenomenon seems to occur in many people, who had an initial positive response to SSRIs, then stayed on the drugs, relapsed and became treatment-resistant. This is when the depression may become permanent.
Other cautionary tales include that psychiatric drugs have led to impairment in brain development in animal studies. Robert Whitaker, author of “Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness”, points out that the widely believed theory of chemical imbalances in the brain had turned out to be false.
It is undeniable that drugs have helped and still help countless people, especially with severe mental illness. …