This Being Human

Help From Einstein

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Einstein was not simply a physicist. He offered wisdom for all seasons of life and existence. At one time the whole world looked to him for guidance, like an oracle. He said that his genius was to look in to things deeply and to see with an uncommon clarity untethered to what we think we know. Let’s have an annotated look at some of his wise equations to get some ideas about searching our own life’s dark matter.

“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.” Women too! The difference between looking and thinking is the wisdom here. We can get quite caught up in thinking that things are a certain way because our own thinking seductively feels true. Thinking is undoubtedly a powerful and transformative ability, but we can get hijacked by it. A partial inventory of problematic types of thinking includes thinking that is self-critical, catastrophic, magical and superstitious, irrational, anxious, prejudiced, delusional, counterfactual, dysfunctional, ruminative and dogmatic. Instead, if we can remember to just stop and look and accept things as they are, we’re then better set up to work with what’s true. Lotteries would disappear.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Most disputes with a loved one are not resolved by more disputing. Usually what breaks a dispute is one person shifting and softening in some compassionate way, suddenly seeing the other person instead of clinging to their own rigid view. Thinking can keep us from foraging elsewhere. Recall that anxiety (future thinking) and depression (negative thinking) are epidemic.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Thanks for the diagnosis, Albert! Sometimes we think and think and think, going to absurd lengths to try to divine what someone is going to do or why they said a certain thing. And we keep on thinking, unsettled that we don’t know. Maybe if we realize that it’s true that we can’t know now, we can stress a little less.

“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” If that was true in his time, what about today? Technology is now substantially managing our occupational, financial, social and emotional life. The tail might be wagging the dog.

“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” This one feels like a big bag of groceries, a candy store. It recalls the sorry bumper sticker, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” What matters may not be what we expect, and what we expect may not be what matters. Opening up to look at your life as it actually is, with curiosity and interest, lets you tap in to intuition, feeling and a personal knowing that offers better guidance than any rational accounting of your life.

“Everything should be as simple as it is, but not simpler.” We should be careful with fast fixes, pat answers (sorry to all Pats out there) and prescriptive advice. Oprah knows that weight loss is more complicated than any advice that her show can package.

“One may say the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.” This is perhaps one of the most optimistic insights of all time. Somehow this universe gave rise to us and to our capacity to know this universe and ourselves. When your life seems incomprehensible, please know that it only seems that way. It might be that, by stopping and looking and accepting things just as they are, it gets a little clearer. When we “Ah ha!” we’re suddenly seeing something that’s true, and a little of the dark matter becomes instead something that we comfortably know.

The Ancient Practice of Meditation

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

The ancient practice of meditation is rapidly gaining scientific credibility as a remarkable new – for western societies – means for cultivating psychological and physical health. With coverage of new research last week in the New York Times, the Irish Times and Scientific American, Examiner readers can’t be left out!

Western ideas about meditation can be pretty interesting. Very little levitating or astral projection is needed, and you can put away your bed of nails. It’s really just about strengthening our attention and awareness. Our attention is like a flashlight beam, capable of being moved around or, instead, focused and concentrated. Meditation simply involves intentionally paying attention in the present moment by focusing and concentrating on some object and trying to sustain that focus from moment to moment. Simple! A common practice is to just watch the sensations of your breath through its cycles. “Simple” becomes challenging very quickly because of one little detail – our mind. The human mind is insanely undisciplined and busy and for most of us it has the attentional muscles of an underfed 98 pound weakling. Try paying steady attention for two minutes to your breath as you feel it, perhaps in your chest or at your nostrils – I’ll wait…

…and if you tried it you probably saw how awareness flits or disappears. That little exercise gives us a glimpse of the very considerable underpinnings of stress and emotional disturbance. Our undisciplined mind tends to fret and worry and criticize and distort and excrete disturbance way more than we commonly know. We can’t really know what our mind is doing unless we have some way of paying attention to our mind. How can we possibly regulate or realistically come to terms with anything if we don’t see it or know about it?

Western neuroscience is revealing that this simple practice is something of a universal exercise machine. Meditation works the meatiest of those neurobiological systems associated with stress and our most human and compassionate abilities. Regular practice is being shown to be associated with improvements in a who’s who list that includes the immune system, memory, attention, self esteem, depression and anxiety, cardiovascular risk factors, chronic pain, and addictions including our relationship to food. It may be that the common path to whole person health has to do with emotion regulation and the reduction of the wear and tear of stress.

The piece of research receiving the recent media coverage is from Dr. Sara Lazar’s group at the Harvard Medical School, reporting changes in the grey matter in some brain structures after an 8-week mindfulness meditation course. The measured increases in grey matter (from more neurons or brain cells) in the hippocampi may be related to better memory and emotion regulation, and the measured reduction in the size of the amygdale may indicate less fear and reduced stress-susceptibility. Our plastic brain responds to practice and exercise.

One study doesn’t provide us with anything that we can be completely sure of. It’s the body of scientific work that tells a useful story. The research database that I subscribe to shows that since this past December more than 50 peer-reviewed papers about mindfulness have been published. Even so, the early days of research in any new area will suffer growing pains for many reasons.

Mindfulness is clearly trendy and a hot area for research. The body of neuroscience, medical and stress research appears to be telling us that we can do much to look after ourselves if we mindfully see ourselves. And remember too that the wisdom of this very human practice of seeing “the precision and openness and intelligence of the present” goes back 2500 years and has been echoed by Einstein, Thoreau, Emerson and Jung among others.

Kids and Sports

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

These days a lot of us are watching the weather-horizon for signs of spring. Spring is our time to thaw and grow. It’s also the time when many parents plant their kids in organizations and sports, repeating the patterns of their own childhood or hopeful of the growth that these activities may cultivate.

As you might suppose, a lot of research tells us that being active is a good idea and organized activities are uniquely positioned to foster positive youth development because many kids value this context more highly than school. For kids, self-esteem, body image and social skills can all benefit from participation in sports. Physical activity helps relieve stress and reduces the effects of conditions associated with depression. Kids who exercise are more likely to become adults who exercise. Experiences of skill development and mastery are essential nutrients for conditioning healthy life habits. Kids learn that you can’t win them all. They are less likely to smoke and take drugs and girls are less likely to get pregnant.

Sport is a rich medium for promoting development, but it can go badly too. Solid research shows that sport has the potential to increase anti-social tendencies and aggression. The suspension of moral reasoning, the cultural acceptance of violence and aggression in the sport world, and the focus on winning and gaining personal advantage body-check adaptive social learning. When our kids become ‘professionalized’ the full richness of their involvement may be reduced to goals that translate poorly to the bigger complexities of life.

The research shows that we’re naïve to think that sport builds character in and of itself. Teams, coaches and parents may reward demonstrating superiority over others, winning by any means necessary and revelling in the defeat of others. Trash talking is sometimes the first skill acquired.

Coaches and parents who encourage winning by any means might want to step back to fully look at their charge, as complex and apparently contradictory as that might seem. Coaches and parents do well to remind their kids that the other team is just like them, that winning or losing doesn’t change our inherent worth and that teaching how to genuinely congratulate and value the ‘winner’ or ‘loser’ is better work than teaching trash-talking.

Coaches of our youth who have a singular and emotionally driven need to win need some coaching themselves. A study of a soccer league found that a caring climate on the team is associated with kids having more fun, more positive attitudes and caring towards their coaches/teammates and a greater commitment to soccer. Parents and coaches who have high expectations and who are punitive and controlling will create the conditions that breed fear of failure and poorer performance.

We can’t just throw our kids into a sport and then step back and watch the benefits accrue. When sports are run like the Bloods vs. the Crips, what might you think is being cultivated?

The ‘how’ may be more important than the ‘what’ in cultivating sport’s benefits. The critical earliest years of exposure to sports should emphasize keeping it fun, kind and interesting. Keep it fun or kids will quit.

Nothing is simple. Ongoing parental participation, support and easy talk about the life lessons revealed at practices and games, recitals and competitions, are critical.

And when our kids are nurtured well in sport or dance or competition they can savour cleanly the friends they make, the applause and laughter at the dance recital, almost winning the final, the medal hanging on the bedroom wall, pretending to be Sid the Kid or Hayley Wickenheiser – what beats that?

Working on Mental Health

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Okay, it’s time to do another survey.

“Hands up – who has a mind?” Hmmm, I thought so – everyone believes that they have a mind. “Okay, and now who among you has ever received any guidance or orientation or training in what it means to have a mind and how to work with it?”

When I ask a group this question there’s often a unanimous sense that we have never ever been taught or shown what having a mind is all about or how to work with our mind. These questions bring up a realization that there’s been this little bitty oversight by our culture – school offers sex-ed but no mind-ed. Actually, there seems to be a cultural taboo against knowing our feelings and against working on our mental health.

So, do you think it would make a difference? Do we need to? Do we want to?

On the latter question, it would seem that we’re awash in self-help books, shows and health gurus. These might be cultural indicators that there exists some prevalent condition and that people are hungry for guidance.

We also seem to be flush with psychopharmaceuticals that promise to do the job of adjusting our minds for us. Indeed, pharmaco-genetics is an emerging area of research attempting to develop antidepressants that are tailor-made to suit individual genetic variations.

But what if you prefer to DIY? Wouldn’t it be great to drop in to Mind Depot where they say, “You can do it, we can help?”

Given that mind and mental health embrace the working and content of our emotions, thoughts, perceptions, memory, behaviour and physical reactions, it’s a broad area that doesn’t lend itself to quick, fast-food remedy: “Ya, I’ll have a Big Insight, hold the Irony, a side of Wisdom and some Contentment, please.”

Our society doesn’t have a lot of difficulty with the idea, if not the practice, that getting into better physical condition takes work and dedication and time. Four weeks of effort is just a beginning. We accept the truism that a neglected body is more likely to be an unhealthier body, vulnerable to break down. The development of skills also entails repetitive work. To become adept at guitar or you name it, we have to arrange to practice, working patiently as little gains are earned.

There’s good reason to suggest that mental health is essentially similar. Neuroscience is effectively showing us that repeating some healthy (or unhealthy) activity over and over changes the brain tissue that mediates that activity. Want to like yourself better? Want to manage your anger or your depressive thinking?

Research shows that our abilities to hold and regulate emotion, heal trauma, and to pay attention are complexly rooted in a neurobiology that can be strengthened like a bicep. It might be that wisdom, intuition and compassion are skills that can be strengthened.

What might it be like to exercise the capacities of mind to see your mind and, really, to see your life, just as it is? What might it be like to learn to respect and listen to your emotion, rather than to avoid it?

Improving mental and physical health takes intention, practice and dedication. And mental health training takes courage, the emotional equivalent of resistance training, pushing against our massive tendency to avoid discomfort. Mental health won’t magically improve. Our relationships take work, our parenting takes work, loving ourselves takes work. If ‘being a good person’ is living in a way that reflects your deepest values, your potentials, your compassion, your heart, then that’s the work.

Stress Response

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Your stress response is a blind reflex, a call-to-arms (and legs) that animates your critical resources for action when you’re threatened.

The grizzly bear cometh and your brain yells to your adrenal gland to release adrenaline and steroid hormones which break out the energy reserves from fat stores. Your heart rate pounds up and blood pressure rises, stretching those rubbery vessels. Body repair and growth systems are suspended and blood is diverted away from your stomach and intestines – no need to digest that meal if the grizzly is digesting you! Blood is instead committed to the big muscles that do the work of fight-flight. Platelets, your bodies Band-Aids, multiply and get stickier and the immune system goes on alert just in case of injury. Ugh, maybe your bladder lets go because those pounds of urine are dead weight. Memory sharpens dramatically with a boost from the steroid hormone cortisol, enabling flash-bulb retention. Your attention and senses sizzle.

This acute stress response can save your life, helping you to take the quickest and most robust action possible. Once the threat is over your body regulates the return to normal, leaving you with some appetite so as to replace the energy used.

You sleep through your alarm and wake with alarm. You realize it’s garbage day and angrily organize your offering, feeling time pressured. You fret about being ten minutes late, but find that it’s no problem when you get to work. Through the day you spill a little coffee on your shirt (arghh!), bump in to that co-worker you had a tiff with (grrrr!), and realize your library book was due back yesterday (dummy!). At home the dog barfs on the carpet, milk gets spilt and the bills pour in. And so the day goes and perhaps the next one, perhaps each day featuring a staccato of these moments.

Most people want the good news first: The good news is that you’ve been menaced by exactly zero grizzly bears. The bad news is that your body rockets through the same grizzly reactions, time after time, day after day, a pattern called chronic stress. Chronic stress isn’t a constant state but is instead an up-and-down, oscillating course of stress reactions. It’s not at all good and here’s why.

If blood pressure flies up and down like the toilet seat, vessels get pounded and stretched too often, losing their rubbery good nature. Little tears in the vessels cause inflammation and those circulating sugars and fats that fuel your big muscles get stuck there and build up over time. Stress causes plaques, vascular problems, bad news. Even the vessels feeding your heart suffer this wear and tear. Very bad news.

Cortisol stimulates appetite after stress and the craving for carbs along with the loss of self-control from the recent upset increases snacking. All that extra sugar and fat from snacking produces insulin, the hormone of plenty, which results in storage of our excess. When fat cells get too full, they become insulin resistant (hello Type II diabetes), and leave those abundant sugars and fats in the blood, where they can add to plaques.

The stress-based combination of hypertension, blood vessel resistance, elevated blood sugar and insulin resistance all interact. Oh, and that fat we store around our middle also acts as a kind of endocrine gland, chemically signalling for more inflammation. Oh, great! More inflammation will just encourage more sticky build up at those sites in our vessels that have been hurt by the hypertension.

I’ll bring you more in the weeks ahead about ways in which we can protect against the damage caused by chronic stress after we look even further into stress and how it impacts us.