Monday, June 30, 2014

What is Your Health Legacy?

I spent a weekend in June learning from Daniel Amen, MD, Daniel Siegel, MD, Mark Hyman, MD,  Tana Amen, RN and a variety of other mental health, physical health, wellness and fitness experts at "Brain and Body Turnaround". The conference got me thinking about how much we each need to take responsibility for our health, and the patterns we are modeling for our children and grandchildren.

Dr. Amen is a neurologist and psychiatrist who founded the Amen Clinics, where he is well-known for using brain scans to help identify certain kinds of physical and mental illness, and his studies show the impact of improved health habits on brain functioning. Dr. Siegel is a UCLA child psychiatrist and leading expert and researcher in mindfulness.

We each inherit certain genetic predispositions, but we can take control for doing our best to manage our moods and not trigger health problems. We all have choices about our thinking, the food we eat, having good sleep habits, and whether or not we exercise. I enjoyed the conference because it focused on getting past excuses and making some small changes. Even a few changes, like adding in a daily walk, can have a huge impact on your physical and mental wellness.

Each of us has to decide what health legacy we want to leave behind us. Our life is our message. It is more powerful than whatever you could say to your children.

Do you want younger family members to see you actively engaged in learning new things, practicing mindfulness, forgiving others and yourself, making repairs to tense relationships when you can? I always admire people who continuously seek personal growth and deeper relationships, as opposed to sliding by in quiet desperation or complaints. Taking action to make relationships stronger and more satisfying is a sign of mental wellness. I have had clients into their 80's and beyond who are working hard on making a relationship better, or making a life adjustment successful. I love to see that kind of open-minded aging.

Many mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression are helped greatly by daily moderate exercise. I routinely ask about how much my clients are exercising, which can help ease both anxiety and depression symptoms.

Working with your own automatic negative thoughts daily and learning to counter them is critically important. Each of us is vulnerable to sometimes using black and white thinking, emotional reasoning, mind-reading, personalization and other thought errors which can make us feel worse if we don't trash them daily. You may want to write them out, counter them and rip them up!

Taking responsibility for what we eat and the exercise we get daily is also an aspect of optimal wellness. Reducing or eliminating sugars, for example can help us avoid weight gain and stabilize mood.

We want to avoid a "victim" mentality about our health and genetic risk factors. We want to think of our doctors as consultants, not our fathers or mothers. It is healthy to ask questions and get second opinions. I noticed years ago when I helped lead an arthritis support group for a local hospital, how much better patients did when they were active in the treatment, educated about options, and physically active and cooperative with dietary changes.

As we age, we need to make a decision if we want to  take responsibility for staying as active, healthy and vital as we can as long as we can. What helps?

1. Exercise daily. Start slowly if you haven't been active, and get your doctor's approval.

2. Limit or eliminate sugars, energy drinks, and soda. Limit alcohol use, too.

3. Eat more fruits and vegetables.

4. Keep your weight in the right range, with a BMI under 25. Overweight is considered a BMI of 25-29.9, while obesity begins at a BMI of 30. Obesity increases risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, sleep apnea, stroke, osteoarthritis and other diseases.

5. Drink more water.

6. Consider going organic with your produce to avoid pesticides.

6. Develop good sleep habits. Limit caffeine after noon, set a routine wind down time, sleep time and waking hour. Turn off technology (television, computer, ipad, cell, etc.) an hour before bed as the light is activating for your brain.

7. Keep learning new things.

8. Practice quieting your mind with gardening, needlework, reading, meditation, prayer, silence, listening to music, or guided imagery daily. This will help you manage your moods better.

9. Don't believe every stupid negative thought you have. Sweep them out daily.

10. Stay open to building and developing your friendships and your love relationship to be genuine, mutually supportive and honest. Spend time with people you care about.

11. Help others. Find a way to contribute to the planet at whatever stage of life you are in. Someone needs you, and love makes us real. Find a need and fill it, whether it's in your home, your neighborhood or the larger world.

12. Heal childhood wounds and work through losses. If you are still hurting about things from childhood or an unresolved loss, find a good therapist who can help you work through your feelings
and experiences and let it go. Don't keep carrying your pain around.

Don't carry forward unhealthy lifestyle habits or mental/emotional habits to share with younger people in your family. You can break any pattern or tradition you want, from negative fear-based thinking,  emotional overeating, poor parenting, addiction issues, rigidity, unhealthy relationships or depression/anxiety. It's what you do with what you have that helps you leave a positive legacy of mental and physical health.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Killing ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts)

Everyone has some fear-based or negative thoughts from time to time. Automatic negative thoughts can increase your worry, anxiety, stress and depression. It's important that each individual develops their own tool kit for dealing with negative thoughts and not letting them hang around and ruin your day, or that of the people who are around you. Everyone who loves you is dragged down by your negative thoughts if you let them flourish.

Writer Byron Katie has a technique I was reminded of at a conference recently and it's an especially helpful one. It's involves 4 questions you can stop and ask yourself when you are struggling with a negative thought that persists.

Ask yourself:

1. Is it true?

2. Can I absolutely know that it is true?

3. How do I feel when I have this thought?

4. Who would I be without this thought?

Next, turn the thought around if you can. Is the turnaround thought true or even truer than the original thought? This process of reflection and questioning automatic negative thoughts will help you get past them. You don't want to believe every senseless thought you have. Some thoughts need to be dismissed.

There are a variety of ANTs, including black and white thinking, blaming, making catastrophes out of bumps, personalizing things that aren't personal, emotional reasoning, and going to extremes (always, never). Each individual needs their own anteater. Keep adding to your skill set of ways to work with negative automatic thoughts when they pop up. Life is too short to let the ANTs take over and run your life!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Getting Unstuck and Out of the Comfort Zone

I especially enjoy doing life coaching with adults who are feeling stuck in their lives. Each of us has a comfort zone, and if we stay inside it we can get bored, complacent and unhappy. Challenging yourself to learn a new skill or try to get past your comfort zone in a small way can help keep you feeling alive, fresh and growing.

Are you feeling that your world is too small? Expand your world by volunteering, helping others, or joining a cause that you care about. Many of us get too isolated and feel too alone, and being around positive people who care about the same cause that you do will reduce those feelings. Watch less television or do less time with technology and see what you can create with that space and free time.

Taking a class or learning a new skill at any age is a great way to meet other open-minded people, challenge yourself, and build a sense of community in our often too fragmented world. Even after college, I like to see people learn new things or try new adventures. Taking on new things to learn gives you a growing edge. It makes you more interesting. In an classic life planning book, The Three Boxes of Life, and How to Get Out of Them, the focus includes not making the mistake of doing all your learning at the front end of your life. Brain experts tell us that life-long learning and keeping your mind active is critical to optimum aging.

Setting some goals for the summer or the remainder of this year may also help you get unstuck. What's on your bucket list? Is there a trip you want to plan, a bad habit you want to release, or a way in which you'd like to develop yourself so that at year's end you can look back with satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment? What do you really, really want that you could take some steps toward accomplishing?

Get more active. Set your intentions to get outside every day this summer spending time doing something active you enjoy. We think better, sleep better and feel better when we get exercise daily.

Watch what you say to yourself. Most of us have picked up an internal critic along the way who says mean things to us and contributes to staying stuck. Fire that critic. Write down negative internal chatter and counter it on paper. Consciously upgrading your self-talk makes a huge difference. Try to avoid telling yourself you can't, or that you are not good/strong/attractive/disciplined/brave enough.

Don't let fear run the show. If you really want to go back to college, find a different job, improve your relationship, move, get out of debt, travel, or date and find a partner, make a plan and go for it. Notice the fear any time you do something different, but don't let it stop you. Like Susan Jeffer's book by the same name, feel the fear but do it anyway. This is the only life we know for sure that we get, so don't leave unaddressed dreams on the table.

Take calculated risks. Trying new things or going for goals that you have may make you feel vulnerable, but it's also where the good feelings of growth and accomplishment live. If you don't get some rejection or disappointment, you may not be risking enough or aiming high enough with your goals.

Take baby steps toward a goal that you have. Many people fail to meet their goals or get unstuck because they won't break down their goal into tiny little bites. As I often share with coaching clients, we eat elephants one bite at a time.

Do extreme self-care. Think of how you might be neglecting your health, your spiritual growth, your sleep, or any other area of your self-care, and reverse the trend.

Don't live in a world that's too small. Come out of your comfort zone to keep growing and creating the life you want. Get an accountability partner who hears your dreams and encourages your steps towards them, while you do the same for them. There are lots of people who live life in a sort of automatic pilot, rather than challenge themselves to keep growing. Don't be one of them!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Helping Boys Become Men: A Checklist

You aren't born into manhood. It's a process of becoming one. A boy's character is developed over time, and learning life skills and how to handle situations helps. Masculinity, at its best, is about strength, gentleness, patience, loyalty and responsibility. This week as Father's Day approaches, I've been thinking about all the people----fathers, mothers, stepfathers, uncles, coaches, teachers, grandparents and others who contribute to helping boys grow into great men. Sometimes it's Dad, and sometimes Dad isn't available and other people can step in and help with raising boys to turn out well.

I recently ran across a cute book aimed at pre-teen and teenaged boys called The Manual to Manhood: How to Cook The Perfect Steak, Change a Tire, Impress a Girl & 97 Other Skills You Need to Survive, written by education consultant Jonathan Catherman (Revell Books, 2014). It got me thinking about what boys need to survive and thrive in modern life as they prepare to launch their own lives, and later partner and start a family of their own.

So, what do boys really need to know to become great men? It would be helpful to parents to have a quick check-list to work from. Here's a list to get you kick-started, including some of his and some of mine:

1. Master manners/social skills in social situations: how to greet people, meet people, introduce people to others, shake hands, make eye contact, have small talk, open doors, treat wait staff and retail cashiers, table manners, how to calculate a tip. Quiet confidence is appealing, a combination of humility and confidence.

2. Relationship skills with girls: how to show interest in a girl and get to know her, how to ask a girl out for a date, how to plan a date, how to meet her parents, how to have the big conversation about defining the relationship, how to treat a girl with respect, how to break up in a humane way (not by text, please).

3. Figure out how to fix things: change a tire, turn off the water, unclog a toilet, hang a painting, basic house stuff. It's great if you can go beyond this level of skill, but at least do the basics.

4. Learn to do your own laundry, change and wash your bedding, and learn how to iron.

5. Learn kitchen basics. Practice how to cook a few breakfasts, lunches and dinners, how to grill, how to grocery shop.

6. Understand finances: how to save money, earn money, manage credit,set a budget, balance a check-book, and stay debt free. You are setting an example with how you lead your financial life.

7.Job skills-how to apply for a job, work hard, strong work ethic, being punctual, write a resume, get a reference, ask for a raise or more responsibility, how to interview well, how to resign.

8. Maintain your car. Wash it, take it for oil changes, rotate tires and understand car maintenance. A car is a reflection of your self-esteem, so it may be modest but keep it clean, maintained, and take pride in it.

9.Maintain good hygiene and grooming. Cleanliness is next to Godliness.

10. Strive to be independent. It's not attractive to be helpless. As a young adult male, you want to aim for doing as much as possible for yourself. (Don't have your parents rescue or prevent you from individuating, instead of manning up.)

11.Respect elders. Treat your parents and grandparents, your girlfriend's parents and other adults with respect, kindness and sincerity. Don't forget the eye contact and firm handshake!

12.Learn how to have conversations: get outside yourself, interview other people rather monopolizing the conversation, don't hide behind shyness. Be interested in other people.

13. Make your word mean something. Keep your promises and honor your commitments. Be a man of your word, so that people can count on you. This includes relationship commitments, so be faithful and loyal.

14. Pick up after yourself. Clean up your own clothes, belongings, and dishes. Learn how to clean the bathroom, kitchen, and how to do windows, vacuum and dust. If your mom still does all this stuff for you, let her know you want her to teach you how to do it yourself.

15. Manage your own stress and moods. Get off the technology and find ways to unwind outside, and be active. It keeps you fit and happier.

16. Develop empathy for others.Try volunteering to develop your understanding about the needs other people have, expand your compassion, and help you see beyond yourself.

17. Be honest and direct. Live with integrity.

18.Learn how to tie a tie. Sometimes you need to wear one, and it's good to know how.

19. Develop your faith and spirituality.

20. Learn to be kind to younger siblings and other young children. You might want to be a dad someday, and it's going to be good to know how to relate and care for children.

I would recommend Jonathan Catherman's book, especially for boys 12 to 15 or so. The concept is a good one. We can all help identify the life skills and character traits boys need to grow into great men,and begin this week helping to teach them. If a boy has a father who can teach these skills it's ideal, but if not, we can each pitch in. Sometimes it does take a village.

If we leave behind us good young men with these skills and values, we make the world better. Perhaps becoming a man isn't about reaching a certain age, but a state of awareness about one's relationship to the world, women, other people, and yourself. Good men are both strong and gentle, and they make a significant difference in the lives of their family. Great men learn to respect, protect and nurture others.

I'm thankful to the good men and good fathers that I know, and this is a good week for us to express that appreciation. Let's help raise more great men, our world needs them.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Try to See It My Way: Building Empathy

I can spot couples who are going to make good progress in couples counseling often from the first meeting. They practice, or are willing to learn several very valuable things. Each recognizes that their point of view is not the only one, and they can put themselves in their partner's position and empathize with how they might be feeling. In addition, each partner can apologize, change their behavior and make repairs as they are needed.

In any relationship, one person is not 'right' all the time. (Even you, sorry!)

Both people need to be able to apologize and ask for forgiveness when it is needed. Healing can only occur when those hurts are talked through. I've seen incredible healing happen in my counseling office between partners and family members when this happens in a way that feels genuine and heartfelt.

One-way relationships build resentment, whether between romantic partners, in a friendship, or between an adult child and parent. The healthiest relationships are reciprocal with thoughtfulness, care and loving behaviors. Relationships get out of balance and are draining when one person is always the giver.

There are often two different perspectives on most situations couples and families disagree about. What matters the most to me is finding a mature, calm and respectful way to talk through differences. (No tantrums, bullying, threats, withholding, name-calling, pouting, etc.)

Understanding the other person's perspective takes stopping to listen attentively from the heart. It takes being brave enough not to shut down or get defensive. Active listening helps a great deal, where you put in your own words what you heard the other person say, without editorializing. For example, "When I was late, you felt hurt and disrespected, and next time you'd like me to be on time."

Traveling to other states and countries always reminds me that the little corner of the universe where I live is just that. There are lots of other places, traditions, cultures and lifestyles. In a similar way, the other people we are in close relationships with have their own feelings, perceptions and needs. They have their own temperament and experiences.The less egocentric we can become about being 'right', and understanding that their are several truths in many situations, the healthier our relationships can become. It also helps as feedback so that we can grow emotionally, by understanding how our behavior is perceived by others.

Try to see it my way? Yes, and let's try a bit harder to see it the other person's way as well. Sometimes there are two rights, and understanding and mutual respect is often more important in relationships than winning.