5. juli 2015

Dealing with Rejection

Sometimes after a rejection, we want the ground to swallow us up. At the very least, it’s tempting to make a swift exit from the scene.

But wait! There is value in resisting the urge to run. Now is your chance to find out the reason behind the rejection.

It’s a good idea to stick around and ask why you were turned down. This makes a rejection easier to deal with, and helps you formulate a more successful strategy next time.

This is similar to “retreat or rout” tactics in military warfare. A retreat is a withdrawal to regroup, and is usually temporary. A rout, on the other hand, is a disordered and confused running away, a breakdown of discipline and morale.

Therefore, an orderly retreat is far more desirable. Retreating means asking questions about a rejection to help you regroup and adapt your approach, according to the answers you receive.

In addition to asking questions and tweaking your approach, frequently changing the audience, environment and circumstances for your pitch to will increase your chances of getting a “yes.”

This effective approach involves posing your request to different people, rather than trying to repeatedly hammer home one idea to the same person.

12. mai 2015

Are our brains limited by our evolution?

Just like every other part of the human body, the way our brain works is largely determined by evolution.

Firstly, evolution has determined the limits of our cognitive functioning.

The range of thoughts we can think is actually limited to things that were useful for our ancestors. For example, if you try to visualize a five-dimensional cube, you’ll find it impossible. This is because the ability to see five-dimensional objects did not provide any evolutionary advantage.

The range of tasks we are adept at is also pretty limited. For instance, we are actually fairly bad at performing large mathematical computations because our ancestors never really needed them as hunter-gatherers. On the other hand, they did need the ability to navigate social problems like detecting and punishing cheaters, so humans today are fairly adept at this.

Secondly, evolution also guides our preferences in matters of taste and attraction.

Most people find things like apples, eggs and potatoes tasty. Why? Because they contain sugars, proteins and vitamins, all of which were useful for our ancestors’ survival.

We also have a strong aversion to even the idea of eating fecal matter. Why? Because it contains harmful microbes that would make us sick, so presumably any ancestors who were drawn to it died out long ago.

If we look at what kind of creatures we’re sexually attracted to, this also tends to make evolutionary sense: we’re not attracted to frogs, but rather other humans. This is because cross-breeding with other species is not possible, so being attracted to them would be pointless from an evolutionary standpoint.

2. mai 2015

Our Battling Brains

Do you think of yourself as having a single, unified personality? Most people do.

But in fact, if we examine our brains more closely, we see that this is an oversimplification: the brain comprises several subsystems that each have a different function, and that often compete for control over our behavior.

For example, we clearly have separate rational and emotional brain systems. As you might guess, the rational system is in charge of coolly and calmly analyzing situations, whereas the emotional system generates feelings like anger, fear, desire, and so forth.

Often the two are at odds, but both are necessary for a normal life. For example, if you lacked the emotional system, you would spend all your time overanalyzing the world around you, without being able to make even the simplest decision. Emotions may be swift and irrational, but they help you to quickly make the unimportant decisions needed in daily life.

The understanding that there are several subsystems in your brain competing for control of your behavior helps explain some peculiar phenomena.

For example, have you ever considered how bizarre it is for a person to curse at herself? This odd behavior can only be explained by the division in the brain: one faction of the brain is berating the other.

Or consider how odd it is for a smoker who wishes to quit to nevertheless keep smoking. Clearly it’s possible for one part of the brain to want to quit, while another strongly desires to continue.

19. mars 2015

Change your life by changing your beliefs.

Imagine two people that just turned 60. One of them might think his life is coming to an end, now that his best years are over. The other, however, might be truly excited for everything that’s still in store for her.

What could account for such a striking difference in outlook?

The way that we see the world and ourselves is shaped by our beliefs.

But what exactly is a belief?

A belief is an idea that’s supported by evidence. You might, for example, have the idea that you’re an excellent chess player. But that idea will become a belief only if it’s supported by certain evidence (e.g., you win the majority of the time).

For most of us, any events in our life can act as a reference and inform our beliefs. Unfortunately, this also means that whenever something awful happens – e.g., you lose a loved one – many people use it as support for their belief that life is terrible.

But we don’t have to think that way: if we manage to interpret the reference more positively, we can direct our lives in a more optimistic way. So, if you’re grieving, you could use that experience as a resource to make you stronger as a person. Perhaps you’ll even emerge from the grieving period with a strong desire to help others in mourning.

As this suggests, to bring about a change in your life, you must first change your beliefs.

The problem, however, is that many of us tend to already have strong beliefs that hold us back from changing anything.

Habitual beliefs, like all habits, can be broken. As with any other habit, to change an existing belief, you need to associate pain with the old one and pleasure with the new.

An easy way to accomplish that is to find a role model who has already been successful in changing her beliefs, and adapt her way of doing it to your own purposes.

1. mars 2015

7 ways to practice emotional first aid


Psychologist Guy Winch lays out seven useful ways to reboot your emotional health … starting right now.

From ideas.ted.com

You put a bandage on a cut or take antibiotics to treat an infection, right? No questions asked. In fact, questions would be asked if you didn’t apply first aid when necessary. So why isn’t the same true of our mental health? We are expected to just “get over” psychological wounds — when as anyone who’s ever ruminated over rejection or agonized over a failure knows only too well, emotional injuries can be just as crippling as physical ones. We need to learn how to practice emotional first aid. Here are 7 ways to do so:

  1. Pay attention to emotional pain — recognize it when it happens and work to treat it before it feels all-encompassing.
    The body evolved the sensation of physical pain to alert us that something is wrong and we need to address it. The same is true for emotional pain. If a rejection, failure or bad mood is not getting better, it means you’ve sustained a psychological wound and you need to treat it. For example, loneliness can be devastatingly damaging to your psychological and physical health, so when you or your friend or loved one is feeling socially or emotionally isolated, you need to take action.
  2. Redirect your gut reaction when you fail.
    The nature of psychological wounds makes it easy for one to lead to another. Failure can often drive you to focus on what you can’t do instead of focusing on what you can. That can then make you less likely to perform at your best, which will make you even more focused on your shortcomings, and on the cycle goes. To stop this sort of emotional spiral, learn to ignore the post-failure “gut” reaction of feeling helpless and demoralized, and make a list of factors that you can control were you to try again. For instance, think about preparation and planning, and how you might improve each of them. This kind of exercise will reduce feelings of helplessness and improve your chances of future success.
  3. Monitor and protect your self-esteem. When you feel like putting yourself down, take a moment to be compassionate to yourself.
    Self-esteem is like an emotional immune system that buffers you from emotional pain and strengthens your emotional resilience. As such, it is very important to monitor it and avoid putting yourself down, particularly when you are already hurting. One way to “heal” damaged self-esteem is to practice self-compassion. When you’re feeling critical of yourself, do the following exercise: imagine a dear friend is feeling bad about him or herself for similar reasons and write an email expressing compassion and support. Then read the email. Those are the messages you should be giving yourself.
  4. When negative thoughts are taking over, disrupt them with positive distraction.
    When you replay distressing events in your mind without seeking new insight or trying to solve a problem, you’re just brooding, and that, especially when it becomes habitual, can lead to deeper psychological pain. The best way to disrupt unhealthy rumination is to distract yourself by engaging in a task that requires concentration (for example, do a Sudoku, complete a crossword, try to recall the names of the kids in your fifth grade class). Studies show that even two minutes of distraction will reduce the urge to focus on the negative unhealthily.
  5. Find meaning in loss.
    Loss is a part of life, but it can scar us and keep us from moving forward if we don’t treat the emotional wounds it creates. If sufficient time has passed and you’re still struggling to move forward after a loss, you need to introduce a new way of thinking about it. Specifically, the most important thing you can do to ease your pain and recover is to find meaning in the loss and derive purpose from it. It might be hard, but think of what you might have gained from the loss (for instance, “I lost my spouse but I’ve become much closer to my kids”). Consider how you might gain or help others gain a new appreciation for life, or imagine the changes you could make that will help you live a life more aligned with your values and purpose.
  6. Don’t let excessive guilt linger.
    Guilt can be useful. In small doses, it alerts you to take action to mend a problem in your relationship with another person. But excessive guilt is toxic, in that it wastes your emotional and intellectual energies, distracts you from other tasks, and prevents you from enjoying life. One of the best ways to resolve lingering guilt is to offer an effective apology. Yes, you might have tried apologizing previously, but apologies are more complex than we tend to realize. The crucial ingredient that every effective apology requires — and most standard apologies lack — is an “empathy statement.” In other words, your apology should focus less on explaining why you did what you did and more on how your actions (or inactions) impacted the other person. It is much easier to forgive someone when you feel they truly understand. By apologizing (even if for a second time), the other person is much more likely to convey authentic forgiveness and help your guilt dissolve.
  7. Learn what treatments for emotional wounds work for you.
    Pay attention to yourself and learn how you, personally, deal with common emotional wounds. For instance, do you shrug them off, get really upset but recover quickly, get upset and recover slowly, squelch your feelings, or …? Use this analysis to help yourself understand which emotional first aid treatments work best for you in various situations (just as you would identify which of the many pain relievers on the shelves works best for you). The same goes for building emotional resilience. Try out various techniques and figure out which are easiest for you to implement and which tend to be most effective for you. But mostly, get into the habit of taking note of your psychological health on a regular basis — and especially after a stressful, difficult, or emotionally painful situation.

Yes, practicing emotional hygiene takes a little time and effort, but it will seriously elevate your entire quality of life. I promise.

See Guy Winch’s TED Talk, Why we all need to practice emotional first aid




1. februar 2015

The Amazing Findings of Exercise on the Brain and Mind


In my last post, I described in some detail the importance of sleep on the brain and the mind.  I also discussed suggested some do’s and don’t’s for getting a decent nights sleep.  One of the factors that I did not explore was the benefits of exercise on sleep, the brain and the mind.  I wanted to address that in this post as well as the other benefits that exercise has on the brain and the mind.

CALORIES AND EXERCISE

The basic unit of measurement of everything we eat and drink are measured in calories. Calories even more specifically refer to the amount of energy we consume  through physical activity.  For example, a banana may have 90 calories and going for a brisk one-kilometre walk may burn 70 calories.

A calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise one gram of water by one degree celsius.  Calories are required by the body in four major ways:

  • to keep the body’s cells, tissues and organs at resting state (alive)
  • to heat the body
  • to digest food
  • and to fuel mental and physical activity

The calories burned for the first three activities are pretty much a fixed amount.  It is the energy needed for mental and physical activity as well as the number of calories consumed that determines a person’s weight.

TYPES OF EXERCISE

The two categories of exercise that are fueled by calories are anaerobic and aerobic exercise.

Anaerobic exercise includes exercises such as weight lifting, pull-ups and pushups.  These and other similar types of exercise are used to promote strength, power and speed. These forms of exercise are called anaerobic because they involve going beyond the muscle’s capacity to burn oxygen for energy.  When you do this you feel the familiar burn of lactic acid in your muscles.

Aerobic exercise are exercises, like running, cycling, swimming and brisk walking, that are sustained over a long distance at a moderately high level of intensity.  The emphasis of aerobic exercise is on exertion.  This means getting your heart rate up high enough that you feel out of breath, sweat, and feel physically exhausted.

Aerobic literally means ‘with oxygen’.  It refers to the use of oxygen being consumed in the energy-generating process in muscles.  This process involves using oxygen to burn sugar (i.e. carbohydrates) and fat.  The first to burn is the sugar glucose that floats free in your blood stream.  The next to burn is glycogen that is sugar stored in your muscles and liver.  Finally, oxygen is used to burn stored fats and free fatty acids and triglycerides floating around in your bloodstream.  All this ‘burning’ of sugars and fat becomes adenosine triphosphate (ATP) , the primary energy currency for every cell in our bodies.

In the first stage of aerobic exercise, glycogen is broken down into glucose to convert into ATP.  After about 30 minutes when the the body has burned through it’s glycogen storage and any remaining glucose in the bloodstream, the body begins to burn fat for its energy source.  When the fuel source changes from glucose to fat, runners call this switch ‘hitting the wall’ and there is a noticeable drop in performance. 

YOGA AS EXERCISE

There are definite benefits of yoga on the brain and the mind.  Firstly, in the sense of triggering the rest/digest branch (the parasympathetic nervous system) of your autonomic nervous system making you feel calm and relaxed.  Secondly, the mental benefits of meditation on keeping you focused and present.  However, yoga doesn’t provide the biochemical benefits that aerobic exercise gives us as I outline below.


EXERCISE, ANXIETY & STRESS

You can ask almost any medical doctor and they will tell you that exercise is one of the best ways known to hammer anxiety, crush stress, rebalance moods and increase positive feelings.  Exercise creates chemical responses in our brains that lead to temporary and, most beneficially, long-term mental health.

When we feel negatively stressed or anxiety-ridden we can feel and experience a number of things:

  • cold or sweaty hands and feet
  • heart palpitations
  • shortness of breath
  • high-blood pressure
  • feelings of fear, dread, panic, uncertainty or uneasiness
  • sweating
  • reduces or even negates appetite

All of these symptoms of stress are due to certain chemicals swimming through our brains and bodies.  Adrenaline is the stress hormone that raises your heart rate and boosts your blood pressure. Cortisol is the stress hormone linked to feelings of fear, dread and uneasiness.  these chemicals have a direct affect on your mood and motivation, supresses your digestive system and alters your immune system.  As a side note, high levels of cortisol are associated with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.  Increased levels also have deleterious effects on the hippocampus significantly impairing the ability to learn and form new memories.

Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, is a brilliant way to burn off any excess adrenaline and/or cortisol swimming in your bloodstream. On top of this, there is a growing amount of evidence that it has strong anti-anxiety effects by changing the brain in a multitude of ways.  This is the reason why so many doctors prescribe exercise as a treatment for anxiety.

Let’s take a moment and look at the benefits of a 30 minute brisk walk, a 20 minute jog or any other exercise that gets your heart pumping and your sweat glands working.  The brain begins to generate neurotransmitters (brain-chemicals) such as GABA, acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which keep us energized, calm and positive.

GABA is the major inhibiting neurotransmitter in the brain and which has strong calming effects on the mind.  Exercise has the same effects like Valium and Ativan (benzodiazepines) that work on the GABA system to create a sense of calm.  But like these drugs, exercise has no side effects or negative addictive qualities.

Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter key to memory and attention. Alzheimer’s disease is marked by a significant decrease in acetylcholine level.

Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that give us a sense of well-being and hopefulness.  It’s levels increase when the body breaks down fatty acids to fuel the muscles.  Low levels of serotonin are linked to some forms of depression.  

Dopamine is the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter It is responsible for a sense of pleasure, success, achievement and even euphoria.

Norepinephrine is the neurotransmitter that allows us to focus and shift our attention.  It also works with dopamine to help us ‘feel good’.

BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is a protein substance is produced as a result of aerobic exercise. It is responsible for many functions, such as consolidating the connections between neurons; promoting myelin growth to make neurons fire more efficiently,; and generating new neurons in the hippocampus from stem cells.

Endocannabinoids is the chemical compound that plays a key role in processing appetite, mood, memory and pain sensation.  It is also key to reducing the hormones that trigger the HPA axis, (which plays a significant role in the fight/flight response of the reactive mindset). 

Endorphins are natural neuropeptides that bind to opioid receptors in the brain and have potent pain-killing effects.  Often referred to as the ‘runner’s high’.

Many of my clients have stressful jobs and a majority of them find it difficult to unwind when they get home.  If you are not one for the gym or like running, then take a brisk walk.  Walking requires very little in the way of sports equipment and can be done almost anywhere.  Even a 10 minute brisk walk will give you 90 minutes of energy and burn any excess cortisol. 

A GOOD TIME TO THINK & LEARN

The timing of learning is important when exercising.  If you are going to do any thinking or learning while your run, cycle or swim it is best to do it at the start of your training.  After about 30 minutes into your aerobic exercise, blood is directed away from your prefrontal cortex (the home of your higher thinking) to help your body deal with the demands of your physical exertion.  After you finish exercising, the blood shifts back to your prefrontal cortex.  This is also a perfect window for clearer thinking and easier learning, because of the increased capacity for focus.


OTHER BENEFITS OF EXERCISE

  • exercise lowers bad (LDL) cholesterol and raises good (HDL) cholesterol, which prevents arteries from getting stiff and narrow 
  • lowers blood pressure
  • promotes repair mechanisms to deal with physical stress that not only promote recovery but strengthen the entire body, including the brain
  • makes the heart beat more efficiently 
  • boosts the body’s sensitivity to glucose, which lowers the risk of diabetes 
  • increases levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin that provide you with the neurochemistry to not only boost your energy but keep you calm and focused
  • brisk walking for just 3 hours a week is enough to generate new brain cells in your frontal lobes, your hippocampus, and the corpus callosum
  • lowers a compound in blood that makes blood clots called fibrinogen and thus lowers the risk of stroke

MOVING TO ACTION


Now that we are aware that exercise helps with stress, anxiety, depression and improving sleep, it is time to apply the science.  So get out there, lace-up, hit the gym, jump on your racer or whatever your thing is and generate a good sweat!  It’ll do wonders for you.

15. januar 2015

Sleep, The Brain and The Mind - Part 2 of 2


Welcome to the second part of out post on Sleep, The Brain and The Mind.


ACTIONS TO PROMOTE BETTER SLEEP
 
Over the years working with a host of clients I have found the following to be very effective to improve the quality of sleep, which in turn improves the functioning of the brain and mind.

Reduce the amount of caffeine
Whenever you’re awake, a chemical called adenosine slowly accumulates in your brain.  And this adenosine binds to receptors which slow down brain activity.  This simply means the more adenosine there is, the more tired your brain feels.  So the longer you’re awake, the more tired you become. Conversely, while you sleep, the concentration of adenosine declines, gradually promoting wakefulness. 

The reason why a great majority of us turn to coffee as a pick-me-up is caffeine is incredibly similar to adenosine in structure. The caffeine works it’s way through your bloodstream and into the brain, where it starts to compete and binds with adenosine receptors. Since caffeine is not adenosine you don’t feel sleepy.

After you have knocked back a coffee or two caffeine molecules are parked in many of the adenosine receptors.  This means adenosine can no longer bind and it’s calming properties are diminished. This great for you when you’re feeling tired and still need to work.  This is not so great if you need to get to bed.  Adenosine levels in the brain are quite vulnerable to caffeine several hours after consumption.

Over the long term, using caffeine as a stimulant your brain will responds by creating more adenosine receptors.  This means even more caffeine is  needed to give you that jolt. It also means that when you try to quit drinking coffee or miss your daily intake, you might experience some withdrawal symptoms and feel more tired than you would have before you ever drank coffee. 

Caffeine is also very good at stimulating the production of adrenaline, which is the fight/flight hormone. This increases your heart rate, gets your blood pumping, and even opens up your airways.

My suggestion to you is to cut your caffeine by the late afternoon and your chances of getting a good night sleep increases dramatically.

Light and the Brain
The brain is quite sensitive to the light.  The presence of light or it’s absence affects sleep.  How does this work?

In the centre of the brain is a tiny structure called the pineal gland.  It secretes a sleeping hormone called melatonin to help you go to and stay asleep.  The production of melatonin is dependent on the signals the pineal gland receives from the retina.  If the signal indicates it is dark then melatonin is produced helping you to fall asleep.  Conversely, the pineal gland will halt the production of melatonin if it receives a signal that there is light.   Therefore, bright light in the late evening will trick your brain into keeping you awake because it prepares you for daytime

Many of us have gotten into the habit of crawling into bed and checking our smart phones, tablets or laptops.  Some of us might even have a television in the bedroom.  These glowing devices are a direct message from the retina to your pineal gland to shut off production of melatonin.  You are pretty much creating artificial day light. 

My advice to you is to avoid staring into any of these devices just before you go to bed.  Start winding down your evening with soft light and use the chemistry of your brain to your advantage.

Food and the Brain
What you eat in the evening has a major effect on the quality of your sleep. The best foods to consume in the evening are those that are rich in tryptophan.  The reason is tryptophan is an amino acid that converts to serotonin (the chemical responsible for maintaining a proper sleep cycle) and the all-important melatonin (the sleeping hormone you learned about in the previous section).

Foods like turkey or other poultry are rich sources of tryptophan.  Fish, such as tuna, halibut, cod, sardines, scallops and salmon are also a treasure trove.  Nuts and seeds, like cashews, almonds, walnuts and sunflower seeds are also a brilliant source.  Lastly, there are legumes, such as kidney beans, lentils, black beans and split peas.

I highly recommend staying away from simple carbohydrates like white rice, white bread, white pasta and sugars.  Eating these types of foods increases the blood glucose and contribute to shallow sleeping and can often result in awakening during a sleep cycle.  Instead, eat foods that are rich in tryptophan.

Alcohol and the Brain
I am quite confident that most of you are quite aware of the effects of alcohol on our brains.  Let’s simply take a little deeper look at how it affects our sleep. 

Your body has two sorts of neurotransmitters (brain-chemicals); one that excites you (keeps you awake) called Glutamate and one that relaxes you called GABA. Glutamate is most active during your waking hours. Conversely, GABA is most active during your hours of sleep.  So when you fall asleep your brain Glutamate levels should drop and your brain GABA levels should rise. This facilitates a deep and restful sleep.

When we drink alcohol it has a very calming effect on us.  We tend to feel more relaxed and at ease.  We feel some of our inhibitions fall away.  There is the notion that a glass of wine in the evening has the affect of relaxing us and helping us to fall asleep.  This is true to some extent.

Alcohol has an initial sleep inducing effect, but that is where it ends.  When the alcohol is broken down by the body it can lighten sleep and cause frequent and early awakening.  Simply put, alcohol is the arch enemy of a good nights sleep.

Alcohol acts like GABA and parks itself in the GABA receptors.  This in turn dampens down glutamate activity making you feel mellow and relaxed.  That is the reason why that glass of wine in the evening can make you feel drowsy after a long day at the office.

The problem is that alcohol creates a counterfeit GABA effect.  Initially, you feel tired and may fall asleep, but 3 to 4 hours later when the effects of alcohol begin to taper off the excitatory effects of glutamate kick in.  This means your body and brain start to feel agitated and you awaken.

Since the GABA receptors were all occupied by the alcohol, the brain thinks it has produced enough GABA and thus turns off production.  So there is now not enough GABA, which is the principle inhibiting neurotransmitter of the brain, to counter the excitatory effects of the glutamate swimming around in your head.

The major problem with alcohol consumption in the evening is mid-sleep cycle awakening.  There is no problem getting to sleep, but you can’t stay asleep.  Simply put, alcohol really messes up with your sleep maintenance.

If you find yourself waking up in the wee hours of the morning with your mind racing and you are unable to get back to sleep, ask yourself if you really need that glass of wine in the evening.

Conclusion

I truly believe more knowledge means more informed choices.  Knowledge itself is interesting but it is not power.  Applied knowledge is the actual power. 

Now that you know some of the brain science behind sleep, you can make more informed choices to get a better nights sleep.

As I wrote in the opening paragraph…A healthy mind sustains a healthy brain.  A healthy brain sustains a healthy mind.  There is a symbiotic relationship between the two. It is this very relationship that determines the quality of our lives in the present and into the future. 

In my next post, I will be discussing in greater detail the effects of exercise on our brain.


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