Beyond Survival Mode

Sometimes, it feels like making it through the day is just about the best we can do. We may be met with hardships, illnesses, losses, wounds, or even just the bustle of everyday obligations that take up so much space, that we can't seem to contact that sense of happiness and contentment that we all ravenously seek. This survival lens can also be tinted by unrealistic expectations for how we think our lives should look. Everywhere on the internet, we find stellar examples of what a "good life" should look like. This can be a great source of inspiration, of course. However, when we find ourselves in times of challenge, these one-dimensional representations become the feeding grounds for suffering and discontentment. On the surface, it appears as though everyone else has it together, which may trigger feelings of desolation and shame. 

As far away as relief may seem in these moments, it is possible for most of us to shift gears from survival to thriving mode. Barring major life crisis and acute mental illness, the average person does have the ability to transform their stress experience. As a yogi and health psychologist, I am confident in declaring that this shift begins with the breath. Recent studies find that basic human emotions (i.e., anger, fear, sadness, and happiness) are characterized by unique cardiorespiratory patterns [1]. Happiness is commonly expressed as a stable increase in heart rate, paired with even breaths, while sadness is expressed as uneven breathing, and anger is expressed as a dramatic heart-rate increase. Most of the time, these cardiorespiratory changes happen without our conscious awareness or control. However, when we tune into the body in times of “survival,” we can override these communications taking place between the head, heart, and breath to say: “it’s all good.” In these moments, pausing to take slower, deeper, and more even breaths can bring us back to a state of emotional stability. When we consciously change our breathing patterns, we turn down the signals for arousal and our body sends feedback to the brain that promotes balance.

Think of your body as your friend. Often times, the negative effects of stress in the body are exacerbated by the thoughts that accompany it. Imagine you feel your heart rate increase at the thought of an upcoming job evaluation and immediately think “My heart is pounding like crazy. I can't do this, I’m so stressed out!” But, what would happen if you thought instead “My heart is fired up. I’m so pumped for this challenge, I’m ready to go!” When we are met with obstacles, we typically interpret them either as a threat or a challenge [2]. Most of the time, we unconsciously interpret the cardiorespiratory changes that naturally occur in times of stress as a sign that we are in trouble. However, research finds that when people label their body’s response to stress as something that is functional in preparing them to better deal with the challenge ahead, they buffer themselves from the physiologically damaging effects of stress in the body [3].

Finally, survival mode is often accompanied by a sense of hurriedness or rushing. But, in these frantic moments, it can be so powerful to just take 5 minutes to stop and do nothing, just soak in as much sensory information as you can. This is a basic mindfulness technique and it can be a real game changer! Set your timer for 5 minutes. Close your eyes and try to notice all of the immediate sounds, smells, and sensations that come into your awareness. Don't be worried if you find yourself thinking again, just acknowledge the thought and bring your attention back to your senses. I love practicing this with my clients for the first time, because I often find this remarkable reaction after just 5 minutes of doing nothing: sheer awe! “Oh my gosh! Did you hear the birds? They sounded so beautiful and surreal!” It’s amazing to see how much of your attention is typically consumed by your thoughts, especially in times of stress. By tuning in to your physical experience, you savor the richness of your environment; you unlock the sources of natural healing that are available to you in your own body and your relationship to the living world [4].  

I'm glad to know we have all survived thus far. It's a big deal! But, I want to see what it looks like when we step beyond surviving, into thriving. 


 

1.     Rainville, P., Bechara, A., Naqvi, N., & Damasio, A. R. (2006). Basic emotions are associated with distinct patterns of cardiorespiratory activity. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 61, 5-18.

2.     Tomaka, J., Blascovich, J., Kelsey, R. M., & Leitten, C. L. (1993). Subjective, physiological, and behavioral effects of threat and challenge appraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 248-260.

3.     Jamieson, J. P., Nock, M. K., & Mendes, W. B. (2012). Mind over matter: reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141, 417-422.

4.     Howell, A. J., Dopko, R. L., Passmore, H. A., & Buro, K. (2011). Nature connectedness: Associations with well-being and mindfulness. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 166-171.

 

 

Times of Crisis, We Need a Revolution

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
— Audre Lorde

“Compassion fatigue” is a common experience among nurses, therapists, and health professionals [1].  Common symptoms of this kind of burnout include diminished empathy and less interest and investment in helping others. In addition, some people may also experience secondhand or “collective trauma,” internalizing the symptoms of trauma simply by way of being exposed to traumatic images and stories [2]. 

Although this phenomenon is commonly studied in professional caretakers, I would venture to say that perhaps a large population in the United States, even across the globe, could be experiencing a dose of compassion fatigue. Perhaps now more than ever, with the constant rush of information available to us at any waking moment, we often carry more of an emotional burden than we are equipped to bear. To get a sense of the staggering quantity of data created and shared on the internet every second, check out these live statistics here: http://www.internetlivestats.com/one-second/

What is the cost of compassion fatigue?

We might be feeling more loneliness.

Even though we are now hyper-connected through social media and ephemeral social interaction, it may not satisfy our needs for social support [3].  This suggests that social networking may make us more vulnerable to feelings of loneliness. Loneliness has been linked with depression, deteriorating functional health (e.g., mobility, physical activity), and even shorter life [4]. As such, many doctors and researchers have deemed loneliness a public health concern [5].

We might be alienating others, without even knowing it.

When we abandon compassion, we risk becoming disaffected, maybe cynical. Without this motivation to relate to others, we might be unintentionally reinforcing the arbitrary categories that separate “us” and “them.”[6]. 

Self-care is the best antidote.

Interestingly, this kind of burnout is most likely to occur when people neglect to implement regular self-care behaviors. Self-care should be multidimensional: addressing physical, psychological, spiritual, and social needs [7]. The problem is that many of us neglect to ask ourselves what we need, until after burnout or fatigue hits us.

The good news is that self-care behaviors can restore emotional balance and greater compassion. Research finds that counselors who learned a mind-body approach to self-care (i.e., yoga, meditation, qigong) demonstrated a boost in their emotional and physical health, and an improvement in their ability to care for others [8]. Similarly, even those who are not professional caretakers report experiencing less stress and less rumination (repetitive and intrusive negative thoughts) after practicing mindfulness meditation [9].

Too often we confuse self-care with selfishness. It can be difficult to give ourselves permission to take time away from the many obligations vying for our attention when it feels like there is always so much to attend to and take care of. Taking a more holistic approach, we find that the ability to make productive and prosocial contributions is directly related to emotional and physical well-being. Regardless of who you are and what you do for a living, self-care is a necessary act of self-preservation. Imagine what kind of world we could create if each person took responsibility to nourish themselves and recharge their batteries as needed?

 A self-care revolution may just be the key to greater understanding, cooperation, and productivity for all!


1.     Figley, C. R. (2002). Compassion fatigue: Psychotherapists' chronic lack of self care. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 1433-1441.

2.     Holman, E. A., Garfin, D. R., & Silver, R. C. (2014). Media’s role in broadcasting acute stress following the Boston Marathon bombings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 93-98.

3.     Bayer, J. B., Ellison, N. B., Schoenebeck, S. Y., & Falk, E. B. (2016). Sharing the small moments: Ephemeral social interaction on Snapchat. Information, Communication & Society, 19, 956-977.

4.     Luo, Y., Hawkley, L. C., Waite, L. J., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2012). Loneliness, health, and mortality in old age: A national longitudinal study. Social Science & Medicine, 74, 907-914.

5.     Gerst-Emerson, K., & Jayawardhana, J. (2015). Loneliness as a public health issue: The impact of loneliness on health care utilization among older adults. American Journal of Public Health, 105, 1013-1019.

6.     Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: Attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes. Psychological Review, 102, 4.

7.     Richards, K., Campenni, C., & Muse-Burke, J. (2010). Self-care and well-being in mental health professionals: The mediating effects of self-awareness and mindfulness. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 32, 247-264.

8.     Schure, M. B., Christopher, J., & Christopher, S. (2008). Mind-body medicine and the art of self-care: Teaching mindfulness to counseling students through yoga, meditation, and qigong. Journal of Counseling and Development: JCD, 86(1), 47.

9.     Shapiro, S. L., Oman, D., Thoresen, C. E., Plante, T. G., & Flinders, T. (2008). Cultivating mindfulness: Effects on well-being. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 64, 840-862.

 

 

 

 

Turning to New Seasons

Winter is just about here, and so come natural changes in the daily rhythms of light, temperature, and overall environment. Seasonal changes entail more than just weather, including changes to the social environment as marked by traditions and behavioral norms. Whether or not we are consciously aware of these changes, our moods, emotions, and activity levels can still be influenced. 

I am currently obsessed with the new season of Planet Earth 2, in part because this show so eloquently demonstrates the nature of experience for so many beautifully diverse species. Yet, despite so many unique forms of existence, we still find universal realities shared by all living creatures in the natural world. Across species, we find that winter marks a time when many animals are naturally inclined to retreat in the safety and comfort of their dwellings, often gathering together in their family groups for protection and warmth. Winter also symbolizes a time of cessation (in more yogic terms, non-doing), whether it is the wilting of plants and flowers or the surrendering sleep of hibernation. We may find literal and metaphoric similarities to our own responses to these changing seasons. By examining the gifts of this season, and our own symbiotic relationship with the natural world all around us, we become better equipped to understand and utilize our own responses to the changes that this winter may bring. 

Let the light in - The increased hours of darkness in the winter have direct consequences to our physiological and psychological states. Most notably, human hormone production and transportation are impacted by increased darkness. This increased darkness results in higher levels of "the sleep hormone" melatonin, which suggests that it is not a coincidence that we may experience more fatigue and lower levels of energy during the winter months, and sometimes even insomnia [1]. In addition, the relative lack of sunshine can also affect our mood regulation, resulting in lower levels of serotonin [2]. For the majority of people, these hormonal changes are too subtle to really notice. However, 10-25% of the population may experience seasonal affective disorder, or depressed mood corresponding to the decrease hours of sunlight. Relatedly, colder temperatures predict more narrowly focused thinking (e.g., less flexibility in behavior, less curiosity or interest in exploring new ideas) and negative mood [3].     

Self care tip: The human body was designed to function in alignment with the natural world. When the sun rises, the body is prepared for activity. As the sun sets, the body is inclined to begin to wind down. In this modern era of so much exposure to artificial light, it becomes increasingly important for us to take advantage of natural sunlight whenever possible, especially during winter months when sunlight can be harder to come by. Try to spend the first few hours of the day in a brightly lit space, which will signal to your body to halt melatonin production and assist you in transitioning out of sleep. Limit your use of artificial light (e.g., t.v., computers, phones, etc), especially during the hours before sleep. For those with noticeable seasonal side effects may want to try spending some time in an infrared sauna, as these saunas provide warmth and also emit infrared rays that simulate the positive effects of sunlight on the body. Pay attention to any changes in activity and mood, as they correspond with changes in light. If you notice an unexplainable increase in depressed mood during the winter months, you could be experiencing seasonal affective disorder.  

Gather your resources wisely- Winter can be a time of scarcity for many. Depending on where you live, this can mean scarcity of fresh food or other natural resources that are significantly less abundant in the winter months. This can also mean a more abstract form of scarcity, whether it is lower levels of energy or less restorative free time to fill your social and emotional well. As such, we may feel naturally inclined to gather up and reserve our resources. Researchers find an overall trend of weight gain that occurs during the fall and winter months [4]. Increased weight gain may not always be the healthiest way to gather your resources, but there may be some emotional and mental approaches that can help you reclaim and restore your energy during the winter months. 

Self care tip: Take notice of any habitual comfort eating. Winter presents so many unique triggers for stress: cold temperature, lack of light, holiday chaos, social obligations, family reunions, etc. It can be easy to turn to food and eating as a quick fix when we feel depleted.

For all of these reasons, winter can be a great time to start a mindfulness practice. Set aside just 10 minutes a day to sit in stillness. Insight Timer is my favorite meditation app on the market. They have beautiful bells to use in timed meditations, as well as a long list of guided meditations to address any specific challenges you may be facing. Meditation can sound intimidating or uninteresting at first. But, mindfulness meditation can offer tremendous benefits for your wellbeing, including: increased self-awareness, more positive emotional states, and greater self-control [5].  

Another great resource is time with friends. Often, our habit in times of stress is to retreat to our quiet places: maybe curl up with a favorite T.V. show or book instead of attending that social gathering that you were invited to. However, we must practice careful discernment when it comes to making these decisions. Although social gatherings do require effort, they can also be restorative. Even introverted people have a need for social connection and meaningful relationships. So, don't underestimate the power of communing with friends when your spirits are low. Conscious engagement in social interaction can allow us to release the personal burdens we carry by sharing and talking with a beloved friend, find humor and new perspectives during challenging times, and create more meaningful experiences, which can be especially important during the holiday seasons. 

A time for celebration - Regardless of your religious and cultural traditions, throughout the history of human culture, the winter months often represent a time for celebration. As a radical young adult, I was skeptical of the consumer-driven madness of the holidays in the West. But, as I took a step back from this hypercritical, politicized view of the season, I was able to notice the beautiful sentiments and intentions for peace, love, and togetherness that the winter holidays embody. I began to reclaim this season for my own.  I opted to gather friends and family in my home to prepare foods that I find nourishing. I took part in special rituals that inspire and bring me joy, like sending cards, lighting candles, and listening to joyful music. I have always loved to give gifts, but instead of rushing into the overstimulating environments of shopping malls out of obligation, I choose to shop at small, conscious stores and support my friends' businesses whenever I can. Among my favorite holiday tradition: welcoming the winter solstice with the yogic tradition of practicing 108 Sun Salutations. I gave myself permission to celebrate and create my own joyful traditions and this has drastically altered my experience of the winter holiday season. 

Self care tip: Decide how you would like to celebrate this season. Create traditions and gatherings based on the activities that bring you joy. Think outside of the box when it comes to your approach to these celebrations. What does this time of year mean for you? How can you honor and embody the virtues that you find most meaningful? 

Thank you for reading! Wishing you all a lovely Winter! 

 


  1. Lambert, G. W., Reid, C., Kaye, D. M., Jennings, G. L., & Esler, M. D. (2002). Effect of sunlight and season on serotonin turnover in the brain. The Lancet, 360, 1840-1842.
  2. Rosenthal, N. E., Sack, D. A., Gillin, J. C., Lewy, A. J., Goodwin, F. K., Davenport, Y., Mueller, P.S., Newsome, D.A. & Wehr, T. A. (1984). Seasonal affective disorder: a description of the syndrome and preliminary findings with light therapy. Archives of General Psychiatry, 41, 72-80.
  3. Keller, M. C., Fredrickson, B. L., Ybarra, O., Côté, S., Johnson, K., Mikels, J., Conway, A., & Wager, T. (2005). A warm heart and a clear head the contingent effects of weather on mood and cognition. Psychological Science, 16, 724-731.
  4. Yanovski, J. A., Yanovski, S. Z., Sovik, K. N., Nguyen, T. T., O'Neil, P. M., & Sebring, N. G. (2000). A prospective study of holiday weight gain. New England Journal of Medicine, 342, 861-867.
  5. Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822.

Healthy Holidays with Auteur: A Program Designed for You

 

I have a confession. Even though I’m in the business of wellness, I do fall off the health wagon from time to time. I still have days when I forget to drink enough water. I can get totally carried away at the snack table at parties, (depending on the party). Some days, even the thought of cutting up lots of veggies and throwing them into a bowl sounds way too hard or not at all enticing, so I regress back to my childhood favorite of eating nothing but bread and cheese.  

As the holidays are approaching, this temptation gets louder. We are constantly reminded of the 1,739 new ways to inject sugar and pumpkin spice into our foods or wrap bacon around something to make it even more decadent. At holiday gatherings, grocery stores, and coffee shops, we are bombarded with offerings of candy, cakes, and “cute” holiday cocktails to indulge and overindulge in. In the bustle of the holidays, our health choices are often tested and challenged, particularly when the muscle of self-control is overworked and worn out, when we are in a state of "ego depletion" [1]. Walking into a grocery store after a long and stressful day at work, after dealing with traffic and long lines, thinking about all the prep work I need to do before family comes to visit or before my upcoming trips, it’s no coincidence that I end up buying that “King Size” holiday edition chocolate seductively calling to me in the checkout line and promptly devouring it in the parking lot.

Fortunately, my “off the wagon” moments are much less frequent than they used to be. I have learned how to be more mindful of the foods I consume and their effect on my physical and emotional state. I have also learned to prioritize activities that make me feel more vital, and identify situations that I find depleting, triggering, or otherwise not aligned with my health goals. I didn’t do this alone. I made the choice to take action, I still have to make that choice every day, but I have had tremendous support and mentorship. These supportive bonds that nourish me and keep me accountable are the exemplars of what I now bring to my clients.

This was the inspiration for Healthy Holidays with Auteur, a program created to target those temptations and challenges we face in the months of November and December. This program allows you to set goals, create a plan of action, and stay accountable. You will have the support and tools needed to honor your goals and face the New Year with confidence and strength.

Many other diet and lifestyle programs are not focused on health as a holistic product of mind and body. Instead, they focus on a one-dimensional goal to lose weight or get your “dream” body, which only sets the stage for disappointment or dangerous, unsustainable habits.

We can do better. Healthy Holidays with Auteur uses a scientifically grounded and compassion-centered approach to help you outsmart the temptations that seem to take over during this hectic time of year. This program will empower and encourage you, rather than make you feel guilty for making “bad” choices. This program will make you feel good about your decisions, feel comfortable in your body, and connect with a supportive network that empowers you to live a healthier life, even when temptation abounds.


Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.

 

It Takes a Village

In my last post, I wrote about the importance of taking responsibility for your own health journey. This is a crucial step in the transformative process of becoming more physically, emotionally, and psychologically healthy. Until this shift in how we define and approach our health journey, all other attempts at behavior change will likely be inconsistent and vulnerable to disruption based on any number of variables (e.g., where you live, how expensive a class or service is, how much affirmation you receive from others, your mood at any given moment, your current health status). As Joseph Campbell will tell us, there is a moment in every epic story when the hero must face their greatest obstacle. Your own story is no different; nobody else will ever have as much authority over your wellbeing as you do.

However, as a social psychologist, I know that there is no greater tool for influence than the power of other people. All humans are swayed by the opinions, behaviors, and norms of others. This general susceptibility to persuasion can be dangerous when it is paired with a lack of self-awareness or independent thinking, as evident in many contexts of group decision-making [1] and blind obedience to authority [2]. However, when used with intention, social influence and support can become one of our greatest gifts for motivation on the health journey.

All humans crave social interaction, belongingness, and support [5]. These social networks are crucial to preserving psychological and physiological health, as positive social interactions can shield or buffer against stress and the negative consequences of stress in the body [6]. You may not be familiar with the research on this topic, but you probably already intuitively know this to be true. When times get difficult, we often intuitively reach out to a friend or family member for counsel. This is a common reaction to stress that psychologists refer to as “tending and befriending”, a prosocial counterpart to the “fight or flight” response, and this is one of the healthiest reactions to stress we could possibly have [7]. Sometimes, the value of having someone who can listen to us lovingly and provide a new, uplifting perspective is priceless. It can be hard to imagine surviving the mundane stresses of life without this buffer.  

The relationship between your health and your social networks are manifold. Another take-home message from the research is that health behaviors, whether good or bad, are contagious. We tend to unconsciously mirror the behaviors of those around us, and over time, these daily behaviors amount to our lifestyle. The Framingham Heart Study has examined 12,067 people across multiple decades with the intention of understanding the risk factors for cardiovascular disease. The study began in 1948 and researchers are still collecting follow-up data today. What researchers found in this study was that social networks predicted peoples’ likelihood of becoming obese [3] and taking up or quitting smoking [4]. These findings demonstrate the extent to which people are highly influenced by the behaviors of others in their social networks. Perhaps you’ve experienced this for yourself. You go to work with the best intentions to stick to your healthy lunch of fresh vegetables, fruits, and protein. Suddenly, you notice a big group of your coworkers gathered in the staff room passing around plates with slices of cake… and the rest is history.  Some networks are notorious for creating unhealthy cultural norms: drinking multiple cups of coffee per day; gathering in small groups for smoke breaks; or “treating” each other with donuts and candies.  One reason why this temptation is so hard to resist is because by giving in, you also receive the implicit benefit of social acceptance and belonging.

The good news is that by knowing this, we can exploit the power of social networks to our benefit. It can be easier to quit smoking in a group of fellow quitters. It's easier to wake up every morning for a run if you participate in a running group. We can find other people who have similar aspirations and share our strategies for success, encourage each other, and impart perspective and comfort when facing major challenges. When times get hard, we can trust that instinct to reach out and connect with others. We should take comfort in this realization that we are not alone. In the pursuit of a more balanced and healthier self, we can rely on the power of friendship and community for inspiration, support, and strength along the way. 


1.     Janis, I. L. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes (Vol. 349). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

2.     Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York: Harper & Row.

3.     Christakis N.A. & Fowler J.H. (2007). The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years. New England Journal of Medicine, 357:370–379.

4.     Christakis N.A. & Fowler J.H. (2008)The Collective Dynamics of Smoking in a Large Social Network. New England Journal of Medicine, 358, 2249–2258.

5.     Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497.

6.     Cohen, S., & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 98, 310

7.     Taylor, S. E. (2011). Social support: A review. The Handbook of Health Psychology, 189-214.

 

Claiming Self-Reliance and Ownership for the Journey

 

Rebelle Society recently published my creative reflection about my love of dance and how it has transformed my life. Upon writing this reflection, I was reminded of the several key relationships that have been essential in fostering big changes towards healthy living. My experience of these supportive networks, alongside decades of research, finds that social networks are vital in shaping and sustaining health behaviors [1-5]. I will write much more on the benefits of supportive health communities and how to develop your own supportive communities and networks in a later post.

First, I want to share a recent experience that has presented a profound challenge in my pursuit of healthy living: leaving my beloved health community behind and learning how to start all over again. We all experience life changes that limit our ability to be physically near to our greatest supporters and mentors. Even for those of us fortunate enough to have already had the opportunity to define and utilize the health practices that fit for our lives, many variables can potentially disrupt the ideal routine. Perhaps you take on a new job in a new city, and you have yet to find your community. Perhaps you are in a season of financial strain, which requires many hours of hard work for you to stay afloat, and you might not have the time or money to enroll in a gym or take exercise classes. These challenges illustrate the ever-changing and dynamic nature of our lives, and coming back to a physically and emotionally healthy routine is similar to the ongoing process of finding homeostasis. It is during these moments that the critical undertaking of developing self-reliance becomes most salient.

Let me start with a note of gratitude. I was fortunate to be connected with some very amazing and inspiring mentors over the course of my wellness journey. The first was Julie Simon: dancer, instructor, performer, and unintentional philosopher. As Julie’s pupil, I was given so many gifts and tools. She introduced me to new worlds of dances and cultures with which I became utterly rapt: Africa, Brazil, Cuba, and more. She also taught me how to physically push beyond any limits I had placed on myself. When I first started her class, the movement and the pace felt so inaccessible. But for some reason, I kept coming back. Now that Julie is one of my best friends, I know that this experience was not unique to me. Julie has a sparkling charisma that reaches almost everyone she comes into contact with. Beyond that, she creates a classroom environment that is so welcoming and celebratory and who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? Julie taught me how to dance, appreciate my own body, and use my body to it’s fullest potential (moving past my mental barriers of what I thought was physically possible).

A few months after I met Julie, I happened upon another fateful mentorship. I began to practice Ashtanga Yoga with Western Yoga College, led by Scott Miller and Laura Cueva-Miller. Although I had been practicing yoga on and off for many years, this sangha was very special and they inspired a much deeper growth in my yoga practice. Scott and Laura taught me about the importance of discipline, hard work, and spiritual connection in the pursuit of total wellbeing.  They also taught me about the importance of having a fun, light-hearted attitude, even while working toward difficult and serious goals.

Leaving these mentors and beloved communities behind as I relocated to a new city was the hardest transition I have ever experienced. I didn’t know why it felt so bad at the time. In hindsight, I realized it was because I had become entirely dependent on my mentors to deliver these benefits to me.  All this time as a student in their classrooms, my only task was to show up and allow them to guide me in reaching that state of mental clarity, physical pleasure, and emotional empowerment that was created by moving according to their direction.  But now, many miles away, it became painfully clear that I was solely responsible for my own health journey. That didn’t stop me from wasting my time denying this fact! For many months, I searched for new classes, trying to find my replacement mentors. There were many talented inspirational people I met in this way, but none had the compelling pull that led me to abide and adhere so attentively to my embodied practices in the same way that my first mentors did.

After many months of trying to fill the void in this way, I redirected my focus on the one teacher who was closest, most accessible, and most reliable in my life: ME. With a busy schedule and none of my trusted mentors nearby, I had to learn to take ownership over my own health journey. Luckily, I wasn’t starting from scratch; I had the tools given to me by past teachers. And yet, there was no friend, instructor, or boss I might potentially upset if I didn’t show up to my 6am home practice, other than myself.

I will share with you the tools that help bring me just a little bit closer to self-reliance in my health journey. It is, of course, an ongoing process.

 

·      I do it for me – My health journey didn’t truly begin until I decided to embark on this path for the sake of myself and nothing or nobody else. It is so much more difficult to sustain motivation if it's only for the purposes of losing weight or gaining the acceptance of others. This is how people become trapped in the yo-yo effect of diet and exercise. There are extrinsic rewards: tangible changes to your body, more attention from others, more acceptance or validation on the basis of your physical appearance. But, over time, the attention and outside motivation may wane or become less meaningful. Success is much more sustainable when the health journey is based on the more stable and substanative foundation of self-love, kindness, and even enjoyment [6].

·      I learned to fall in love with the process – I believe that with familiarity and increased proficiency, this can happen naturally. At a certain point, I started to look forward to that painful, sweaty burn every morning. I changed the way I thought about the task ahead of me. Rather than being this horrible nuisance in my day, I try to think about the task of waking up and attending to my physical need for movement as an exquisite force that affords me the strength, mental clarity, and patience I need to get through the day.

·      I created the perfect soundtrack – Still to this day, I cannot do a proper workout to a song that does not fuel my fire. Research finds that music can be a useful tool for increased performance and improved psychological states, particularly during high intensity aerobic exercise [7]. Everyone has a different preference and requirements for good music. Have fun exploring your favorite tunes and help make your workouts more fun. I’m always looking for more songs to add to my workout playlist. If you have favorites, please share!

·      I try to make it a habit – Honestly, I’m still working on this. However, the more habitual these practices become, the less need for negotiating, and having to think about the decision to follow through [8]. Most folks don’t realize how much of human cognition runs on unconscious thought. We fancy ourselves a rational, thoughtful, and attentive bunch. Have you ever had the experience of sitting in your car on a long drive, when suddenly you notice you arrived at your destination, without any memory or awareness about the drive itself? This is how humans navigate the majority of our daily tasks. So I try to exploit this mindlessness to my benefit. To ensure that I will adhere to my daily health goals, I try to make the decisions as mindless as possible.  If I don’t buy processed foods, I save myself the mental energy of having to make the decision to avoid them. Similarly, if I wake up at the same time every day and spend a few hours moving and sweating, my body becomes familiar with this routine, and I find less and less burden of choice or thought in the matter. 

·      I created increased accountability – As a social psychologist, I know that one of the strongest social forces to compel behavior is what Bob Cialdini calls “Commitment and Consistency.” Basically, once I publicly agree to complete a task, I’m more likely to follow through [9]. I started by declaring my goals and daily plans to my romantic partner. He would never scold me or make me feel guilty for missing my workouts or indulging on my favorite “cheat” foods. However, by publicly declaring my goals, I was also making a promise to someone else (who I care for very much). This helps me to substantiate the importance of honoring my word. Relatedly, another strategy I use to increase my accountability is to visualize my greatest mentors witnessing my daily health decisions. I spent so many days of my life in the studio with Julie, Scott, and Laura that I can easily imagine their voices and the instruction or feedback they might give when I’m practicing (or not practicing) all alone. Sometimes I even articulate those instructions to myself, aloud. This may sound silly, but it works. Call upon your internalized teachers. You’ll be surprised to find that so much of their wisdom and motivating power remains with you. 

·      I think about the big picture – Health beliefs are actually quite emotional in nature. The truth is that most of us, even medical doctors, hold some strongly biased and inaccurate ideas and opinions about health and illness [10, 11]. One crucial change in my belief was when I started to link my daily behaviors with a bigger picture of my health as a whole. Enjoying ice cream and basking outdoors without sunscreen one sunny summer afternoon will not result in heart disease or skin cancer. However, these daily health decisions do accumulate over time, shaping the course of health. Many variables determine overall health outcomes: behaviors, lifestyles, personality types, social support, environment, and of course, genes and family histories. Scientists and doctors are still working to understand the etiologies (causes) of many of the most common illnesses that effect our population today. However, some of the biggest risk factors of most complex diseases we know today include behaviors that we can control, such as: smoking, drinking, and unhealthy weight gain [12-14]. Maintaining this sense of the bigger picture gives me a better sense of why it’s important to take ownership of my health journey, even when it is not convenient to do so.

 

Paradoxically, during this time of seeking self-reliance, I realized that what I need to ensure adherence and success in my health goals is to create a supportive environment where it may not otherwise exist. This is not the same as looking to a mentor to dictate my daily health schedule, this insight comes from the acknowledgement that we are all social animals, and that we thrive on healthy conscious communities that provide for us a sense of support, meaning, enriched enjoyment, and added accountability. Knowing what I know about myself, I am highly extroverted, so this craving for social connection in my health journey may be particularly pronounced. In my next post, I will talk more about the vital role of social support in shaping health behaviors and outcomes and how to find or create your ideal health community.

I wish you all the best on your journey towards self-reliant health!

 

 


 

1.     Campbell, C., & Murray, M. (2004). Community health psychology: Promoting analysis and action for social change. Journal of Health Psychology, 9(2), 187-195.

2.     Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J. H. (2007). The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years. New England Journal of Medicine, 357(4), 370-379.

3.     Cohen, S., & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 98(2), 310.

4.     Uchino, B. N. (2006). Social support and health: a review of physiological processes potentially underlying links to disease outcomes. Journal of behavioral medicine, 29(4), 377-387.

5.     Umberson, D., & Montez, J. K. (2010). Social relationships and health a flashpoint for health policy. Journal of health and social behavior, 51(1 suppl), S54-S66.

6.     Richard, M., Christina, M. F., Deborah, L. S., Rubio, N., & Kennon, M. S. (1997). Intrinsic motivation and exercise adherence. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 28(4), 335-354.

7.     Karageorghis, C. I., & Priest, D. L. (2012). Music in the exercise domain: A review and synthesis (Part I). International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 5(1), 44-66.

8.     Aarts, H., Paulussen, T., & Schaalma, H. (1997). Physical exercise habit: On the conceptualization and formation of habitual health behaviours. Health Education Research, 12(3), 363-374.

9.     Cialdini, R. B. (1987). Influence (Vol. 3). A. Michel.

10.  Hagger, M. S., & Orbell, S. (2003). A meta-analytic review of the common-sense model of illness representations. Psychology and Health, 18(2), 141-184.

11.  Meyer, D., Leventhal, H., & Gutmann, M. (1985). Common-sense models of illness: the example of hypertension. Health Psychology, 4(2), 115.

12.  Stampfer, M. J., Hu, F. B., Manson, J. E., Rimm, E. B., & Willett, W. C. (2000). Primary prevention of coronary heart disease in women through diet and lifestyle. New England Journal of Medicine, 343(1), 16-22.

13.  Stein, C. J., & Colditz, G. A. (2004). Modifiable risk factors for cancer. British Journal of Cancer, 90(2), 299-303.

14.  Yusuf, S., Hawken, S., Ôunpuu, S., Dans, T., Avezum, A., Lanas, F., ... & Lisheng, L. (2004). Effect of potentially modifiable risk factors associated with myocardial infarction in 52 countries (the INTERHEART study): case-control study. The Lancet, 364(9438), 937-952.

 

Timing Isn't Everything

 

Ever since I was a little girl, I loved to theatrically sing along with the radio. I pretty much knew the words to almost every pop song from my youth, but some of them just really moved me. Despite being a young child with relatively few life experiences, I intuitively connected with the emotions underlying the songs. I sang along with these songs passionately and sincerely, like they were my own. I often gave spirited performances for my family and friends. I’m thankful now that this was before the proliferation of smartphones and digital cameras (although it would be kinda cool to watch Kindergarten Me performing Wilson Phillips).  

I had this strange rule, though. If I happened to catch my favorite song on the radio, after it was already 30 seconds or more into the song, I lost interest. I would venture to say it even made me mad. It was like I could only allow myself to really enjoy the song if I knew I could enjoy the whole thing in its entirety. Which makes no sense because it was the exact same song that I absolutely loved.

I had an analogous feeling today. Looking at my calendar, I thought, “I can’t wait for next year.” Why did I say these words? To be honest, this year has presented a lot of challenges for me. I wanted a fresh start, a chance to refocus on my goals and plan big with the entire year ahead of me, a blank canvas. After hearing myself speak this thought, I immediately sensed the irrationality behind it. We have just entered into the month of September, which still leaves four more months, 16 shining weeks, of potential to explore!

I was ascribing some kind of profound significance to  the date on the calendar, in the same way I used to do with the beginning of my favorite songs on the radio. It is as though I could only allow myself to think big about my goals, and enjoy the thrill of ambition, at the beginning of a new year. I found further inspiration and validation to reset when I contemplated the reality of my essence as an organic living being. This means that every single cell in my body (skin cells, blood cells, and everything that I'm made of) is going through a constant cycle of dying, shedding, and being replaced with something new. Why should I have to wait for a specific date on the calendar to hit the psychological reset button?

There is an old Chinese proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” While it’s true that I could have started earlier, planting the seeds for all that I want to accomplish and grow, some of my seeds were left out. There will always be more seeds I will wish I planted 20 years ago. There is often good reason for this. I didn't know then (January 1, 2016) what I know now. I am a dynamic living organism. Inevitably, my perspectives, intentions, abilities, and priorities are constantly evolving. With this realization, I consciously choose to focus on taking actionable steps towards accomplishing something now, today, that will allow me to flourish in the near future.

You can try this. Examine the items on your “abstract existential shortcomings” list and translate them into a “more concrete and immediate doable things" list. What are some small, attainable steps you can take to make some progress towards your aspirations? Pick at least one thing you can do TODAY to get you closer. Revisit and update this list often.

Maybe you had to get a later start than you would have wanted, but the good news is that you still have the opportunity to sing aloud to the song of your life. And you ought to sing it loudly, with gusto, no matter how much time you think you have left. 

Self Care Rituals for the Anxious Extrovert

I am a classic extrovert.

About 10 years ago, I would say my biggest fear in the world was to be alone. When my romantic partner used to leave town to travel for work, my heart would fill up with dread at the thought of sitting in a quiet home by myself. I would plan, for weeks in advance, all of the ways I could inject social activities into my day. I will admit it here: sometimes I (still) make trips to the market for the purposes of getting “out” into the world and maybe talking to a nice human about kale or something.  

I should also state that I am also highly anxious by nature. So, being alone used to terrify me because it often meant that my anxiety took hold of the proverbial mic. I would be much more inclined to pay attention to that anxious narrative.

Over time I have learned some tools for how to be alone and actually enjoy it.

So, for all my fellow social animals, here is a guide to stillness for the anxious extrovert.

 

Fill your mind with fruitful notions.

It’s true that our thoughts and expectations can determine how we experience life events. I found that a great way to set the psychological stage for delight is to read something that inspires me, makes me smile, or makes me swoon.  Rumi - The Essential Rumi, Anne Lamott - Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, Tara Brach - Radical Acceptance: Awakening the Love that Heals Fear and Shame, Pema Chodron - Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion are some of my favorite “go-to” authors and books for inspiration.

 

Delight in Sensory Experiences.

I am a proponent of the theory of embodied cognition. This is a psychological theory that states that the body is not merely a vessel for the expression of thoughts and emotions, but that our physical (embodied) states and experiences may also influence or manufacture thoughts and emotional states. 

 That said, when I want to generate mental stillness and calm, I start by bringing physical stillness to my body. I may sit in meditation or do some yoga (more on yoga to follow).

Sometimes I take another shortcut to calm, by way of the unconscious pathway of olfaction (smell).  Studies find that essential oils like citrus and lavender can effectively reduce anxiety and enhance mood in stressful situations [1- 3]. One study compared the effects of orally administered lavender oil with a widely used anti-anxiety medication, lorazepam, and found that lavender oil was equally as effective as lorazepam in reducing symptoms for people living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder [4]. Please note, it is important to ingest only high quality, food-grade lavender. I have recently become an essential oils advocate, so for those of you interested in learning more about essential oils, please feel free to contact me with questions.

In addition to taste and smell, I enjoy delighting in my tactile (touch) sense. The work of Dacher Keltner tells us that touch is one of the most important tools for communicating compassion [5]. I try to meet any tension or pain I am carrying in my body (for me, it’s usually the neck and shoulders) with compassion, using a therapeutic balm of essential oils to knead my muscles as I practice taking deep, relaxing breaths.  This combination of breathing and therapeutic touch provides feedback signals to the brain that promote mental wellbeing.   

To stimulate my visual senses, I simply go outside and look for something beautiful to set my gaze upon. I also use this as an exercise in mindfulness. When was the last time you sat and appreciated the colors, lines, shapes, motion of a flower, as though it was the very first time you had ever seen it? Just think of all the opportunities for beauty we might miss if we don't consciously seek these moments to marvel at our surroundings from time to time.  

 

Listen to Vinyl Records.

“There's a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colorful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in; there is history, and geography, and poetry, and countless other things I should have studied at school, including music.”  ― Nick Hornby


Let's not forget the miraculous emotional power of our auditory senses. Music is one way to bring about a spontaneous emotional reaction. It's even better when you listen to your favorite song on vinyl. I used to think collecting vinyl was just another way for hipsters to parade their sophistication for all to see. But, there is truly nothing like it in the world. If you enjoy music, you should think seriously about buying a record player and pursuing a relationship with vinyl records. There is something uncommonly beautiful about the act of putting on a record and listening closely to the rich quality of sound captured on vinyl.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks has written about the many mental and emotional effects of listening to music. Among these effects, Sacks describes the transcendental potential for music to elicit a state of sublimation and ecstasy [6]. When I am seeking this sublime state of musical reverie, I prefer to sit with my eyes closed (or lie in savasana) and listen attentively, as I let my mind surrender to the wild imaginings of my favorite musical artists. I recommend Bjork and Radiohead as place to begin your transcendent musical journey. 

 

 

 

Light incense.

There is no science to it, but I light incense for two reasons: 1) I enjoy the smell, 2) I regard it a gesture or a symbol of my intention to create a space for contemplation. I may be at my house, but it is my way of marking a special moment for inward attention.

Not everyone enjoys the sensory experience of lighting incense. But, for those of you who know you like incense, or are interested in trying some: I really love the scent of the Bursera graveolens tree, also known as palo santo. For the medical anthropologists, palo santo is connected with a lot of Folk medical traditions. Today you can find it in many healthy stores or online as an oil or as a small stick that can be burned, similar to a standard incense stick.

 

Give Yourself the Spa Treatment.

There is a scientific reason behind this one. Grooming is adaptive for all animals, to sustain health and hygiene. But, if you are like me, on most days you find yourselves rushing to get ready quickly before work, which means that sometimes the artistic details of grooming can be overlooked. So, when I have the luxury of time alone, I like to pay extra attention to grooming. I use my favorite Rose Hip Oil, braid my hair, or paint my toenails with nature-inspired colors . To some this may sound trite, but this has always been an intuitive ritual that I have enjoyed since I was old enough to do it.

 

Nourish.

Food is such a vital component of health and self-care. It is also a way to reconnect with our families, cultures, and identities. As an emigré, my knowledge and access to my native Persian culture is relatively limited. That is why I truly cherish the art of cooking, especially when I can create dishes that remind me of my family. In this act, I show kindness to myself using the very same recipes that my family once used to nourish me. In fact, as soon as I turned 18 and moved out of the house, I made it my mission to “apprentice” in the kitchen alongside my family and friends, to record their recipes and learn their techniques. This is not to say that everything I ever make turns out perfect. I have no shame in calling for pizza when necessary. Still, cooking is an act of creativity and love that I enjoy practicing as often as I can. If you are curious about the treasures of Persian cooking, here’s a great book to check out: Joon by Najmieh Batmanglij.

 

Practice yoga.

I crave yoga everyday.  I find it necessary to maintain a daily practice, even if I'm just home alone. I do love to attend classes and get inspired by new instructors. However, I might not always have the time or funds necessary to attend daily yoga classes. So, I create sanctuaries at home. I actually have two spaces devoted to my home practice. Sometimes I set my mat outside to practice yoga outdoors. Other times, I just light some candles and set up my mat in the living room. I have been practicing yoga for over a decade, but I am just now becoming more consistent with my practice.

I can truly attest to the benefits yoga can provide: I have become stronger, more flexible, and less susceptible to injury. The benefits of yoga surpass the one hour of asana (postures) I practice on my mat. I have noticed that the quality of my thoughts and my ability to deal with daily challenges is proportionate to the consistency of my practice. Yoga teaches me how to stay present in times of discomfort: how to learn to breathe in challenging moments, without frantically seeking to escape. Yoga teaches me that sometimes I might even find bliss in the midst of a struggle. Yoga teaches me that I can allow myself to be open to the possibility of bliss at any time, both on and off the mat. 

I would love to share this practice with you!  For those of you in the San Diego area, you can find my weekly schedule on the Auteur Health and Wellness Instagram or facebook page. If you are interested in starting an at-home practice with me, you can find guided instructional videos available for purchase, by visiting the Gifts tab on my website.

 

I hope by revealing some of my personal practices, I can inspire others to enrich their solitude with self-compassion. To my fellow anxious extroverts, I hope you get a chance to try some of these activities and find them emotionally and mentally supportive when you are in need of a little extra care. 

 


 

1.     Lehrner, J., Marwinski, G., Lehr, S., Johren, P., & Deecke, L. (2005). Ambient odors of orange and lavender reduce anxiety and improve mood in a dental office. Physiology & Behavior, 86, 92-95.

2.     Kritsidima, M., Newton, T., & Asimakopoulou, K. (2010). The effects of lavender scent on dental patient anxiety levels: a cluster randomised‐controlled trial. Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology, 38, 83-87.

3.     Bradley, B. F., Brown, S. L., Chu, S., & Lea, R. W. (2009). Effects of orally administered lavender essential oil on responses to anxiety‐provoking film clips. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, 24, 319-330.

4.     Woelk, H., & Schläfke, S. (2010). A multi-center, double-blind, randomised study of the Lavender oil preparation Silexan in comparison to Lorazepam for generalized anxiety disorder. Phytomedicine, 17, 94-99.

5.     Keltner, D. (2010). Hands On Research: The Science of Touch. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.

6.     Sacks, O. (2006). The power of music. Brain, 129, 2528-2532.


The Body's Viaduct for Healing and Connection

There is a place in the human body that, when stimulated, can promote and ignite self-healing, connectedness, compassion, and human kindness (DiSalvo, 2009; Keltner, 2009; Porges, Doussard-Roosevelt, Maiti, 1994). What's best, we can access this place anytime we choose.   This physiological structure, known as the vagus nerve, has been a source of fascination and inquiry for many researchers. The vagus nerve is actually a bundle of nerves, the longest in the human body, and it connects the brain to the heart, lungs, and digestive system. 

Perhaps the most interesting function of the vagus nerve is that it triggers the parasympathetic system's "relaxation response," essentially the reverse effect of the notorious "fight or flight" response. The relaxation response is composed of hormones and enzymes like acetylcholine (which signals smooth muscle tissues to relax, thereby encouraging blood vessels to open up), vasopressin (which promotes homeostasis and pair bonding or forming close connections with others), and oxytocin (which promotes social intimacy, connection, and feelings of love). Activation of the vagus response has also been linked with reduced inflammation.

In other words, activation of this bundle of nerves can have a powerful impact on our health and the quality of our relationship to others.  Practiced in moderation (Gruber, Johnson, Oveis, Keltner, 2008),  stimulation of the vagus nerve can have positive effects on our physical, emotional, mental, and social health. This can be particularly useful in times of stress, when we are prone to let fear take over our systems. Something as simple as a long hug may initiate the vagus response. If you are alone, try spending a few minutes breathing deeply and lying on the ground so that the forehead, chest, and stomach are in contact with the foundation of the ground beneath you. Lying on your belly, draw attention inward toward the center of the body, perhaps even envisioning this physiological viaduct activating with each breath. Or, perhaps if you are stuck in traffic and need a quick fix, simply place your hand on your heart and chest, allowing yourself to sense the vitality of this magnificent nerve that connects with your beating heart, and breathe deeply for a few minutes. These quick and simple actions can send a physiological signal to your brain that any perceived threats in the environment can be reframed as challenges that you are capable of facing. 

We often falsely assume that the security and comfort that we seek will be found outside of ourselves: in the perfect relationship, career, environment, etc. But what we are coming to realize as we explore the neuroscience of the vagus nerve is that at least a portion of this comfort, healing, and connection can be found within our own bodies. Don't be fooled, it's not as easy as swallowing a pill and waiting for the effects. In order to truly experience the gifts of the vagus nerve, we are required to direct our attention inward and fully inhabit our bodies, which is something that can be difficult, even counterintuitive, when we are feeling anxious or fearful. It's much easier to look for quick and easy distractions, to ignore our bodies altogether. 

I have been thinking a lot about this powerful bundle of nerves, and how we might find our way back inward during times of stress. It is my belief, supported by years of research in the field of embodied cognition, that the quickest shortcut to changing our mindset is through some form of physical, embodied practice. In honor of this extraordinary physiological viaduct for self-healing, I have created a short and quick sequence of yoga asanas, intended to stimulate the vagus nerve and thereby activate your innate capacity for relaxation and connection. Finally, I leave you with a quote by Eve Ensler that serves as a nice accompaniment to the yoga sequence I am sharing. I suggest using these words as a meditation and reminder when you need to reconnect to your own body and heart: "I feel therefore I am. I feel therefore I can feel my existence. I feel my body. I feel the breath. I feel the living, breathing fiber that is humanness." - Eve Ensler

 

Background music by: Higher Planes Drifter "Yesterday's Demons are Tomorrow's Angels" https://soundcloud.com/higherplanesdrifter

DiSalvo, D. (2009). Forget Survival of the Fittest: It Is Kindness That Counts. Scientific American Mind20(5), 18-19.

Gruber, J., Johnson, S. L., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2008). Risk for mania and positive emotional responding: too much of a good thing? Emotion8(1), 23.

Keltner, D. (2009). Born to be good: The science of a meaningful life. WW Norton & Company.

Porges, S. W., Doussard‐Roosevelt, J. A., & Maiti, A. K. (1994). Vagal tone and the physiological regulation of emotion. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development59(2‐3), 167-186.

Wake Up and Live

It has been a time of great uncertainty for me. A lot of changes are happening in the domain of work and life. In all honesty, I have found myself becoming totally preoccupied with thoughts about the unknown future ahead, too overwhelmed to do some of the things I really love doing like spending time with my family, reading, getting outdoors, and blogging (sorry, friends). Many of us experience these prolonged transitions, which are inherently unsettling. Humans are really bad at uncertainty, as we are hardwired for pattern-recognition and predicting the future. When something happens in our life that we can’t neatly identify, categorize, predict, and control, we tend to experience a great amount of distress. This was the basis of my early graduate research with Dr. Kate Sweeny, examining the psychology of uncertainty. Despite having literally co-written the chapter on navigating work-related uncertainty (Sweeny & Ghane, 2015), I find myself in the realm of anxiety, bracing for worst-case scenarios, ruminating on the unknown, and perhaps most upsetting to me: neglecting the present moment. 

The problem with our obsession with the future is that it comes at the cost of our current, real-time experience. Sometimes I require constant reminders to tune out the speculations and redirect my attention to what is currently happening. It’s important to note that what is currently happening is always much more rudimentary than the complex, abstract, hypothetical thoughts I could be having about the future. For example, right now, what is currently happening is the familiar (even comforting) sensation of the smooth, warm computer keys under my fingers, and the intuitive dance between hands and keys that allows me to project my innermost ideas on the screen. It’s also the drone of the lawnmower somewhere in my neighborhood, layered with the sound of my cat fervently chasing her toy, and the birds’ intermittent chirping just beyond the patio. It is the aftertaste of coffee and the satisfaction from eating breakfast. It is the rhythm of breath moving through my body. I could go on and on. In fact, I often find that the present moment can become infinitely deep and ever-changing. The more I pay attention to it, the more and more I find.  This is what my yoga mentor Scott Miller once described as "jellyfish" consciousness, sensing ourselves in the word, in the most fundamental form.

  Copyright: Dr. Arezou Ghane

 Copyright: Dr. Arezou Ghane

 

Furthermore, by bringing myself back into this real-time experience of my life, I am allowing myself to live more fully. I am intentionally choosing to be more psychologically present in whatever is happening right now. The decision to live more fully becomes more striking when we are reminded of the Greatest Uncertainty: Mortality. Among other notable artistic contemplations of human mortality, this sentiment has been captured in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and Kurosawa’s Ikiru. However, in America, we tend to label this kind of thought as morbid, often resulting in a sense of fear or terror. But, researchers like Kenneth Vail show that the idea of mortality can sometimes inspire us to live a better life (Vail, Juhl, Arndt, Vess, Routledge, & Rutjens, 2012), marked by greater likelihood of helping others in need (Gailliot, Stillman, Schmeichel, Maner, & Plant, 2008), making environmentally conscious decisions, promoting sustainability (Fritsche, Jonas, Kayser, & Koranyi, 2010), and taking better care of our own health (Cooper, Goldenberg, & Ardnt, 2011). One of my favorite examples of how an awareness and acceptance of death can inspire a more vibrant approach to life comes from Bronnie Ware. Based on the conversations she had with her patients when she worked in a hospice clinic, Ware compiled a list of the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying. The list inevitably sparks reflection of our own lives.  I’ll leave you here with this piece. I hope it inspires you all to claim this moment as your own and, in the words of Bob Marley, "Wake up and live." 

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

 

Cooper, D. P., Goldenberg, J. L., & Arndt, J. (2011). Empowering the self: Using the terror management health model to promote breast self-examination. Self and Identity, 10(3), 315-325.

Fritsche, I., Jonas, E., Kayser, D. N., & Koranyi, N. (2010). Existential threat and compliance with pro-environmental norms. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30(1), 67-79.

Gailliot, M. T., Stillman, T. F., Schmeichel, B. J., Maner, J. K., & Plant, E. A. (2008). Mortality salience increases adherence to salient norms and values. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(7), 993-1003.

Sweeny, K., & Ghane, A. (2015). Principles for effective coping in uncertain situations. To appear in J. Vuori, R. Blonk, & R. Price (Eds.), Sustainable Working Lives: Managing Work Transitions and Health throughout the Life Course. Springer.

Vail, K. E., Juhl, J., Arndt, J., Vess, M., Routledge, C., & Rutjens, B. T. (2012). When Death is Good for Life Considering the Positive Trajectories of Terror Management. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16(4), 303-329.

Ware, B. (2012). The top five regrets of the dying: A life transformed by the dearly departing. Hay House, Inc.

 

 

 

What is Trauma?

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” - Viktor Frankl


This post was written in collaboration with Dr. Laura Cueva-Miller, clinical psychologist. Dr. Cueva-Miller is a cherished contributor to Auteur and will continue to join us as we explore issues related to trauma and psychological healing via embodied channels. 


What is trauma? Dictionaries define trauma as: “an experience that produces psychological injury or pain,” or “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” The DSM-5 PTSD diagnosis criteria describes trauma as "exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.”

As psychology vocabulary becomes more and more popularized, these terms often become distorted or misunderstood. In our culture, the word “trauma” often connotes some form of pathology.  By pathologizing trauma, we impose all of the stigmas that our culture attaches to pathology and mental illness, perhaps suggesting that trauma entails weakness or severe, irreparable damage. 

Perhaps we may consider that trauma takes place more commonly than we realize. As such, we find a more appropriate definition presented in the book Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy by David Emerson: trauma is an experience involving an extreme lack of choice.  

Using this definition, let’s explore the ways that we can identify and acknowledge trauma in otherwise hidden places, As a woman, living in a large city in California, I know that I experience an extreme lack of choice in many situations.  For instance, when I leave my office building at night, I make sure that I have my keys in my hand, before leaving the building. When I exit the building, I walk standing tall and make sure to look at my surroundings repeatedly as I walk to my car.  I also look in my car to make sure that nothing unexpected is in my car before I get in. Regardless of how others may interpret this decision, in my day to day life, I do not believe that I have a choice as to whether or not to engage in this set of behaviors (even though I work and live in an area that I would consider to be quite safe).

In 2016, many of us have experienced what we can call "micro-traumas" on a regular basis, perhaps even on a daily basis. The example above can be categorized as a micro-trauma. Trauma is not just something that affects war veterans and rape survivors. You might experience trauma in the aftermath of an unhealthy relationship that left you feeling cynical about future relationships. Furthermore, the work of Dr. Roxane Cohen-Silver finds that people may also experience indirect trauma, or collective trauma when we are repeatedly exposed to stories and images of police brutality, terrorism, war, and other forms of violence. In light of these new perspectives on trauma, we can only imagine how many traumas are experienced and brushed off as "just a part of this life today." 

How many of us realize how our repeated experiences of micro-traumas have an impact on our bodies and our brains? In his best-selling book The Body Keeps the Score,  Dr. Bessel van der Kolk describes the impact of trauma on the brain, specifically the right limbic area and Broca's area. These areas of the brain oversee emotional experiences and language formation.  According Dr. Van der Kolk, in the aftermath of trauma, it is common for people to find difficulty verbalizing their experiences. Furthermore, when any trauma is remembered, the brain experiences the memory as if the trauma were happening again - the same areas of the brain are impacted with just the act of remembering. On a sensory level, when we recall a traumatic event, it may feel as though we are experiencing the event all over again in real time. We may remember vividly the sights, sounds, and emotions that we associate with the trauma. However, we have trouble translating these experiences into words. Furthermore, we don’t always have control over when we think about these experiences again, as these memories may be triggered by any (seemingly arbitrary) stimuli that we may associate with the traumatic event: perhaps a color, a location, a phrase, or even a particular person can become a trigger for this memory. 

 So, what do we do when we expose trauma within ourselves and within our culture?  

First, we acknowledge it. Without conscious awareness or effort, we are compelled to fully relive our traumas each and every time we remember them, without ever being able to fully process or integrate these experiences into the story of our lives. We may find sometimes that we are reacting unknowingly from a place of defensiveness, without sovereignty from our emotions. 

Next, we begin the “work” of disentangling ourselves from the grip of trauma.  Where there is difficulty with language, there is yoga and movement. Fortunately for us, our bodies have a direct system of communication with the brain via sensorimotor neurons, and by rerouting the sensorimotor messages the brain is receiving, we may begin to claim the story of our traumas and become the authors of our lives again. 

What happens when we consciously choose to reroute our biological responses to traumatic memories by allowing space for choice? By inviting the breath to help us pause and sense ourselves in a situation that is triggering, without closing down to protect ourselves: perhaps we will find new options, new approaches, and new solutions that reach beyond the moments when we may otherwise perceive an extreme lack of choice. 

We live in a culture where our personal and collective traumas and micro-traumas may often be unconsciously triggered by the environment that we live in. It’s a reality that suggests that we, as individuals and as a culture, might need to invest in the process of healing, particularly if we care to tune in to the stories we are telling ourselves. Although the word trauma can hold some very heavy significance, we find that we can create space by settling back into the foundations of the body and breath, and pausing to acknowledge when trauma is being triggered again. This work of disentangling ourselves and healing can be done only in safe places, and preferably in the presence of a compassionate guide. 

We will continue to explore these pathways in future blog posts and we hope that you will join us in this process of discovering and healing our bodies, our thoughts, and our cultures.  

 Kintsukuroi: When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something has suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful. Let's explore the preciousness of every chip, crack, and aperture. Let's celebrate our wayward histories.

Kintsukuroi: When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something has suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.
Let's explore the preciousness of every chip, crack, and aperture. Let's celebrate our wayward histories.

Natural Medicine

I am fortunate to live in sunny southern California. Shamefully, I admit that some days I forget to fully appreciate it. When I can remember to do it, I like to take a few moments to walk outside and savor the sensation of the sunlight enveloping me, the breeze sweeping my skin, and the purity of the oxygen moving through my body with every breath.

Some days, I have no choice. I may wake up with every intention to be productive and cross some items off of my to do list, but I may find that my heart is heavy or that my mind is preoccupied. The shift in feeling can be very subtle, but if I don’t pay attention and accurately identify this quality of my experience early on, I might risk the possibility of doing anything useful at all that day. I might sit in front of my computer, with the burden of my agenda heavily at my side, and attempt to work. But more often than not, days like this are not marked by miraculous bouts of generativity, but by wooly thoughts, ingrown efforts, and wasted hours. Perhaps you’ve had days like this.

A few days ago, I woke up in this very state. So I stepped outside and started walking. I soon found myself at one of my favorite sanctuaries: the beach. It was a quiet and early morning, so I was able to deeply tune in to the details of my sensory experiences. I moved slowly and keenly along the shoreline, admiring the courtship between the cold, crashing waves and my bare feet. I let myself be enchanted by the iridescent flicker of the light reflected against the water. I found a place to sit and I closed my eyes for a few minutes, breathing and cherishing the taste of the air.

IMG_3997.JPG

It may sound like an indulgence, and when I’m in the thick of a chaotic work week, it’s the last thing I think I have time to do. But, I can say with certainty that I have never regretted any days, hours, or minutes spent in nature.

Research is now beginning to demonstrate the potential for nature’s curative ability. Just 5 minutes spent in a lush, natural setting can boost mood and self esteem [1]. Quality time in nature targets the mental and emotional states that are particularly troublesome for productivity, like anxiety, rumination (i.e., dwelling on or replaying negative thoughts), and memory [2].

We also know that time in nature helps to boost immune functioning. A series of studies conducted by Japanese researchers suggests that some of this benefit can be linked to the airborne chemicals released by trees and plants to protect against insects, called phytoncides. When inhaled by humans, these chemicals can boost the activity of white blood and natural killer cells [3,4]

Other studies have found that the emotional experience of awe elicited by quality time in nature can reduce inflammation [5].  Awe is a positive emotional state that is often triggered when we encounter something unexpected and extraordinary; it is an emotion that stirs us and inspires a sense of humility. You may have experienced this emotion when you watched or listened to a creative masterpiece created by one of your favorite artists. You might experience it just by watching this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PN5JJDh78I

It’s strange, but even though I have walked that same walk along the same shoreline countless times since I’ve moved to my home in Long Beach, I still experience a state of awe almost every time I return. Part of this emotional experience is something that I have learned to intentionally direct and motivate for myself, by opening myself to the possibility of awe.

There are so many different ways to interpret and understand the world. As children, we all navigated the world in a state of awe and wonder, because we had not yet formed the cognitive categories that allow us to quickly and efficiently sort incoming stimuli. The highly organized structures of our adult minds allow us to exercise control in our lives by making the world seem more comfortable, predictable, and familiar. But, familiarity stands in the way of finding something unexpected and incredible in the world.

IMG_3998.JPG

So, when I went for my walk, I intentionally approached the landscape without expectation, I tried to pay attention to details I had never noticed before. I let myself be perplexed by the vastness of the horizon. It helps that I happened to make my visit at a relatively vacant time of day, which allowed me to really contemplate the dreamlike beauty of this landscape, as though for the first time.

Sometimes, when I’m really having a hard time flipping my perspective, I will take the dramatic measure of literally flipping my perspective, via cartwheels or another favorite inversion. If nothing else, these postures help me to remember not to take myself so seriously. 

 My panacea of choice

My panacea of choice

Although it may feel particularly counterintuitive on the busiest and most stressful days when productivity is our primary goal, it’s times like these that we must let allow ourselves a little bit of awe. 


1.              Barton, J., & Pretty, J. (2010). What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environmental science & technology, 44, 3947-3955.

2.              Bratman, G. N., Daily, G. C., Levy, B. J., & Gross, J. J. (2015). The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition. Landscape and Urban Planning, 138, 41-50.

3.              Li, Q., Nakadai, A., Matsushima, H., Miyazaki, Y., Krensky, A. M., Kawada, T., & Morimoto, K. (2006). Phytoncides (wood essential oils) induce human natural killer cell activity. Immunopharmacology and immunotoxicology, 28(2), 319-333.

4.              Li, Q., Kobayashi, M., Wakayama, Y., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Hirata, Y., Hirata, K., Shimizu, T., Kawada, T., Park, B.J. & Ohira, T. (2009). Effect of phytoncide from  trees on human natural killer cell function. International journal ofimmu nopathology and pharmacology, 22, 951-959.

5.              Stellar, J. E., John-Henderson, N., Anderson, C. L., Gordon, A. M., McNeil, G. D., & Keltner, D. (2015). Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positiveemotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Emotion, 15, 129.