The miracle is not to fly in the air, or to walk on the water, but to walk on the earth.

~Chinese Proverb~

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The Online Self Improvement and Self Help Encyclopedia

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Our senses are indeed our doors and windows on this world, in a very real sense the key to the unlocking of meaning and the wellspring of creativity.

~ Jean Houston ~

life one step at a time . . .

There are very few human beings who
receive the truth, complete and staggering,
by instant illumination.  Most of them acquire
it fragment by fragment, on a small scale,
by successive developments, cellularly,
like a laborious mosaic.

~Anaïs Nin~

A Reminder to Laugh, and Why

May 30, 2015

A gut-wrenching paroxysm of hilarity, or laughter, is one of the most pleasurable and healing of human experiences.

Fortunately, life’s ironies and absurdities can even penetrate dark clouds of despair, and the paralysis of anxiety, to give those who are troubled the respite of a good laugh.

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut, author. “I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”

Good For What Ails Us

Laughter causes us to gulp oxygen, massages our vital organs, boosts blood flow, and relieves muscle tension—a tonic for whatever might be bugging us. Positive thoughts generated by humor release neuropeptides that diminish physical stress and its ill-effect on the immune system. Laughing also causes the body to manufacture natural painkillers and can disrupt the pain-spasm cycle experienced with certain muscle disorders.

“I know why we laugh. We laugh because it hurts, and it’s the only thing to make it stop hurting,” said author Robert S. Heinlein.

For those with high stress, or who have symptoms of depression or anxiety, laughter is a great coping mechanism. It rattles our lethargy or paralysis and helps us look at things from a fresh perspective, and maybe take ourself - and our distress - less seriously. “If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane,” is how the poet Robert Frost puts it.

The Flip Side of Weeping

Though laughter does not cure anxiety or depression, it helps keep symptoms from ruling our life.

“It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels,” writes Stephen Fry of his depression. “Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”

Laughter has been called cheap medicine, a cure for a multitude of ills, wine for one’s soul, an antidote for fear, carbonated holiness, the shortest distance between people , a stress cleanser, our most effective weapon, the sound of our soul dancing, and the flip side of weeping.

“Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be”
~ William Hazlitt.

Source: Mayo Clinic

You can also read this at PsyWeb

 

Why Music Is A Mood Lifter and Brain Tonic

April 17, 2015

Most of us do not need proof that listening to music can lift our mood. We simply accept what experience tells us.

That does not stop researchers from looking for reasons why music positively affects our feelings and perceptions. Scientists in Finland at the University of Helsinki, for instance, have made some interesting music-related discoveries.

Mood Lifter

These science sleuths examined 24,000 genes of 48 individuals listening to Mozart’s third violin concerto—an emotionally stirring piece of music. The results were compared to the genes of a control group that did not hear music.

One gene in the Mozart group that was “switched on” by hearing the music is called synuclein-alpha, or SNCA for short. This gene is found on a chromosome in a significant genome area related to musical ability.

SNCA is involved with the release and transportation of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is active in our brain’s reward center and is associated with pleasure, positive mood, and increased motivation.

Brain Tonic

The expression of other genes was enhanced by listening to music as well, including:

  • genes that slow the degeneration of neural pathways.
  • genes the facilitate message transmission throughout the brain
  • genes important for memory and learning.

The more aptitude a study participant had for music, the more their genes were turned on by the sounds. In the most musically inclined listeners, 45 to 97 genes were positively affected by Mozart’s tune.

For the Birds

The Helsinki study also showcases the interrelatedness of species. Several of the genes enhanced by music during this study are the same as those responsible for vocalizations in songbirds. Maybe this is why birdsong can be so uplifting to the human heart and mind.

At the root of all power and motion, there is music and rhythm, the play of patterned frequencies against the matrix of time. Before we make music, music makes us. ~ George Leonard

Sources: PeerJ; Huff Post
You can also read this article at PsyWeb

Depression: A Non-Contagious Infectious Disease?

February 18, 2015

Some scientists are trying to solve the puzzle of depression by thinking outside the box. Turhan Canli, for instance, suggests that depression may be a non-contagious, infectious disease.

Canli, of Stony Brook University in New York, wonders whether an unknown pathogen(s) is the primary cause of depression. As pathogens do, it would trigger an inflammatory response by the immune system to ward off the infection. So, treating the inflammatory response will bring symptom relief but not eliminate depression’s cause.

A pathogen causing MDD, or major depressive disorder, would specifically target the nervous system. An individual carrying the pathogen may have no symptoms until the pathogen is activated by another factor, such as a stressful life circumstance. This same mechanism could also be responsible for other mental health disorders such a bipolar disorder, or PTSD.

Why Infection Makes Sense

Making a case for depression being an infectious disease rests on several biology-based arguments.

  1. People who have MDD act physically ill. They have trouble getting out of bed, have low energy, lose interest in activities, and the world. Canli also points out the individuals not steeped in Western medicine traditions report mostly somatic (physical) symptoms when they are depressed, instead of affective (emotion, mood) symptoms.
  2. Research has associated depression with inflammation of the brain tissue. Inflammation is an indicator of an immune response to a pathogen. A pathogen can be a parasite, bacterium, or a virus. Nature provides many examples of these pathogens causing changes in the emotional behavior of complex organisms.
  3. Scientists’ search for specific depression causing genes has not been successful. This search has been done on the human genes within our system, but eight percent of our human genome is based on chains of retroviruses. It is possible that depression causing retrovirus sequences could be triggered by stressful events.
  4. The human body is a repository for countless undetected bacteria and viruses that can be passed from parents to their children.

Turhan Canli is not alone in suggesting that depression may be an infectious disease.

Not A Psychiatric Condition

A clinical psychologist at the University of California, George Slavich, has been researching depression for years.

“I don’t even talk about it [depression] as a psychiatric condition any more,” said Slavich. “It does involve psychology, but it also involves equal parts of biology and physical health.”

Like Canli, Slavich points out that people feel miserable when they have an infectious disease. They get bored, fatigued, irritable, and just want to lie on the couch. This also describes many people with depression, and suggests there may be a common cause. Slavich sees inflammation as a sign that the immune system is fighting an infectious intruder.

Other scientists are skeptical of the pathogen-depression connection since the inflammation associated with depression can also be triggered by a fatty, sugary diet, obesity, and even loneliness. Still, the arguments for depression being an infectious illness are compelling, and scientists such as Canli hope for extensive research into this possibility.

Sources: Biology of Mood and Anxiety Disorders; The Guardian

Also published on Psyweb

The Healing Presence of Our Natural Habitat

January 18, 2015

There are many reasons why spending time outdoors, enjoying nature, is beneficial. Many benefits have been measured by scientists, but one of the best reasons to walk in a park or take a forest hike may be unmeasurable.

It’s About the Body

Civilization, the world humans have created for themselves, is largely designed for the human body—the body’s survival and the body’s pleasure. That is not surprising since our earthly existence requires a body.

Some of us believe individuals exist before and after inhabiting a body. Others of us consider physical existence a singular and finite experience. Either way, life as we know it in every moment of each day requires a breathing body.

So, we create clothing to cover ourselves, form chairs to sit in, beds to rest on, tubs and showers for cleansing, build homes for protection, tables to eat on, and restaurants to eat in. We manufacture cars, planes, and trains to get ourselves around, and devices that allow our bodies to communicate with other distant bodies.

Maybe someday the human experience will evolve into something new, but it has been and currently is an organic physical experience. Society reflects this, giving the body a significance and status that it does not have in the natural world.

Where the Body Is Comfortable With Itself

Whatever its shape or size, our body is made of the same elements and minerals as our planet. We are part of a natural world that is present to us, but does not bow down nor look down on our presence.

Nature does not grow itself into tables, chairs, buildings, or cell phones to accommodate human need, yet it grows and offers everything we need. Earth, the natural world, is our home. You may think humanity is part divine and part clay, that we are entirely clay, or that the clay itself is divine. Whatever any of us believe about divinity, our body remains akin to the natural world.

Nature, however, does not form itself to accommodate humans. When we are out enjoying Earth’s treasures, whether wild or more manicured, we are not somebody or nobody. We are a living being enjoying our natural habitat among other living beings—or other forms of life, if you prefer. We leave for a time the world of man’s creation where we tend to bow down, or look down upon our own body or that of others.

One of the best reasons to walk in a park or take a forest hike is be where the body, at an elemental level, is comfortable with itself, and to hear what nature is silently singing to us continually—that health and beauty lie in diversity, cooperation, and wholeness.

You can also read this article HERE

Short Winter Days and Holidays: Six Ways to Sidestep SAD

December 14, 2014

As the Christmas Carol goes, “It’s that time of year when the world falls in love,” but it is also the time of year when daylight savings time is over, daylight hours are shorter, and many people suffer from SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Our body’s circadian rhythm, or its 24 hour internal clock, is by nature in sync with the natural world. When our external clocks are adjusted for daylight savings time - forward or back - it throws our internal clock a space-time curve ball that it may have trouble catching up with. Plus, in many areas of the world winter days are short, limiting our contact with circadian rhythm-regulating sunlight.

When our natural bio-rhythms are off so is our production and release of hormones, and this can affect our energy level, sleep patterns, and mood. Some people will notice symptoms of SAD including irritability, fatigue, feeling “heavy,” sleeping too much, emotional hypersensitivity, appetite changes and weight gain.

Six Ways To Sidestep or Minimize SAD

The best defense against SAD is a good offense, so do the following to ward off SAD, or to keep symptoms at a minimum.

  1. Nutrient Rich Diet, Supplements. Eat a variety of protein foods, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables—plenty of dark-green leafy veggies. Make sure you consume essential fatty acids by eating healthy oils (e.g., olive, coconut), fatty fish (e.g., salmon), nuts and seeds. If you think your diet may be lacking, consult a doctor or qualified herbalist about taking supplements.
  2. Stay Active. Regular exercise benefits everyone, but anything you do that gets your body moving can lift your mood. This includes housework, gardening, dancing, taking the stairs instead of an elevator, and making the bed.
  3. Relax Regularly. Whether it is Tai chi, controlled breathing, listening to relaxing music, organizing a closet, or soaking in the tub, we all need to give our body and mind a break from routine stress. Whatever activity relaxes you will do.This includes engaging in personal interests that stimulate your natural enthusiasm or curiosity.
  4. Enjoy the Sunshine. Take every opportunity to soak up some sunshine. If your sun exposure is very limited, you might consider artificial light stimulation designed to counter symptoms of SAD.
  5. Stay Socially Active. Sometimes to feel better we need to do what we may not feel like doing, such as socialize. Make plans to spend time with friends or family at least once or twice each week.
  6. If Necessary, Get Help. If you are taking care of yourself and still struggling with a depressed mood, irritability, or other symptoms of SAD consider seeing a mental health professional. When someone listens to you with your best interests in mind, positive things can happen. We all need help sometimes.

The holiday season can exacerbate symptoms of clinical depression for some people, too. These six suggestions can also reduce major depression symptoms, or maybe keep them from worsening.

You can also read this at PsyWeb.

Depression, Anxiety, and Overthinking

September 17, 2014

Overthinking is examining and reexamining negative emotions, thoughts, and memories. Both men and women can fall into a pattern of overthinking, although women tend to do it more often.

While standard worrywarts fret about the future, overthinkers circle their negative mental wagons around past occurrences, become preoccupied with them, and may stop moving forward.

The Slippery Slope of Overthinking

According to psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D., the way our human brain is organized makes overthinking an easy habit to fall into. Our memories and thoughts form an intricate web of associations so one idea or remembrance that gets triggered stirs others that are similar.

If we slip into an anxious, stressed, or depressed mood, thoughts that resonate with our mood are aroused. A cascade of mental activity that is mood-compatible is released, and we may end up ruminating about things that have nothing to do with the event that set-off our mood. For instance, we might find ourself dwelling on why our boy or girlfriend broke up with us after getting a poor grade on an exam.

Our amazing neurological network is a blessing that allows us to think creatively, but feels like a curse when it is stuck in negativity. Once our mind starts spinning around negative emotions and memories, it is difficult to stop. The more we engage this type of thinking the more habitual it becomes.

Depression, Anxiety, and Overthinking

Not only does overthinking become a pattern with practice, but the thoughts tend to get darker over time. Negative thoughts about a specific experience can generalize or expand to color other areas of our life, causing us to scrutinize still more troublesome memories—amplifying the negativity.

The amplification of negativity leaves us distressed about the past, troubled about the present, and fearful, or fatalistic about our tomorrows. A mind overwhelmed with these thoughts is naturally going to despair, or panic, or both. It is easy to see how overthinking can lead to, or worsens, depression and anxiety.

Overthinking often encompasses our relationships, body-image, family issues, career, and finances. It can also center on recent events such as an argument with a co-worker or friend. The things we ruminate about may be real problems that beg for solutions, but overthinking has never solved anything.

Help for Overthinking

Thinking and contemplation are both worthy endeavors, but using them beyond the purpose they serve is counter productive, and we get bogged down.

Overthinking is often a process of:

  1. Looking for answers that can only be gotten through action (e.g., talking to someone, checking the facts).
  2. Looking for answers that may never be available or satisfactory (e.g., “Why wasn’t my love enough for him/her?”).

So, the remedy for much of our overthinking is either effective problem-solving, for which we need a clear mind, or acceptance of the past and letting go.

If you catch yourself overthinking, try distracting your mind by engaging in another activity such as watching a movie, calling someone, reading, or playing a video game. It is also helpful to practice meditation—learn to watch your overheated thoughts come and go as an objective observer would. Acquiring this skill makes it easier to disengage from thought.

Many people who have a habit of overthinking need the aid of a counselor to become aware of their thought patterns and begin changing them. Our thoughts are so enmeshed with our emotions it can be difficult to release engrained thought-habits without assistance.

Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan, Women Who Think Too Much, Holt, 2004.

You can also read this article at PsyWeb.

How Music Therapy Relieves Depression

August 4, 2014

We do not hear much about music therapy for depression, although studies showing it effectively relieves depressive symptoms have been done.

Music therapy involves a trained music therapist engaging in improvisational music-making with a client. It seems that the “active doing” of playing musical instruments is healing for aesthetic, physical, and relational reasons.

Aesthetic Engagement

In psychotherapy, the therapist listens to the client’s words and responds verbally. A music therapist listens to the musical sounds made by the client and responds to them musically. It is a conversation in sound and rhythm that may lead to insight and some verbal discussion.

This aesthetic dynamic engages clients at an instinctive level and supports them in taking risks—expressing themselves differently. For instance, the therapist might validate a client’s tentative melody fragment by creating a bass line under it. This may encourage the client to risk developing the melody further.

Physical Response

To facilitate connection and self exploration, music therapy requires purposeful physical movement. It is known that physical activity helps relieve depression, but the therapeutic value of music and movement goes even deeper.

An experience of being drawn in by music, and responding to it with movement, connects us to our physical nature. Even unmotivated people can find themselves tapping a finger or foot to a snappy tune. Music entrains and enlivens us. Moving to it is a natural human phenomenon.

Making music also allows us to experience our physical self with other physical selves. The coordinated motions between two or more music makers creates a meaningful physical encounter in the present moment, and establishes community.

Relational Vocabulary

It is possible we are hard-wired to communicate musically in order to establish community. Think about the earliest interactions between parents and newborns. The combination of gestures and sounds typically used is a musical vocabulary connecting adult and child. An absence of this musical parent-baby speech has a negative developmental impact on children.

In this relational sense, a musical therapist can be viewed in a parental role, nurturing the client’s self discovery and self expression through musical vocabulary—cultivating the experience of pleasure and meaning. However, it is the music itself - melodies, rhythms, and harmonies - that engages people where words might fail.

You can also read this at PsyWeb.

Source: BJPsych

How Our Words and Feelings Influence Each Other

July 6, 2014

Maybe you have noticed that many positively charged words contain the “i” sound (e.g., like, high), while many negatively charged words have an “o” sound (e.g. lonely, low).

Some scientists noticed this is true in many languages, and wondered why. Their research shows that the way our mouth forms vowels as we speak influences our feelings, and our feelings influence our word choices.

So, the link between what we say and how we feel is not just psychological, it is physical as well. Findings such as this are not only interesting, they remind us how integrated our mind-body experience is.

Mouth Muscles and Mood

We each have a major mouth muscle called the zygomaticus. We use this muscle when laughing or smiling. Or, if you hold a pen between your teeth, so each end of the pen is pointing toward an ear, you are exercising your zygomaticus.

The zygomaticus muscle is also used to pronounce the vowel sound “i”.

We have another major mouth muscle called the orbicularis. We use this muscle when we purse our lips. Or, if you hold one end of a pen between your lips, as you would a cigar, you are exercising your orbicularis.

The orbicularis is also used to pronounce the vowel sound “o”.

In the research:

  1. Study subjects influenced to be in a positive mood were asked to make up ten words and say them aloud. They made up words containing significantly more “i” sounds than “o” sounds. Participants influenced to be in a negative mood were asked to make up ten words and say them aloud. They made up words containing many more “o” sounds than “i” sounds.
  2. Study participants exercising their zygomaticus (“i”) muscle by holding a pen between their teeth found a series of cartoons to be more humorous than the participants holding a pen between their lips, stimulating the orbicularis (“o”) muscle.

Words and Feelings

The investigators concluded that as people learn language, forming “i” sounds becomes associated with good feelings that prompt us to use more “i” sounding words. The “o” sound becomes associated with negative feelings and words.

This phenomenon is true in many languages because it is owed to the way humans use their facial muscles as they articulate words. The link between forming vowels, and our emotion and word choices is cross-cultural.

Everyday, and everywhere, the words we use reflect our feelings, and our feelings influence the words we choose. Our individual physical and emotional expressions are intimately connected, and this mind-body unity is universal.

You can also read this article at PsyWeb.

Source: Science Daily

Non-Military Triggers of PTSD

June 18, 2014

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be triggered by various traumatic experiences, but the symptoms are most often recognized in individuals suffering military related trauma.

This is not surprising since military experience and PTSD are frequently linked in TV shows, films, and the news media, and much PTSD research today involves traumatized veterans.

While veterans deserve excellent assessment and treatment for PTSD, the equating of PTSD with military service has been associated with less recognition of the same symptoms when caused by other types of trauma.

“The implications are that many people who develop PTSD following non-military combat traumas - particularly rape - are less likely to have it recognized by those around them, and are also less likely to seek help for their difficulties,” said researcher Dr. Ian Tharp.

Non-Military Related PTSD

Non-military causes of PTSD are more common when you consider the wider population. Symptoms can arise from experiences such as natural disasters, physical or sexual assault, traffic accidents, or industrial accidents. A number of people develop symptoms after spending time in hospital ICUs (intensive care units).

Dr. Tharp points out that the likelihood of having PTSD symptoms is greater after these types of events than after military combat. Yet, without increased awareness of this in communities, non-military PTSD symptoms may be ignored by those who have them and overlooked by family or friends.

So, familiarize yourself with the signs of PTSD and take them seriously no matter what event triggered their development. A person’s symptom intensity and need for help is not determined by the type of trauma gone through.

The Signs of PTSD

If you, or someone you know, persistently experiences some of these symptoms a mental health assessment is recommended.

  • recurring/involuntary/intrusive memories, traumatic nightmares, flashbacks of the trauma, intense/prolonged distress after exposure to traumatic reminders, intense reaction after exposure to a trauma-related stimulus.
  • persistent, effortful avoidance of trauma related thoughts/feelings, or of external reminders of the trauma (e.g., place, objects).
  • amnesia (not owed to injury) around features the trauma, continuous negative expectations/beliefs about the self, persistent trauma-related negative emotions (e.g., anger, guilt, fear)
  • loss of interest in pleasurable activities, feelings of alienation or detachment from others, difficulty expressing positive emotions.
  • irritable/aggressive behavior, self-destructive/reckless behavior, hyper-vigilance, heightened startle response, trouble concentrating, problems sleeping.

Source: Science Daily

You can also read the article at Brain Physics

Why Depressed People Can Often Manage Practicing Yoga

May 6, 2014

There are many scientific reasons why yoga is good exercise choice for people with depression.

Practicing yoga helps us become mindful of the present, reduces stress, and helps balance the body’s hormones. Research suggests yoga increases the release of our feel-good neurotransmitters (e.g., serotonin, GABA, dopamine), and promotes neurological growth.

However, some of the most compelling reasons for doing yoga—from a depressed person’s point of view—are not scientific or noble. They involve the compatibility of yoga with people who feel lethargic, sad, and unmotivated.

Six Reasons Depressed People Can Manage Yoga

  1. Some yoga poses require strength, but many of them are more about relaxing into a stretch, such as doing a seated forward bend. Relaxing into something does not require much energy or motivation. It actually feels a bit as if you are giving up struggle or letting-go which can be a relief if you are depressed.
  2. Going to a yoga class gets you out of the house and around others—something people with depression are often recommended to do. However, you can also do yoga alone, at home. There are YouTube and other free online videos that teach yoga basics if you do not wish to purchase yoga books or DVDs.
  3. If feeling tired or lethargic, you can scatter yoga poses throughout the day instead of going through a series of them. If you are depressed, the thought of practicing a yoga series or routine may be overwhelming, whereas doing one pose every couple hours is doable. Plus, many yoga postures can be done sitting on a chair, or lying down.
  4. When people are depressed they do not always feel like moving. With yoga, you can stay in one pose as long as you like. Some of the postures are comfortable to maintain for several minutes or more—so you can exercise and not move simultaneously.
  5. Yoga postures can be adjusted to suit anyone’s fitness level. You do each pose the best you can and without straining your muscles or joints. Gently does it. However, if you are out of shape or have medical issues, talk to your doctor before starting any type of exercise.
  6. When you are feeling better, you can easily increase your yoga practice to suit a higher energy level. If depressive symptoms recur, it is just as easy to scale the practice back.

Yoga not only keeps the body flexible, but the practice itself is flexible enough to suit anyone, even those struggling with depression. A few poses each day can relax your muscles, quiet the mind, and help you feel connected to your body and yourself.

You can also read it HERE.

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