It’s amazing what you notice when you literally can’t see…
A few weeks ago, I went in to my optometrist’s office to have my eyes checked. I needed an updated prescription in order to get new contacts. What I learned was that my vision had been grossly overpowered for pretty much my entire young adult life (Math: Aged 15 through 38 makes for 23 years of wearing contact lenses, kids)
I left his office wearing a prescription I think I may have had when I was 10. All of Park Slope looked slightly out of focus with a diffused fuzz surrounding lights and street signs. He told me my brain needed time to get used to this downgrade. My eyes had been conditioned to over focus. This got me thinking about my painful at times issue of noticing the little things that others miss. Conversations I can’t seem to filter my attention away from, scenes that play out in the far corners of train cars when people are staring deeply into their smart devices and smells that no one else seems to pick up on, but send my olfactory bulbs into overdrive. This is the story of my life. I fantasize about what it must be like for the people who do not notice; who aren’t capable or do not care to notice. I envy their ability to walk through life oblivious to all that detail.
I still couldn’t see shit hours later. How long was it going to take my brain to acclimate?
I woke up the following morning and popped the tester contacts back in. When I got to the city, I realized I could not discern clear facial features of anyone more than ten feet away from me. This walk down one of the longest city blocks to get to my work is like an American Ninja Warrior gauntlet. I’m in a constant battle for space, bobbing and weaving through people staring up or down but never straight on, exaggerated arm swings with lit cigarettes that narrowly miss burning a whole into my side and those people who literally just STOP without warning (yes, there is such a thing as rear ending a pedestrian). Since I couldn’t anticipate people’s movements, I had to just go with the flow. I got knocked into by a guy carrying a humongous Starbucks disaster drink. Ask me what he looked like? I have no freakin’ clue. It’s easier to let moments like that go when you don’t have the afterimage of his face stamped in your memory.
I rushed down the subway stairs and made my train just as it was pulling into the station. The bright orange circle was the letter B to my downgraded eyes. It was, in fact, a D. Getting off a few stops later, I waited until the next train fully pulled in and squinted to see the letter clearly. I almost doubted myself. I almost asked the teenager sitting next to me what the letter was. I didn’t. I gazed at our reflections in the darkened window facing us. We looked the same age. My eyes had now become a Photoshop filter. I smiled not really caring what part of Brooklyn I might end up in if my vision had tricked me.
After a week of this, I started to feel like those people I envied. I realized just how much mental real estate I give over to details that honestly take the joy out of my life at times. There is an expression “the devil is in the details” and it rang true for me. Learning to pay attention to what matters most instead of getting lost or despondent over every micro element of what I’m seeing, hearing or inhaling is my take away from this experience. My eyes may have found their focus now, but I feel like I inadvertently got a dose of exposure therapy in the process. And I’m not mad about it at all.
A few months back, my sister and I were chatting about how she had learned to cope with her kids’ misbehavior and meltdowns. Unlike the old school European tactics of our parents, she had discovered a way that built a level of self awareness in her children even some adults lack. This magical teaching tool is No-Drama Discipline (image above) written by two of psychology’s leading experts in parenting.
I decided I wanted to read this book not because I am or will be a parent anytime soon nor because it is required reading for my grad school endeavors. What appealed to me about it was gaining another level of understanding the way in which our brains react to emotional situations. While it may be geared toward parents trying not to psychologically scar their children in the process of raising them, its tools can be applied to almost any relational conflict in life.
The WHOLE brain…
The authors speak of the brain in two parts – an upstairs and a downstairs. This rather simple separation makes sense in terms of our reactions. Think of your upstairs brain as your rational, intellectual side that likes to problem solve and think through things before it reacts. It’s the part that has had many millennia of trial and error to evolve into the task master that it is. The downstairs brain is your primitive, reptilian side that reacts immediately and strongly to things that stimulate it. It’s governed by emotional reflexes and, if left to its own devices, would have kept us from ever becoming “human.” The whole-brain approach these experts describe is getting the upstairs and downstairs to work together in order to build a positive sense of self, accountability and resilience, delayed gratification and a host of other mindful things in children.
Adults can have trouble integrating their upstairs and downstairs brains too. We have ALL been there; a situation where reason flies out the window and we would sooner punch a wall than ask questions. That’s the downstairs brain running the show. This reactivity is noted by the authors as being a plea for help or a sign that a child doesn’t know how to process and express the BIG feelings that have overwhelmed him or her in that moment. Adults, too, can have trouble articulating BIG feelings, especially if there is a level of vulnerability involved. What it boils down to is if you punch that wall, will you still be loved? If you are at your lowest, will people still be there for you? If you are your worst self, can you still be lovable? The answers to these questions are in the following steps.
Step 1 – The Connection Cycle
In dealing with relational conflict, the authors emphasize tuning in to the mind beneath the behavior (77). This is focusing not on what the person has done or said, but on the underlying why. This is sometimes easier said than done; however in the initial moments of the behavior’s aftermath, connecting with the other person begins to communicate a sense of comfort. The connection cycle begins with a physical touch, followed by validating where the other person is emotionally, listening to what they have to say and then reflecting on it. This first step demonstrates that you know the person may be in a bad way at the moment, but you are there and willing to understand them. This approach teaches our kids how to love through good times and bad, as well as promotes the secure attachment vital for their healthy, future adult relationships. Cue the word adult..
Step 2 – A little Redirection
Connection is very much about being in the present moment. While you can’t bend time to undo the offending or upsetting behavior, the “moment” doesn’t have to define the other person, the relationship or life as you both know it. With connection established, you now have a firm grip on why the downstairs brain ran amok. In order to get the upstairs brain on board to resolve the situation, the authors refer to a series of strategies in redirection. I’ve chosen the ones that best apply to adult conflict.
Reduce words – Do not nag, lecture or harp on what happened, since the why behind the behavior is known. Do not do this days, weeks or months after the conflict either. People tune out or conversely, ruminate on the negative. No one feels good in the end.
Describe, don’t preach – I’ve placed this after the above because it relates to what you say. Just describe what you observe. Take all the emotional language, assumptions and judgement out of it. If anything, ask them to help you understand what happened.
Embrace emotions -You want to make sure they know it’s okay to feel BIG emotions, but they are not a license to ACT. This is done through setting boundaries i.e. the standards of behavior that are okay and not okay, while also maintaining connection and being empathetic (97).
Emphasize the positive – Give your focus and attention to behavior you want to see repeated. Statements like “I love it when you…” or “It makes me so happy when we…” open up a dialogue that redirects from the negative thing that happened.
Creatively approach the situation – Humor and playfulness are just as fun in adulthood as they are in childhood. While some situations may be serious, there are still ways of poking fun at ourselves (e.g. Wow, I was being a crazy pants back there!) or at the circumstances (e.g. I feel like this Emoji face right now…and then doing it).
The last strategy of redirection involves teaching mindfulness. One important tool is the do-over defined as a second chance at handling a situation, which is meant to build a child’s empathy and mindfulness. Ask questions like, What could you have done differently? What will you do next time? Ask yourself those same questions.
Mindfulness is the most honest resolution to any relational conflict.
Reading this book allowed me to understand the why behind the demise of a close friendship. It also helped me to have a difficult conversation with someone I cared for deeply with more presence and understanding than if I let my hurt feelings do the talking. Moreover, it paints conflict resolution as a warm and nurturing experience; something I never experienced growing up, but I can now model for my present and future relationships. This book is LIFE!
Your brain’s fitness is largely overlooked. Most of us focus on cardiovascular exercise for a healthy heart and strength training for a healthy musculoskeletal system. The mass of nerve tissue in your skull also needs its own training regimen. The “use it or lose it” adage is often quoted, but it wasn’t until I did some focused reading on the living organ that is our brain that I truly understood how this works (or doesn’t). The brain is comprised of precious real estate maps that correspond to regions of the body, as well as various cognitive activities. Should that particular region of the body become useless or an activity cease, the real estate doesn’t die off, but gets replaced by another area altogether. And in cases where are a part of the brain dies or is damaged, other parts are recruited to compensate for that loss. No corner of the working brain is squandered. Here’s an example:
A man working a job site accidentally saws through his hand, severing the nerve that feeds his pinky and ring fingers. After recovering from the initial trauma, he begins doing physical therapy to strengthen his hand and get the rest of his fingers to work without the 4th and 5th fingers. If we cut open his brain and mapped out the region that represents those two useless fingers with little lights, you would see a pretty amazing thing happen. Every time he recruits his other fingers and working parts of his affected hand, the region representing the two appendages that no longer receive commands from the brain will light up. How is this possible? In a remarkable feat of engineering, the silenced region of the brain is over grown by the working areas around it. They take over and grow stronger, thus maximizing their neurological property.
This is just one demonstration of the brain’s adaptability. Calling one’s brain “plastic” means that with the right exercises and activities, we can train our minds to circumvent any issue, like say a stroke, allowing us to recover lost function by recruiting other regions’ maps to take over those activities. Here’s another example:
Acclaimed American nueroscientist, Paul Bach-y-Rita, was a pioneer in the field of nueroplasticity. Early in his career he created a system of vibrating plates that were attached to a blind individual’s back. The plates would vibrate in connection to a forward facing camera that “observed” objects in what would be one’s visual field. The patterns of vibration were different depending on the object, but what ended up occurring was the ability for the blind person to “see” the world surrounding him. His skin sensors sensing the vibrations were sending the information to his visual cortex. One sense, touch, compensating for the other sense that did not function.
Further along in his career, he created a device that helped people whose vestibular systems (i.e. what helps us maintain balance and spatial awareness) were damaged. These people literally couldn’t stand upright; their world was in perpetual motion, like being on a rocky boat. The device attached sensors onto the patients’ tongues, which is a region saturated with sensory receptors, that interpreted forward, back and side to side movement. Accelerometers attached to them and linked to a computer would give the “position” in space of the patients and allow them to stay balanced. After using the device initially, a patient would experience the residual affects for many hours, despite still having a damaged vestibular system. Used for several weeks and many patients were completely cured. This just shows how the brain is able to reorganize itself and adapt to new information from an unlikely source.
Perhaps the best example from Bach-y-Rita’s career was his father’s massive stroke. After his father passed away years later, an autopsy indicated a large part of his brain stem had died, which would have left him unable to do most basic functions. However, through neuroplastic exercises that Bach-y-Rita and his brother gave to their father, he was not only able to recover the basic functions, but more complex ones as well, which allowed him to return to teaching. His brain reorganized itself on very large scale.
After reading so much about nueroplasticity, I can’t help but think about my grandmother and how her brain was eaten away by a combination of stroke, Alzheimer’s and Aphasia; the latter two being a one two punch of memory loss, dementia and the inability to speak. I wonder if nueroplastic exercises done early after the stroke that started the ball rolling would have helped her brain remap itself enough to prevent many of the symptoms of the other two neurological diseases to manifest. There is some fascinating research out there that makes a brilliant case for this.
I guess the “use it or lose it” adage should be changed to just “USE IT!!!!” Crack open some of the below books if you are as intrigued as I am and get started this new year.
There is nothing better than a person who is health and wellness minded coming to me for massage. You don’t really have to convince them of the benefits or teach them about its affects on their body because they are already informed and on board. Instead, as you work with them, they learn more about their body’s movement patterns and underlying stored tensions, making release and corrective care all the more possible. After a series of sessions they will be right at home in their new state of being and come to you for follow ups whenever they feel the need for them. Sigh…if only all client situations were like this.
One client that I have been working with now for a few weeks fits the model client moniker to a tee. He comes in with stories and updates on the results of his last session and what his activities/work/lifestyle have procured for me this time around. I share him with another therapist. We both approach his motley crew of issues with different perspectives and techniques, but always end up with some kind of change/result. This weekly challenge is such a learning process for myself. Having to get creative in order to circumvent limitations and other obstacles takes me away from my usual approach to a particular muscle issue and brings back the spark of why I got into this profession in the first place. It also makes me hungry for more education, which (lucky me) New York State is going to require in just a few short months to renew my license. I do my little happy dance post session, when I can see the effects of the work; a little less rounding of the shoulders, an arm fully flexing up to one’s ear, a little pain free spring in one’s step. It’s a great feeling.
In contrast to the model client, is the problem client. They come in many forms, sometimes seeking out massage on their own or having it forced on them by a health care professional or a loved one. They almost never feel comfortable with anything you may try out to address their issue(s), that is if they can pinpoint what it/they are in the first place. They don’t communicate their feelings easily or over communicate as in “choreograph” the entire massage session. On the one hand, I welcome clients being specific about where their trouble spots are and what they prefer me to do; however, one has to be a little reasonable. After all, there is a flow involved with a good massage and jumping back and forth between body parts, over flipping from supine to prone or over working a particular region or muscle kind of kills that vibe.
A funny thing happened a few weeks ago with one such problem client. After a handful of sessions where said client answered all my intake questions with shrugs and my inquiries on our work with a down-tempo “it’s ok” I had become a little more than frustrated. I was starting to gas out completely and couldn’t count down the minutes until our session ended. No longer client centered and feeling drained, I stopped focusing and sort of mindlessly moved about the tissues and musculature I was addressing. My zombie massage was, to me, the worst massage I could ever give a person. However, in this state, my problem client finally let go. In my daze, I heard a comment on how sore the front of their thighs were. At first, I thought the voice came from the inner recesses of my head…or the television blaring in the client’s family room. When it dawned on me that the client was actually communicating with me, I snapped out of my zombie mind and asked where they felt the soreness might have stemmed from (activities, diet, etc.) In three minutes, I received more feedback than in all the weeks I had been working with this individual. My crappy massage was this person’s saving grace. I know now to start off in a general way with said individual and allow them to lead me where they need. This problem turned out to be a model – a learning experience to challenge my approach to different personality types. Sometimes the egg can be cracked without too much force or effort. Take that, brain!!
Many health and nutritional experts say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but I beg to differ. Let me draw your attention to the period of time that precedes that meal. A time that should be spent in a state of deep restfulness. Doing without this form of nutrition will set your body up for certain demise. Sleep is the meal that should never be skipped.
Our appetite for sleep is programmed into a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus, which is the regulating center for the various biological drives that keep our bodies functioning. When we are infants, the part responsible for sleep and wakefulness is out of control. Think of how many babies sleep all day and are up all night or those that have short bouts of sleep spread out over an entire day. The reason for this insane sleep schedule is the immaturity of the internal clock that sets daily functions to the rhythm of 24 hours. Human beings have it, as do plants, animals, fungi and certain bacteria. Dubbed our Circadian Rhythm, sleep and wakefulness is dependent on exposure to light and dark. The first few months of life are pivotal in establishing this internal rhythm, but some babies take as long as a year to sleep a solid 8 hour night. Once the rhythm is established, your body will function on a 24 hour cycle. When in the presence of darkness, our brain’s pineal gland, which is light sensitive, produces a hormone melatonin that helps to make us sleepy. Desire for sleep is strongest during the darkest hours between midnight and 6 a.m. and to a lesser extent in the mid-afternoon. In American culture, this is the 2-4 p.m. slump when most people grab themselves a coffee and/or some kind of energy boosting snack. In Europe and Latin America, this would be your afternoon nap-time otherwise called the “siesta.”
Sleep itself is a highly involved process consisting of 4 stages that each have a physiological affect on the body and brain. The first three stages are part of what is called Non-REM or quiet sleep, a state where thinking and most physiological activities slow down, but movement can still occur, and a person often shifts position while sinking into deeper stages of sleep. Unless something disturbs the process, people will pass through these 3 stages of sleep smoothly. The fourth stage of sleep is called REM or dreaming sleep, a state where the brain is very active, but the body is paralyzed. Normal sleep cycles alternate between quiet and dreaming, with most deep sleep occurring in the first half of the night. During the second half of the night, dreaming sleep gets much longer and alternates with the second stage of quiet sleep. More on these stages now…
During the first stage of sleep, dubbed drowsiness, your brain no longer receives visual stimuli from your shut eyes, body temperature begins to drop, muscles relax, and eyes often move slowly from side to side. Although you may start to lose awareness of your surroundings, you can very easily be awakened. In the second stage of sleep, known as light sleep eyes remain still and breathing and heart rate are much slower. The brain starts to show irregular electrical patterns of slow waves and short bursts of activity. The brain can also respond to outside stimuli, like someone whispering your name, which scientists believe could be a built in vigilance system to ready you for awakening if necessary. Half of a good night’s sleep is spent in this stage. Once you enter the third stage of sleep, known as deep sleep, your body undergoes some important cellular changes. Blood flow to the brain decreases and it stops responding to outside stimuli, making it difficult to wake up the sleeper. Breathing becomes regular, blood pressure falls and the heart slows to 30% of its waking rate. The pituitary gland releases growth hormone at the beginning of this stage which stimulates tissue growth and muscle repair. Proteins in the blood that activate your immune system also increase, helping build the body’s defenses against illness and infection. Interesting side note here: People in young adulthood have many stretches of deep sleep, while those over 65 have none.
Enter now the fourth stage of sleep or dreaming sleepwhere the eyes dart back and forth rapidly behind your closed lids ( this is where the acronym REM comes from standing for “rapid eye movement”) and the brain races with thoughts and “dreams. Your body temperature and blood pressure rise, and your heart rate and breathing speed up to daytime levels. What is interesting is that the sympathetic nervous system, our fight-or-flight response, is twice as active as when we are awake. Despite all this activity, the body hardly moves, except for intermittent twitches. The rest of the muscles not needed for breathing or eye movement are essentially paralyzed. A normal night’s slumber consists of 3 to 5 approximately 90 minute periods of REM, but as we age they get shorter. Many scientists feel this is the time when the mind restores itself, which is important for cognition and memory. Early research into the role of REM sleep in-utero indicated that the rapid firing of nerve cells during this period was important for the growth and development of nerves. Subsequent studies on adult humans found that REM sleep deprivation led to poor performance on a variety of recall tests or logical tasks. In addition, memory loss occurred when sleep was deprived on the same night or two nights after the material had been learned and especially when subjects had been selectively deprived of one of the first two or last two REM episodes of the night. In other studies, REM cycles were found to increase after complex material had been studied, indicating that the brain uses this time to sort and process information into its memory banks. Other scientists suggest that REM sleep functions to dispose of unwanted memories through a mechanism called reverse learning. Reverse learning operates during this period of sleep to prevent the brain from being overloaded with massive amounts of information stored during wakefulness. A fine explanation for the insane dreams one may have, but testing this is pretty difficult, so it’s just a theory.
If your sleep is going to be interrupted, you do not want it to be during your stage 3 and stage 4 cycles. Overtime, deprivation of these levels of restorative sleep will take a toll on your outward appearance and your internal health, mentally and physically. Dermatologists have noted that collagen production increases during sleep, strengthening the bond between your exterior and deeper skin layers and allowing for the water retention necessary for suppleness. Also, growth hormone gets released in deep sleep, as mentioned earlier, which builds and repairs tissue. Without it, water evaporates from the skin leading to a dry, sallow complexion and the appearance of fine lines. Keep it up and skin could react with rashes and eczema. Lack of deep sleep increases the amount of inflammatory proteins in the blood and decreases immune system response. The more deprived you are, the more likely it will be that your body will react to pathogens and itself. The increased inflammatory proteins can lead to such conditions as heart disease and overall, research has indicated that people who get less than 6 hours of rest a night tend to have a higher mortality rate than those getting the recommended 7-8 hours. If you are a person who weight trains or exercises a lot, the lack of deep sleep does not allow for muscles to repair themselves and grow properly. This negates the affects of the workout and leaves them prone to injury. Outside memory loss, deprivation of REM sleep can lead to a diminished awareness of one’s surroundings, a severely reduced response time and an inability to perform tasks that are highly involved, such as driving or operating machinery. Far beyond drinking and drug use, lack of sleep is responsible for most of the accidents that occur on America’s roadways.
If you are having trouble getting to sleep at night, some of the obvious culprits could be stress, use of electronic equipment before bed, drinking too much caffeine and eating a big meal or going to bed hungry. Those have easy solutions, relatively speaking. You can get a massage, meditate or do some yoga to relax your body and bring your mind down from its stressful state. Have your coffee earlier in the day and cut down on the amount. No eating of large meals or snacks within 2 hours of going to bed, so you have ample time to digest. Shut the computer and the television and get them away from the area dedicated for sleepy time. Plunge yourself into darkness (remember that melatonin) and relative warmth, and sleep should come to you. However, there are some not so obvious culprits for disturbance of sleep. Check these out:
Taking a B vitamin supplement before bed – The B’s are super important for stimulating the nervous system, so popping supplements before bed can lead to fidgeting and constant awakening because the brain is way too “ON” to enter deep sleep.
Having a few drinks in your system – While it might get you to sleep faster, alcohol impedes the natural cycling of sleep stages, plunging you into what feels like deep sleep right away, but wearing off in the second half of the night when your REM cycles start kicking in. Since you never get to REM, you wake up more often than not feeling groggy, achy and depending on how much you drank, possibly still drunk.
Taking Prescription medications – Consider that sleep disturbance is a common side affect of some high blood pressure pills, birth control pills, steroids (including asthma inhalers), diet pills, antidepressants and cough and cold medications.
Smoking – Nicotine is a stimulant like caffeine so depending on how much you smoke and for how long, sleep can be dramatically reduced.
Working out at night – Some work schedules do not allow for morning or midday exercise, so many people will go to the gym after work. Exercise raises epinephrine levels in the blood, which makes us more alert and overall body temperature. These 2 factors can prevent sleep.
Hormonal changes – Long before menopause has kicked in, many women find they wake up in the night numerous times. This is due to fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone. Some younger women suffer from erratic sleep patterns before or during their menstrual cycles due to imbalances of these hormones.
Sleeping in on the weekends – It’s good for the circadian rhythm to awaken and go to sleep around the same times each day, but many of us tend to stay up later and sleep in more on days off. This throws off your internal clock, making it harder to fall asleep and awaken when faced with your normal schedule. Doctors suggest to sleep no longer than an hour more than you normally would in order to maintain the cycle.
Lastly, if you are chronically deprived of sleep despite your best efforts you should really think about visiting a doctor and/or finding a sleep clinic in your area to better assess and diagnose your problem. Now, go get a heaping helping of rest please!