Friday, November 23, 2012

ProBiotics Could Help Your Brain

I know that eating helpful gut bacteria (acidophilus, for example, found in active yogurt cultures) helps our digestion work at its best, and can improve our immune function, but little did I know that scientists are studying the effect of healthy gut bacteria on emotional resilience and mood. It turns out that good gut bacteria seem to work with the function of the Vagas Nerve, the nerve that links the brain to the digestive tract, to stimulate positive emotional function. (Check out a brief intro to this amazing nervous system giant here: Vagas Nerve.) 

In mice, this connection made mice more resilient in the face of stress and able to persist in difficult circumstances far beyond their "normal" peers. There is more than some suggestion that human emotions and mental health could be lifted by additions of pro-biotics into the daily diet. Jamie Lee Curtis (Activia!) may be absolutely right: adding yogurt or other pro-biotic supplements can make you a happier, healthier person overall.

If you struggle with mood, energy, and lethargy, it may be worth your while to give daily yogurt or a pro-biotic supplement a try.

If you'd like to hear more about this research, listen to this episode of the science radio program, RadioLab,  entitled, "Guts."  (The research about the mice is around the halfway mark if you'd like to cut to the chase.) The whole program is amazing.

 

Monday, November 12, 2012

I Need Help NOW

Several of my clients are suffering with destructive moods, relationships, jobs or unemployment at the moment.


I understand what that vortex feels like: overwhelming physical tension, unclear thinking, rushed or confused decision making, hair-trigger temper, uneasy sleep. During times like this in life, it's very hard to trust that you can find a way to hang on. The present is so unpleasant it seems endless.

When times like this come to us (and believe me, they will come to us all, at one time or another), I like to focus on two aspects of help: making the NOW better each day, and focusing o
n the small decisions we make so that we can create a more hopeful FUTURE.

The Now: There is a great deal we all can do every day to soothe our bodies and minds for optimum wellness even when in an emotional storm. They are aspects of daily self care, but few of us practice them with enough patience that they make a difference. Here are the basics I talk to all my clients about. What are you willing to work on each day to improve your own functioning?

1. Exercise. Absolutely, the most important addition to the self care tool box. The benefits of moving our bodies regularly, at a moderate level, for 30 minutes a day include lower blood pressure and blood sugar, a lowering of muscle tension, clearer thinking, better sleep. If ever there was a "magic potion" for wellness, daily exercise is it.

2. Nutrition. Along with exercise, what we eat has an immediate and lasting impact on our body's ability to get through the day with less stress. Less processed foods, less alcohol, and more real foods like vegetables, fruits, dairy, whole grains, lean meats, beans and fish will better nourish the body and brain.

3. Meditation/relaxation/guided imagery/breathing/prayer/ritual. A stressed mind and body needs to practice being relaxed. At times of high stress, the nervous system doesn't easily recover from tension. 20-30 minutes, every day, of quiet time that helps the mind quiet, slow, and focus will create a relaxation response in the body that promotes healing. Many people complain to me that they have tried meditation, breathing, or imagery and "it doesn't work." These are skills that take time to practice and learn. If you are patient, these skills can change your life.

4. Core relationships. When we are stressed by terrible strife at work, home or community, we can turn inward and neglect the other relationships that support us. We don't want to burden others with our struggles, yet it's exactly at this point we need the love and support of friends, extended family, pets, neighbors and healthy colleagues. Make time for these happier relationships, and don't spend every minute talking about yourself. Listen, laugh, relax with others. Relationships need to be balanced, even in stress.

Taking time to focus on what can be done TODAY will help lift the weight of life's struggles off your mind. Commit yourself to helping your body, mind and relationships be healthy, flexible and strong. It makes the now so much less destructive. In my next post, I'll talk about the mental skill of hopefulness that can draw us forward.

In the meantime, be well.

 
 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

We Can't Choose our Parents

It's true; we can't choose our parents.

Whatever skills or deficits they possess as people: their readiness or disinterest at caring for us, their physical and mental health, and their ability to meet basic needs for food, shelter and safety have an immediate and lasting effect on our own development. The human brain is shaped every day by the way we are cared for by those closest to us, and grows fastest during the first two years of life.

If a child is born to a parent who neglects their needs, is addicted, or who is violent, abusive or mentally ill, the effects are devastating. A human mind can be ruined if not helped and supported to develop in a healthier, more stable and flexible way.

It's also true that in America the first time a failing family may come into contact with an institution that could help it recover is with the justice system or the public schools.

In this wonderful episode of This American Life radio show, stories are told of educational and therapeutic systems that work to re-parent our cultures disordered parent-child relationships.  If you've ever wondered how schools cope, or how family and in-home therapy works, take a listen. It's great.

The American Life : Back To School, Episode 474

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Willing to Risk Again

Several times this week I have found myself talking to new couple clients about their relationships, and how hurt has caused them to feel withdrawn from their partners. Sometimes this distance has lasted for years, the human need for support, connection and understanding no longer expected from their spouse. 

One of the most important aspects of relationship repair is the willingness to risk being open to a partner who has been months or years at odds with our needs and hopes. Couple therapy at its best keeps both people focused on their individual efforts, while being confident, through actions and words in the therapy room and out, that the partner is doing the same hard work. 

It can feel like being open to injury. Like you are just asking for your partner to hurt you again. Many people resist, and for every right reason! But repairing such pain means turning toward your partner and feeling what you feel, expressing your hurt and disappointment, asking for what you need again, and being willing to see if your openness can be met with a similar effort of apology, repair, and affection by your partner. That's what a good couple therapist does every day with couples, with compassion, encouragement and patience. It's not a free-for-all in therapy sessions. If it is, run in the other direction. 

When deciding whether to go to couples therapy, this is one question you will need to answer: am I willing to be open again to this person, this one I once loved, and see what I feel, what they have to say, what they have experienced, and work together for new, common ground? 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Should I or Shouldn't I ?

In a couple of weeks I will be voted off the active clergy roster of the ELCA.

This means that the Church that ordained me no longer will consider me a pastor. All this comes about not because of any Church mean-spirited-ness or personal failure on my part. I left the parish in 2004 to become a family therapist, and because I'm not involved in ministry as a pastor any more, I'm no longer "official" in the way Lutherans understand the ordained ministry. For these 8 years, I've gotten a pass as someone "On Leave from Call." That grace has run out. So be it.

I've worked hard since 2004 to let this adult identity of mine go.
I planned to be a pastor since I was 16 ( I KNOW, right?!) and was one, full time, through unemployment and interviews, singleness and marriage, pregnancies and parenting, healthy churches and not, solo jobs and staff positions, parsonages and mortgages for 20+ years. That's one deeply held self understanding. And I'm proud of the pastor and person I was, despite my own obvious flaws and mistakes. In the end, the job was so full of politics, dissembling and distress, I threw in the towel.

I'm very happy as a therapist. I find the study of human mental health provides me with answers to questions I had been asking all my life about why people behave, believe and relate the way they do. I'm so much happier working for myself, and every mistake and every success belongs to me alone. I love helping people heal in ways I had only imagined as a pastor. I really enjoy my therapist colleagues. All in all, it was exactly the right thing for me to do.

Part of being on the roster meant that I had to be a member of an ELCA congregation. Now that I am going to be released, that no longer applies. I have been attending the Episcopal church for these 8 years, and my husband and both children were received into adult membership over the years. So that leaves me the next quandary in my spiritual journey: is it time to join the Episcopal Church?

It's a bit like leaving a family. Am I ready to join another family of faith now that I'm contractually released from my first? Is church membership even important anymore? The death knell for the organized Church in its American forms has been sounding for the last 10 years. Is being received as an official member important to the Episcopal church as it struggles to be in mission despite its own internal strife?

I'm clearly on the fence, and it's not all that comfortable up here. It's certainly not anything I had anticipated 20 years ago. But then again, not much is.