aging well

Aging Well – As a member of an astonishing species

 

“Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” – Mark Twain

Homo sapiens: That’s the scientific name of the primate group of animals we humans belong to. Its translation is “wise man*,” though the suitability of the designation has often been called into question. Mark Twain is one who had quite a lot to say about the failings of humans, including this: “Such is the human race. Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.”

For quite a long time there has been consideration and debate about what essential characteristics set us apart from other creatures. It has been argued that humans occupy the very pinnacle of earthly life – a link between “lower” animals and angels. The appeal of that kind of thinking is obvious, in part because we recognize behavior in our kind like that of “brutes” (in the sense of savagely violent animals) and also like that of “heavenly beings” (co-operators with the creative forces of the universe). We can think of currently newsworthy examples of each sort and, for most of us, even detect tendencies within ourselves toward both extremes.

Shocked as I have been by the brutality of such as ISIS, my recent readings of more distant historical accounts have been similarly disturbing. A relative with roots in Ohio got me to read, for instance, a book (That Dark and Bloody River by Allan Eckert) about the settlement of the Ohio River Valley. The cruel violence the between the settlers and the Natives surely justifies the description, “dark and bloody.”  And any reading of thorough accounts of colonization of Native people by weapon- and sickness-carrying societies will leave the reader aghast at the treatment “different” people inflict on one another (see Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel). Even more obviously, examining the long and continuing practice of enslavement of some humans by others leads to depressing views of what humans can consider to be appropriate. ISIS may be as bad as the worst but they are not isolated or unprecedented examples of humans practicing brutality.

Astonishingly evil as some conduct of Homo sapiens may be, we can be grateful and relieved that our species engages in some radically contradictory actions as well.  While the “news” is clearly unbalanced toward the negative to meet and encourage our fascination with threat and misfortune, there are stories every day of unselfishness and kindness extended by humans. Those sorts of actions are much more evident in our daily personal experiences, too. As we go about our ordinary activities we all practice and observe actions aimed at making the circumstances of others easier and more pleasant. Hans Selye, whose research created the radically new foundation for the recognition and treatment of stress, said that a strong motivator of his unrelenting career-long efforts in that area was the gratitude it drew from others. I often find inspiration, something to admire as I read the details of scientific work. It’s similar to the feeling I get when watching exceptional athletes, such as Olympics competitors: I didn’t know humans could do that! What more are we capable of?

The MIT Technology Review website (technologyreview.com) reliably has such intriguing and often uplifting reports; at (http://video.mit.edu/watch/explained-optogenetics-26357/) – or just search for “optogenetics MIT” – you will find, for example, an account of a procedure in which light-sensitive molecules are extracted from one-cell organisms and transplanted into nerve cells. The result is the capability of turning specific nerve cells, or groups of them, off and on with light. This hold great promise for advancing our understanding of the fundamental structures and processes of disease and damage, as well as healthy functioning in the brain. How do humans even get the idea to try something like that, much less to accomplish it? What a species!

If that doesn’t put you in awe of what humans can do, consider this: There is a red object in the sky these nights known as the planet Mars. It was much closer to earth’s orbit in May and so appeared much brighter. It will, beginning in late August 2016, be near Saturn and Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Kamakau-nui-o-Maui (known outside Hawai`i as Scorpio). Its reddish color makes it relatively easy to spot. Please do go out some night soon and have a look at it, and as you do, reflect on the fact that there are nine vehicles (plus several more non-mobile instrument packages) from our planet on Mars’ surface. Until I did the research for this article, I did not know there were so many, but just the fact that there were any at all gave me a feeling of pride and wonder in our species’ abilities to dream up, plan, and execute such marvelous achievements. Compare these accomplishments with the fact that little more than 100 years ago, many knowledgeable and serious people thought the Wright brothers’ efforts to leave the ground in an aircraft were the extremes of foolishness.

Dazzling as technical accomplishments are, distressing as cruelty is, the less tangible qualities of our species are equally powerful. “Wisdom” is an elusive concept, though it is generally admired and appreciated as one of those things of which it can be said, “you know it when you see it.”  Stephen Hall has written an excellent survey of traditional and contemporary views of wisdom in his book, Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. Some of the qualities associated with wisdom will resonate as familiar and attributable to a few people in the public eye and, hopefully, more of our personal acquaintance: emotional stability, a slight bias for optimism, broad understanding of social relationships and the world in general, not taking oneself too seriously, humor, simplicity, a broad and long perspective on life, focus on what deserves priority, generosity, and patience are among terms attempting to capture the essence of wisdom. It is clearly not the same as knowledge; as Hall says, wisdom is not about knowing the best answer, it’s knowing the best approach to an answer. An adage that has stuck with me for many decades: “In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is gained; in pursuit of wisdom, every day something is dropped.”

Let your memory, your imagination and your observations roam among those you know and among the elements you think of as constituting wisdom. I’ll bet you will find much to admire in them and in yourself as you do so. After all, you are a member of an astonishing species. We must do what we can to live up to our name, Homo/Feminae sapiens.

*I apologize for the gender differentiation. I assume this translation is based on the long-accepted, now embattled practice of using masculine terms as all-encompassing. It could as well be Feminae sapiens.

© Hugh R. Montgomery, PhD, 2016

 

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aging well

Aging Well: Facing Facts

(One) not busy being born is busy dying… Bob Dylan

I’ve written before about the futility of lamenting, ignoring or distorting the facts of our real situations as we walk our paths through life. The failure to accept what is – while not losing sight of the likelihood that it can be improved – is a very common source of distress, frustration and wasted time. I speak from personal experience with this observation. After years of study of human psychology and thousands of hours working with others to resolve life’s inevitable difficulties, I am pleased each time I am able to overcome my impatience with things not matching my expectations and preferences, exercising instead a closer examination of the facts of the matter. When we really think about it, it’s clear that a firm grounding in reality is the best place to start effectively dealing with whatever challenges we face.

Maybe you’ve noticed, or maybe not, but this is the first column in the series for some months. When I was leading the sessions in January and February at the North Hawai`i Education and Research Center on the subject of “living well as long as possible” I didn’t have time to work on writing about it. After the course was complete, I had lost traction with the process and didn’t get back to it until now. I need your help in deciding whether or not the time and effort involved in producing this material serves a useful purpose for our community.

As I attempt to engage with the task of writing this I have been forced to recognize that my enthusiasm for engaging with the facts of aging and the ultimate outcome of getting older is not widely shared. It’s been said that there is nothing certain but death and taxes, and it seems that few of us really want to deal with either.  It’s easy to relate to that dislike and yet there are many reasons to overcome our hesitation and to discover what we can do to reduce the undesirable parts of what absolutely must be (I’m really talking about the approaching end of life, since the matter of taxation has many more possible outcomes).

The story of the Buddha is based on the transformation of a privileged and protected young prince who belatedly observes the reality of old age, sickness and death. He is shocked into a fully committed quest for the fundamental truth of life to deal with these facts. Modern research into human well-being supports the importance of contemplative practices and many other choices that improve our condition and our ability to deal with the transitions associated with aging. We all will die and unless somethings more suddenly cuts us off from living, we have to go through the process of aging. There are lots of ways to do that, and the choices we make in this regard can make major differences in how it goes for us and those around us. I’m interested in everyone doing the best we can with these choices and think it’s useful for us to share what we can learn about them.

© 2016 Hugh R. Montgomery, PhD

 

 

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aging well

Aging Well in Good Company

The company we keep, it turns out, makes a major difference in the quality of our lives. Not only that, it affects both our time span and our health span. Research in this matter finds that emotional states are contagious: when our companions are cheerful, so are we likely to be; when we associate with those who are discouraged, we tend to share that sort of feeling. Habits follow the same patterns: health-oriented friends make it more likely we will share the kinds of choices that lead to health, while associates who are indifferent to this issue will make it less probable that we will give it much consideration. Our emotional states as well as our behavioral choices – such as what and how much we eat and how active we are – strongly affect the quality and duration of our life.

Several months ago this column considered the Blue Zones project now underway in north and east Hawai`i. This program aims to make it easier to engage with lifestyle choices in our communities conducive to extended health span (“live better longer” is their way of summarizing it) and it emphasizes several social elements. Their studies suggest that belonging to a faith-based group does a lot to increase aging well. It does make sense that there are significant advantages in terms of managing stress and finding meaning in our lives to be part of a group that shares a central set of beliefs and provides direct, personal encouragement and support for dealing with life’s challenges. According to Blue Zones data, people who belong to and regularly attend a faith-based organization can live 4 – 14 years longer than those who do not.

A good family life is obviously conducive to a sense of comfort and support. The Hawaiian tradition of `ohana clearly reflects the recognition of that fact and the associated cultural habit of extending acceptance and generosity to a circle wider than blood relations makes for a happier and more secure community. Not all of us grew up in the kind families we would have chosen and it requires considerable effort when that’s the case to understand and to practice the kindness that improves the situations we create as we bond to others, taking on the responsibility of enhancing life circumstances for offspring and partners. One of the rewards of making gains in this respect is a longer and better life for all involved.

“Wine @ 5:00” is another way Blue Zones suggests to live better longer. They include the caution that this guidance only applies to those for whom alcohol is not problematic and the inclusion of a specific time of day conveys the need for boundaries on the amount and duration of drinking. The main thrust of this notion is that a bit of indulgence in a safe situation with congenial companionship is in most long-life cultures a tradition that contributes to living well as long as possible.

In general, having friendly, supportive people in our lives is obviously helpful, especially when it comes to handling the more challenging times. Blue Zones advocates connections similar to the Okinawan morai, a group of five (or so) that meets together regularly to share the burdens and the joys of their experiences. At his Waimea presentation last month Dan Buettner, the instigator of the Blue Zones concept, had images of a group of women from Okinawa who had been a morai for 95 years! Imagine the sense of continuity and shared knowledge they must have! Life companions are a major contribution to aging well, especially if they take care of themselves wisely and have kind intentions in their relationship to others and their surroundings.

All these positive ways of connecting are so logical when they’re spelled out. If asked the right questions probably any of us would have come up with these concepts on our own. But there are several aspects to the concept of good company that might escape our considerations: One is the importance of respecting and appreciating ourselves. The way we think about and the value we place on ourselves is the foundation of our relationships. It is often the case that we are more judgmental and harsh with ourselves than we are with anyone else. It promotes our well-being to extend compassion to ourselves and to appreciate our ability to have survived all the scary, discouraging and confusing situations we have had to deal with over the span of our lives. We humans take in and retain negative experiences much more readily than positive ones. We tend to highlight the mistakes we’ve made and set aside the memories of times we have performed well. We have consciously to counteract that innate tendency with acknowledgement of our competencies and the fact that we’ve done well enough to have made it this far. Think of being a good friend to yourself, giving to you the acceptance, kindness and tolerance that you offer the people you care most about.

The second less evident aspect of good company is well beyond our everyday awareness: it’s our microbiome. Like it or not, one of the ways we can think of ourselves is as a habitat for other life forms — a host for large numbers of other beings. Trillions of microbes live in or on us. That population is known as our microbiome. All together, these bacteria can weigh as much as six pounds and the roles they play in our well-being appears to be extensive; just what they do and how they do it is the subject of a large and growing body of research efforts. Some two million unique bacterial genes are found it each of our microbiomes (compared with 23,000 in our cells). The ones in our intestines secrete many different chemicals, some doing the predictable work of processing what we take in, some appearing to be involved in complications such as irritable bowel syndrome, and some of which are the same as those used by our neurons (brain cells) to communicate and regulate mood. The possibility exists, though the scientists doing this work are cautious in the extreme to avoid promising too much, that they are able to alter the barriers to passage of chemicals out of the gut and into the brain; the intriguing potential that mental conditions might be caused by and altered with changes in our microbiomes is now being considered.[i]

Another recent report found that isolation of subjects in a perfectly clean environment shed biological particles from their microbiomes—bacteria, viruses, spores and more—at the rate of a million each hour into the air. Individuals seem to emit their own distinct personal microbial cloud, which of course, mingles with the clouds of those around them.[ii] We share and exchange with others much more than we might have thought: another reason to take good care of ourselves and to keep good company!

© Hugh R. Montgomery, PhD

 

 

 

[i] Peter Andrey Smith in The New York Times Magazine, June 23, 2015

[ii] Jeffrey Kluger in Time.com, Sept. 23, 2015

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aging well

Aging Well – With Challenges

The words we use to express ourselves reflect the way we think. Thought patterns can take many forms and the characteristics of those forms lead to recognizable types of thought patterns such as “optimistic” or “pessimistic,” “fearful” or “confident,”  “friendly” or “aggressive,” and many other categories. Life presents many experiences of events that are not the way we prefer them to be and the way we describe those conditions not only reveals our thought patterns, but predicts our way of dealing with them.

If such events are thought of as a “problem,” we are likely to be upset by them: disappointment, frustration, anger, or other kinds of pain will probably follow. If they are instead regarded as “challenges,” we may think of them as opportunities to look more closely at the elements of the situation as a first step in reconsidering the mismatch between what we want and what we have, in order to rearrange our desires, our resources and our approach to minimize the mismatch.

I confess that for much of my life I tended to take as a personal problem such things as non-starting cars, unresponsive computers, inconvenient mistakes on my part or that of others, and any number of other situations. Feelings of potential catastrophe, personal inadequacy, frustration and anger – among others – would ensue. Many things have helped me move away from such reactions, and none of them have had a stronger effect than observing my kids dealing with such events as if they were challenges, tending to take an analytical approach to the mishap, often actually physically taking a closer look at the item in question, seeking a more complete understanding of what actually was going on. When I saw their calm instead of the upset I would have experienced and observed their ability often to go on to remedy the issue, meeting the challenge, I began to emulate their approach and to develop a greater sense of possibly meeting such challenges myself. It seems that the adult should be modeling such skills for the youngsters but I have the great privilege of having kids who in many ways are wiser than I am. Other individuals, too, such as the professional firefighters our volunteer company works with, have modeled this kind of unemotional, interested, systematic and focused response to things “going wrong,” giving me the opportunity to learn to emulate their style.

As we age, we have the choice to reduce the range of our behaviors. We can become less social, less involved with things we used to do, to cut back on our physical and mental activities and let go of interests we used to have. Problems? Who needs them? Challenges? That’s for someone younger, we might think. The fact is, that slippery slope of avoiding challenges is a very dangerous one. Problems, yes; we should do all we can to minimize life’s inevitable upsets, and that’s best done by thinking about them differently. A good way to do that is to convert our thinking about them, making them be challenges: those we need to extend our health span!

One of the lessons most important to me when I began learning about yoga many years ago was the fact that the practice is as helpful to the stiff and awkward beginner as it is to the flexible and strong practitioner. Moving and positioning the body attentively, gently challenging present limits brings rewards, whatever the level of one’s skill. That’s a good model for the kinds of challenges we can all benefit from: choosing freely challenges to match our interests and intentions, taking care not to overextend or injure ourselves, not comparing ourselves with others whose accomplishments exceed our own, functioning with all the awareness of our on-going experiences we can muster, and observing – without getting hooked by judgements about them – the thoughts and feelings that arise as a result of our engagement with these challenges.

So many opportunities for rewarding challenges surround us. A friend suggested that a helpful element for this series of articles would be addressing the positive consequences of keeping mentally engaged. It’s an important part of aging well and there are many ways to do this. Volunteer to help with some community activity you value and you’re sure to find both social interaction (a big potential plus) and the chance to exercise your skills in figuring out the best way to accomplish a task and to remedy situations that present challenges. Take a class at NHERC (such as the one I’m offering,  “Living Well As Long As Possible”); go to an informative presentation, such as those offered at Tutu’s House. Look on-line or in books or magazines for brain-training games and programs that provide practice in memorization, attentional focus, and figuring out puzzles. Opening ourselves to new information, to different ways of thinking about the ever-present questions of life, and the always challenging and engrossing possibility of re-evaluating our own life story: all low-cost, stimulating and entertaining ways to help ourselves to live well as long as possible.

If you’ve read earlier columns in this series, you know I’m a believer in the value of moving through the natural world on foot. That will be a key element in the course I’ve mentioned in the previous paragraph. About 11 months ago I incorporated into my life a device called a “fitness tracker.” A number of different kinds are available; guided by relatives who had been using them and reviews of the various makes, I chose the Fitbit Charge HR. The “HR” denotes the capability to monitor heart rate and that was a key element in the advice I gleaned from a book I referenced in an earlier article, “Younger Next Year.” This device gives me on-the-wrist real-time information about my heart rate, the number of steps I have taken, the miles I’ve walked, the number of “floors” I’ve climbed (that is, the number of elevation gains in units of 10 feet), and an estimate of calories burned, all since the midnight that started the day I’m in. When I synch the device with my computer, much more data is available, including the activity level for the day, broken into time segments, my sleep patterns and way more than you’re probably interested in knowing about. The key thing here is that the device itself presents a challenge to me. Its presence reminds me to move throughout the day every day and on a three-day backpack trip I took last week, it reinforced my efforts to deal with challenge as it recorded 47,393 steps, 24.15 miles and 391 floors (that is, 3,910 feet of vertical elevation gain) – challenges only exceeded in intensity by the data from a day of fighting fire on the rim of Waipi`o Valley earlier this year.

So think about it: what can you enjoy doing today that would be a bit of a stretch for you? What physical, mental, social or spiritual activity would draw you to do a little more than you’re accustomed to doing? Maybe, as you finish reading this, you will gently align your body, focus on releasing any physical tension not needed to keep you comfortably positioned, take a good number complete breaths and let the direction come to you. Have a good time with whatever it is!

© Hugh R. Montgomery, PhD, 2015

 

 

 

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aging well

Aging well in a Blue Zone

Aging Well in a Blue Zone

Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan, Loma Linda in California, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, and Icaria in Greece. What do these locations have in common? You probably know — if you have dialed in to the notion of Blue Zones. Researchers have found that the people of these places tend to have exceptionally long lives and to be unusually healthy in their old age. Author and activist Dan Buettner participated in some of the studies that identified and examined the characteristics of these populations and wrote about them, their diets, social patterns and ways of life in his 2009 book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. What a great idea, and an obvious resource for those of us who wish to live long and well. Even better, Buettner has developed projects and staff to facilitate the introduction of the Blue Zone principles to select areas in the U.S. But wait!, as infomercials say: There’s more! East Hawai`i and North Hawai`i (centered on Hilo and Waimea, respectively) have been chosen to be part of this effort to extend healthy longevity on a community-wide basis.[1] The word of this opportunity has been spreading in the media (regular and social) mostly by the primary sponsor in the Islands, HMSA. Volunteers are getting organized, meetings are being held and points of influence identified (e.g., schools, faith-based organizations, restaurants, grocery stores….). The Blue Zone suggestions are logical and varied, so that the ones that appeal to each of us make for an easy introduction to the whole range of possibilities. It can benefit all of us to learn more about the project in the communities we frequent and to help ourselves by stepping up to choices for living well as long as possible.

Last month this column touched on the importance of keeping active by muscle-powering ourselves around. In his more recent book[2] Dan Buettner includes recipes based on the dietary habits of those living in Blue Zones as well as some very specific suggestions for increasing movement (considerable physical activity being part of the typical life of Blue Zone residents), including one that struck me as unusual: ditch the TV remote so you have to get up and walk to your set to change channels. That’s one that I doubt many people will adopt, but it highlights the importance of even small changes in increasing activity levels on a frequent basis. On the other end of the range of possibilities, I recently talked with a neighbor who has taken up roller derby as part of her fitness regimen. Again, probably not many will follow that route to fitness, but she is pleased to notice the positive changes resulting from her workouts. Importantly, she came to this additional activity from a solid, consistent level of exercise. In between these choices are a wide range of possibilities for us. Recent research documents the adverse effects of sitting and this common part of our work and relaxation times turns out to be much more detrimental than one might think.[3]  Negative consequences to our backs, internal organs and mental acuity are only part of the damage done by too much sitting. Searching the internet for something like, “health effects of sitting” leads to information that will definitely make you want to get out of your chair and move!

Advocates of increasing our levels of activity have differing views, some suggesting easing into a pattern gradually while others call for a total, intense immersion. A book[4] by a retired attorney and his physician present both viewpoints. Chris Crowley is a jump-right-in kind of guy, strongly pushing starting right now with going to the gym, getting seriously aerobic four days a week and working (again, seriously) with weights two other days. He’s a very motivational writer and speaker, fervent and funny. His co-author, Dr. Lodge, is considerably more open to a gradual approach, saying more recently that as long as your activity gets you to sweat on a regular basis, you’re helping yourself to reverse the decay that accounts for 70% of the aging process.

Both approaches have advantages, though I personally have had more success with intentional habit changes tending toward the gradual end of the spectrum, particularly when it comes to adding a desirable pattern. This is perhaps especially true with natural movement: looking for chances to, say, park in the center of town and walk to the post office and the other places you need to go rather than to get in your car and drive to each one, will remind you of the advantages of fresh air, greeting friends, not having to back out of several parking spots, and it will, almost surely, feel so good that you’ll do it again, and begin to look for other opportunities to stretch your legs. This cascade effect, where a small trickle of activity is rewarding enough to lead to a fuller flow can apply to any sort of activity that appeals to you. Aspiring to a greater engagement with investing in our well-being works best when we tell our friends and family about our plans and recruit them to join us. Announcing a plan makes it less likely we’ll back out of it if we temporarily lose motivation, and the involvement of others in our changes provides mutual support and encouragement. If we commit to meet others for a morning walk, we’re much more likely to show up. And after all, showing up is one of the essentials for living well as long as possible.

©Hugh Montgomery, PhD

[1] See hawaii.bluezonesproject.com

[2] The Blue Zones Solution: eating and living like the world’s healthiest people.  Dan Buettner. National Geographic, 2015

 

[3] For example, http://www.washingtonpost.com/apps/g/page/national/the-health-hazards-of-sitting/750/

[4] Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit and Sexy – Until You’re 80 and Beyond. Chris Crowley and Henry Lodge, M.D. Workman Publishing, 2007.

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aging well, Uncategorized

Aging Well – With ATTITUDE!

 

Previous articles in this series have touched on several aspects of aging well with a balance emphasizing the benefits of physical activity. This one focuses on some basics of the mental-emotional-spiritual side of the issues involved with aging well as long as possible.

“Attitude” has a variety of meanings and the one we’re using here is as follows: “a mental position with regard to a fact or state; a feeling or emotion toward a fact or state.” You might think of it as an internal condition — a readiness or tendency to respond in a generally consistent (default) way to events. Thus we have experience of “good” and “bad” attitudes as we notice that some individuals consistently make us feel comfortable and others do not, while some of our own response tendencies work for us and others lead to complications.

People who are “out there” in the way they present themselves to the world, assertively, confidently, or as “characters” are said to have Attitude. That can be said either with a sense of admiration or negative dismissal. There are many aspects to the attributes of “attitude,” and a good number of them have to do with aging well.

Some attitudes are associated with a sense of equanimity – a sense of balance between the extremes of emotions or opinions. These attitudes tend not to produce the often-observed lurching between antipathy and infatuation, between angry dismissal and uncritical acceptance. Those who hold such tendencies toward a moderated response to the vagaries of life have less stressful experiences than those of us who swing from one extreme to another, and therefore have less wear on their internal organs and their emotional and mental capacities. President Obama showed admirable insight into this when he commented that, ( I’m paraphrasing here) when things look terrible, they often turn out not to be so bad as they first appear, and when things look great, they tend not to be so good as the initial impression.

My years as a psychotherapist and a human being observing my own life have brought me to the conviction that one of the worst ways we can spend our time is to deny, ignore, or distort the reality of what is.  We so often want things to be other than the way they are that we agonize and bemoan and rage about the difference between our preferences and the facts of the situation. It seems an obviously faulty perspective when it’s put into a coherent statement, but we may so strongly want not to accept the reality of our circumstances that we don’t want to give credence to what in fact is, because it shouldn’t be so! In my observation, though, the most sound way to move things to the way they “should” be, the way we want them to be, is to start with an acceptance of the way they, in fact, are. A simple example that most of us can relate to is being on the road: it’s pretty rare to go any distance in a car without observing something that should not be happening (as comedian George Carlin observed, “Everybody who drives slower than you is a moron and everybody who drives faster than you is a maniac”). Whether it’s a construction delay, a slow driver blocking our preferred speed, someone riding on our rear bumper, a too-fast driver taking risks that endanger them and others, or, worst of all and increasingly common, coming upon a collision that involves some combination of these and adds a fearful sense of how dangerous the roads can be. Frustrations, irritation, disillusion, fear and other emotions can get distilled into attitudes that turn our travels into dramas that change the way our bodies are functioning and our emotions are experienced. With repetition we develop response habits that affect the way we perceive events and react to them. Creeping along in traffic when we need to be somewhere and are running late can strongly and adversely impact our sense of well-being and our ability to stay rational about the situation as we compare what is with what we want, though it’s very likely there’s nothing that can magically resolve it.

The most productive thing we can do is to recognize the reality of the events in which we’re participating: those over which we have no control (the traffic and the time, for example), and those we can actually affect (such as our muscle tension, our internal commentary, our rate and depth of breathing, and driving in such a way as to move along safely). This good advice takes practice to actually do under pressure and, as with any skill, is most effectively put into place with practice in less stressful conditions.

Our brain is, in proportion to its volume, demands more energy and oxygen to function well than any other organ in our body. When we get tense, we breathe more rapidly and shallowly; tight muscles pull more energy to themselves and the brain’s share diminishes. This is a situation that goes so strongly against our well-being that it sets off all sorts of internal alarms and increases our sense of distress so that feelings of anxiety and even panic begin to build. Such a negative cycle can very quickly disrupt our ability to cope. Fortunately, the resolution is close at hand: if we let our shoulders drop, relax our jaw muscles, balance our heads between our shoulders and take several good, deep breaths, the alarms begin to turn off, our brain shifts to more effective functioning and our stress diminishes. The more we practice this sort of self-monitoring and control, the more we form attitudes that give our bodies and minds a sense of flowing with our lives, extending our ability to live well as long as possible. Practicing in our cars is a great way to start observing our reactions and adjusting them to suit our goals.

 

©Hugh R. Montgomery, PhD  2015

 

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