Where is My Mind?

Live in the moment. We've all heard that advice in one form or another. Don't dwell on the past. Don't live in the future. Don't let your mind wander so much. Be present. If we could just live in the moment, we would be happier. Of course that's easier said than done. Humans have evolved to let their minds wander; even as we go on about our day, we rehash the past and make contingency plans for the future. Surely this is a great evolutionary advantage that allows us to continuously improve and to be better prepared for future emergencies, but as a 2010 Harvard study indicates, it comes with a significant emotional cost. Unfortunately, those of us that are experiencing anxiety are especially "evolved" and bear that emotional cost more than most, but mindfulness can even the playing field.

The Harvard research group conducted large-scale "experience sampling" to gauge what people were doing, what they were thinking about, and how they were feeling, repeatedly throughout their day. Earlier experience sampling studies have often been limited by the number of participants and how to interrupt people randomly in their everyday life to gauge their thoughts and feelings. The Harvard researchers developed a simple iPhone app to interrupt thousands of participants repeatedly throughout their waking hours. They were asked "How are you feeling right now?" to grade their happiness on a scale of 1-100. They were then asked "What are you doing right now?" and were asked to select one of 22 broad categories of activities. Finally participants were asked "Are you thinking about something other than what you're doing?" to which they could respond with one of four answers: no, yes (something positive), yes (something neutral), or yes (something negative).

A total of a quarter of a million experience samples from 5,000 individuals from all age groups and walks of life revealed three major findings about the emotional cost of our mind-wandering habit. The first finding was that human minds wander a lot! Participants reported thinking about something other than what they were doing nearly 50% of the time. That's a whole lot of not living in the moment! In fact, of the 22 activity types, participants reported mind-wandering at least 30% of the time in all but one activity. Can you guess which one... sex. That's one way to be mindful I guess!

The second finding confirms the age-old advice that living in the moment makes us happier. Participants reported lower happiness scores while their minds were wandering. Even while day dreaming about positive things, participants were no more happy than if they were focused on the activity at hand. In both cases, they reported a happiness rating of about 70%. In contrast, neutral and negative mind-wandering was associated with happiness scores of about 62 and 43%. Looks like those wise men and women of old were onto something.

The third and final finding of the Harvard study is that our thoughts are a much stronger indicator than our actions of our happiness level. Positive vs. negative mind wandering predicted happiness levels 2 to 3 times better than positive activities (e.g. relaxing, listening to music) vs. negative activities (e.g. commuting, working). This finding rings true to anyone who has ever had a terrible, no good, very bad day, and their friends tried to take them out to cheer them up. Throughout most of the evening, we can't stop thinking about our awful day and we make terrible company even though we're out shopping, talking, or relaxing - three "positive" activities.

As these Harvard researchers concluded, human minds wander a lot, and all that mind-wandering detracts from the experience of what we are actually doing. No doubt, being able to think about other things than the task at hand has great evolutionary advantages, but it sure does have an emotional cost, especially if we get caught in the habit of rehashing the past and worrying about the future. That type of anxious mind-wandering can be very cyclical and very sticky.

However, a new study out of the University of Waterloo (Canada) adds to the growing body of evidence highlighting how helpful mindfulness exercises can be in reducing that anxious mind-wandering. These researchers asked 82 college students with anxiety to perform a simple computer task while being interrupted with experience sampling questions similar to the 2010 Harvard study. Before starting the exercise, half of the students, the control group, listened to an audio recording from Tolkien's "The Hobbit." The other half, the test group, participated in a short mindfulness exercise. During the computer exercise, the participants were randomly and repeatedly asked to type out their thoughts, to rate how motivated they were to think about the thought or to avoid it, and also how motivated they were to do well on the task. It turns out that while the mindfulness group reported just as much mind-wandering as the control group, they were more focused and motivated on the task at hand.

This University of Waterloo study, and others like it, highlight that preventing our minds from wandering is a lot like herding cats. Don't think about pink elephants.... See what I mean? However, mindfulness training strengthens our mind just like going to the gym strengthens our muscles, allowing us to slide back to the present moment or present task easier and faster than we would otherwise. Mindfulness makes that mind-wandering cycle a bit less sticky, which can make all the difference to the anxious mind.

I avoided meditation for years, in part because I really didn't understand what it was all about, but I wish I hadn't. Even a little bit helps. I try to do 10 minutes a day, and in addition, I try to conduct my own experience sampling throughout the day, by gently asking myself 1) Where my mind? and 2) Is that where I want my mind to be? Because anxiety is due to the mindless habitual re-running of anxious and fearful thoughts, being a bit more deliberate with our intention can be very helpful here so that we're in the driver seat, rather than getting unknowingly dragged around by our thinking. We can't help what thoughts come to mind, our brains are thinking machines, but there is often more space than we're aware of for a choice as to whether or not we want to follow that thought.

Article: Yes We Can... Change

Yes we can... change.

Recently I've heard from a few people (through my podcast) that are just feeling stuck in their anxiety and have lost a little bit of hope. I know that place, it's not fun, so this piece is for them and for anyone else that is having a hard time remembering that we're all innately "okay," and that even when we're not feeling "okay," we WILL feel better. No one is born with health anxiety, or perfectionism, or low self-efficacy. These things are learned, and they're actually quite inconsistent (sometimes I think I'm awesome, sometimes not so much) because they're not the "real" us.

I recently came across this article about a research study out of the University of Illinois, which concluded that we can, in fact, change. Conventional wisdom says that your personality is pretty well set by the time you reach adulthood. If you're a 30-something curmudgeon, you'll tend to become a 70-something curmudgeon. Talking to you Andy (my husband). Or so conventional wisdom would have you believe, but this recent scientific study (and many others) cites evidence to the contrary.

Sometimes scientists experiment and write about their results, but sometimes they review dozens or even hundreds of other groups' findings and make broad conclusions about a larger topic. This study was one of those review papers. Basically the researchers reviewed more than 200 other studies about how people's personalities changed as a result of what they called "therapeutic interventions." Therapeutic interventions can be a lot of things - mindfulness, talk therapy, medication, hospitalization, CBT, etc. In general, those 200+ studies involved having participants fill out questionnaires about their attitudes and behavior both before and after some kind of intervention or combination of interventions. The questionnaires were designed to evaluate participants' level of emotional stability and its counterpart, neuroticism, which is associated with anxiety, moodiness, and depression.

Based on the results of those 200+ studies, the University of Illinois researchers found a significant and consistent improvement in levels of emotional stability as a result of a variety of interventions. On average, the studies lasted 24 weeks, but at least 50 of them tracked participants' wellness long after their intervention(s), indicating that the positive personality changes were long-term. And most exciting, the greatest improvements were actually seen in people with anxiety disorders. How cool is that?

As it turns out, you can teach an old dog new tricks! So if you're in the thick of it, and you're having a hard time seeing a bright future, take heart. You can feel better; you will feel better. Science says so. 

Article: Anxiety and the Mind-Body Connection

"Anxiety is all in your head." False.

In recent years, scientists and doctors have begun to see glimpses of how mental health can influence our physical health and vice versa. Those mind-body connections continue to be studied and understood better each year. A recent scientific study out of the University of Pittsburgh has identified the actual neural pathways that connect the cerebrum, the part of the brain that is responsible for thinking and sensing (among other things), to the adrenal medulla, which is responsible for much of the body's stress response. That last sentence may have been a little heavy on the nerd-speak, but basically scientists have identified the actual pathway between our thinking brains and the organs responsible for managing our stress response, confirming the existence of a mind-body connection. As many of us knew all along, anxiety and depression are not just in our heads!

What makes this new study especially interesting, however, is the number and variety of brain regions that are connected to the adrenal glands that trigger our stress responses. Two of those surprise areas of the brain are the ones that are active when we sense conflict or are aware that we have made a mistake. So when we re-imagine a stressful past experience or a past mistake, this newly identified mind-body connection triggers a stress response just as we experienced during the actual events. The University of Pittsburgh researchers are optimistic that identifying this connection will aid others in developing more effective treatment for folks struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, in which they relive traumatic events and emotions.

Not only does this new study highlight potential new treatments, but it also validates existing stress-reduction exercises. This research team has shown a connection between the adrenal system and a part of the brain called the primary motor cortex. That area controls the movement of our core and what's called "axial" movement, like when we pivot on one leg or twist at the waist. So activities like yoga, tai chi, pilates, and even dancing in small spaces (my personal favorite) - exercises that require good alignment, coordination, and flexibility - all use that primary motor cortex, suggesting why modern science has found such a powerful link between those types of exercises and lower stress levels. 

Article: Anxiety, Addiction and Neuroplasticity... Oh My!

Here is an interesting article about addiction and neuroplasticity. Articles and science about addiction always interest me because of some of the strong parallels between addiction and anxiety. I don't know about you, but I often felt as though anxiety were an addiction to comfort, both physical and emotional experiences alike. 

How we view addiction has changed in the past and is now changing again. Addiction used to be viewed as a matter of poor willpower. In the second half of the 1900s however, movements like Alcoholics Anonymous, have helped shift our cultural perspective so that addiction has come to be seen as a disease. A disease is something beyond our control. We need outside assistance from medical professionals, a higher power, etc. What's more, addiction has traditionally been seen as something we can never fully recover from - an addict is always an addict. However, beginning 20 years ago and growing increasingly vocal, neuroscientists are arguing more and more against the addiction-as-disease perspective.

Recent research in neuroplasticity indicates that addiction does indeed cause physical changes to the brain, but this new science also finds that the brain can be purposefully reshaped. A new book cited in the article, "The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is Not a Disease" by Dr. Marc Lewis, makes that very case. Dr. Lewis and many other neuroscientists are arguing that taking power away from addicts, by treating their addictions as a disease that they are powerless to overcome on their own, is actually not a particularly effective way to promote recovery. Just as addicts learn destructive habits, so too can they unlearn them and replace them with positive, constructive behaviors.

This finding, the heart of an emerging science known as neuroplasticity, is as true for those of us struggling with anxious behaviors as it is for those with chemical dependencies. And what's more, anxious behaviors (and chemical dependencies for that matter) don't need to be life threatening or marriage-ending to matter; more mild anxious behaviors can still hurt, can still affect us everyday. Maybe we've come to reach for our iPhone whenever we're alone because it's uncomfortable to listen to our own nagging thoughts that we're lonely or sad. Or maybe it's easier to continuously seek reassurance from our significant others or our friends than it is to sit and live with a little bit of doubt. Or maybe we've become addicted to thinking, repeatedly having the same little conversations with ourselves (rumination) to talk ourselves out of some fear or worry. These anxious behaviors are addictions too. Our brains were just doing their job, and they can unlearn those unhelpful pathways and replace them with constructive ones too. As Dr. Lewis notes of addicts, “they don’t need medical intervention in order to change their lives. What they need is sensitive, intelligent social scaffolding to hold the pieces of their imagined future in place — while they reach toward it.”

Article: Gritting Through vs. Surrender

An interesting article by Brendan Tapley appeared in the Washington Post recently about the differences between grit and surrender. As a coach for people with panic attacks and anxiety, I am often telling my clients about surrender. It's a difficult concept to understand, never mind to practice, in part because we have a general sense that surrendering is bad. In contrast, we have a general sense that gutting something out - persevering, persisting - is good. And we seem to understand these two concepts - surrender and grit - as opposites, but in reality, they are neither good nor bad, and they are not opposites.

The truth is that surrender and grit can be both good and bad, constructive and destructive. For instance, gritting through a difficult but important college course or through a rocky time in a marriage or through a difficult project at work can be rewarding and worthwhile. However, when we persist in a joyless relationship or struggle through a college program to please our parents or stick with a job we hate because we are scared of trying something new - that type of grit is hurtful and destructive. The same is true for the practice of surrendering. Surrender can certainly be unhealthy, like when we withdraw from a course we enjoy because our first test score was poor or when we end a promising relationship instead of having a difficult conversation. However, leaving a joyless relationship of many years, quitting the job we dread, or letting go of the personal goal that we've had for many years but we now realize isn't actually for us - those actions are surrender and they are absolutely healthy choices. In short, grit and surrender are not inherently good or bad. Sometimes, we even need to surrender in order to persevere. For example, maybe we experience a panic attack and take 5 minutes to cry and let it overwhelm us, and that release is enough to help us persevere despite the fact that we're experiencing more anxiety than we'd like right now.

What's important is why we let go or why we persist - what's the motive? Are we holding on or surrendering from a place of fear? Or is it coming from a healthy place, a place that brings us closer to our values? Figuring that out takes some self-reflection. Self-reflection can be especially tough when we're  struggling with anxiety. It's easy to lose trust in ourselves. Our anxious brain just keeps asking "What if this... what if that...." It can be difficult to see what is constructive self-reflection and what is anxious thinking. And that's a little bit of what I help my clients with, sorting through that web of thought and emotion, figuring out what they are trying to grit through and why, and how they can find their way to healthy surrender.

Article: Fun Fact About How Fear Works in the Brain

For all you fellow science geeks out there, here is a recent study about how fear works in the brain. I don't know about you, but understanding the mechanics of how the brain works makes it easier for me to accept and make room for not-so-fun emotions (like anxiety) by objectifying the experience a bit. It reminds me that feeling anxious (or angry) isn't "me;" it's an emotion that is generated by a very primitive area of the brain.  

For quite sometime scientists have known that there is an area of the brain devoted to helping humans process external threats so that it can trigger the body's fight or flight response, enhancing our chances of survival. That region of the brain, the amygdala, has become known as the fear center and is responsible for interpreting a charging bear as a reason to run. What scientists have only recently uncovered is that even people without a functioning amygdala can experience panic attacks and anxiety. It appears that the human body can recognize dangerous situations "organically" and subconsciously, even unconsciously, based on changes in breathing and blood chemistry. Am I the only one who has woken up feeling alarmed and gasping for air because I fell asleep face down in my pillow? This "alarm" occurs because we aren't getting enough oxygen, or getting rid of enough carbon dioxide, and our blood chemistry starts to get a bit wonky. Not awake, not a problem; the body can trigger the fight or flight response anyways. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty grateful my brain has the good sense to wake me up when my pillow is trying to suffocate me.  

Recent research has used a chemical called isoproterenol to artificially induce changes in heart rate and breathing patterns. In one study, two twins with an exceedingly rare disorder that essentially renders the amygdala useless, were given doses of isoproterenol to see if those changes in heart rate, breathing patterns, and blood chemistry would trigger a fight or flight response. Sure enough, the two test subjects both experienced high anxiety and one of them experienced full-blown panic. The researchers also discovered, quite unexpectedly, that while the participants were very aware of the fearful emotions, they had no awareness of their increased heart rate and shortness of breath like a healthy individual would. It appears that the amygdala may also be responsible for that internal awareness.

Long story short, an amygdala lobotomy isn't the answer to "curing" anxiety.

Article: Nature Experiences Reduce Rumination

If you've read much of my writing or worked with me in 1-on-1 coaching sessions, you already know this, but I am a huge proponent of using nature to improve mental well-being. Speaking from personal experience, I've always had a hunch that spending time in nature has the ability to ground us and give us perspective. To my delight, I recently came across this scientific paper summarizing recent research out of Stanford, finding that nature experiences decrease our tendency to ruminate and increases our mental well-being.

For those not super familiar with the concept of rumination, it does have a specific psychological definition, but basically, when you feel your brain is stuck in a rut, you are ruminating. This happens when your brain is trying to solve something, but makes no progress. Maybe you're in the habit of always shooting your solutions down (depressive thinking). Or maybe you're in the habit of continuously coming up with new problems as soon as you solved the last one (anxious thinking). Bottom line, this type of thinking, this rumination, is not constructive and it perpetuates the anxiety cycle.

The recent Stanford study built on previous research, which found that an area of the brain called the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC), has been linked with a "self-focused behavioral withdrawal linked to rumination in both depressed and healthy individuals." So the Stanford research team designed and implemented an experiment that tested the influence of nature experiences on activity in the sgPFC as well as on self-reported levels of rumination.

So what was this experiment? Basically they took 38 city-dwelling people with no history of depression or anxiety, made them take a questionnaire about their ruminative behavior and scanned the sgPFC region of their brains. Then half of the participants were sent on a 5.3-mile walk through a large quiet green space with grassland and scattered trees. The other half (control group) were sent on a 5.3-mile walk down the busiest nearby road, a 4-lane street with steady traffic in both directions. Participants were tracked by GPS and required to take 10 photos during their walk to make sure they actually completed their assigned walk. Afterwards, participants were again asked to fill out the rumination questionnaire and subjected to the same scan of sgPFC activity. And what did those researchers find - significant decreases in both questionnaire test scores and sgPFC activity among participants who took the nature walk.

If you're interested in the details of the study, by all means, take a read through. Otherwise, feel free to go try a walk in the woods!

Article: Exercise and Your Brain

If you have struggled with anxiety or depression, someone may have offered you the unwanted advice to go for a run or hit the gym. If you're like me, you may have reflexively snarled at them, but as it turns out, they might have been onto something.

I read this article recently about some ongoing research out of UC Davis that has used MRI imaging to determine that exercise helps the brain create two important neurotransmitters - glutamate and something called GABA. Neurotransmitters are responsible for carrying messages around the brain, helping us process emotions among other things. Low levels of these two neurotransmitters have been associated with some mental health conditions, like major depressive disorder.

Researchers at UC Davis used MRI imaging to study the levels of these two neurotransmitters before and after brief episodes (8 and 20 minutes) of high intensity exercise, and compared those findings with a control group consisting largely of couch potatoes. Specifically they looked at two regions of the brain, the visual cortex, which processes visual information (go figure), and the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps to regulate heart rate as well as some cognitive functions and emotions. Compared to the couch potatoes, the exercise group experienced significant increases of both neurotransmitters after exercising. And while those neurotransmitters faded over time, there was a modest increase in the gym goers baseline levels of those neurotransmitters, suggesting that exercise not only triggers the brain to create these two important chemicals, but that regular exercise can help sustain their levels.

These findings suggest that exercise-based treatments may offer viable alternatives or at least supplement traditional treatments for people suffering from some types of depressive or anxious disorders. This is especially good news for people under 25 that tend not to respond as well to the traditional SSRI-based therapies. Bottom line - it turns out that exercise might help sustain healthy brains as well as healthy bodies.

P.S. For you fellow nerds out there, this study also revealed how our brain uses energy during exercise. You would think that the brain is working hardest while playing chess or cramming for an organic chemistry test or figuring out how Nicolas Cage keeps getting work. However, the brain actually works hardest - meaning it consumes the most energy (calories) - when we exercise. Researchers have been largely stumped by what the brain is doing with all that energy while we exercise. As it turns out, a small but significant portion of that energy is used to create these two important neurotransmitters. 

Article: The Good, the Bad, and the Anxious

I came across an inspiring blog recently, Never Ending Footsteps, written by a young woman named Lauren Juliff. Lauren struggled with panic attacks and other anxiety disorders throughout her late teens and early 20s, but has since gone on to travel extensively for years on end.

I was particularly drawn to Lauren's writing because I too love to travel (Kenya, Peru, Dominica, Mexico, Iceland are a just a few of my favorite places) but also because her story illustrates the importance of allowing anxiety to come along for the ride sometimes. As she describes, Lauren always loved to travel, from when she was a young girl straight through her "anxious years" all the way to today. Even as she was struggling with anxiety, she saved her money and plotted a trip around the world that would last a year or more. It was her great passion. And yet her anxiety made her wonder what would happen if she had a tough panic attack far from home or what if her eating disorder (an anxiety disorder) returned amidst the strange food of far off places. Shouldn't she become well again and get rid of her anxiety before she set out on her trip?

I suspect all of us anxious folk have thoughts like these; I know I did. For instance, if I was anxious to go into the grocery store, I would find myself sitting in my car, waiting to feel better before taking the plunge. Ironically, the pressure of trying to hurry up and feel better only prolonged the anxiety or panicky feelings. As Lauren describes, sometimes we just need to dive into that next experience and allow the anxiety to simply come along for the ride. 

It's true, sometimes anxiety is our mind and body's way of telling us that something is not right - maybe our expectations are too high or perhaps we are forcing ourselves to do something or be something that doesn't align with our values. However, sometimes our intuition or our gut tells us that we are meant to take on that new experience, despite the anxiety buzzing in the background - maybe traveling like Lauren or a new job or a new relationship. If your gut is telling you to take the plunge, don't wait until your anxiety fades, take the plunge and allow your anxiety to come along for the ride. Anxiety is only a small part of the overall experience anyway. Just like Lauren made room for anxiety during her travels, so too can you make time and space for anxiety in your adventures or in your life. It's about experiencing the good, the bad, and the anxious.

Article: Increased Anxiety Associated with Sitting Too Much

Here's an interesting scientific article I came across recently that highlights the link between increased anxiety and low energy activities that involve a lot of sitting. Researchers actually studied the results of nine separate studies that explored the relationship between anxiety and "sedentary behavior" - things like watching television, computer use, sitting while on transportation, and work-related sitting. In short, the majority of those independent studies found a significant increase in anxiety risk as people spent more time sitting.

One of the research team's next steps is to identify why that link exists, but they do have some theories, including disturbances in sleep patterns, social withdrawal theory and poor metabolic health. Any or all of those mechanisms make sense to me. I know that when I really struggled with anxiety, if I didn't sleep well, my anxiety was a bit higher the next day (this is normal, when the body is tired it actually releases more stress hormones, aka energy, to help you stay awake), which of course made me anxious that I wouldn't sleep well the next night - a fun (but not really) little feedback loop. The poor metabolic health explanation is just suggesting that when we spend a lot of time sitting, we probably don't exercise enough or eat well enough, and that may lead to changes in our metabolism and nutrient intake that affects our mood and mental health. The third potential explanation, social withdrawal theory, is a fancy name for habitually opting to hang out at home on the couch instead of interacting with family and friends; relationships fall by the wayside and we don't have a support network to lean on when trials and tribulations come our way. 

Whether its just one of these reasons or a combination of all of them, sitting down too much is related to increased anxiety. So if you're struggling with panic attacks or anxiety, make sure you get up and start moving around. Of course, when you're in that state, leaving your house or moving around or even standing up may be a little extra scary. But as I tell all my clients, moving around and expending some of that nervous energy helps us come down from that heightened anxious state. Go for a walk, check the mail, vacuum, mow the lawn, cook dinner, any and all movement counts! 

Article: Why Fear is the Stickiest Emotion

If your struggle with anxiety looks anything like mine did, you probably get frustrated by how easy it is to remember the fearful stuff (that one time I had a panic attack in the grocery store and couldn't go back for months without it feeling like I was walking into the lion's den) and how hard it can be to remember the good stuff (that gorgeous sunset from last night). I remember several instances where my husband and I would be talking about the previous week. I would remember it as this dark, crummy experience, full of anxiety and fear and limitations. And he'd be sitting next to me with his mouth open, claiming that he thought the previous week was actually relatively light and fun-filled, and that he thought my anxiety hadn't been too terrible that week. However, some recent research out of Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum (say that five times fast) in Germany indicates that fearful memories are actually significantly easier to create and to hang onto.

Apparently stress hormones, like cortisol, which flood the body during and immediately after a fearful experience, help our brains "burn in" memories of that scary event. No doubt, that frustrating tendency is helpful from an evolutionary biology perspective - the more likely we are to remember scary and/or dangerous situations, the better we'll be able to avoid them or react faster to them in the future. However, this new research has shown that cortisol and other stress hormones don't stop there. No no. Those super helpful hormones are actually released again and again in the future as we think back on particularly stressful or fearful events. This feedback loop is partly responsible for why terrifying memories are so haunting for people struggling with PTSD or why fearful thinking is so repetitive for people struggling with Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

However, the silver lining is that understanding how and why our bodies and brains are behaving this way, makes it easier for us to accept those fearful or anxious thoughts for what they are, basically a memory. Our bodies are designed to behave this way. We are not weird or crazy. Fear is supposed to be sticky. Knowing that truth can take the edge off those fearful memories so we don't take them so personally and give them undue attention... which reduces the cortisol released as we remember those memories... which in turn reduces their power and frequency over time. Fear IS sticky, but it's no crazy glue!

Article: How to Worry Less

David Cain has recently written another excellent piece on his site "How to Worry Less" is inspired by what surely must be his own firsthand experience traveling in Southeast Asia. He first draws the humorous comparison of the newly arrived tourist, terrified of the reckless disregard for the rules of the road, unable to enjoy the scenery, desperate to get to his or her destination, as opposed to the long-time traveler who, unconcerned by the running of red lights or overcrowding of a ferry, sits back and instead enjoys the scenery. David argues that just as tourists can relax and enjoy more of their trip by learning to become a "good passenger" so too can we learn to enjoy more of our life. Almost all of life is spent traveling from one "destination" to the next, whether it's waiting in line at the grocery or slogging through a work day or raising kids. If we always felt uncomfortable or anxious between destinations in life, we would never be happy!

So, how can we learn to become good passengers? Well it's simple although not necessarily easy. It takes a little time and deliberate action to focus on the journey rather than white-knuckling through to the destination. David highlights three key actions:

1 - Settle into your body
2 - Actively watch the world unfold around you
3 - Occasionally notice how nice it is to be able to do both of these things

When we do those things instead of ruminating on and planning for future problems that may not come to pass anyways, we actively shift towards being a good passenger. This process takes a little bit of faith. You have to take a leap of faith; you can't logically convince yourself to be a good passenger, because then you're right back into analyzing and arguing with yourself.

And ironically, the anxious, fearful, planning mind is actually less prepared for disaster than the good passenger. As David eloquently writes, "The unrelaxed mind is the least prepared, because it has no faith in its owner’s ability to act in the present. It believes it can operate without this self-trust, determined instead to somehow escape the inescapable danger of being alive, just by summoning so many catastrophes to mind during ordinary moments that nothing can surprise it." Such worry is all for nought anyways, because even when those supposed catastrophes do happen, they are never as we imagined and planned for. So instead of responding in the organized manner we had prepared for, we panic and flail about because that's what we've been practicing! If you are ready to stop white-knuckling through life, rushing form destination to destination, take a read through "How to Worry Less" and start becoming a "good passenger."

Article: Why Anxious People Are Awesome

Every now and then I like to remind my clients how awesome they are. In the throes of anxiety it can be hard to see much else, especially the truths that we are meant to feel well and that there's so much more right than wrong with us. Anyways, the proof is in the pudding; I recently read this short article about a small scientific study linking high verbal IQ with increased anxiety. The study looked at a little over 100 students at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada. Students were asked to report on their own levels of worry and anxiety by considering statements like: "I am always worrying about something" or "What am I doing to deserve this?". Students were also asked about test anxiety and their current mood to help control for simply in-the-moment anxiety versus generalized anxiety. The students were then subjected to an IQ test.

Interestingly, researchers found a link between verbal intelligence (sorry math fans) and anxiety. Verbal intelligence has a lot to do with critical thinking and abstract reasoning. We use that kind of intelligence to figure out how to (most effectively) communicate our thoughts and emotions. You can easily imagine how someone that ruminates a lot, thinks a lot about past situations and about many different future scenarios, would perform well on a test that measures their ability to process thoughts and emotions and then communicate them effectively. Unsurprisingly then, researchers found that verbal intelligence was linked with worry and rumination and, to a lesser extent, generalized anxiety and depression.

So, those of us experiencing anxiety tend to be smarter than average. These study findings are in addition to other scientific research that has found those of us experiencing social anxiety tend to be more empathetic than average as well.

Silver linings....

Article: Why Does Mindfulness Work?

I write a lot about how effective mindfulness exercises can be at reducing stress and improving our physical and mental health. If you are like I was in my anxious days, you might be doubtful. You might ask why or how does it work. Well here is a great article by Warren Tryon from Psychology Today that seeks to answer that question.

Mr. Tryon speaks to three key concepts - neuroplasticity, rumination, and mindfulness itself. (You can skip down to the "Neuroplasticity" header if you’re not interested in the super science-y introduction.)

Neuroplasticity is the brain's way of learning, remembering, and healing itself. The brain is a great big network of nerve cells that send messages to each other by shooting chemicals across the gaps between them, known as synapses. You can imagine these networks of nerve cells and synapses as a network of highways, streets, and back roads. Over time back roads may turn into large streets, which may in turn, become a highway. We've all seen that old house on the side of a highway and thought what the road must have been like when its first family built it. Well our brains' neural networks are a bit like that - certain pathways can grow and become stronger and more ingrained over time. However, unlike our paved streets and highways, the brain is also good at downgrading pathways that aren't used as much anymore. This process of upgrading and downgrading the pathways between the nerve cells and synapses of our brains is one way to think of neuroplasticity.

Now Mr. Tryon's second concept, "rumination," is a bit of a scary one, especially if you're feeling depressed or anxious, so I won't spend too much time on it. "Ruminating" has a specific psychological definition, but basically, when you feel your brain is stuck in a rut, you are "ruminating." This happens when your brain is trying to solve something, but makes no progress. Maybe you always shoot your solutions down (depressive thinking). Or maybe you continuously come up with new problems as soon as you solved the last one (anxious thinking). Bottom line, this type of thinking, this "rumination" is not constructive and it makes us feel terrible. Even worse, this "rumination" can combine with our brain's awesome neuroplasticity to expand those pathways in our brain and hard wire in that repetitive thinking. So now we feel terrible AND our brain helps us relive it again and again. Awesome.

However, the beauty of neuroplasticity is that it works both ways. Just as rumination can utilize neuroplasticity for evil, so too can mindfulness use its power for good. As Mr. Tryon writes, "The simplest definition of mindfulness is paying attention to one’s experience in the present moment." When we do mindfulness-based exercises, like yoga and meditation, we shift our attention away from the repetitive thoughts or the troubles of the day and instead focus on the physical world around us - the pattern of our breathing, the movement of the trees, the sound of the wind, the heat of the sun. As we routinely shift our focus in that way, our brain downsizes those pathways in our brain that were so built up by our "rumination." And just as our painful repetitive thoughts used neuroplasticity to hard wire themselves into our brains, so too can mindfulness re-wire our brains so that we automatically shift our focus to the present.

How cool are our brains?! Hopefully now you have a better idea of why mindfulness can help. Maybe now you'll go try that yoga or meditation you were putting off. You don't need to do those mindfulness exercises to feel better, but they sure do help. It's science.

Article: The Science of Empathy

Here’s a slightly technical article about different types of empathy being tied to different regions of the brain. In fact, there are at least two types of empathy, Cognitive Empathy and Affective Empathy. Cognitive Empathy is, simply put, being able to put yourself in someone's shoes. This is the type of empathy we experience when we feel for fictional characters in a book or movie. In contrast, Affective Empathy, also called Emotional Empathy, is the ability to respond emotionally to another's mental state. It is the sympathy and compassion we feel for others as we see or hear their suffering. A good example is how infants become distressed in response to others' distress.

Recent research used a fancy new brain imaging technique called “voxel-based morphometry” to view the density of gray matter in different regions of the brain. A study of 176 participants found that Cognitive Empathy was associated with the “midcingulate cortex” and that Affective Empathy is associated with the “insular cortex.” These results, linking individual areas of the brain with different types of empathy, are exciting in themselves, but the next step will be particularly exciting – researching whether damage to these brain structures impairs empathy and whether brain training could improve an individual’s ability to empathize with others.

This science may be of interest to us anxious folks as I’ve previously written about a different research group that found a connection between social anxiety and increased levels of Cognitive Empathy versus their non-anxious counterparts. Go science!

Article: How Sauerkraut May Help Social Anxiety

Here is a fun article about how sauerkraut, pickles, and other fermented foods can potentially decrease social anxiety. Who would have thought?! The article briefly describes some new research out of William & Mary College. The research study found that its 700 test subjects were less likely to experience social anxiety if they ate fermented foods. The benefit was especially strong in folks with a potential genetic predisposition. The study also found that test subjects were less likely to be socially anxious if they exercised regularly, although that's somewhat less groundbreaking news.

These fun results hint at what scientists call the second brain or the mind-gut connection. This is a relatively new area of science that we are just starting to understand better. Basically, the chemistry in our gut can affect our mental health. According to this new study, the probiotics in fermented foods, like sauerkraut, improve the chemistry in our gut, which in turn can improve our mental state. As interesting as this new study is, I don't think fermented foods are the "secret" cure to our anxiety woes... but it can't hurt to put a little extra sauerkraut on top of your next hot dog!

Article: Why Anxiety Targets What We Value Most

I read an interesting article recently, written by a clinical psychologist, about Harm-Related OCD. As OCD is actually an anxiety disorder, two of the key concepts in the article applied very well to anxiety in general.

The first concept, and I think it can be very eye-opening for someone that is beginning to work on their anxiety, is that anxiety targets those things that we value most in life. The goal of OCD, like other anxieties, is to protect you by identifying potential dangers, focusing your attention on them in order to eliminate them. That is why anxious folk are often worried about their health... and not whether they should have gotten turnips instead of potatoes. It is why anxious folk stress about relationships and not whether the car is blue enough. Anxiety focuses on these important facets of our lives because it is trying to protect them, and therefore us, from harm. This is a useful behavior; that is why I always tell my clients that the emotion of anxiety is normal; everyone experiences it. For those people struggling with "anxiety" or panic attacks, it is just that that harm-preventing behavior has gone a bit haywire.

The second interesting concept from the article reaffirmed what I have learned from working one-on-one with my coaching clients - a little knowledge can go a long way. Anxiety (and panic attacks) can have such a powerful influence over us, and yet once we begin to learn what it is, how it works, and why it is operating in our lives, anxiety very quickly begins to lose that power. The old Schoolhouse Rock program had it right - "knowledge is power." Learning just a little bit about your anxiety can go a long way towards eliminating it from your life.

Article: Dogs Agree - Stress Isn't Always Bad

I've written before about how some stress is good for us humans; new research has confirmed that the same is true in dogs. I've said it before and I'll say it again - anxiety and stress are normal emotions. We all feel them everyday and it's a good thing. (It's just that sometimes, anxiety gets away from us a little bit and we start to feel it too often, too strongly, and too repetitively.) Two scientists, Yerkes and Dodson, figured this truth out years ago. They described how too little stress leads us to become basically ineffective couch potatoes. Think about how kids always take a couple weeks to get back into the groove in school after 2-3 months of summer vacation. On the flip side, too much stress leads us to burn out and may cause us to freeze up. For instance, how many of us struggle to answer a question in an interview that we could easily answer in the comfort of our home? According to Yerkes and Dodson (and many other scientists that followed), the sweet spot is in the middle. Not too little stress, not too much stress, but something that is just right (think of Goldilocks and the Three Bears). With just a little bit of stress, we are more productive and alert. When you think about when you were most efficient at work, at school, or at home, wasn't it when you had just a little bit of stress from some deadline pushing you along? The right amount of stress can actually feel good, like being energized.

Well in a recent study (that would have been a lot of fun to volunteer with I must say), researchers confirmed that the same is true in dogs. Researchers studied the impact of stress on two groups of dogs - average ones and super laid back service dogs. When the laid back dogs were quietly and calmly offered a treat from a researcher positioned behind a short wall, they obviously came to collect it from the research team, walking around the wall. When they were offered a treat in a very excited tone of voice with lots of hand waving, they ran around the wall and collected that treat significantly faster. However, the same was not true of average dogs. Average dogs tended to get stressed out by the extra excitement, and actually took longer to get the treat, having difficulty finding their way around the wall. This fun little research study is a great example of the Yerkes-Dodson relationship in practice.

If you find yourself stressed out from time to time, do yourself a favor and take a few minutes to consider how that stress is impacting your performance. Is it too much stress? Are you actually less effective? Are your mindset and actions helping or contributing to the stress? Sometimes we add a whole lot of un-needed pressure (like "Oh my god I have to meet this deadline or my boss might fire me!" - confusing possibility with probability) that causes us to be overly stressed and less productive.

Article: Emotional Awareness

I say it to all of my clients. I've written about it before. I tell anyone who will listen. Anxiety is a natural emotion that we all feel from time to time. What doctors and psychologists call "Anxiety" is basically when our life becomes dominated by that one emotion. David Cain from has written a terrific article about what emotions are and how being aware of them can help us move through life a little bit more smoothly.

David cites the work of psychologist Robert Plutchik who, in the 1980s, identified 8 basic emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation. According to Plutchik, there are plenty of other emotions, but they are exaggerations of or mixtures of those 8 basic emotions. For example, interest is a softer version of anticipation and terror is a stronger version of fear. Now I don't necessarily agree with those 8 basic emotions, but Plutchik is probably on the right track.

Now as David speaks to, the real trick is not in being able to list basic emotions, but in being able to identify them in your life. Humans are emotional beings; our emotions guide us every day. Our emotions, or our gut, help us tell when our kid is fibbing to us. Our emotional reaction to food labeling or packaging might lead us to pick what we think is a healthier or tastier choice. Our alertness helps us drive to work safer. We experience emotions constantly. (Emotions are fleeting and temporary by nature, just watch your kid and you'll see this to be true). And emotions, in turn, help to shape our opinions, actions, and reactions. And yet, so often, we are completely unaware of what emotional state we are in.

When we are feeling anxious or fearful, we have a strong tendency to see all of the horrible things that may come to pass in the future. When we are sad, we have a harder time seeing the positive and hopeful aspects of the future. When we are angry, we have a hard time seeing the good in people and we blame them for things they didn't do or didn't mean to do. However, as I tell all of my clients, knowledge is power. When we are aware that we are in an anxious or fearful state, it is much easier to recognize that we are seeing the future through some pretty seriously anxiety-tinted glasses. When we realize that, it is a lot easier to gain perspective and not take anxious thoughts so personally. Anxious thoughts (e.g. "I can't handle this.", "What if I never get out of this anxiety hole?", etc.) aren't a reflection of you, they're a reflection of being in an anxious state - that's why you're often able to see the illegitimacy of these scary thoughts in a calm state, when the emotion of anxiety passes, so do the anxious thoughts. 

So enjoy David's article and try to start noticing what emotion you are feeling throughout your day. Then start to see how that emotional state affects your thoughts and feelings about the world around you and the future ahead of you. It's a simple exercise, but a very powerful one that has helped many of my anxious clients (and me!).