Take a break and meditate

By Jackie Cushman

Published on

While hard work gets us ahead, there appear to be limits. It's often the times of rest and recovery that provide us with the energy we need to work hard. In today's ultra-connected worlds of Blackberrys, iPhones, e-mail and Twitter (an internet service that allows people to constantly text where they are and what they are doing to the universe at large or a group of friends) it is often hard to get even a few moments to oneself.

The constant feeling of connectedness and activity might lead some people to become anxious and stressed. Possibly it is the constancy of the connectedness rather than the connectedness itself that is making the difference.

A February 5 news release from the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago cited a study by Dante Chialvo, Professor in the Department of Physiology, on a related topic: "People with unrelenting pain don't only suffer from the nonstop sensation of throbbing pain. They also have trouble sleeping, are often depressed, anxious and even have difficulty making simple decisions."

The study, Published in the Journal of Neuroscience on February 6, indicates that in a "healthy" brain, there is a state of equilibrium between the different regions in the brain, with regions quieting down when others are active. However, for those in chronic pain, a front region of the cortex mostly associated with emotion "never shuts up," according to Chialvo, the lead author of the study.

"The areas that are affected fail to deactivate when they should," Chialvo said. The fifteen people with chronic back pain in the study had permanent activity in the front cortex of the brain, rather than the equilibrium associated with "the resting state network of the brain," he said.

This constant state of being on the go could cause permanent changes in the brain. Chialvo noted. "We know when neurons fire too much they may change their connections with other neurons and or even die because they can't sustain high activity for so long," he explained. Chialvo went on to note the impact that this permanent change in wiring might have on a chronic patient's daily activity, saying it "may make it harder for you to make a decision or be in a good mood to get up in the morning. It could be that pain produces depression and the other reported abnormalities because it disturbs the balance of the brain as a whole."Chronic means never ending or always present. By definition, there is no rest or reprieve it goes on forever just like the Energizer bunny. This study shows that ceaseless pain does not allow the sufferer's brain to take a break.

While most of us, thankfully, are not in chronic pain, many of us are chronically distracted. Might this too affect how our brains function? Without the mini breaks that were once common in daily life, our brains have become switched to a constant go provoked by unending stimulus.

Indeed, we often go in several directions at once, multi-tasking in an effort to get items off of our "to-do" lists and onto our "done" lists. Seldom do you see people just driving, they are often also talking on the phone and possibly even e-mailing as well trying to get it all done.

My experience with never-ending stimulus comes in the form of my two children, whose constant chatter and verbal requests of "Mommy! Mommy!" occasionally drives me to places I don't want to go especially while cooking dinner (or breakfast) or trying to get to an after-school activity on time. Maybe the overloaded feeling in my head is simply a response to too much noise.

There might be a simple way to combat this constant state of on turning off the mind. Though this may seem simple to accomplish, it is not. The good news is that, according to "Train your Mind, Change your Brain," by Sharon Begley, (Ballantine Books, 2007) our brains have the ability to not only grow based on mental training (i.e., thinking) but we can alter how our brains work and connect based on mental training through meditation. This means that we can train our brains and thereby affect our emotions.

According to Begley, mental training through meditation focusing on love and compassion increases happiness and contentment. Rather than reacting constantly to what happens to us based on our outer environment, meditation literally rewires the brain, providing us with the ability to more easily summon calming, happy thoughts and remain in control.

Begley cites studies indicating the longer the training, the bigger the impact. Signifying that, perhaps, our ability to be happy reflects how often we have practiced having calm, happy thoughts. This falls in line with the chronic pain study's findings. It makes sense that, if chronic pain can impair brain operation, then chronic meditation might have a profound healing influence.

After all, as Aristotle said, "Happiness depends on ourselves." And "we are what we repeatedly do."

In meditation, a mantra is repeated. Maybe if I can repeatedly meditate around "the reason I say your name so much is that I love you," wisdom imparted by my daughter Maggie, I can become a bit more compassionate and loving, and even possibly learn to be patient around dinnertime.

Copyright 2008 by Jackie Cushman

All Rights Reserved

Straightforward and Honest rather than Deceptive and Sneaky

By Jackie Cushman

Published on

With two young children in the house, our family has had our share of mealtime battles. My husband and I have learned that, if we are firm about enforcing the rules, they eventually sink in; the battles become less frequent and end more rapidly. The children's arguments have not gone away, but I consider that a sign that they still need their parents to set boundaries and enforce them. The rules at our house require they eat a few bites of each food, that they eat healthy foods before sweets, and that they eat until they are full, but no more. The guiding message: everything in moderation.

When I was a child, I was taught always to clean my plate. Unfortunately, I learned this lesson too well and it continues to have ramifications. Many nights, I look down and realize that my plate is empty before I know it, and I have eaten too fast -- again. To combat this learned reflex, I use one of the small-sized salad plates that my children use. Since the plates are six inches across rather than 12 inches, my potential intake of food is reduced. The lesson to eat everything on your plate is a "rule" that I have not passed down to my children. Eating everything on one's plate can be dangerous, especially when combined with the larger and larger portion sizes at restaurants with the increasing frequency that we eat out in our society.

Last year, two recipe books intended for families with children were published, "The Sneaky ChefTM," by Missy Chase Lapine (Running Press), and "Deceptively Delicious" by Jessica Seinfeld (Collins). Both books take the approach of hiding "good" food items (such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains) in children’s favorite foods, such as macaroni and cheese, scrambled eggs and chicken nuggets.

Lapine writes that her book will "teach you the same guerrilla tactics that I have picked up with the same results. You will learn how to camouflage the world's healthiest food inside your kids' favorites."

Seinfeld writes, "I had begun to dread mealtime. Mealtimes were reduced to a constant pushing and pulling, with me forever begging my kids to eat their vegetables, and them protesting unhappily." According to the book's introduction, after Jessica mixed cauliflower puree into macaroni and cheese, "The kids, entirely innocent of my deceit, plowed happily through their dinners."

While both writers’ concern for children's nutrition is to be commended, I don't agree with their deceptive approach.

According to the Merriam Webster's online dictionary, "sneaky" means "marked by stealth, furtiveness, or shiftiness" while "to deceive" "implies imposing a false idea or belief that causes ignorance, bewilderment, or helplessness." While I would like to be able to say that I have never been deceptive or sneaky; that I, like George Washington, cannot tell a lie, that would not be true. After all, I am human.

However, having admitted my humanness, I do not agree that being deceptive or sneaky is the correct philosophical approach to persuade children to eat nutritiously.

Suppose our children, after years of eating macaroni and cheese with cauliflower, and eggs with spinach juice, come to believe that they can eat whatever they want without health consequences. They would be surprised and confused when they left home, continued to eat the same foods (but without the hidden vegetables) and began to gain weight and feel lethargic.

My children share with most children, the natural aversion to vegetables. Broccoli, corn and green beans are among the few vegetables that my children eat and enjoy. Broccoli is served so often at our home that we rarely go to the store without buying it and my mother, a frequent visitor at our home, has begun requesting anything other than broccoli for dinner.

The vegetable has been a staple for years. My husband Jimmy, who began us on this trend, eats his broccoli first. I had assumed that this was because he loves it. I was stunned to find out only recently that he dislikes broccoli, but eats it because it is good for him. He eats it first to get it over with. Lets just say his mother taught him the value of a eating a vegetable, whether he likes it or not.

Dinnertime at our house is family time: time spent talking about what we learned that day, or the most interesting event. This time together also provides a chance to talk to our children about what foods are good for them and what foods are not as healthy. The message is: everything in moderation. Among other things, they know milk is good for their bones, and bananas are good for muscles and preventing leg cramps.

Both books cited above are in my kitchen bookshelf. I have tried recipes from both books for my family. Afterward, I have shared the "hidden" ingredients with my children, who are interested in how the vegetables can be included in food they like. It surprised me, that once they had been told about the vegetables incorporated, they were interested in trying the vegetables by themselves. So while I disagree with the sneaky and deceptive approach, I will continue to add vegetables and discuss the addition with my children.

Last week (before trying any deceptive or sneaky food recipes), while we were at a church dinner, my 6- year-old passed by me with his plate in his hand and told me, "I don't like the peas, but I got them anyway." That made me happy. I felt that the information we provide, regarding the value of food and nutrition was beginning to pay off. To top it off instead of flicking the peas at a friend, as he did last month, he actually ate them now that's progress, the straightforward and honest way.

Copyright 2008 by Jackie Cushman

All Rights Reserved

It's not just how you look, it's how you think

By Jackie Cushman

Published on

You already know eat better, and less, and exercise more and you'll lose weight and look better. What you may not know is that walking might help you think better.

In "Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition" published last month in "Nature Reviews Neuroscience," Drs. Charles Hillman, Kirk Erickson and Arthur Kramer, state that "aerobic exercise can improve a number of aspects of cognition and performance."

For those of us who are beginning to misremember things (i.e., calling your child by the wrong name or giving up altogether and referring to her as simply "Hey, you") this is great news another reason to circle the block on foot.

In a study referenced in the article, sedentary adults ages 60-80 years were divided into an aerobically active group and a control group. Only those in the first group "showed significant improvement in dual task performance over the 10 week period," the authors concluded.

They also reviewed other studies (compiling previously published data into a meta-analysis that increased the power of their findings) of exercise training in older adults and found exercisers' executive cognitive ability (scheduling, planning, working memory, multi-tasking and dealing with ambiguity) improved the most. Also improved, but to a lesser extent, were controlled, spatial and speed of cognitive ability. This may explain why most CEO's appear to be more fit than average Americans the additional aerobic exercise also improves their waistlines.

But it's not just older adults who are helped by exercise. The article cites recent studies for school-age children showing that "achievement in standardized tests of mathematics and reading was positively related to physical fitness scores" measuring aerobic fitness.

It added that other types of physical measures such as "muscle strength and flexibility fitness were unrelated to academic achievement."'
According to "A Nation at Risk: Obesity in the United States," published by the American Stroke Association, and American Heart Association, with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 16 percent of our nation's children are overweight.

The sourcebook notes that "only 25 percent of high school students participate in at least a half hour of moderate physical activity on five or more days of the week." While children ages 8-18 spend almost 4 hours a day watching TV, more than an hour using the computer, more than 45 minutes playing videogames and almost 45 minutes reading. Shocking, what I cannot figure out is assuming these children go to school and do their homework, when do they sleep?

Exercise was one of our concerns when determining where "Hey you" and her brother would attend elementary school. At the time, I was not aware of the correlation between exercise and brain function I just knew my children would not be able to sit still for 7.5 hours without a break to run around, use their bodies and expend energy.

The school they attend has physical education classes twice a week, and recess every day. The good news is that this activity among the school children will not only help them sit still longer and be healthier physically, it might also contribute to higher test scores in math and reading.
While contemplating the mental health benefits of aerobic exercise, remember that there are physical health benefits as well. Since "65 percent of people age 20 and older are overweight or obese," according to "A Nation at Risk," our nation can certainly use a bit more activity.

According to Prof. Steven Blair, an authority on exercise and health and professor at The Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, "The biggest impact of physical activity on improved longevity and quality of life can be achieved by almost anyone. If a person simply walks 10 minutes, three times a day, five days a week, then they will improve their aerobic fitness, feel better, and reduce the risk of chronic disease."

Whenever I think about aerobics, Richard Simmons comes to mind hopping around onscreen to disco music, exhorting viewers to "Sweat with the Oldies." I believe he meant music - but whatever works. For those, like me, who have not heard about Richard in a while, he is alive and still kicking, selling DVD's making appearances and is planning on celebrating his 60th birthday on a "Cruise to Lose." His motto of the day for today is: "Step away from the fat! I repeat, step away from the fat, and no one will be hurt!" Silly, but if it this message provides inspiration or motivation for someone – then good for him.

The good news is that now I have another reason to exercise more aerobically the bad news is that I cannot think of a good excuse to tell my running partner why I cannot run today, except that it's February and cold.

Copyright 2008 by Jackie Cushman

All Rights Reserved

After Mardi Gras, a time for rest, reflection and humbling

By Jackie Cushman

Published on

Lent began last week on February 6. It ends March 23 with the celebration of Easter. In the Christian tradition, the Lenten period is a time of fasting and prayer, preparation and reflection in anticipation of Easter, which commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Lent is referred to as a 40-day period, even though the calendar count is 46 days. Sundays are excluded as each represents a mini-Easter, or a break from the Lenten period. These symbolize the 40 days that Jesus fasted in the desert. During this time, Jesus was tempted by the devil three times and resisted each time.

Historically, Lent has been a time to provide instruction to new converts and young Christians as a way to strengthen their faith, as well as a period for believers to spend in reflection to strengthen their faith.
Traditionally, Lent is a time for people to give up a vice, or to participate in virtuous acts. People often give up sweets, bread, alcohol, meat or other items. Good works include helping others, giving money to those in need or time spent in prayer. Lent allows Christian believers to focus on God rather than the world. Prayer and fasting are a way to change the patterns of their everyday lives to allow time for introspection and contemplation.

The three days preceding Lent are feast days, days of celebration prior to the quiet, reflective time of Lent. The Tuesday before Lent is Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday). This is the last day to feast before Lent begins, the last period of excess.

Lent, which is derived from the Old English word lencten, or spring, begins just as winter begins to be oppressive and transitions us into the next season. This year, the first day of spring is March 20, just a few days before the celebration of Easter.

While some people say politics and religion should never be mixed, this year's calendar has made that inevitable: Mardi Gras, the last day of celebration before Lent, fell on the same day as Super Tuesday when 24 states and American Samoa held presidential primaries or caucuses.

Many of the candidates' primary night events reflected an atmosphere of celebration: McCain solidifying his frontrunner status, Huckabee making major gains, Clinton and Obama both claiming that the results proved that they were on the right track to the White House. However, as with Mardi Gras, the candidates' celebrations lasted only a night. Once Super Tuesday was over, the campaigns began to focus on solidifying their supporters and moving forward.

With Romney pulling out of the Republican race, McCain has the task of coalescing the Republican Party in anticipation of the general election in November. Clinton and Obama will continue courting voters with their respective rally cries: "Ready on day one!" or "Yes we can change!"

The final stage of primary season is a bit like Lent, a time for each political party to focus internally on its core principles in anticipation of the inevitable arrival of spring and, soon after, the general election. While the primary process is the first hurdle in the race to the national election, it is the general election that ultimately determines who will become our country's next president.

Once primaries are over, it is time to strengthen the party internally before the inevitable onslaught of the general election.

Lent reminds each of us that we are to be humble. That, instead of focusing on ourselves, we should focus on God and on how we can serve others.

This humbling is in opposition to the state of hubris, exaggerated pride or self confidence, all too often prevalent in our society.
Hubris has been evident throughout this election cycle, among pundits who proved to be consistently incorrect in their predictions regarding who was going to win which primary or caucus, and among candidates who made grandiose predictions about winning that did not come true.
".. No one -- from Rush to Schwarzenegger to Ted Kennedy to Oprah -- has enough power to dictate an election," commentator Glenn Beck wrote recently. "Nor should they. The founding fathers thought that might be a bad idea -- remember, they had already gotten their fill of the whole monarchy thing."

Beck understands his important role in the political process, providing people with issues for them to focus on and work through. In the end, the American people will decide, through their action or inaction, who will lead our nation.

Perhaps the presidential candidates will be reminded of this call to humility this Lenten season, remembering that the campaign -- in the end -- is not about them, their campaign staffs or their advisors, but about the American people.

Let us also be humbled and reminded of our responsibility as citizens in our great nation. A democracy is only as effective as its citizens are active. Our job is to think through the issues, relying not on pundits statements and campaign slogans, but on our understanding of each candidate's platform and policies.

This is hard work, not for the weak nor weary. But work that is worthwhile.

Let this period of Lent be one of introspection and reflection, allowing you to determine what is important to you, preparing you to take action to make it happen.

Rest, reflect and be humbled. Lent will soon be over. The activities of spring and the general election will soon be upon us. Make sure you are prepared to participate fully.

Copyright 2008 by Jackie Cushman

All Rights Reserved

Rethinking Failure, Growth and intelligence; Let the Games Begin!

By Jackie Cushman

Published on

At least now when I fail I will feel a bit better.

I don't know about you, but I hate failure. I have never liked failure and I have often avoided playing games to prevent failure. On the rare occasions when I do play games, I usually pick games I think I will win. Luckily, this habit of avoiding games has not appeared in my children. This past weekend, I could hear the peals of laughter from the den. My mother and my two children were playing a game of chance and strategy. There were instances when each of the children became upset, and almost quit. My mother encouraged them to stay in the game. Following her advice, they each won a round. The game soon ended, and while my mother did not win a round, my guess is that she considers teaching them persistence her reward.

An article I recently read, "The Secret to Raising a Smart Kid," By Dr. Carol Dweck, (Scientific American Mind, December 2007) sheds light on why I might care about winning or losing a game. I have been more concerned with looking smart than with learning forgetting that learning requires accepting risk and the possibility of failure. What about you? Do you believe that intelligence is fixed or malleable? According to Dweck, your beliefs about your ability to affect your intelligence might be more important than your actual intelligence.

Whether students believe in a growth mind set or a fixed mind set affects how hard they will work and how they will react to inevitable failure, according to Dweck. Her research has indicated that it's better for children to believe that hard work matters, than for them to believe that they are smart.

Students with a growth mindset believe that "intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work," she wrote. The ones who hold a fixed mind set "believe that intelligence is a fixed trait."

Which group do you fit into?

"The students with a growth mind-set felt that learning was a more important goal in school than getting good grades," she wrote. "In addition, they held hard work in high regard, believing that the more you labored at something, the better you would become at it. They understood that even geniuses have to work hard for their great accomplishments."

When failure inevitably occurred, "students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material." Their belief that they had an impact on the outcome through the application of their effort led them to work harder or create a new approach.

"The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little regard for learning," noted the article. "They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well."

This also affected the response to inevitable failure or roadblock. "Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests."

While this might appear controversial on the surface, it makes perfect sense. Why would people apply effort if they believe that the outcome is fixed? If you were to be labeled smart or stupid forever, then effort would not matter.

This means that our steady stream of praise to our children for being smart has been undermining their potential performance. After all, if they are so smart, there is more at risk if they fail and lose the label of smart. If they are dumb, then they believe they cannot learn.

Instead, children should be told that brains can grow and change and they should be rewarded for their hard work. Praise should include specific reference to their actions that lead to success rather than to their innate intelligence.

What if, instead of being labeled "smart" or "dumb," kids were told that brains grow over time and that their ability to learn is linked to hard work and effort?

Students can control how hard they work and the effort they expend. They can learn to reevaluate the situation after failure to determine if more work, or a different approach might lead to the desired results. They cannot control being labeled dumb or smart. The ability to have an impact on an outcome is one of the key factors that affect whether one perceives it is worth working for a different outcome.

The important lesson is not that people are smart or stupid, but that, through effort and hard work, brains can grow and people can change.

Old habits are hard to break, and it is not that I want to embrace failure, but now I can try to recast my failures as temporary setbacks on the path to learning.

In any event, now it is time for me to go and play a few games, without the fear of failure.

Copyright 2008 by Jackie Cushman

Al Rights Reserved

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