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Serenity in an Age of Anxiety

brainDon’t believe everything you think-Part 2 of 3

Luke was tired of his wife, Leah* pressuring him about changing his job.  He would look for another eventually, but now was not the time. Leah insisted Luke had broken a commitment to her that they could move when the kids finished school. She was counting on that promise. There were no promises, Luke fired back. Leah wanted to bring in witnesses to support her version of events.  Luke said she was rewriting history. Perhaps twenty-five years of marriage was enough, each of them thought.

 

Leah and Luke were so confident about their individual memories that they believed the other was lying.  Since the truth was obvious to each of them, the other must be deliberately twisting reality for their own benefit. Decades of mutual love flew out the window. How can you respect a partner who is a liar?

Changing Memories

While only one of these versions of events may have happened, the other is not necessarily invented. Turns out, memories are more malleable than most people realize. Memory researcher consistently find that people forget, modify and incorporate information from other people into their recollections.

 

Over time, memories become a hybrid of other people’s experiences, news reports and random events. Fluctuating emotions and a flood of stress hormones will also alter what is left in our minds. Further, research finds people are unaware how the brain works and cling tenaciously to their current version of events.

 

Flashbulb studies provide insight into our shifting memories.[1]  They track what people recall after sudden life changing events over long periods of time. Sept. 11, 2001 was the perfect time to collect this data. One study followed people for ten years. Others looked at those who were less affected vs. those who had losses.

 

Details of such a horror should be permanently tattooed across neuronal pathways.  Instead flashbulb studies consistently find long-term memories become less accurate in predictable ways but people’s confidence in their recollections is unwavering. In other words, your memories will become less accurate but you will continue to swear by them.[2]

 

If Leah and Luke understood how memory works, they would stay confident in their versions of events and cut the other some slack.  Leah would not assume Luke is a liar. Luke would be open to an alternate memory reality where Leah is not a manipulative harpy. Instead of hostility toward each other and anxiety about their relationship, they would remember their mutual affection and work out their differences from a place of wholeheartedness.

*Not their real names

[1] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/acp.1497

 

[2] http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1754073908100432

 

brainDon’t Believe Everything You Think   (Part 1 of 3)

In 1944, as World War II raged and millions of people did not have enough to eat, researchers at the University of Minnesota began a study on the impact of starvation.  Conscientious objectors volunteered to live in a dorm for a year and eat only what they were served. As the participants got thinner and thinner, their thoughts became increasingly focused on food.  They cut recipes out of magazines and talked about meals they wanted to eat (you wrote ‘not eat’- did you mean would eat? If so, I’d say ‘wanted to eat’).  By the end of the experiment their thoughts were completely hijacked by what they did not have.[1]

 

Since then, research has revealed the unexpected ways scarcity changes behavior. Not only do unmet needs occupy our thoughts, but they usurp the ability to make good decisions.  Long-term plans and goals fly out the window. Warning signs are missed.  The brain loses some of its capacity for rational thought.

 

Judge Less, Forgive More

 

As a society, we are unforgiving when people get stuck in scarcity situations. Why doesn’t that person in debt get a better job or follow a budget?  Didn’t she know that borrowing    money at high interest would make things worse? It is easy when you have enough to imagine what someone without should do. Your brain has not been commandeered by lack. What you may not see clearly are the areas where scarcity has taken over your brain. Perhaps it is a paucity of time, inadequate purpose or a shortage of friends.

 

Loneliness and exhaustion are also manifestations of scarcity. They can impair your judgement and leave you behaving in ways that perpetuate the feeling of emptiness. A desperate need for companionship may cause you to behave in ways that send others running or maybe you will self-medicate tiredness with drugs that cause more problems.

 

Whether our poverty is real (we don’t have friends or money) or imagined (we don’t have enough friends or money compared to others), the brain hijack is the same. We want to be empathetic to others in the same situation and with ourselves. The next time you think, why doesn’t Jane just dump that loser? Or closer to home, why can’t I make more friends? Consider how scarcity may be at play.

 

[1] https://www.npr.org/2018/04/02/598119170/the-scarcity-trap-why-we-keep-digging-when-were-stuck-in-a-hole

 

 

Part 2

The number of people with anxiety has exploded over the last decade or so. What was a once a challenge for some has elevated to a disability for many. Through my practice, I noticed better diet, more sleep, supplements, therapy and exercise improved symptoms, but no combination of these helped enough. No matter how many vitamins my patients took or therapists they saw, the world remained an unpredictable, fear-producing place. Their state of mind too vulnerable, with something always waiting to throw them off.

 

I looked at myself. Though I am not anxious, I was not particularly content either. How I felt was too dependent on what was going on in my life. If the kids were in a good place, the bills were paid and things were going the way I thought they ‘should’, I was ‘happy’. While I felt more secure professionally, in my personal life I needed external reinforcement. My childhood was a bit tough, but whose wasn’t? I had long ago stopped blaming my parents for my problems. While appreciating I was luckier than most, I was still too easily unsettled by the difficulties of life.  My contentment was wobbly just like my patients.

 

Happiness needed to be based in something that was stable, true and lasted forever.  That wasn’t health, caring family and friends or even a calling. These things are desirable, wonderful and help, a lot. They are supposed to be enough, but they were not fixing the yammering in my head. Was I good enough? Helpful enough? Doing what was right? What’s wrong with people? Why do I feel disconnected from others?  What was I even doing here? Some variant of these thoughts took up too much of my mind space.

 

I decided diet needed to include thoughts. What you feed your mind is just as important, if not more, than what you put in your mouth. My vegetable intake was excellent, but my thoughts were the equivalent of mental Twinkies; addicting and unhealthy. I knew how to help people create a more physically healthy brain and deal with emotions from a biochemical perspective, but could not straighten out my own thoughts. Starting with good health and hoping it would lead to serenity and happiness was not panning out.

 

Over the course of several decades, I worked hard, determined to learn how to master my own mind and remove obstacles that prevented me from connecting to my true self. My true self is not different than anyone else’s true self. In fact, we are all connected. What connects us is love. That is universal, certain and lasts forever. When I remember I am love, I am happy no matter what is happening.  When I forget, I am grumpy and unsettled.

 

This blog is the culmination of what I found and am still discovering about how to deal with my mind. Specifically, how to remove the obstacles I create that deep six happiness and obscure our shared true nature.

 

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Peeking behind the curtain    I am a clinical nutritionist that specializes in complex cases. The average patient who contacts me has consulted 4 or 5 medical practitioners and specialists already. This usually means the patient is stuck or has heard about and wants to explore targeted nutrition therapy. Nutrition therapy can succeed when drugs or standard medical treatment fail, though the lifestyle changes required are not always easy.

 

You may wonder what a nutritionist is doing writing a blog about alternative ways of dealing with anxiety:  Ways that rarely include nutrition strategies.  In this installation, I peel back the fourth wall and reveal the back story and thinking behind this blog.

 

When I started using nutrition changes and supplements to help those with complex medical cases, I knew I found my calling.  People recovered their health and seemed happier. Several patients even became nutritionists after experiencing the power of balanced biochemistry. There are always people who do not respond well to or like my suggestions. Failure can be discouraging, but I am realistic and work hard to get the best results possible. But over time, something seemed to be missing. I felt unsettled but did not know why.  Something was not quite right.

 

I grappled with burn-out and overwork, learned how not to be a wounded healer and rarely get defensive or take things personally. There is so much exciting research and theories to soak up and soak I do from a wide variety of related fields including neurobiology, social psychology and quantum physics.  Stimulation or interesting information is not what is missing.

 

Finally, I discovered what was bothering me. Nothing lasted. People who were thrilled when they cured one set of symptoms would inevitably develop a new ailment down the road. I wondered if anything I, or anyone else, accomplished meant anything in the long run. I understood the Buddhist idea of impermanence. There will always be problems. Life constantly changes. Still I thought what I did and better health meant something. Suddenly, I was not  sure.

 

The right diet and supplements create temporary happiness, but inevitably, patients move on to the next ailment or practitioner. Though bad health is an obstacle to happiness for most, the sickest people are not necessarily the most miserable. Some of them are inexplicably content.

 

A therapist once told me that if a couple had sexual problems, it accounted for 80% of the relationship dissatisfaction. If the sex life was fine, then its contribution to relationship satisfaction was only 10 or 20%. I concluded the same explanation applied to health. When bad, people think most of their discontent is due to poor health. When health is good, it becomes one of many factors contributing to happiness. Good health supports peace of mind but does not make people happy. I noticed when anxiety was added to the equation, general good health helped hardly at all.

The number of patients I see with anxiety as their chief concern continues to rise rapidly. Vibrant health, while wonderful, does not make people feel loved, safe or connected. Connection and peace of mind, I noticed are the missing factors for long lasting happiness and from my work. They are what people, including myself, need or our bodies can become a source of ongoing distraction. We think our bodies are making us unhappy and if only we could fix them all would be well. But it is the mind that makes us unhappy and anxious. In addition to the brain, I decided I had to start addressing the mind.

 

Next time: Don’t Believe Everything You Think- Breaking the Fourth Wall Part 2

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Get reading!In response to requests for more resources and in-depth supportive material, here is:

 

The Serenity in an Age of Anxiety Reading List.

 

Serenity and Forgiveness

A Course in Miracles Made Easy by Alan Cohen (Hay House 2015)

A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson (Harper Collins 1996)

Radical Forgiveness by Colin Tipping (Sounds True 2010)

 

Practical Self-Help

The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz (Amber-Allen 1997)

I Need Your Love-Is that true? by Byron Katy (Harmony 2006)

Passionate Marriage: Keeping love and intimacy alive in committed relationships by David Schnarch (Norton 2009)

 

Metaphysics

The Field: The quest for the secret force in the universe by Lynne McTaggart (Harper 2008)

Immortal Self by Aaravindha Himadra (Sounds True 2018)

E3: Nine more energy experiments to prove that manifesting magic and miracles is your full-time gig by Pam Grout (Hay House 2014)

 

Mindfulness

10% Happier by Dan Harris (Harper Collins 2014)

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle (New World 2004)

 

Mind-Body Medicine

The Divided Mind by John Sarno

Healing with Source: A spiritual guide to mind-body medicine by Dave Markowitz (Findhorn 2010)

 

Dealing with Fear and Anxiety

Love is Letting Go of Fear by Gerald Jampolsky (Ten Speed 2004, original version 1979)

Seeing Beyond Illusions: Freeing ourselves from ego, guilt and the belief in separation by David Ian Cowan (Weiser 2015)

 

Wisdom from the Major Religions

Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh (Parallax 1987)

The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu (Avery 2016)

The Jew in the Lotus: A poet’s rediscovery of Jewish identity in Buddhist India by Rodger Kamenetz (Harper One 2007)

 

Peace of Mind

The End of Your World by Adyashanti (Sounds True 2010)

Choose Again: Six steps to freedom by Diederik Wolsak (Fearless Books 2018)

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