Good Vibrations: Healing and the Biofield

img_0933Installing the “Canyon Wren Wellness Center” sign at my new building in Maupin a few weeks ago, the reference to “Reiki” on the sign reminded me that the topic of biofield healing (of which Reiki is one modality) would be a good topic for this blog, since these gentle, powerful, and age-old methods of mind-body healing are at the forefront of the “new big things” in western medicine today.

In fact, the term, “biofield healing” is a fairly recent one, having been coined in  1992 (at a conference sponsored by the National Institute of Health) to refer to those healing methods that work directly with the fields of information, energy and other vital forces that surround and permeate all living beings. Some frequencies of this field are
measurable: for instance, electrocardiogram and electroencephalogram machines (on which western cardiology and neurology depend) measreal-human-aura-kirilianure biofield frequencies of the heart and brain. And Kirlian photography can register and display –in color–  visual images of the layers and pulses of that electromagnetic field surrounding the body of living beings known as the “aura”.

But while  biofield healing practices have been used for millennia in various cultural communities for the purpose of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual healing, they have only recently begun to be seriously studied by Western science.

As western medical science does more research on these modalities (which include both self-healing practices such as yoga, Tai Chi,embracing_tai_chi meditation, prayer and Qigong, and “laying on of hands”-type guided energy practices used to heal others, such as Reiki, Therapeutic Touch and internal Qigong), a rapidly-growing number of studies have found solid evidence of a wide range of psychological, behavioral and physical benefits associated with these approaches and methods. And since these generally come with no known risks or negative side-effects, and do not interfere with other forms of treatment (in fact, they generally help to increase the positive effects and minimize the damage of medications, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy), what’s not to like?

Which is exactly what I thought three years ago when my husband was facing cancer surgery. Talking about it to Dr. Mary Zega, my friend and chiropractor in The Dalles, I said that I wished there was something I could do to help ease his experience and support his recovery.

“You should learn Reiki!” said Mary, explaining that Reiki treatment can be a great help in accelerating recovery from medical procedures, and in decreasing pain and anxiety, among other benefits. In fact, I learned that Mary herself was a Reiki Master, and incorporates Reiki into her chiropractic work (which explained why her treatments always seem to do much more good for my general well-being than can be accounted for by simply realigning my spine!)

“Where do I sign up?” I asked.

Mary put me in touch with master teacher Jacquie Hashizume in The  Dalles. While Jacquie didn’t have classes scheduled in the near future, she said, she kindly offered to train and attune me individually at the basic level, given the circumstances I described.

To make a much longer story very short, the Reiki treatments I was able to subsequently give my husband during and after his surgery helped him so much (by his own report, not mine) to recover quickly and completely, with minimal need for pain medication, that he eventually became trained and attuned himself (since a wonderful thing about Reiki is that you can give it to yourself as well as others).

For my part, in the months and years that followed, I pursued more advanced Reiki training and attunement levels, with the objective in particular of becoming able to train and attune others in our community interested in having this gentle, powerful healing tool available to help friends, family members, and (in the case of our local doc and medical clinic manager, Sharon DeHart), patients who would like to incorporate Reiki into their medical care. I was also interested in incorporating Reiki energy work to support the effectiveness of traditional psychotherapy. Since it is possible to do so without the need for hands-on treatment, this is how I most often use it in my work (I do give hands-on Reiki treatments when people come for that, just not when I am practicing under my psychotherapy license). 

What is Reiki?

The word “Reiki” itself is a combination of two Japanese kanji (word symbols)reiki-symbol-1“Rei” means “universal source” or “highest spirit”  and “Ki” is an individual’s “life force” or “vital energy.”  Reiki can therefore be described as “spiritually-guided life-force healing” Therefore, while Reiki itself is not a religious practice (religious and non-religious people alike practice it, the same as other kinds of medicine), conservative Christians and members of other faith traditions who are concerned about the “spirit” part may be reassured to know that the term in Japanese means, in effect, “Holy Spirit-guided healing.” In that way, Reiki can be considered to be a  “technology” for practicing the healing touch demonstrated and encouraged by Jesus (John, 14:12).

The technique was discovered and developed in Japan in the late 1900s by  Mikao Usui, and was brought to the U.S. in the 1940s by a Japanese M.D. and a Japanese-American woman who developed a school for practitioners in Hawaii. It has developed and flourished in the U.S. and worldwide ever since, and is now one of the most respected and accepted-as-effective biofield healing modalities in current use. 

The practice itself is a holistic method of stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing, and is administered through a series of hand positions on or above the body. reikiIt brings about deep relaxation, dissolves energy blockages, detoxifies the system, accelerates cell regeneration, reduces inflammation, and supports and increases the body’s general vitality. At the psychological/emotional level, it can relieve depression, anxiety, and even heal the long-term ravages of trauma on the nervous system.

While Reiki practitioners do not diagnose (nor do they need to, as Reiki energy itself knows where to go), a skilled practitioner is able to “read” the body in such a way as to know where to place his or her hands to do the most good. And since it is also a quality of Reiki energy to only go where it is welcome, no-one ever receives any healing they are not ready for or do not want.

A Reiki treatment itself often feels like a warm, relaxing radiance that flows through and around the person receiving it. Reiki treats the whole person including body, emotions, mind, and spirit.

However, it is recommended that if someone receiving Reiki has a serious medical or psychological condition, they also consult a licensed physician or other licensed health or mental health care professional, since Reiki works well in conjunction with all medical or psychological care. For this reason, Reiki and other biofield healing methods are considered “complementary medicine” practices, since they both work on their own and also support the effectiveness of other medical, emotional and spiritual care of all kinds.

Getting Back to the Biofield:

While I have focused in this blog on Reiki in particular because it is the modality with which I am the most personally familiar, the field of biofield therapy includes many powerful and effective modalities (internal qigong, Therapeutic Touch, Healing Touch, “toning” and other methods using sound, and Sufi healing practices are just a few of these) for inviting the loving, benevolent field of higher intelligence that is Consciousness itself to vibrate more fully with our individual fields of vitality, with healing results.

And since I have really just barely scratched the surface of what biofield science and biofield therapies are about, those interested in learning more might check out the article on Biofield Science and Healing in the Huffington Post, and/or this podcast interview with Dr. Shamini Jain of the Consciousness Healing Initiative.

Then do yourself a favor and choose one of these methods (your own intuition/attraction is probably your best guide to which one), find a practitioner, and…receive. Your biofield will thank you for it.

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How to Love

What a winter, huh?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But just this morning I noticed spears of some daffodils bravely poking through snow, and Valentine’s Day cards have replaced winter holiday cards in the Maupin Market.

Everyone has stories about the cold and snow, and I imagine we are all ready to see it end…but I’ve also noticed how many of the stories I hear about the winter weather are also somehow stories about the power and action of love.

The other day, for instance, a friend told me about traveling to attend the wedding of her brother and his boyfriend in a distant city. She was in the Portland Airport, she said, when she learned that the wedding celebrant, who was coming from a distance also, was stuck in an airport mid-way because of a weather-related flight cancellation, and would not be able to make it in time to conduct the ceremony. My friend, a celebrant herself, quickly volunteered to stand in, “But I was in a panic—the wedding was the next day, and I was completely unprepared!” So she ducked into an airport bookshop to look for something which might inspire some words for the occasion, and saw a copy of How to Love by Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. 51dsb9jvlll-_sy344_bo1204203200_The little book, with its short, clear readings on the nature and practice of love, was just the ticket, she said, “and by the time I arrived, I had my wedding homily!”

Along with the many blessings of that story for me, the book title itself (which suggests that love is something you do, as distinct from something you feel) has inspired me to reflect on the question of how we know love when we see and experience it, and on how we can protect it and help it grow in ourselves.

Defining “Love”

While Valentine’s Day is the day on which we celebrate the sentiments and feelings of love, the great spiritual teachers from all traditions and ages have taught us that love is not really an  emotion, but a practice, and can be recognized not by what we say, but by what we do: by the attitudes we choose and the behaviors we commit ourselves to daily. We may feel emotional about our love, that is, but the emotions are not the love.

In the Christian New Testament, the apostle Paul, in his “First Letter to the Corinthians” (13:4) emphasizes this point in describing what the presence of love looks like when it is speaking through our behaviors and attitudes (as distinct from our emotions):

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful  or arrogant or rude; It does not insist on its own way;  it is not irritable or resentful  […]

Similarly, Buddhist teachings on love emphasize the “elements of love,” which Thich Nhat Hanh names as “lovingkindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.”

So because it illustrates these qualities and descriptions for me, here’s another story: In December, in Portland, my friend S. found herself —along with thousands of others— desperately trying to get home from work at 5:00 p.m. just as the city streets had turned to a grid of ice. Getting into her car, she saw an elderly and very frail-looking homeless man shivering in the parking lot. She was tired, and cold, and she really, really wanted to get home to her children and husband (who had been texting her worriedly to say that the conditions were only getting worse). But as exhausted as she was, she could not ignore his plight, so she took the time to walk him (very slowly and for many blocks in the snow and ice) to a shelter facility, then stayed until she was sure that he was admitted, before finally making her own (and now more difficult) way home.

That’s a Christmas story if I’ve ever heard one, and the connection between love and weather made me think of a comparison: it could be said that the difference between the emotion of love and the practice of love is like the difference between “weather” and “climate”. The emotions of love, like weather, are intense and volatile…and bound to change. cyclone_catarina_from_the_iss_on_march_26_2004Weather, as powerful as it is in the moment, comes and goes with conditions and with the seasons. But the practices of love create and maintain a “climate” in which the behaviors that nurture and care for all living things is the priority, no matter what is going on in the emotional “weather” of life…and no matter whether the enjoyable feelings of love are present or not.

In my friend’s case, it was not sentimental love that got her out of her car; sentimental love doesn’t have that kind of power. Only a commitment to something deeper does.

Nourishing Love

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So how do we cultivate the qualities of love in ourselves? Thich Nhat Hanh points out that paying attention to what we choose to consume through our eyes, ears, and minds as well as our mouths is essential, because everything we take in becomes us. “We are what we eat,” as the saying goes…and every day we “eat” much more than edible food. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes,

When we read a magazine, we consume. When we watch a television program, we consume. Whatever we consume affects our body and mind.

They Live

Want to become more loving? Look at what you are consuming, and what it feeds in you. Are you consuming television and radio programs, video games and print media that feed your anger, hate, judgement and fear? Our culture and its political climate and airwaves seem especially saturated with these these days, and many of us expose ourselves to a constant stream of toxins by leaving televisions, radios, and/or social media feeds running all day. But the very real, direct, and lasting effect of consuming anger, hate, judgement and fear (no matter what the politics involved) are that we strengthen those qualities in ourselves— it is that simple, powerful, and toxic to the growth of love.

The antidote? Begin by making a vow (reg85df8811c2ee6181b28f485b72595769ularly renewed), or adopting a prayer of willingness and intention to think and act in ways that feed and reflect the qualities and elements of love. “The Prayer of St. Francis”  is a personal favorite, as are the “Reiki Ideals” which Reiki Practitioners are advised to recite morning and evening . c016dc3241db6c8d48c59628f12d5245
But there are many, many examples and resources available once we consciously decide to take charge of our intake and of our intentions: to stop simply eating (and so becoming) whatever we’re fed, and to seek out, eat and be energized (including energized into action) by that which feeds real love.

An Attitude of Gratitude

“It is not happiness that makes us grateful, it is gratefulness that makes us happy.” 

As I was cleaning up after our Thanksgiving celebration this year, I recalled these words of Catholic monk and scholar Brother David Steindl-Rast, speaking about the importance of making a daily practice of gratitude.img_0745

And thinking about that, I felt a wave of gratitude for the fact that our Federal holidays in this country include a holiday dedicated solely to the act of giving thanks.

This thought in turn got me wondering about when the ancient tradition of giving thanks for the harvest (which both the native peoples and newly-arriving immigrants shared in common in 1621 when the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving in this country) became a Federal holiday in the U.S.

So I looked it up…and it turns out that President Lincoln established the holiday in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War.

That was interesting: the fact that a holiday focused on gratitude was established in the middle of one of our nation’s most divisive periods of domestic conflict— a period of deep domestic conflict and division that many people believe we are experiencing in this country today.

A Google search took me to the writings of psychology professor and researcher Dr. Robert A. Emmons, who has been called “the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude” (who knew there was one of those?). In his essay,   “How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times” Emmons, too, notes that “Our national holiday of gratitude, Thanksgiving, was born and grew out of hard times. The first Thanksgiving took place after nearly half the pilgrims died from a rough winter and year. It became a national holiday in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War and was moved to its current date in the 1930s following the Depression.”

So what might be the connection? Emmons suggests that “When times are good, people take prosperity for granted and begin to believe that they are invulnerable. In times of uncertainty, though [when] you begin to see that everything you have, everything you have counted on, may be taken away, it becomes much harder to take it for granted.”

He goes on to make what I think is an extremely important point: that gratitude is not so much a feeling as it is a choice we have about our attitude and perspective toward our feelings and circumstances. This is different from the “you should be grateful (instead of feeling what you are feeling)” way of thinking about gratitude, which is a message many of us may remember being shamed by as children, and (admit it:) may have shamed our own kids and ourselves with, in turn. For some of us (including, for many years, me) the effect can be an actual resistance to gratitude, because of the felt- association of gratitude with invalidation of feelings of loss or distress.

In contrast, consciously choosing to face life’s challenges and losses with an “attitude of gratitude,” as Alcoholics Anonymous members remind each other, allows us to really take in and be supported by the ever-present abundance of all that also is life-giving, even as we cope with what is difficult…but without having to feel bad for having these feelings. It’s not about trying to replace “feelings” with “attitude;” rather, it’s about also being alert to and aware of what is supporting us as we cope with painful feelings or circumstances, and attentive to how those difficulties themselves might be a means also of growth and healing .

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“Gratitude” by Teal Swan

According to Emmons again, “consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude builds up a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall. There is scientific evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress, whether to minor everyday hassles or major personal upheavals.”

Finally, the “practice of gratitude” is not only about looking for what we have received: if these are hard to find, in the midst of a trying time of life, try being aware of and grateful for all the “bad things” that aren’t happening to you, moment to moment, and of giving thanks for these! This is what I’ve come to think of as “no toothache” gratitude practice (from a teaching I heard once by Thich Nhat Han): noticing and appreciating the pain you are not suffering at the moment: a toothache, for instance. 

There’s an Islamic teaching tale I love about this kind of gratitude: in the story, a Mullah (religious scholar) has a donkey, which is his most beloved and essential helper, companion, and source of livelihood all in one. When the donkey simply disappears one riding_a_donkey_suez_egypt_7836169758day, the entire village searches far and wide, but to no avail. Yet that evening the villagers are surprised to find the Mullah on his knees in the town square, raising his hands towards Heaven and loudly thanking God.

“Mullah,” they ask, do you not understand that your donkey is lost forever?”

“Indeed!” replies the Mullah. “But I have so much to be grateful for. Imagine how much worse off I would be if I had been on the donkey!”

(Next post: some ways to actually make a practice and habit of gratitude)

Food for Mood

“There is no doubt that nutrition affects mental  health,” begins psychologist and health scientist Dr. Leslie Korn, in her book Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health: A Complete Guide to the Food-Mood Connection. “Poor nutrition leads to and exacerbates mental illness. Optimal nutrition prevents and treats mental illness…nutrition is the most important missing link to mental health in society today.” 

I don’t know about you, but a statement that definite that got my attention!

While I was already aware that what and how we eat has a powerful effect on how we feel, Dr. Korn’s statement gave me pause: “Can it make that dramatic a difference?” I wondered, “Can it even be the single factor that makes the difference between mental illness and mental health?”

For more of us than you might think, it can.   img_0363

Think about it: we’ve probably all experienced or witnessed a dramatic effect on our moods and mental states related to the presence or absence of some nutrient at some time: maybe the burst of hyperactivity after eating something sugary followed by the depression and lethargy of the “crash;” the temporary tearfulness and bloating from too much salt; the feeling of well-being that the endorphin-releasing components in chocolate produces; the sleepiness after all that turkey (could it be all that tryptophan?)

Less noticeable, maybe, is the way that what we do and don’t take into our bodies powerfully affects the functioning of our endocrine (hormone producing and regulating) system…and mood levels and mood stability are regulated by the proper functioning of those hormones. To complicate the picture, certain of the main chemicals in pesticides, herbicides and many of the plastics we use on a daily basis are known to disrupt the human endocrine (hormone producing and regulating) system in humans (endocrine disruption is in fact how pesticides and herbicides kill plant and insect “pests”), with potential resulting depression.

I can’t tell you the number of times over the years that I have heard clients who are farmers or farmworkers, for instance, say that they remember the exact moment they were “hit” with depression, “suddenly, out of nowhere” …and that it was at some moment of acute pesticide exposure . One farmworker remembers it happening as a sprayer passed by, spraying her along with the hops she was tying. In another instance, an orchardist recalled his depression suddenly descending as he was spraying his orchard from a tractor.

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Neither these nor other people who have told similar stories made a connection between the moment that the depression “hit” and the spray; it was just one of the details of the “when it happened” story. But none of them had experienced any depression before that moment, and they could think of nothing psychological or circumstantial that would answer the question, “why now?”

Any easy nutritional answer? No way. But what these stories dramatically illustrate for me is the way in which what we take into our bodies (as well as what we don’t), from our food or from the environment, and in what balance, and under what circumstances, all contribute powerfully to our mood states and overall mental health.

That said, supporting our moods with foods is not nearly as simple as stopping eating sugar and processed foods and eating more organically-grown, leafy greens (though that’s an excellent place to start!). “Some people function better as carnivores while others function better as vegetarians,” writes Korn. “Knowing who you are and what you your body needs is the art and science of mental health nutrition.”

For this reason, eating one’s way to optimal mental health will also be different for each of us, addressing different aspects of nutrition. Inflammation, hormone function, allergies and sensitivities, nutrient deficiencies, “circadian rhythm stability” (which is supported by eating at regular times of day), blood sugar fluctuations or stability, and the degree of stress or relaxation accompanying the act of eating are all important factors in the food-mood connection.

For the farmer with endocrine-system damage, nutrients which support the functioning of the hormone system (and/or which replace the substances the system is no longer able to produce or to regulate) may be key in relieving his depression. For the depressed child in a family in which everyone is too busy to sit down to meals together, the “food-mood” cure for feelings of loneliness and isolation may be for parents to establish a regular, daily meal together in which there is plenty of time to eat and talk together as a family, and maybe even to prepare meals together: to simply connect on a regular basis over food.

It’s a complex topic– and one that is not all about “diets and deprivation,” which is what we sometimes think “good nutrition” is all about. And it can be fun to learn about and experiment with what may support optimal nutrition for each of us. I recently discovered, for instance, that I personally need to eat more, not less, red meat! And a friend found that simply eliminating gluten from her diet also eliminated her depression and irritability.

But although the food-mood connection is complex and individual, Dr. Korn does offer a list of what she considers the “13 Essential Foods for Mental Health.” so I’ll close with her “do eat”list of as your take-away this month:MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

*Bone broths (meat broths made with bones)

*Raw almonds

*Wild salmon or fatty fish

*Raw butter (as in: before you fry with it)

*Coconut (meat, oil and milk)

*Sweet potatoes

*Avocado

*Beets

*Cacao (chocolate)

*Oats and gluten-free grains

*Arugula and other bitter greens

*Fresh sauerkraut and other fermented foods

*Coffee and tea (green and black)

Surprised? Get this: she is also a fan of bacon, which she says actually contains the same valuable kinds of fat as olive oil, which in turn helps to regulate blood sugar, and therefore mood.

“I never met anyone who was unhappy when I suggested they eat more butter and bacon,” writes Korn.

Happy me.   1200px-nci_bacon1200px-nci_bacon

 

“Move for Mood”

When people come to see me to help address experiences of depression or anxiety, I always ask them what role physical activity (especially outdoors) plays in their days. If the answer is “none,” or “not much,” it is often my first “prescription” to add some kind of regular physical movement to their  lives.walking-to-improve-running460

The fact is (and an increasing number of studies have shown) that for possibly the majority of folks, regular, moderate physical activity alone is as effective for mild to moderate depression and anxiety as either antidepressant drugs or “talk therapy”. And for those who do take medication, see a therapist, or both, it can make the difference between the medication and the therapy working well, or not.

Many people experience depression at some point in their lives. depressed-woman-400x400Whether you have or haven’t, it might interest you to know that a whopping 25 studies have found that people who engage regularly in outdoor activities such as walking or gardening are significantly less likely to develop depression in the future, or to relapse from a previous episode.

So why does moving our bodies benefit our emotional states? There are several factors, each of which may be more or less important to a given individual.

Physically, activity that stimulates the cardiovascular system can boost levels of the neurotransmit­ters that influence mood. Psy­chologically, activity can provide a sense of accomplishment and control and a sense of feeling more “at home” in our bodies (whatever their size, shape or condition). Activity also shifts our attention away from our mind’s anxieties and concerns.

And while certain kinds of activity seem to be more effective on mood states than others (yoga and walking, for instance, appear to be especially effective), it is important to start with something you can enjoy, at a level of exertion you can tolerate, and then do it regu­larly—ideally most days of the week. Consider the setting, too: walking or bicycling outdoors is likely to be both more beneficial and more fun more than running on a treadmill or using an exercise bike indoors.img_0857

Then there is the element of “mindfulness,” which increases the mind-body benefits of any activity. The practice of yoga, by definition (“yoga” means “union”) is an activity which emphasizes cultivating the mind’s ability to settle itself with breath and attention, while at the same time developing flexibility, balance and strength in the body. Similarly, the practice of “mindful walking” is a way to bring balance to our whole being.

According to Steven Woolpert, LPC, who leads “Mindful Walks” in the Columbia Gorge, “mindful walking in nature brings the beauty and healing power of the natural world into mind, body, and spirit.” Instead of concentrating on achievement-oriented goals like distance, speed, or heart rate, in “mindful walking” the activity itself is the goal, and the focus is on paying close attention to the experience, moment to moment. (For a good, short introduction to “mindful walking, visit http://www.wholeliving.com/134206/mindful-walking).d5-31-300x225

Interested in learning more about how and why to “move for mood”? If so, consider attending the first of the two-class “Feeling Good” fall series of free community classes on wellness topics. The October class will meet on Monday, October 10 from 5:30-6:30 at Canyon Wren Wellness Center in Maupin. This class will explore the connections between activity and mood, and will be preceded by an optional, introductory “mindfulness walk” at 4:30, led by Steven Woolpert and starting at the Center.

In addition, everyone who attends the class will receive a free, 3-class “introductory package” gift certificate (valued at $15) for yoga classes in Maupin. If you do plan to attend the class, registration is appreciated, but not required; call Canyon Wren Wellness Center at 503-838-6144 to sign up, or learn more.

 (In November, both this blog and  the next “Feeling Good” class will focus on “Food for Mood”— stay tuned!)

How to Drive Yourself Crazy

A couple of years ago in this column, I shared the text of a talk on “aging” that my mother, Jan Henderson, used to give to various audiences, from nursing home residents to medical students at OHSU. Aging— its challenges, joys, and opportunities— was her favorite topic. Mom left behind a lifetime of chronic depression and alcoholism beginning in her late sixties by dedicating herself to exchanging behaviors that maintain and refresh suffering for those that cultivate joy and good health. In doing so, she became, in her seventies, a living and persistent example for me of how we can begin to live a life of joy and vitality at any age, and in any condition.

So what fun it was the other day, as I was going through her files on aging and self-help topics, to find a clipping provocatively entitled “How to Drive Yourself Crazy,” excerpted and adapted in 1987 from a longer article by Dorothy T. Harrison, Ph.D. Hair_pulling_stressI love the tongue-in-cheek way that Harrison’s behavioral “advice” reminds us that, consciously or unconsciously, we are always “behaving” in our thinking and actions…and that our choices and habits determine how we feel as a direct result.

In italics, below, is the text of that article; read it and weep, and laugh…then choose!

Articles and books on a variety of self-help topics are widely available. There are suggestions on how to cope, reduce stress, and in general make your life better and more satisfying.

However, it appears that there are many of you out there who don’t aspire to satisfaction, but instead seem to be working on making yourselves miserable. Some of you seem to be experts at this, but others haven’t quite got the hang of it yet. For those of you in the latter category, here is the definitive self-help primer on how to really make yourself crazy!

1)Save your major worries until about midnight, then start heavy thinking. Suggested topics include your old age, losing your job, the mistake you made at work last week that they haven’t discovered yet, that suspicious wart you’ve had for five years. You can work up a good panic by 1:00 a.m..

2)  Keep an inventory of your faults. Ignore strengths. Focus only on your bad points. Try to select friends who will remind you of them. If you don’t have friends like this, you probably have some relatives who can be counted on to point out your weaknesses.

3) Set unreasonable goals. No matter how much money you’re earning, remember that there are others doing better. Try to name three of them, preferably younger than you are. Think how others could do a better job than you do.

4) when your kids mess up, don’t accept it as routine. View it as the first sign of impending moral decay, delinquency and a wasted life. Imagine them as shiftless bums at age 30, scrounging off you.

5) Put off everything until the last minute. In this way you can create a sense of frenzy and chronic stress no matter how much time you had in the first place.

6) To aid in the creation of stress, try to sleep as little as possible. Eat junk food and never exercise if you can help it.

7) Don’t let others know how you feel or what you want. You shouldn’t have to tell them: they should be able to read your mind. If you assume this, you stand a good chance of feeling really deprived.

8) Don’t trust anyone. Struggle with problems alone. If you feel the urge to confide in someone who seems to care, remind yourself that people are basically no good and out for themselves.

9) Never take a vacation or rest. It’s a luxury you can’t afford, especially if you’re working up to a really good state of exhaustion.

10) Above all, never seek help. No matter how serious the problem, convince yourself that asking for help is a sign of weakness, and that you can tough it out alone.

If you follow this program, you have a good chance of feeling really rotten in no time at all. Good luck.

…and have fun with that!

Or just have fun.

Good Vibrations: the healing powers of music

Several years ago, during an extended period of exceptional life-stress, I went through a episode of depression that included (among other experiences), constant, intense anxiety and generally low mood. And while I credit my eventual recovery to a combination of factors (acupuncture and talk therapy were especially helpful!), I made a surprising discovery about the powerful effect of music on mood.

In the middle of my episode, I was asked to sing at a graduation reception. Although I felt in no way up to the task, I agreed, because of the importance to me of the people involved.

So I chose the songs and glumly started to practice…which is when I made the discovery that whenever I was engaged in singing (sad or happy songs, it made no difference), I did not feel either anxious or depressed. When I stopped singing, my mood symptoms returned, but it was startling and relieving to find that they could be eliminated immediately, even if temporarily, by singing!

It literally felt as though the activity of singing changed something in my brain.

So I got interested in learning more about that, and it turns out that that’s exactly what music does: it directly and immediately affects our brains.

How does this work? In part, it’s because the beat, timbre (sound quality or “texture), rhythm and pitch of music is registered by, and activates, the very parts of the brain that regulate emotions and mood. When activated, these parts of the brain in turn release both the hormones (such as serotonin) involved in our overall sense of well-being and ability to cope with stress (you could call that our emotional “climate”), and also flood the body with the neurotransmitters (dopamine and norepinephrine) that make us feel especially good in the moment (what you might call our emotional “weather”).

In fact, there’s a ton of research demonstrating the positive effect that music has on our physical, emotional and spiritual health and well-being, the most fascinating (to me) of which has to do with the way particular tones, pitches and rhythms resonate in the body, and the specific therapeutic effects that the healing practice of what is called “toning” produces. I’m looking forward to learning more about these, and to sharing them with you.

Meanwhile, here are just a few of the ways that listening or playing music can tune-up (couldn’t resist) our mental health .

1. Pain and distress. Music can significantly reduce the perceived intensity of pain. Some research suggests that using specific rhythmic stimuli (music, and other sound combinations) can can ease symptoms of migraines, PMS, agitation and anger.

2. Sleep. In one study, listening to classical music was shown to effectively treat insomnia in college students. And there are several smartphone apps (“BiNaural Beats” is one we are experimenting with) that are designed to produce sounds which stimulate the brain to shift into a restful state.

3. Cognitive performance. Background music appears to enhance performance on cognitive tasks for many people, although the most recent research suggests that this only occurs if the music first makes the subject feel better emotionally!

4. Meditation. Listening to slow musical beats can alter brainwave speed, creating the peaceful state of brainwave activity similar to that which occurs during meditation. Recently, I’ve started adding “ambient music” of this kind to my own meditation practice, and found it to be very helpful: my busy thoughts calm right down!

5. Depression. Studies confirm what I personally experienced: that playing or listening to music can relieve symptoms of depression. And while I found that singing either sad or happy music had the same positive effect, research suggests (and this makes sense to me) that when listening to music instead, the kind of music matters: classical and meditative sounds seem to have an uplifting effect, while harsh, “angry” and dissonant music (like heavy metal and techno) can actually make depression symptoms worse.

6. Anxiety. One study found that music’s effect on anxiety levels is similar to the relaxing effect of getting a massage! What’s not to like about that?

So, if you listen to music, pay attention to the effect that the kind of music you listen to has on your mind and mood, and consider experimenting with the other kinds.

If you already sing and/or play a musical instrument, you probably already know what I’m talking about concerning the effect of playing and singing on mood. And if you haven’t yet started bringing your own body into making music, consider ways to join the fun, even just to see what the results are. Karaoke, a choir and music jams  are great, low pressure ways to have fun with music with others. Too shy to sing with others? There’s always the car, or the shower (but leave the guitar on the other side of the shower curtain or you’ll end up really sad!)

Wishing you joy.