I’ve received a number of so sweet requests to come talk to book clubs who are reading The Last Best Cure, or join in small group chats, and answer questions about both the book and my journey.
I treasure meeting my readers — there is nothing, really, that I love more about what I do than that moment of connection when I meet readers face to face. You all humble me, in the way you meet your own challenges with such grace and dignity and humility and determination.
Yes, women with chronic conditions may be fatigued, but I find my readers to be an extraordinary force of nature.
Like many of you who have chronic conditions, lots of travel can be hard on my system. That, coupled with my keen desire to be fully present on the homefront with my teenagers as much as possible (my oldest leaves for college in the fall!) means I can’t plane hop as much as I’d like to to meet the wonderful groups of amazing women who are gathering to talk about The Last Best Cure from Albany to Chicago to Vancouver. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be there.
So, here’s my offer. If you are planning to read The Last Best Cure for your book club, and gather a group of say 10 women or more who are reading the book, I’ll “drop in” by Skype or speaker phone or whatever works best for you — and we can have that “small group chat.” I’d love to.
And since it’s nice to have signed books, I’ll send signed The Last Best Cure “Book Club Bookplates” to book clubs (like all bookplates, they adhere to the page) so you’ll have author signed copies.
Let me know what you think of my virtual book club tour idea! Any ideas to improve upon this concept? I’d love to hear. If you reach out to me and let me know you’d like to schedule a date, we can follow up by email.
The way we manage our emotional responses to the stresses we meet in day-to-day life — to what is happening right now, right here, in our life — predicts whether we’ll suffer from depression and anxiety ten years from now, says a new study in today’s Psychological Science.
Researchers examined the relationship between how we handle daily stress and our mental well-being ten years later. They found that our longterm emotional health has less to do with what happens to us than with how we react to what happens to us.
The better we are at managing our emotional responses and thoughts today — to whatever problem we’re facing at work or at home or with our kids — the better mental health we’ll enjoy ten years from today. The better brain we’ll own.
When we respond with a lot of negativity and reactivity to our day-to-day stressors we’re more likely to be clinically depressed ten years later and experience feelings of “worthlessness, hopelessness, nervousness and anxiety.” We take those negative emotions with us, wherever we go.
These findings, based on a study of 711 men and women between 25 and 74, show that mental health outcomes aren’t only affected by major life events — they are also affected by the “chronic nature of our negative emotions in response to daily stressors.”
We know there are so many ways to manage our thoughts and get off the distress highway — and stay on the path. Mindfulness, lovingkindness meditation, noting our moment to moment habits of mind, breath work, yoga, seeking out acupuncture.
In The Last Best Cure I spent an entire year learning from the best experts on the planet how to redirect my thoughts, calm my mind and quiet my stress response. And every day I continue to learn. Reading studies like these helps me to re-commit to these practices everyday.
Because that’s what it takes. It’s not instant. It takes work. Discipline. But it’s also fun. It’s a relief to step away from our daily wear-and-tear stress-reactions and ruminations. A half-hour spent mindfully breathing or in walking meditation or yoga sure beats a half hour spent ruminating and rehashing the should haves and what ifs that are worrying me today, and it will pay off long into my future.
Don’t we owe ourselves that small but priceless investment in who we are, and in who we hope to become?
Several studies over the past few years have found that kids as young as 18 months old possess deep feelings of compassion.
One study found that when toddlers show kindness to others, it’s motivated by innate feelings of compassion — not just a desire to please the adults in their lives. In the study, when toddlers saw someone in need of help their pupil sizes increased — a sign of empathic concern. After toddlers did something nice for that person, their pupils got smaller. Researchers say this means their kindness came from deep, genuine concern. In fact, toddlers showed greater signs of happiness when they gave away a special treat, than they did when they received one.
Performing truly altruistic acts—acts that involve some measure of personal sacrifice—made the kids happier than helping others at no cost to themselves.
This is the first study to show that altruism is intrinsic to who we are, and is rewarding even to very young kids, and that it makes them happier to give than to receive.
When a behavior is intrinsically rewarding like this, especially at the earliest stages of life, it suggests to scientists that it has deep evolutionary roots.
Other studies on compassion and kindness show that kids prefer other kids who are kind and, contrary to popular belief, being kind can even help kids boost their “popularity standing.”
Researchers asked 400 students between the ages of 9 and 11 to perform three acts of kindness — or choose other easier tasks — over four weeks. Afterwards the kids who showed kindness saw a much greater spike in their popularity, gaining twice as many friends as their counterparts. And they also had more positive feelings about themselves.
Kids said they did simple things like gave their mom a hug when she seemed stressed (always a welcome gesture at my house!), or shared their lunch with someone at school.
But clearly, as we grow up and come of age, and especially when life gets more stressful, or life is hard, our innate sense of compassion goes underground. We compete at work. Drivers gesture angrily on the freeway, and turning on the news shows us that too many politicians and sports heroes choose to treat themselves well rather than others kindly, and that too many young people die in personal or gang violence, or spree shootings. It can seem there is too little kindness to spare.
We face so much stress in our own day-to-day lives and see such callousness around us that we can become a little numb.
And yet, even so, that innate compassion that we had at 2 or 9 or 11 is there, ready to bubble up, if we just call it up.
And even those who’ve faced the hardest of lives can call it up. Researchers introduced a type of brain-changing practice known as compassion meditation — sending kind wishes to themselves, those they love and those they find problematic in their lives — to teenagers living in a foster care group in Florida. These were kids who faced a lot of day-to-day stress and adversity. Their lives were tougher than most of us can imagine.
The foster teens underwent an eight-week loving kindness meditation class, keeping journals on how much they practiced. Researchers measured their stress responses both before and after. They also asked the teens to wear an electronically activated recorder that picks up the ambient sounds in a person’s environment – including disagreements, harsh words, altercations.
And here’s what happened: the more troubled teens practiced loving kindness meditation on their own – about four or five times a week – the more compassionate they became in their day-to-day interactions and the less altercations ensued. Not surprisingly, teens’ stress hormone levels and inflammatory markers also went down, which we know is critical to improving physical health. Troubled foster teens, living calmer, healthier lives, simply by letting their innate compassion emerge from within for a few minutes a day.
Similar work is going on in high security prisons where, after meditation classes using both compassion and breath as a focus, violence has gone down by twenty percent or more.
Things haven’t changed that much from when we were 2 and 9. We feel better about ourselves when we extend kindness. Others feel better about being with us. We feel less stressed. Life is sweeter all around, for our brains, bodies and cells.
I’ve found that it’s a decisive act to be compassionate — we have to choose compassion in our rush, rush lives. But learning to choose it — along with practicing the other techniques I test drove in my one year experiment to find The Last Best Cure — is a life-changing gift not only to others, but to ourselves.
Two new studies tell us an interesting story about stress, the gut and the brain.
We have a LOT of organisms in the gut. Cell for cell, we’re largely made up of bacteria. In fact, single-celled organisms, mostly bacteria, outnumber our own cells 10 to 1. Most of these live in our gut.
Any alteration of the composition of good versus bad microorganisms in the gut —collectively known as our “microbiome”—impacts the state of our brain, making us more prone to anxiety, depression and low mood. And that lowered mood makes us more prone to feeling stressed out and reactive… which in turn further changes the composition of microorganisms in the gut…
See the cycle?
The first study appears in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. Researchers report that when we are under stress, the bacterial communities in our intestine become less diverse, allowing greater numbers of harmful bacteria to take over and party hearty.
(We’ve pretty much known this for a while, after all, disorders of the gut such as irritable bowel and inflammatory bowel diseases are known to worsen during times of stress. But now we have the science to back up that clinical observation.)
And that leads to the second study I wanted to talk about. It turns out that when bad bacteria are partying in our gut, it not only lowers our overall immunity, it lowers our overall mood. A sophisticated neural network transmits messages from those trillions of bacteria to our brain, exerting a powerful influence on our state of mind.
That’s why scientists have begun to refer to our gut as “the second brain.”
The idea that bacteria teeming in the gut can affect the mind “has just catapulted onto the scene,” say study authors. Our gut bacteria manufacture about 95 percent of our body’s supply of serotonin, which significantly influences our mood. In just the last few years evidence has piled up that the gut microbiome heavily influences our neural development, brain chemistry, emotional behavior, pain perception, learning, memory, and how our stress system is prepared to respond to life’s ups and downs.
The more bad bacteria in our gut, the more anxious and moody and stressed out we feel.
The more stressed out we feel the more we tip the microbial balance in the gut allowing more bad bacteria to thrive.
Gastroenterologist Emeran Mayer, MD, director of the Center for Neurobiology of Stress at the University of California, Los Angeles, says that given the gut’s multifaceted ability to communicate with the brain “it’s almost unthinkable that the gut is not playing a critical role in mind states.”
THE LAST BEST CURE is a toolbox to intervene in that stress feedback cycle and help rescue both the brain in our gut and the brain in our head.
“Exposure to a social stressor alters the structure of the intestinal microbiota: Implications for stressor-induced immunomodulation” by Michael T. Bailey, Scot E. Dowd, Jeffrey D. Galley, Amy R. Hufnagle, Rebecca G. Allen and Mark Lytee; and the brief commentary on it is “The gut microbiota: A new player in the innate immune stress response?” by Monika Fleshner. The article appears in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Volume 25, Number 3 (March 2011), published by Elsevier.
Research tells us that although 70 % of our day is relatively good, 28 % of it neutral, and only about 2 % of what happens to us is actually bad, we think about that negative 2 % almost all the time; it’s what we ruminate over as we shower, drive, and fall asleep.[i]
It reminds me of that old saying that we wear 2 % of our wardrobe 90 % of the time. We button ourselves up in our misery cloak a lot.
I think of it this way. For most of us, two different sound tracks are playing simultaneously in our mind. I call them The Life Channel and The Pain Channel. It just depends which one we tune into — and turn up.
The Life Channel is the channel on which uplifting and joyful moments play. It’s the feeling I get when I am braiding my daughter’s hair. Watching my family doubled over laughing at a bad joke at the dinner table. Holding hands with my husband, or my daughter (if she lets me) as we cross a parking lot.
The feeling I get when I am staring at the snow covered trees as the sun transforms their icy branches into twinkling silver lights. Or when I am meditating, clearing the mind, focusing on nothing but my breath, and I manage (now and then) to reach that sweet spot of inner quiet, inner smiling. The aha of being half way through a yoga class, and realizing I’m in a peaceful place of well-being as I focus on every muscle and breath that goes into my downward facing dog. The joy of looking into one of my best friend’s eyes and feeling the inner love that’s exchanged in our haven’t-seen-you-in-far-too-long glance, in just an ordinary instant.
The Pain Channel is where we live, however, most of the time. It blares our anger, resentment, fear. Our ruminations over what happened, how it shouldn’t have, what should be happening instead. Our self-doubt. Our regret and recrimination. Our physical pain and fear over any health issues we’re facing.
Sometimes we have to be on The Pain Channel; it’s what wakes us up to deal with difficult situations, make change, take action.
But we don’t need to be listening to The Pain Channel 90% of the time. We just don’t.
We know The Pain Channel doesn’t feel good. We just don’t know how to shut it off. It’s powerful and seductive to get wrapped up in what’s playing on The Pain Channel, especially when we are feeling at our most vulnerable.
We have to have the tools to reach out and turn The Pain Channel off — and turn The Life Channel on.
THE LAST BEST CUREis about having a high-speed connection to dial up to The Life Channel, especially in those moments when we need it most. So we have a real chance at living life on the right track.
[i]it’s what we ruminate over as we shower, drive, and fall asleep: Rick Hanson, Ph.D., and Richard Mendius, MD. Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom. New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA, 2009. To see a fascinating talk given by Hanson at Google in June 2010 see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EM45CpeQb4.