New Healthy Habits: Timing and Persistence Matter by Anne Kreamer


If you are starting the new year with a resolution to get fit, it's worth remembering that patterning new behavior takes time.  A few years ago, at a time in my life when I was feeling particularly burned out, I happened to pick up a book about Qigong (pronounced "chee kung"), a Chinese method for building and balancing "life energy" through ritualized exercise. The "Qi" part of the word represents the vital energy that Taoists believe exists throughout the universe - energy held in perfect balance by the optimal relationship between the opposing forces of yin (soft, feminine, calm) and yang (hard, masculine, energetic). The "Gong" is the part that requires study, practice and training.

At the time I was craving a sense of balance, and the exercises outlined in the Qigong book I bought seemed like something that could help. I also bought some videos so I could see the exercises performed.

One night while I was following the exercises on one video, my younger daughter joined me and halfway through the program, she turned to me and excitedly said, "Mom, my fingers are tingling!"

And while I never had such a visceral response to the exercises, her experience, provoked without any knowledge of what was supposed to happen, proved to my satisfaction that something subtle and real was at work. I tried to develop a consistent practice and succeeded for a while. During that time I felt calmer and more resilient.

But as with so many things that require effort and consistency and time, once my immediate crisis passed I lapsed back into my old patterns and abandoned Qigong.

Recently I happened across something in one of my favorite magazines, Scientific American Mind. In a larger piece about the psychology and neurobiology of happiness was the statement, "Like a drug or a diet, the exercises work only if you stick with them." Right. I'd sort of forgotten that.

The piece also suggested that timing is important when trying to adopt new behaviors. I know that from the number of times I quit smoking before it finally stuck. Timing is everything.  So with fingers crossed and a sense of hopefulness, today I begin anew.

Be Happy, Don't Hurry. by Anne Kreamer

New research highlights the links between busy lives and bliss.  Turns out that the happiest people in the country are more likely to report themselves both as less rushed and with no excess time. John P. Robinson, the Professor of Sociology and Director of the Americans' Use of Time Project as well as Director of the the Internet Scholars Program. Robinson is primarily interested in the study of time and is co-author of several books dealing with the use of time and the quality of life, including Time for Life (with G. Godbey, Penn State Press, 1999), The Rhythm of Everyday Life: How Soviet and American Citizens Use Time (Westview, 1988) and How Americans Use Time (Praeger, 1977). "If someone were to ask you how happy you are, how would you respond?

University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson has been studying how people answer that question for nearly 40 years, and he's been looking at that happiness question as it relates to two other questions, both about how people view their time.

The first: 'Would you say that you always feel rushed, only sometimes feel rushed or almost never feel rushed?'

And the second: 'How often do you have time on your hands that you don't know what to do with: most of the time, some of the time, none of the time?'

Putting the happiness question aside for just a second, it's interesting to note that according to Robinson's analysis, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as "always feeling rushed" actually went down between 2004 and 2010.

'That was really a surprise to me,' he says. 'Particularly with all this new technology that we have, which is very time-demanding. I know I have a hard time dealing with it; it raises my blood pressure!'

Something else that surprised Robinson is what happens when you bring the happiness question in. According to his research, the people who report being the happiest, about 8 to 12 percent of Americans, "say they almost never feel rushed, and they do not have time on their hands they don't know what to do with," explains Robinson.

Extra time = less happiness

Robinson isn't the only happiness researcher intrigued by this finding. Erik Angner, who teaches philosophy, economics and public policy at George Mason University, says he was surprised to find that people who had a lot of excess time on their hands reported being less happy.

"I would have thought that the relationship would go (go to American University Radio to read and hear more...)

Is Stress Killing You? by Anne Kreamer

Six hours ago my neighbor decided to steam-clean the façade of his house using an incredibly loud, dark-gray-fume-spewing generator. It's an otherwise gorgeous summer day, so all of my windows were open. And because in New York City, neighbors are only a few feet away, the machine is actually making the floor of my home office vibrate. The condensing steam soaked through several documents before I could shut the windows. Now I'm stuck in an airless, jack-hammering hell. I'm on deadline for work, I'm leaving town at dawn tomorrow while leaving an older child home alone and in charge. My feelings fluctuate between wanting to strangle the neighbor and wanting to burst into tears. I'm completely, overwhelmingly stressed out.   Maybe this shouldn't come as a surprise.  The Huffington Post says New York is the second most stressful place to live in the country.   After uncovering an old Science section of the New York Times, I've now discovered that my stress is probably speeding me along to an earlier death.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, a cell biologist and one of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World," has been studying something called telomeres, which are the protective caps at the ends of our chromosomes. As Claudia Dreifus of the Times explained it, "Chromosomes carry the genetic information. Telomeres are buffers. They are like the tips of shoelaces. If you lose the tips, the ends start fraying.  Telomerase is an enzyme. In cells, it restores the length of the telomeres when they get worn."

Okay, but what does that have to do with my stress? Dr. Blackburn and a psychologist, Dr. Elissa Epel, designed a study to assess whether psychological stress aged our cells. They studied two groups of women, one with healthy children and one with chronically sick kids. "With the stressed group, we found that the longer the mothers had been caring for their chronically ill child, the less their telomerase and the shorter their telomeres. This was the first time you could clearly see cause and effect from a nongenetic influence. "

Blackburn suggests that this is hard proof of the mind-body connection. Epel and she discovered that the women in the study who had bad lipid profiles and obesity -- measures that indicate cardiovascular disease -- also had reduced telemorase.

So as I was writing this piece I decided to take my current stress into my own hands. I've put earplugs in to drown out the hammering, and I'm leaving now to take a long walk far away from the pollution of the machine.

But Blackburn's research has made it even more clear to me that I need to develop a long-term approach to stress management. I've been meaning to start a meditation practice. Tonight I begin.

If you want to control your stress, here a few easy ideas:

  • walk outdoors
  • get a pet
  • practice mindful breathing
  • get a good set of earplugs
  • put flowers on your desk at work...
  • ...and smell them

Feeling Anxious? Take Action. by Anne Kreamer

It's the new year and we should be feeling energized, the whole marketed "new year, new you" phenomenon, but if you're like me, it's becoming increasingly hard to shed feelings of chronic anxiety. Working Women recently interviewed me on effective strategies for dealing with anxiety. "Many of us have experienced anxiety in one way or another. Perhaps you couldn’t sleep prior to a presentation or your stomach dropped whenever your boss mentioned layoffs. But while anxiety may be fed by real, external factors – the economy is bad, your industry is in trouble – it is how we process it internally that keeps it under control. The next time you feel a wave of panic coming on, adopt these strategies to minimize your worry.

Get moving. You likely know that meditation is recommended for calming the mind. But if that just isn’t for you, there are other ways to ease stress through physical exertion. Try going for a power walk on your break to detach from the challenge of the moment. Observing other people going about their business can help you decompress. If you can, sign up for a fitness class. Whether it’s kickboxing or yoga, moving in unison with a group of like-minded people for a sustained period of time can prove more supportive than working out alone. Relish the comforts of home. If your anxiety spikes at the office, incorporate a memento from your personal life into your workspace. Find a desk drawer where you can keep a meaningful object that lifts your spirits and draws you outside the feedback loop in your head, such as a drawing your child made, a shell you found on vacation, or a photo of a loved one. When your worry begins to gain the upper-hand, take a moment to plant your feet firmly on the ground, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Then open your eyes and gaze at the object. This practice should change your perspective and lift your mood. Take action. When you feel that tightened sensation in your chest, don’t just crawl into bed and wait for it to pass. Instead, channel your stress into something productive. Don’t just worry about an upcoming meeting, sit down and write out your presentation. Then get up and rehearse it. You can transform your anxiety by accomplishing simple tasks, reaffirming your sense of control. Put it in perspective. When the inner-dialogue won’t cease, how often do you locate the root of the problem? You might be upset because your team missed a deadline, and now you’re envisioning a personal Armageddon. But perhaps that’s not the real source of your anxiety. For example, you could be thinking about starting a business of your own, and it’s not the fear of losing your job, but rather the fear of embarking on a new venture. Of course, this transition will probably be difficult at first, but worst case scenario, this could be a blessing in disguise."

Are Kansans More Active Today Than They Were In 1997? by Anne Kreamer

The United Health Foundation has created one of the most densely packed and fascinating interactive maps of the United States showing on a color-coded state-by-state level how the activity level of Americans has decreased since 1997.  A sedentary lifestyle is one where adults report doing no physical activity or exercise (such as running, calisthenics, golf, gardening or walking) other than their regular job in the last 30 days.  While it's hard to imagine doing no exercise, check out the map and prepare yourself to be stunned.  To dig deep into the data check out the map below. The ranks are based on the preceding year’s data from CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS).  The 2012 edition is the first edition to include sedentary lifestyle in the Rankings.

Regular physical activity is one of the most important elements of a healthy lifestyle. A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and premature death. [1]-[2] Sedentary lifestyle is responsible for an estimated $24 billion in direct medical spending. [3] Increasing physical activity, especially from a complete absence, can not only prevent numerous chronic diseases; it can also help to manage them. [4] It is estimated that physical inactivity is responsible for almost 200,000 or 1 in 10 deaths each year. [5] Physical inactivity is associated with many social and environmental factors as well including low educational attainment, socioeconomic status, violent crime, and poverty to name a few. [6] Even moderate increases in physical activity can greatly reduce risk for adverse health outcomes. For resources and tips on how to add physical activity to your life, visit the cdc

Rats, Strokes And Saving Lives by Anne Kreamer

I was riveted by Jill Taylor Bolte's 2008 book, My Stroke of Insightdescribing her experience as a 37-year old brain scientist who suffers a stroke.  It was inspiring and transformational, altering my sense of how to interact with anyone who might have had a stroke. "Through the eyes of a curious neuroanatomist, she watched her mind completely deteriorate whereby she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. Because of her understanding of how the brain works, her respect for the cells composing her human form, and an amazing mother, Jill completely recovered her mind, brain and body.  In the book, Bolte shares her recommendations for recovery and the insight she gained into the unique functions of the right and left halves of her brain.  Having lost the categorizing, organizing, describing, judging and critically analyzing skills of her left brain, along with its language centers and thus ego center, Bolte's consciousness shifted away from normal reality.  In the absence of her left brain’s neural circuitry, her consciousness shifted into present moment thinking whereby she experienced herself 'at one with the universe.'”

But new research may point toward new ways our brains can be helped, at the moment the stroke is happening, to short-circuit the damage, and make it more probable that the patient will return to pre-stroke functionality.  Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States and the leading cause of long-term disability. Ischemic stroke, due to an interruption in blood supply, is particularly prevalent; 87% of all strokes are ischemic. Unfortunately, current options for acute treatment are extremely limited and there is a great need for new treatment strategies. University of California Irvine neuroscientist Ron D. Frostig says that if rats are any guide to human health (and they often are the starting point for new treatments), stroke victims might do a lot better with a quick dose of stimulation instead.

His research, A Rat’s Whiskers Point the Way toward a Novel Stimulus- Dependent, Protective Stroke Therapyproved that when a rat suffering a stroke had its whiskers stimulated the rat's brain compensated and new pathways were created bypassing the blocked blood flow to the brain.  If applicable to humans this treatment, something as simple as singing to or massaging a stroke victim, could be a very important breakthrough in protection from stroke for two main reasons: 1) This is a drug-free, equipment-free, and side effects–free treatment that could save lives of stroke victims and 2) because “time is brain,” it may be possible, for the first time, to develop a stroke treatment strategy that could be easily initiated anywhere by anyone, including informed family, friends, or first responder when the first signs of stroke appear, long before the ambulance arrives.

So read Jill Taylor Bolte's book and remember to sing to someone who might be experiencing a stroke.

Reading Now by Anne Kreamer


In Mindsight:  The New Science Of Personal Transformation, Dr. Daniel Siegel, combines his knowledge of clinical psychology, brain science and mindfulness with original thinking to develop a new concept:  mindsight.  So what is mindsight?  It's learning to change habits of mind to become more flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized and stable.  Here are a few excerpts.

"How we focus our attention shapes the structure of the brain."

"The brain makes what I call a 'me-map' that gives us insight into ourselves, and a 'you-map' for insight into others.  We also seem to create 'we-maps,' representations of our relationships."

"When we are in emotional balance, we feel alive and at ease.  Our feelings are aroused enough for life to have meaning and vitality, but not so aroused that we feel overwhelmed or out of control.  Lacking balance, we move toward either excessive arousal, a state of chaos, or too little arousal, a state of rigidity or depression.  Either extreme drains us of vitality."

"At the core of interpersonal neurobiology is our proposal that mindsight permits us to direct the flow of energy and information toward integration.  And seen to be at the heart of well-being."

"Picture your mind as a wheel of awareness.  Imagine a bicycle wheel where there is an outer rim and spokes that connect that rim to an inner hub.  In this mind's wheel of awareness, anything that can come into our awareness is one of the infinite points on the rim.  One sector of the rim might include what we become aware of through our five sense of touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight, those senses that bring the outside world into our mind.  Another sector of the rim is our inward sense of the body, the sensations in our limbs and our facial muscles, the feelings in the organs of our torso:  our lungs, our heart, our intestines.  All of the body brings it wisdom up into our mind, and this bodily sense, this sixth sense, if you will, is another of the elements to which we can bring our awareness.  Other points on the rim are what the mind creates directly, such as thoughts and feelings, memories and perceptions, hopes and dreams.  This segment of the rim of our mind is also available to our awareness.  And this capacity to see the mind itself -- our own mind as well as the minds of others -- is what we might call our seventh sense.  As we come to sense our connections with others, we perceive our relationships with the larger world, which perhaps constitutes yet another capacity, an eighth relational sense.  Now notice that we have a choice about where we send our attention.  We can choose which point on the rim to visit.  We may choose to pay attention to one of the five senses, or perhaps the feeling in our belly, and send a spoke there.  Or we may choose to pay attention to a memory, and send a spoke to that area of the rim where input from or seventh sense is located.  All of these spokes emanate from the depth of our mind, which is the hub of the wheel of awareness."

What Your Hair Tells Your Doctor by Anne Kreamer

Does early graying or balding mean a shorter life span? According to a study of 20,000 men and women in the Copenhagen City Heart Study, neither baldness nor grayness are linked to premature death. The study, which followed the 20,000 participants over three years, found "no correlation between the mortality and the extent of graying of the hair or baldness or facial wrinkles in either of the sexes, irrespective of age."  Whew!

But even though this big random study indicates that having gray hair doesn't mean a person will die earlier, there is a risk associated with having prematurely gray hair. Dr. Lawrence Wood, the head of the Thyroid Foundation of America, recommends that women who start going gray before the age of 30 should be checked for a variety of auto-immune disorders. According to Wood, "juvenile (Type 1) diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, colitis and hypothyroidism are all conditions that may track with premature graying."

The thyroid, a gland just below the Adam's apple, produces a hormone that is essential for the muscles, organs and brain to function properly. Hypothyroidism, a condition created when the gland produces too little of the hormone, can cause a wide range of symptoms: fatigue, depression, and even high cholesterol.

I wish I had known this when I developed hypothyroidism about six years ago. I felt blue, like I was "under water," and began to gain weight. But it took a while to diagnose my condition - those symptoms are also the same as normal signs of aging.

Had I known that starting to go gray in one's 20s - as I did - is a signal to pay closer attention for the onset of auto-immune diseases, I certainly would have been more vocal in letting my doctors know that beneath my dyed hair I was gray.

Once I was diagnosed, I saw an endocrinologist who was emphatic in his support for checking thyroid function early - particularly in childbearing years.

Left untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to miscarriage, premature birth and pre-eclampsia. So regardless of whether you color your hair, do let your doctor know if you're gray underneath the dye, and when you started going gray.

Can A Fruit Fly Teach Us Anything About Our Emotional States? by Anne Kreamer

Well, yes.  It turns out that the mind of a fly can reveal a lot about the underlying mechanisms of ADHD and hyperactivity.  In a TEDxCalTech talk, neurobiologist David Anderson describes how modern psychiatric drugs treat the chemistry of the whole brain, but that his research into the emotional states of fruit flies could yield more precisely targeted psychiatric medications that are more effective with fewer side effects.  His work  is dedicated to deciphering the neural circuits that underlie fear, anxiety, pain, and other instinctive behaviors and is revealing that disruptions in those neural circuits can underlie psychiatric disorders like anxiety and depression. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute reports, "Elucidating these neural circuits is an important first step to understanding how genes, drugs, and experience act on and modify these circuits, in both normal behavior and in disorders such as anxiety and depression. Our hope is that this work will eventually improve the diagnosis of these conditions and lead to new, improved treatments," Anderson said.