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The Breath-Mind Connection

January 29, 2016 by  
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So how about this breathing thing.  I showed you last week how just the simple act of smiling can help to change how you think and how you feel. But how can breathing change your brain?

I’m pretty sure all of us have seen this–when we experience a big scare, our breathing speeds up immediately. This response in the increased speed of our breath also occurs, to varying degrees, when we are under any kind of stress. And as you might guess from reading my posts the last couple weeks, faster breathing can also increase your feeling of stress. The obvious conclusion is that you will want to slow your breathing to help manage and alleviate stress.

I will never forget watching this TV special with a yoga practitioner that had been hooked up to heart rate and blood pressure machines before sitting down to meditate. He assumed his yoga position and began using his mind to slow down his breathing. As he did, the monitors showed that his decreased speed in breath also resulted in his heart rate and blood pressure dropping.  It was a great demonstration of that mind-body connection we’ve been talking about.

Amy Cuddy in her book Presence quotes a psychiatrist and a PTS expert Bessel van der Kolk who said, “Some 80 percent of the fibers of the vagus nerve (which connects the brain with many internal organs) are afferent, that is, they run from the body into the brain. This means that we can directly train our arousal system by the way we breathe, chant, and move, a principle that has been utilized since time immemorial in places like China and India.”

Amy goes on to say “That’s one of the reason yoga can change the way you feel–it naturally prompts you to breathe slowly and rhythmically, as you do practices such as chanting, tai chi, qigong, and meditation. But you don’t need to do any of those; you can reap the benefits of breath control almost anywhere at any time. With a few deep, slow breaths, you’ve just changed your body and your mind.”

She goes on to give this good advice: “Take a second right now to focus on your breath. Inhale quickly, then slowly exhale.  One more time. Inhale for two seconds, then draw out your exhale for around five seconds.”  Go ahead. Do it over and over again and see how it makes you feel.

I find the beauty of all this–power posing, smiling and controlling the breath–can all be done at the same time or done one at a time at almost any time or in any place. Such simple practices can make changes for the good in your life.

Ok … maybe we are better off not power posing on an airplane. You never know how the crew and other passengers will take that.

January 15, 2016 by  
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For many years, science has proven that there is a definite mind/body connection. That is, our thoughts and self-talk can stimulate changes in our bodies. We’ve all experienced changes in our bodies when, for example a sudden fearful thought pops into our mind. Our bodies can quickly begin to perspire, produce adrenaline, or make our faces flush.

Likewise, a very pleasant thought or positive self-talk can relax our muscles, slow our heart rate and even lower our blood pressure. If we use that mind/body connection in the right way, we can make big and positive changes in our lives. I have certainly experienced that on the tennis court by doing a lot of specific positive self-talk before I play a match. I repeat over and over again statements like, “I have great stamina and energy,” I have a very powerful serve,” or “I stay positive and upbeat.” On the negative side, I learned a long time ago not to say, at critical times in a match, things like, “Oh, I just can’t double fault now!” as apparently the brain locks onto the “double fault” words and misses the word “can’t”. And yep, that’s when a double fault happens.

But now comes some new discoveries about this connection. It’s kind of the reverse—it’s a body/mind connection. Several recent studies have shown that certain things we do with our bodies send a message to our brain. Those messages can be very helpful or very hurtful.

This body to mind connection was introduced to me just last month when I heard Amy Cuddy, an American social psychologist, talk about it. I was so surprised and impressed that I bought her book, Presence, the first day it was released. What a great return I am getting as I see and understand more about how the body can change your brain.

Last week I quoted Amy on the subject of better ways to set new years’ resolutions by using baby steps and nudging yourself. I thought her advice on goals setting was good but Chapter 8 entitled “The Body Shapes the Mind” uncovers, what I think, are brilliant ideas. Amy Cuddy, along with some very bright collaborators, began experimenting to see if the human body holds certain poses for about two minutes would that affect or change the human mind. They chose 5 positive poses and 5 weak poses. Probably the most powerful pose was standing up very straight, shoulders back with hands on your hips–what she called the superman pose. Not only did that pose make the person feel much more powerful, happy and confident it also improved their body chemistry. By using blood samples and saliva samples they found that the men and women who participated in the study showed a 19 percent increase in testosterone and a 25 percent decrease in cortisol–which is a stress hormone.

On the other those people that held a 2 minutes low-power pose like slumped down in a chair, head down and tucked in arms, had a 10 percent decrease in testosterone and a 17 increase in cortisol. Amy goes on to say “the way you carry yourself is a source of person power–the kind of power that is the key to presence. It’s the key that allows you to unlock yourself, your abilities, your creativity, your courage and even your generosity. Taking control of your body language is not just about posing in a powerful way. It’s also about the fact that we pose in powerless way much more often than we think and we need to change that.”

So when you want to feel better about yourself and feel more powerful in your life, remember that how you hold your body can change things in your brain. I’m going to start power posing before my tennis games like Amy does just before she gives a speech. In the quiet of her hotel room she stands in the superman power pose for 2 minutes which gives her the right attitude and confidence to go out there and give a terrific speech!

Baby Steps and Gentle Nudges

January 7, 2016 by  
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Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been very big on setting goals including New Year’s Resolutions which are pretty much at the top of my list. At years’ end, I’ve always been surprised and often disappointed by how many goals I failed to accomplish or fell short of accomplishing during that one year. I’ve always thought that I just needed to set bigger goals and try much, much harder. And yes, I would end up berating and beating myself up for my failures. But now I am learning from Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence, that there is growing evidence and research indicating that most of us having been going at the goal setting and resolutions thing all wrong.

Under the section entitled, “Many Popular Self-Change Approaches Fail–And Even Backfire”, Amy says, “For one thing, New Year’s resolutions are too ambitious. Setting big goals such as getting straight A’s in school or working out three times a week is a positive step in theory, but these goals are not designed in a way that actually allows us to build toward them.  They’re reliant on the success of hundreds of smaller changes and they don’t come with step-by-step instructions showing us how to get there”.

I will say, as I do in my preaching on goal setting and what I almost always do myself, we all need to break down our goals into small steps. But Amy goes further saying we need to break our goals down into ‘baby steps’ and gently ‘nudge ourselves’ along.

Additionally, Amy says, “One of the biggest culprits, as least in the United States, is the repeatedly dispiriting New Year’s resolution, which is riddled with psychological traps, that work against us.”  The problem with big goals, with a time frame that is way in the future, is that we really can’t easily visualize the end results and so it’s easy to get down on ourselves and give up along the way.  Quoting Amy again, she adds “focusing on process encourages us to keep working, to keep going, and to see challenges as opportunities for growth, not as threats of failure.”

In other words, take lots of baby steps.  Amy mentions her ambition to be a runner which at one time in my life I thought I wanted to do also. The problem is, when we set big goals, like maybe running a marathon in 6 months or doing a 3 or 4 mile run our first or second time out, we usually get totally exhausted very early on and we give up or become very discouraged.  I’ve talked to many runners who have had a similar experience. However, if I start with very small goals—baby steps—such as saying to myself, “I’ll just run for 10 or 12 minutes,” or “I’ll just go down to that mailbox or tree,” then when I’ve reached that very small objective I can say, “Hey, I want to see if I can just run another 5 minutes or just to that house down there.”  That approach is such a hugely different experience and it sure seems to fit what Amy Cuddy is discovering in her study of goal setting and resolutions.

So I would challenge all my readers to give more thought to your goals and objectives as we begin this wonderful new year. Think ‘baby steps’ and ‘gentle, small self-nudges’ and we all might find that we stop beating up on ourselves for thinking we have failed and instead find we have made some very big gains in our physical, family, social and financial life.