(347) 506-1612 DrWolkin@BrainCurves.com
SPOTLIGHT: POST TRAUMATIC GROWTH IN REAL LIFE: HEALING THROUGH WORDS

SPOTLIGHT: POST TRAUMATIC GROWTH IN REAL LIFE: HEALING THROUGH WORDS

On the evening of March 26th, 2012, Yvonne Kent Pateras suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke, leaving her unable to speak or move. She also experienced “locked-in” syndrome. These are Yvonne’s own words regarding the traumatic stroke she experienced:

“I had the experience of knowing what was happening to me from the beginning. I felt a sinus rhythm in my head becoming louder. I tried to center myself, but it was over before I had time to act. I opened my mouth to shout for help-the noise that left my body was the most primordial noise. My beautiful voice had been replaced by the noise of a wounded beast. I wouldn’t hear another word for the next for 3 months. I knew that I had not only suffered a stroke, I was paralyzed and locked in. I couldn’t tell my family that I knew what was going on. I tried to just keep my neurons busy and alive. I did simple counting exercises to stay calm and occupied-to keep my adrenaline levels under control. I was determined to survive.”

After four months in the hospital, to everyone’s surprise, and with extraordinary courage, Yvonne was able to regain speech and movement. Yet, in a span of approximately ten months, she suffered three ischemic strokes, and another hemorrhagic one. Since different kinds of strokes require different treatments, medical care was challenging.

Yvonne persevered. She said that recovery required “endless effort.” She can now walk without difficulty. She has a light speech impediment and lost some functioning in her right hand.

As we now know, with post-traumatic growth, trauma like this can often serve as a catalyst for a profound awakening to an emotional and spiritual transformation. Yvonne’s awaking came in the form of writing poetry.

“Following the stroke I went through a spell of re-learning, like being born again. Feelings were overpowering my mind’s concentration and understanding. Writing verses were facilitating the expression of my feelings. Publishing my work also gave me upmost satisfaction, particularly as the response by other stroke victims was so moving. Poetry takes the weight off my legs, gives me wings!!!”

You can find Yvonne’s poetry in her book, Stroke Journeys, by clicking on this link.

This is part 4 of a 4-part series of excerpts from the latest 2018 edition of Dr. Wolkin’s PTSD Packet

This is your Brain on Poetry

This is your Brain on Poetry

Poetry: Your new tool for a healthy self & brain

Did you know that Emily Dickinson can change your neurophysiology? Well, maybe not Dickinson herself, but certainly the poetry she wrote.
In 2013, researchers at the University of Exeter had subjects take functional MRI’s (i.e., a tool that allows the brain’s activity to be seen in real time) while they read from texts that they had never seen before, these included works of non-fiction, fiction, and poetry.
The results indicated two main things:

  1. The brain parts activated in response to reading the poetry were the same as those activated in response to hearing beloved music.
  2. The brain’s response to poetry mimicked the brain “at rest”. That is to say, the same way the brain looks when we feel introspective.

 

Since humans have an innate response to rhythm and sound, it seems to make sense that poetry and music would align in the brain. Poetry as an art form predates literacy, and poetry was first employed as a way to both remember and convey oral history. Poetry is not much different than music in this way as it is found in ancient hymns and chants that delineated cultural traditions.

In addition, it appears that poetry also serves as a haven for a reflective, contemplative, and daydreaming brain. Therefore, poetry might also prove beneficial to the brain on a cognitive level.

In a 2006 study, researchers observed how brains reacted to Shakespeare’s linguistic craftiness, including his pun-making and also a technique called ‘functional shifting’ during which Shakespeare uses a noun as a verb. When the grammar shifted, the brain “lit up” and responded in its attempt to make sense of the unusual use of the word. This type of stimulation is beneficial to long-term cognitive functioning. Learning, especially learning that is not passive, is neuroprotective.

In 2013, researchers had subjects read both original Shakespeare texts as well as versions that had been translated to be more easily understood by modern audiences. When reading the complex originals, researchers noticed a more intense reaction from the language centers of the brain (for most people, their left hemisphere) as subjects strove to make meaning of the text. Furthermore, during the same study, researchers noticed that when it came to reading Shakespeare’s original poetry, brain regions related to personal and autobiographical memory were activated (found grossly in the right hemisphere).

These findings point to poetry’s ability to foster both a personal connection to a poem, as well as create a sense of self-reflection. To take the latter even further, we can extrapolate that poetry triggers what is called a “reappraisal mechanism,” or the process of reflecting and sometimes rethinking our own experiences in the context of what we are reading.

As one of the authors of the study, Professor Davis, put it:

“Poetry is not just a matter of style. It is a matter of deep versions of experience that add the emotional and biographical to the cognitive.”

So, reading poetry, especially poetry that keeps us on our toes linguistically, is a portal into a space for our self-reflection and growth, as well as serving as a beneficial tool to keeping the brain vital.

At the very least…poetry is like music to our ears!

Mindful Coloring Challenge #ShareYourBrain

Mindful Coloring Challenge #ShareYourBrain

Live your best life: Mindfully control your brain’s reaction to stress

Did you know that the brain’s “stress center,” the amygdala, shrinks post mindfulness practice? In addition, the functional connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex are weakened. This allows for less reactivity to life’s basic stresses, and paves the way for higher order brain functions to be strengthened (i.e. attention, concentration, etc.)

The impact that mindfulness exerts on our brain is borne from routine: a slow, steady, and consistent reckoning of our realities, and the ability to take a step back, become more aware, more accepting, less judgmental, and less reactive. Just as playing the piano over and over again over time strengthens and supports brain networks involved with playing music – mindfulness over time can make the brain, and thus, us, more efficient regulators, with a penchant for pausing to respond to external stimuli instead of mindlessly reacting.

The amazing thing about mindfulness is that you can apply it to any action you engage in on a daily basis; cooking, cleaning, walking to work, talking to a friend, driving – or even drawing or coloring!

Why coloring? Well, for one, we all need to embrace our inner child! As adults, we don’t do enough coloring, or any type of play for that matter. Did you know that play can help reduce stress? Also, believe it or not, coloring utilizes areas of the brain that enhance focus and concentration, and nurturing attention is one of the mechanisms by which mindfulness leads to well-being.

That is helpful, because when we are engaged “on purpose” in a particular task, by focusing on it instead of remaining on autopilot, then our negative and unhelpful thinking seems far away (i.e. isn’t on our minds!) Our minds literally can’t focus on both at the same time.

Yet, it should not be seen as just a distraction from really dealing with our “problems”. By engaging in this exercise, we can continue to deepen our ability to be mindful and train our mind to stay in the present moment rather than habitually straying into unhelpful thoughts about the past or future, to rather stay non-judgmentally present to our every sensation as it unfolds. In this way, we are better equipped to calmly approach our anxiety and parse out if it is a real or imagined stress.

How to practice mindful coloring:

  1. Start with colored pencils, or crayons or any other drawing/coloring tool that feels right to you.
  2. Take a moment to notice the feeling of these instruments in your hand. Their weight, texture, the engineering that went into their creation…
  3. Then, listen to your gut, and start to color without too much thought about it. Don’t analyze your drawing, rather, just let what comes organically come. Try not to edit.
  4. If you want, you can print multiple pages so you can do this over and over again.
  5. See if you can focus also on the act of coloring itself as you are engaged in it. Here are some cues for you:
  • How does your hand move across the page? You might even want to spend some time following it.
  • How do the different strokes look? Notice the difference between using the sharp edge vs. the side of the pencil.
  • How do the different colors (if you are using multiple colors) add to the different parts of the image?
  • Notice, without judgment, as your drawing unfolds.

What does your unique brain look like?

In my ‘The Grand Conductor’ packet, we go through the biology of the brain, as well as the latest research on how to keep it in tip-top shape, but at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that we’re just brains studying brains. We’re limited in our understanding of the brain by the virtue of the very thing we’re using to study it!

In addition, just as every individual is unique, so is each brain different from the next, and, moreover, constantly changing as we age! So, let’s all open our minds (see what I did there?) and learn more about ours, and each other’s, unique brains.

Print out the brain image below and color it in however you please! Remember to try to practice staying mindful during the process. Let it reflect the latest brain science (learn more from the infographics at the bottom of this blog!) or let it reflect your own personal understanding of self. Whatever you decide – Let your mind soar! Keep in mind, it’s not about being an artist, in fact, no artistic skill is necessary. Just dive in and notice, again, without judgment, what the process is like for you. I’m going to do this as well, and share it on my social media pages, so stay tuned! 

 

 

When you are finished, please, #ShareYourBrain on social media and tag @BrainCurves!

 

BRAIN EVOLUTION, ANATOMY &  PHYSIOLOGY, AND WELLNESS INFOGRAPHICS 

Repost: 4 Lessons I’ve Learned From Chronic Migraine About Mindful Living

Repost: 4 Lessons I’ve Learned From Chronic Migraine About Mindful Living

This blog post originally appeared on The Mighty 

 

I’ve had episodic migraines all my life, but they never debilitated me. A day or two before my period, when a bad headache would strike, I’d take four Advil, put an ice pack on my neck, and be fine a few hours later.

That all changed in June 2017. Here’s how I remember it: I took a flight from New York City to the West Coast, and then two more flights within the same week. I experienced 110 F Las Vegas summer weather, jet lag, and overall exhaustion. I was still feeling stressed from the news the month prior that I might be experiencing perimenopausal hormonal changes (read: premature ovarian failure). Then, on the fourth day of the trip, after sleeping for 16 hours straight, I woke up feeling an off-ness that grew into a slew of neurological symptoms that never went away.

This perfect storm of events, as my neurologist called it, must have set off a cascade inside my body that culminated in migraine, that has lasted for the last seven months in varying degrees of intensity. I have had various in and out symptoms including light sensitivity, dizziness, nausea, blurriness, stabbing eye pain, gastric stasis, brain fog, and headaches.

Some might call it status migrainosus, which by definition is a migraine that lasts for more than 72 hours. Whatever we call it, my migraines clearly went from being episodic to a chronic and disabling issue. The initial migraine technically broke two months later following a steroid taper, which gave me two days of relief. Since then, I have had on and off symptoms almost daily in varying degrees and intensities.

Despite the pain and discomfort, this time has been ripe with lessons in more mindful living:

1. Awareness

Knowing and eliminating my triggers:

While migraine is often genetic, and there is no one agreed upon cause, there are triggers involved – which don’t cause an attack, but can set one off. Some are uncontrollable, like barometric pressure, and some can be managed through lifestyle changes. The latter requires meticulous self-calibration.

I’ve eliminated many dietary triggers, including alcohol, chocolate, anything with tyramine, anything with nitrates, and even some food high in histamines. The calibration continues, as even the amount of caffeine that I put in my body can put me at risk for symptoms. So every morning I have just the right amount of espresso, no more, no less. This also applies to sleep. I need enough sleep to feel well, but too much sleep can actually tip the scales in the wrong direction. This awareness to detail has been a bit painstaking, and it sometimes feels like a roulette game. Yet, I’ve never been so aware of what my body needs in any given moment.

Recognizing the subtle signs of a migraine before they escalate:

My interoceptive awareness has been heightened in a beneficial way. Some of the medications to abort migraine work best when you can catch the symptoms early. This has required me to be consciously aware of the subtle nuances in the way I feel at any given moment. Of course, at its extreme, this can become almost obsessive. But when it’s for the sake of one’s wellness, it feels calming to be able to know that I can help myself by being more attuned to my body.

For me, my heart starts to race, my vision tends to blur, and my shoulders and neck start to tighten. I’ve learned that by noticing these symptoms early, I can sometimes even skip the medication by immediately applying peppermint oil to my wrists and temples, ice on my forehead, and heat on my neck area.

2. Self-Compassion

Less “shoulding” all over myself:

I have a tendency to “should” all over myself to the tune of, “I should be writing my book right now, I should be creating my e-courses, and I should expand my practice to include group therapy, etc.” At times, however, the symptoms were so disabling that I couldn’t do much but lay in a dark room. In those moments, I worked hard on letting go of my “shoulds, ” such as, “How can I be laying here when I should be accomplishing this and that and the other thing?!”

Compassion for my body:

Chronic migraine forced me to take a break from physical exertion. With the lack of consistent cardio, coupled with the weight-gain side effects of certain medications, I saw the number on the scale go up. At first, I started to obsess over the weight that I “should” be at. Then, I started to have compassion for the strength of my body as it went through this process. Instead of focusing on pounds, I focused on wellness.
I am finally challenging many of the “shoulds” I’ve amassed, and as I do I notice the seeds of self-compassion budding within me.

3. Gratitude

Gratitude for moments of relief:

I’m certainly not going to imply that we have to struggle in some capacity to feel and express gratitude! Yet, the caliber of gratitude that I felt in the moments when I experienced even modicums of relief from my migraine symptoms, was something I’d never experienced in all my years of gratitude training. I found myself literally saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” But when the pain returned, and I was at risk for falling into a darkness, “Why was that relief taken away from me!?” I challenged that thought, and reminded myself that if I had a moment of relief, I would have another – and that gave me hope.

Gratitude for the care I have been, and continue to be, shown:

I tend to be more of a nurturer, caregiver type — much better at giving than receiving — but because of the sometimes disabling nature of migraine, I literally had no choice but to allow myself to surrender to others’ giving.

Whether it was foot massages in the throes of a more severe attack, ice and heat around the clock as needed, mailing me different essential oils, including peppermint — which I’ve found has been crucial — showing up to the ER when the relentless pain called for a visit, calling or checking in daily, helping me strategize to find the best and highest caliber treatment team, and even just holding me during some of the more emotional moments when I’d cry from exhaustion, when the hope was too hard to hold, when I couldn’t see my future.

To see those I love show up in many different ways to bring me even just a little more relief filled me with gratitude — again, the kind I had never quite felt before.

4. Patience

Patience in finding the right treatment:

By nature, I tend towards the more impatient end of the spectrum. I like to take productive action and see immediate results — cause and effect, right? Well, sometimes, life just doesn’t work like this and I have had to maintain patience across many facets of my migraine experience.

Finding the right treatment team takes time. Not every doctor is going to be the right fit for your needs, and that’s OK. However, it can feel like a job finding the point person who will facilitate the appropriate treatment, the clinician who is the right fit. After a few months, thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I’ve finally found someone.

Often, treating migraine also calls for finding the right cocktail of medications. This takes a lot of time, too. Not only do you need to find the right combination that works for each unique individual, but it also takes at least one month before you’ve given each and every medication its “fair shot.” Plus, some come with egregious side effects, and you have to decide: do you wait it out and hope they subside as the medication takes effect – or do you stop it, and start over?

I’d like the healing to be more linear and more blatant, but it’s not. There’s a lot of waiting involved, and the waiting feels compounded because it happens sometimes in the context of great discomfort and pain. Baby steps is my new mantra, but none of this feels easy.

So, while it’s taken a solid treatment team, preventative meds, significant lifestyle and dietary changes, and incredible support, I have no doubt that these lessons are part of my healing process.

That’s the irony of all ironies. The lessons learned are like lifeboats in an unpredictable, roaring sea. Again, one doesn’t have to struggle to “see the light,” but if one is experiencing discomfort and pain, there’s more to see in that muck than meets the eye.

Repost: 3 Ways Mindfulness Can Improve Your Relationships

Repost: 3 Ways Mindfulness Can Improve Your Relationships

This blog post originally appeared on About Meditation.

Do you ever struggle to connect or communicate with your partner? I mean, who doesn’t?

But what a lot of people don’t know is that brain science shows that practicing mindfulness can help you in this area of life.

You see, mindfulness is much more than meditation. It’s more like a fundamental approach to life.

Mindfulness Improves Relationships

It starts with choosing to become more aware of how we show up in life and making conscious choices about what our presence looks and feels like in each moment.

All of this can inform the way we are as individuals in our relationships.

How is that?

Because mindfulness can help you cultivate healthier relationships through stress reduction, enhanced emotion-regulation abilities, and honed communication skills (Among other ways I am sure)!

1. Stress reduction

We’ve all experienced that moment when we are so stressed that the little things start to bother us. Stress increases our irritability levels, and then inconsequential things start to elicit reactivity.

I know you know what I’m talking about…

Mindfulness meditation can help reduce stress, and consequently, make each individual in a relationship less likely to argue about the little things that—oftentimes unnecessarily—blow up into big things.

Here’s one quick mindfulness exercise to help you in moments like that. Try this stress-busting breathing with your partner.

2. Enhanced Emotion Regulation

It’s becoming clearer to researchers that practicing mindfulness meditation can help us regulate our emotions, and lash out less at one another!

How does that work?

Studies show that practicing mindfulness meditation decreases the grey-matter volume of the amygdala—the fear center of the brain—and increases the grey-matter volume of our pre-frontal cortex.

That’s the part of the brain responsible for forethought, and what we call “higher order” functions.

But it doesn’t stop there. Mindfulness meditation is also associated with increased connection between the amygdala and pre-frontal cortex. This leads to greater integration of our emotions and intellect.

How This Can Help Your Relationship

But you might be wondering, how does this help us? Here’s an example.

When our partner says something we don’t like, it’s plausible that instead of thinking it through, we feel threatened. That activates the amygdala that readies us to attack back.

In truth, much of the time when our partner “acts out” it’s from a place of their own insecurity, and their own deep-rooted pain.

So instead of impulsively trying to attack back from one’s own “wounded place,” try responding with compassion for all of the pain both of you are experiencing by truly listening and then responding from a place that is less fear-based.

Slowly, but steadily, we can work together with our partner to decrease our amygdala volume!

3. Honed Communication Skills

Now, imagine that instead of immediately reacting based on fear, we take a moment to pause and reflect on why we feel threatened and then proceed to respond with more kindness.

We can then start to imagine that our significant other also has their own insecurities and hot-button issues. It’s hard, but imagine if each individual in a partnership practiced taking a few breaths before lashing out and attacking in return and instead responded with a calmer and less defensive demeanor.

We’d actually give one another the space to be heard, and the opportunity to communicate without our armor. WOW.

But how do we do this?

Each partner works on becoming more attuned to their own emotional landscape by starting to understand what triggers them most, and why.

For example, someone might immediately be on the attack if her significant other calls to say that they will be late to dinner. It’s important to understand why that call felt so threatening that it resulted in anger and lashing out.

Perhaps, and this is just an example, it taps into someone’s deeper fear of being abandoned by their partner. If possible, cultivate compassion for oneself for experiencing such deep pain, and even needing to be on the defensive.

This takes time, and it’s a process…one that is often worked upon in therapy.

A Mindful Listening Exercise

Then, maybe try THIS:

Mindful listening is a core element of healthy communication.

Really taking the time to listen to how the other feels, without immediately and sometimes impulsively reacting, creates the space for both parties to feel heard and then to show up in kind with a more mindful ear.

I recommend you set a timer for five minutes. Then one partner begins to speak about whatever they would like (this isn’t the time to attack the other, this is just about practicing uninterrupted listening), which can include how they feel about the relationship or about anything at all.

Non-verbal responses are permitted from the listening part, but no verbal response of any kind.

Then, when the timer goes off switch roles so that the speaker now becomes the listener. Each time you practice the exercise, switch off who starts being the initial listener and vice versa.

Repost: Five to Thrive: 5 Ways Mindfulness Meditation Leads To Greater Well-Being

Repost: Five to Thrive: 5 Ways Mindfulness Meditation Leads To Greater Well-Being

This blog post originally appeared on THRIVE GLOBAL

Here are five digestible bytes of well-regarded facts, opinions, and ideas about mindfulness meditation’s ability to lead to greater well-being!

1. Reframe the Experience of Pain:

Mindfulness meditation’s ability to provide pain relief can be done by cultivating the ability to parse between the objective sensory dimension of pain and the more subjective judgement that we attach to the pain and the way that we interpret it mentally.

Read More: How the Brain Can Change Your Experience of Pain

2. Boost the Immune System:

A recent and groundbreaking review looked at 20 randomized control trials examining the effects of mindfulness meditation on the immune system. In reviewing the research, the authors found that mindfulness meditation “Reduced markers of inflammation, high levels of which are often correlated with decreased immune functioning and disease.”

Mindfulness meditation also increased the number of CD-4 cells, which are the immune system’s helper cells involved in destroying infections. There was also increased telomerase activity which helps promote the stability of chromosomes and prevent their deterioration (telomerase deterioration leads to cancer and premature aging).

Read More: Train Your Brain to Boost Your Immune System

3. With the Processing of Trauma:

Deregulation of the brain areas associated with emotional regulation and memory are key contributors to the symptoms associated with PTSD. In addition, an over-activity in the brain’s fear center, the amygdala, can be found in those suffering from Trauma-related disorders. Mindfulness reverses these patterns by increasing prefrontal and hippocampal activity, and toning down the amygdala.

In fact, brain scans confirm that mindfulness meditation is correlated with an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus, a decrease of gray matter in the amygdala, and neuroimaging studies have found that mindfulness meditation also helps to activate the Pre-frontal Cortex.

Read More: The Science of Trauma, Mindfulness, and PTSD

4. Reduce Anxiety:

Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that mindfulness meditation makes perfect sense for treating anxiety. “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power,” she explains. “They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit.” Mindfulness meditation cultivates the ability to be more discerning. Subsequently, we can use the opportunity to take action on the problem solving, and to see the worry without judgment and more compassion.

Read More: Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress

5. Create Space for Less Reactivity and Stress:

In every situation, we can choose to REACT from a place of fear and perhaps anger, or RESPOND more mindfully.

Reacting is a reflexive, and sometimes impulsive, way to behave in a situation. It’s not adaptive and often leads to increased stress and tension. In contrast, responding is a more mindful approach to any given situation. But in order to respond in lieu of reacting, we need to STOP:

  • Stop.
  • Take a breath.
  • Observe.
  • Proceed (more mindfully).

Just ONE extra moment to take a step back, regroup, and consider a healthier response can make a huge difference.

Read More: How To Achieve Mindful Living? Just Mind The Gap!

The bottom line seems to be that mindfulness meditation can help us live our best lives.

What’s your experience with mindfulness meditation? Have you noticed any of these benefits? I would love to hear your thoughts, comments, experiences, feedback, and questions!

Let’s THRIVE, together!