Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Mislabeling emtions

In reading Stumbling on Happiness, I found several ideas that I think are relevant to MS.

On page 63, he writes that mislabeling emotions is a very common and easy thing to do.

When I think back on my own experience, I spent many years lost in fear without even being aware that I was scared. It took a very perceptive person to point out to me that I was frightened before I could even begin to perceive it. When I first became aware of it, I didn't even feel scared, but instead I just felt a vibration in my guts and my body would shake.

It then took years to be able to actually feel scared and properly identify the emotion. Even now, I sometimes only know I'm scared because I see that I'm reacting poorly to things and realize that my fear must be taking control. I have to sit and meditate to be able to relax enough to feel the fear, which allows me to move beyond it.

I wonder if there are commonalities among people with MS and if we commonly mislabel the same emotions? This could help lead us to the patterns of thought that lead to the disease.

Has anyone noticed any patterns of mislabeled emotions in their own lives?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Review: Stumbling on Happiness

I recently read a book call Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Todd Gilbert (click on image above for a link to the book) and it stimulated some thoughts on MS. This post is a quick summary of the book, and the next few posts will be a few ideas that I think are relevant to MS.

The basic premise of the book is that we often mis-remember important emotions and events, and so when we envision our future to make choices, we make those choices on faulty information. There are two main problems with memory. The first is that we remember only a small part of our actual experience, so when we project into the future, we have to fill in the gaps with our imagination. The second is that we tend to retell painful stories in ways that make them less painful, so we don't actually remember how we felt during traumatic events.

The problem with our imagination is that it bases our projected future upon our present state of being, or on our poor memories of the past, both of which end up being badly flawed guesses as to what life will be like in our futures. This leads to problems in making choices about our future, especially, he writes, when it comes to happiness. We get stuck repeating bad choices and failing to move forward with our lives.

His conclusion is that we should make our future choices based on what we hear from other people who are doing, right now, what we are thinking about doing in the future. For instance, if I am thinking about seeing a movie, I shouldn't ask someone who saw it last week, I should go to the theater and ask people immediately as they walk out of the movie I'm thinking of seeing. He recommends doing something like that for pretty much all of our important decisions.

I enjoyed the book, but I didn't much care for his sense of humor. I felt like I was trapped at dinner with a distant relative who made jokes every third sentence whether they were funny or not, but what he said was interesting enough to make me overlook it. I also disagree with his conclusion that though we all want to think of ourselves as unique, we are all very similar. As I've gotten older, I've realized more and more how different people are.

Overall, I think that there are a lot of good thoughts in the book, and he does a good job of presenting a wide range of psychological research in a very accessible form.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Thinking yourself to health

In my last post, I wrote about a recent article on how brains change and grow in response to how and what we think. In many ways, this should come as no surprise. Our muscles and bones also grow in response to use. When we lift weights, we gain more muscle. When we put more stress on our bones, they get stronger. Martial artists have a long practice of training by hitting walls or sand repeatedly. Each impact signals the body to grow stronger bones and tougher skin. Heel spurs are the result of impacts on the heel when we walk which results in dysfunctional and painful bone growth. Same process with two very different results.

MS is an auto-immune disease which means we cause it ourselves. Given what we know about bone and muscle growth, the question arises if there is something in our own actions that causes the dysfunction in our immune systems? Given what the recent study revealed about brains following the same pattern but in response to the way we think, are there patterns of thought which lead to a worsening or improvement in our MS? Do these patterns of thought cause physical changes in the brain that alter our symptoms? And if they do, how does one change those patterns of thought to lead to a healthier brain?

My approach is that the dysfunctional patterns of thought revolve around self-hate, fear, and giving away power. I would also add a lack of connection to self and to God. Over time, they pull the brain in the wrong direction and encourage a dysfunctional immune system.

One thing that the article really stressed was that the changes in the brain take years to occur. Cognitive  reserve, their term for mental strength, is developed over a lifetime. The article also stated that mental strengthening is the result of continual effort and focus – finding challenges and raising a mental sweat in overcoming them. This means that any changes in the course of our MS from this approach take a long period of concerted effort to show any results. Simplified, this all means to have patience with yourself.

What do you think? Are there patterns of your thinking that lead you to get healthier or sicker?

Photo courtesy of LuMaxArt

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Flexing your Brain

The lead article in the fall 2009 issue of the Rocky Mountain MS society's magazine InforMS is about changes in the brains of London cab drivers while they learn their craft. In this blog post, I will summarize the article and the conclusions it draws based on this research. In my next post, I will propose another direction the research can take us and how that might help people with MS.

Studies show that as new drivers go through an intensive three year training program to memorize all streets, attractions, and restaurants in central London, the parts of their brains thought to be connected to navigation got bigger and bigger. The study shows that our brains continue to change and develop over time in response to what we do and think. The article states:
“This research on the cab drivers adds to our growing understanding that our brains are sculpted by what we learn and experience throughout our lifetime. We know that our brains influence what we do with our lives. Now we are beginning to appreciate the converse: what we do with our lives influences our brains.” (p. 3)
The article continues that our brains ability to grow and change is called “Cognitive reserve”. Which is defined as "...a measure of brain fitness and flexibility. Like muscles, brains become more flexible if they are regularly challenged.” (p. 4) Brains with lots of cognitive reserve have an easier time repairing themselves.

The article continues to talk about ways to improve one's cognitive reserve, of which the best ways are physical and mental exercise. Physical exercise improves blood flow to the brain and reduces stress. As for mental exercise, the article states that “Apparently, what really stimulates the brain to learn and grow is more a function of how, and how much you are challenged to learn, not what you learn. “ (p. 5) As with physical exercise, the amount of benefit you receive is directly related to the amount of effort you expend. If you focus on a mental challenge, you will build mental muscle.

The Rocky Mountain MS society does wonderful work and also does a lot of work with examining how complimentary and alternative medicine can help people with MS – something near and dear to my heart. I recommend checking out their website and subscribing to their newsletters and quarterly magazine. As an addendum to this post, I would recommend checking out the bibliography on the brain Article as well.