Thursday, August 4, 2011

Does your MS create constraint or motivation?

Many years back, I thought to myself: If I ever have trouble walking, I'll do everything I possibly can to get better. I remember that I was watching some people who were having difficulty walking, and that I was being very judgmental of them.

Flash forward to today, when I now find myself with mobility issues, I think back to that moment. And I wonder if I'm now doing everything that I can to make sure that I can still walk. The answer is a resounding "No".  In some ways, this is very useful because it allows me to continue to play out my old dynamic. I get to judge and berate myself, and then tell myself the lie that health has nothing to do with effort - it's just something we are born with (or in my case, without).

I was going through this internal dialogue yesterday and realized that it's another variant of how I praise myself. I've written here about the work of Carol Dweck before, and I think it applies here. There are two types of praise, one for process and one for a trait. Process based praise is praising for effort and the work that it took to do something. Trait based praise is praising for a trait the person possesses such as "you must be really smart" or "you're very talented". Trait based praise is static - it's a fixed thing within us that we have no control over, so trait based praise tends to de-motivate people. Process based praise is dynamic and reflects a  person's actions and efforts. It is very motivating because a person knows that to receive more praise, they just need to do the thing they are being praised for: effort. I've never figured out how to be more "smart" but I think I can work harder.

Likewise, is MS a trait or a process? Is it a fact of our being or directly influenced by our actions?

One thing that always amazes me about the Human body is how quickly it responds to usage and need. All of our muscles and bones change and grow in response to how we use them. Martial artists hit hard surfaces repeatedly so their bones get stronger. Astronauts lose bone density almost immediately when in space because their is no longer any gravity for their bones to harden against.

New research is showing that the brain and nervous system respond similarly. The brain is really just a muscle that needs exercise, and then responds to need. MS damages the brain and nerves, and the body rebuilds them. A lot of my thinking on MS thus far has been on what type of beliefs and thoughts help the brain to damage itself. The next step is figuring out what kind of thoughts and activities help to build the brain.

My initial approach is that any new way I use my body or mind is probably going to help the brain. I recently started lifting weights and one thing that my mentor emphasized was not to get into a routine. He recommended that I vary weight, reps, speed, and exercises every two weeks. The body needs constant change to continue to grow. I have to continually look for new ways of moving my body so my brain is forced to grow and change in response to the movement. But it take a long time to build nerves and brain tissue. Muscles change the quickest. Then tendons, then bones, and then finally nerves. This is one place where praise for the effort is everything because the results take a long time to come.

When I started to work out four months ago, I would almost always hit a point where the muscles involved in the exercise would just stop working. They weren't tired, but it was like the off switch had been hit and they stopped responding. It was a distinct sensation from when the muscle got fatigued and was unable to lift more, and it was definitely neurological in origin. When I worked out yesterday, that sensation only happened 40% of the time, and mostly, I could feel the muscle get tired. My brain must have grown some new pathways!

If MS is viewed as a trait, as a fixed disease within us, then it constrains us. It limits our actions and there is nothing we can do about it. If MS is a dynamic process, then it can motivate us and help us to work harder and put more effort into being healthy. MS needs to be our motivation, not our limitation.

photo courtesy of Brain_Blogger

Monday, December 13, 2010

Involving Children in MS

As part of my recent move back to the US, we stayed with my parents for two months and I picked up a wonderful idea for involving kids with my MS medicine.

My father is diabetic and checks his blood sugar before every meal. My children followed him up to his room during the first week we were there and started asking him all sorts of questions about how the procedure. Soon after, I realized that they were going up to his room every time he was checking his blood sugar and getting angry if he didn't include them in it. He had divided up the tasks involved between my two girls and involved them in it. When my nephew came to visit, they eagerly brought him up with them to show him how Grandpa was "doing his numbers".

I quickly adapted this excellent idea for myself. I was used to taking my Copaxone when the kids were at school, so I shifted it to before school. Every morning, one child unscrews the autoject and one tears open the alcohol pad. On opens the package to the needle (still well capped), and I insert it into the autoject. They watch the indicator to see when it's done, then hand me a cotton ball. One gets to throw the capped needle into sharps container and the other throws out the trash. The love it.

The kids know that the medicine helps to keep me healthy, and they love being able to help me out with it. It's an easy way to demystify the whole process, give them a sense of ownership over it, and keep the discussion of MS open within the household. Plus it's a fun thing we can all do together!

Monday, November 1, 2010


A barrier to spiritual development I've been encountering in myself and have seen in others is Self-pity. It's the attitude of a person that there is something so wrong with themselves that it excuses their behavior. It's the woe-is-me attitude that prevents a person from growing.

For some, it's the one-upmanship of illness and disability: The "oh yeah, well you don't know pain like I know pain" type of attitude, but it's not said as a toughness thing, but rather as a boast of how pathetic one is.

For some, it's a stumbling block: "I can't ever do that because I'm too sick to." This is not the honest acknowledgment of ability, but the self-imposition of limitation.

For some, it's a barrier to relationship: "You can't understand me because you don't know what it's like to [fill in blank with symptom]." This is the withdrawal from a relationship by assuming a person won't understand and thereby not sharing and communicating and giving the person a chance to understand. It's a form of contempt for another where one assumes that they are better than the other and thereby stop taking the other seriously.

My approach to self-pity follows two paths. The first is awareness. When I realize I'm doing it, I can stop. I listen to my inner voice and when I hear myself saying things that reflect self-pity, I pay attention to how I'm feeling. I can then know to look for the words or the feelings to identify the self-pity. Sometimes this alone is enough to head it off.

The second approach is to make fun of myself for it: "oh, poor, poor me. There is no one more pathetic than me." I reinforce and accentuate the feeling. By putting energy into it, I react more strongly to it and work it through. Sometimes I get really silly in making fun of myself. The internal laughter transforms the darkness of the self-pity and helps me to see how little I like myself when the self-pity is in control, and I start to change.

Self-pity is a cycle that builds and spins on itself. It's like a whirlpool that carries one around and around without allowing motion anywhere but down. The longer one is stuck in it, the more powerful it becomes.

What are your tricks for breaking out of self-pity?

photo courtesy of DOH4

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.