Why take a risk?

Personal note

These last two weeks have been filled with many opportunities to meet new  people and to share with them the exciting things I am doing.

As I did so, I reflected upon my past, when I was so shy that the patterns on the wallpaper made more impact on a group than I did.  Now I circulate confidently, smiling, chatting, finding out about other people, making friends, and yes … actually talking about myself.

All of this didn’t happen by accident:  it was part of a calculated plan at self-improvement that I started in 1983, and worked through step-by-step.

Today’s article is about that first step:  recognizing that you may stay in a prison of your own making forever if you don’t act.  I’ll make it easy for you.

Don’t forget:
On May 19, I am proud to be a presenter at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation’s FREE heart health screening.  If you are in or near Minneapolis, please join us for this value-laden event, featuring

  • Heart health presentations at 9, 10 and 11 AM
    – Stress management  (THAT”S ME! – at 10 a.m.)
    – Heart-healthy eating
    – Exercise for every body
  • Nordic walking demonstrations
  • Healthy living resources and displays
  • Prizes and more!

Saturday, May 19, 2012
8 AM – 1 PM
Richfield Community Center – Nicollet and Augsburg Rooms
7000 Nicollet Ave. S

Please join us.

Why take a risk?

Some people take risks more readily than other people. And risks can be a little scary, whether they involve making a major career change and/or cross-country move, asking for a promotion or a raise, declaring your affection to someone else when you’re not sure how that person feels, or when it necessitates speaking up to someone whose behavior has been making you unhappy. Risks come in all sizes and shapes.

The first thing to remember is that it is impossible to avoid  risks  –  life is full of them.

First of all, there are Imposed risks:  things that happen to us that we can’t avoid – floods and tornadoes come to mind  –  with the possibility of leaving you feeling helpless and victimized, as do financial disasters, broken relationships, and any situation you can’t control.

That sense of a loss of control is what makes stress so stressful – in fact it is the key factor in determining whether we view an event as stress or as a challenge.

Then there are Chosen risks:  Actions you deliberately take to get something you want or to get away from something you don’t want.  With a chosen risk, there is always the possibility of embarrassment, failure and loss.

Why would anyone choose to take a risk when it may be accompanied by lots of anxiety?

It can result in a rich reward and – think of this, you will never know whether you could have gotten what you wanted if you never try. Even if the outcome isn’t exactly what you want, the long term consequence of that risk-taking act can be positive because you become more resilient and able to deal with imposed risks more easily.

Do you feel safer when you don’t take a risk?  Research indicates that, at the end of their lives, people don’t worry about what they have done.  They worry about what they have not done. As John Greenleaf Whittier said, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, “It might have been.”

Here’s a little exercise to get you started:

Think of a risk you would like to take. What is the worst thing that could happen?

This is called the “worst case scenario.”  Why would you want to think of that?

Because it is the bogeyman that is keeping you from even thinking deeply about taking the risk.  Facing it is necessary if you want to move forward.

On a scale of 0 to 100, what is the probability the worst will happen? Take a minute to think about this. You may find, to your surprise,  that the probability isn’t really all that high, but you have been acting as if it is 100%.

If the probability is less than 50% that it will turn out badly, you are in a good position to go ahead.  It is probably a lot less than 50%.

Finally, can you handle the feelings, or are you undermining yourself by saying, “it will be soawful if this doesn’t work out?”  Will it really, or are you being dramatic?

Risk-taking doesn’t have to be scary or dramatic; it’s a skill, and it can be learned and practiced, just like any other skill you might want to acquire in order to enrich your life.

Next week, we will look at how to set up a risk so it is not so risky at all.

Movement is good for you

Personal note

The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of meeting new people at networking events:  The Women’s Business Exchange, Magnetic Women  Business Networking, The Twin Cities Human Resources Association, Women in Networking, and Women of Words.

In each case, I met energetic, enthusiastic, talented women who are driven to pursue their dreams.  As a woman I cheer them on; as a stress expert and an advocate for women and cardiac disease, I continue to pursue my goal to provide them with the best information on the planet as to how to follow their dreams and attain the quality of life they desire.

On May 19, I am proud to be a presenter at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation’s FREE heart health screening.  If you are in or near Minneapolis, please join us for this value-laden event, featuring

  • Heart health presentations at 9, 10 and 11 AM
    – Stress management  (THAT”S ME!)
    – Heart-healthy eating
    – Exercise for every body
  • Nordic walking demonstrations
  • Healthy living resources and displays
  • Prizes and more!

Saturday, May 19, 2012
8 AM – 1 PM
Richfield Community Center – Nicollet and Augsburg Rooms
7000 Nicollet Ave. S

Please join us!

Movement is good for you

It’s now official:  MOVEMENT IS GOOD FOR YOU.

Oh, wait, you knew that already.  And you’re doing it, right?

Well, not right now, but as soon as you have time.

Of course that time never seems to come.

But what if regular sessions of movement actually helped create time in your life by helping you learn faster, and by making you feel more refreshed and vital so that you tackle tasks with zest and get them done quickly? Would that be a more powerful motivator for you?  Or at least make you curious enough to try some of the suggestions coming from newer research on movement, such as:

Exercise makes you smarter.

With the increased blood and oxygen flow that comes with exercise, you can improve your learning ability.  In fact, the Centers for Disease Control has issued a paper advising more physical activity for students, and where that advice has been followed, students  have made dramatic improvements in academic achievement and test scores.  There is even evidence of increased creation of new brain cells.

How much exercise?  A little jogging in place is great, but even just standing up can improve your brain activity by about 8%.  And my elementary school teachers (now deceased) would be horrified to learn that even chewing gum counts as exercise in this context.

That little exercise break you allow yourself can end in a solution to a problem that you have been puzzling over for some time.

Another motivator:  Reduce your pain and stiffness.

One of the things that keeps us from exercising when we haven’t done so for a long time is that we know in advance that we will feel stiff and it will hurt.  But you don’t have to do dramatic things to overcome that stiffness.

For example, you may raise your eyebrows at the idea that raising them will improve movement and your sense of well-being, but that was the idea at a recent IDEA Personal Trainer Institute in Alexandria, Virginia.

Turns out there is a long band of fascia, the connective tissue that surrounds the muscles, which starts at the bottom of your feet, extends up your legs, behind your back and neck, and ends at the forehead.   Like a rubber band, it stretches when you bend over and touch your toes.  That is, it should stretch, but injury and overuse can form knots in this tissue so that it doesn’t glide along the muscle, as it should.

Raising your eyebrows or getting a neck or foot massage can help this long band become more flexible. Or you can start at the other end:  Take a tennis ball and roll it back and forth under your foot a few seconds.  When you stand up and try to touch your toes, you will find it is much easier.  Why?  Feet are restricted by shoes much of the day, and those little knots that affect that long band of fascia inevitably build up. Your little surreptitious  – and cheap – foot therapy can help fix that.

Ankle rotations under your desk, slow side-to-side neck stretches, big overhead arm stretches, all contribute to a sense of release that will help keep you functioning during a busy day.

If you do just a little bit of exercise consistently, you will find that you miss it very much when you can’t do it.  You may even find that, now that you have the habit, you want more, and then more.

Hey, it worked that way with chocolate, didn’t it?  Just try it.

Hassles and the havoc they can create

Personal note

A full week for me, attending the “High Heels, Higher Heights” conference of Women’s Health Leadership TRUST with roughly 800 excited and capable women in the health care industry, then meeting the dedicated small business group at the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis.

In between, I coped with the documents for refinancing my house, starting with finding the packet (with a two-day deadline) under a door mat to a door I never use in my house, to reading arcane documents and then finally recklessly signing them because I hadn’t a dim prayer of understanding being able to see all the fine print, never mind understanding the language in which they were written (Ancient Troglodyte?).

So I took a deep breath and reminded myself that hassles can be more deadly than a major shock.  I thought I’d share this information with you.

Hassles and the havoc they can create

In the movies, we have often seen a character receive a shock, clutch his heart, and fall to the ground in a heart attack.

No one thinks life’s daily hassles are dramatic, but in fact they can be just as deadly as a major shock.

Real crises, such as having your house burn down, activate the stress response. So do hassles, those little everyday life events that temporarily frustrate.  They also narrow our thinking so that we believe we are in a crisis when, in fact, we are not.

They are much more frequent than real crises, and their effects seem to snowball.

Being stuck at a railroad crossing while a long train goes by, waiting on hold on a telephone only to be cut off, spotting a parking place only to find someone closer has pulled into it, rushing to your desk to do something important only to discover that the computer screen is frozen…the list of hassles is endless.

Dr. Richard Lazarus of the University of California at Berkeley argued in 1984 that such hassles typically cause more human suffering than major life events. They can even create real major life events.  For example, whether the stress is “real” or not is irrelevant; our bodies go through the same stress response: heightened blood pressure, increased heart rate, muscular tension, and more.  A little more damage accumulates, and our lives get a little shorter.

What can we do to handle hassles?  Remember that only 10% of our stress is due to what happens; 90% is due to how we think about what happens.

Yes, hassles do just “happen”; like the hot night I came home late from a trip, the cab driver refused to get out of the cab to lift my luggage from the trunk, my bedraggled cat met me in my house where the air conditioning had clearly gone off earlier in the day, and the mail yielded a second notice for a parking ticket that I hadn’t received in the first place.

Annoying, yes.  Life threatening, no.

One of the ways to protect yourself against “hassle havoc” is to set up systems in advance that work well and efficiently, even when life doesn’t. Good systems can save you time, and help you to keep life running smoothly.

For example, set up a map for all your routine errands: the post office, the drug store, the dry cleaner, the office supply store, etc.  Use this route regularly. It will help you to remember all the little things you need to do to live well.

Put all the things you need to do something about – jacket to be cleaned, shoes to be repaired, sink stopper to be replaced – in a box near the door or in your car.  Keep a small list with you of such things as the numbers for the toner cartridges you use and the odd-shaped bulbs for your odd-shaped light fixture.  Even when you dash out in a panic to do one errand, forgetting about your other needs, you can still use your time efficiently.

Prepare more food than you need for a given meal; freeze small portions for those “oh, my gosh” moments.

My routines are what saved me when I returned from my trip filled with all the things I needed to do, only to find I would instead spend part of the day talking to a repairman for the air conditioner and then a city clerk about the ticket.

When your “hassle thermometer” rises, take a deep breath and say “Stop it” to yourself.

Then consider these questions:

Is this frustration worth dying for? (A real possibility for those with a tendency to cardiac disease, but something for everyone to think about.)

And in the long run, what really matters?

Stress and Your Health

In my last article, I talked about “stress stupidity” and how it causes us to make mistakes and lose time.  It actually does more than that:

A recently released Yale University study, published online the week of  January 9, 2012,  in the  journal Biological Psychiatry, shows that stress causes the brain to shrink because the stress hormones eat away at brain tissue, literally making holes in your brain.

One highly-stressful episode, such as our remote ancestors suffered when they ran from ravenous beasts, doesn’t necessarily produce the “holes in the brain” phenomenon.  Instead, it’s the steady daily diet of stress with which many people live in the 21st century that causes the problem.

This steady onslaught of stress, which may be low-level but persistent, is similar to drops of water dripping onto stone: a slow wearing down.

Lack of focus, concentration problems, inability to set priorities, and difficulty in making decisions are more behavioral signs that signal the presence of  “stress stupidity.”   The very qualities that we need in order to be successful in life are impaired; you may come to believe that there is no way out of your stressful life.

Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman describes this psychological state as “learned helplessness”; the inability to find the “way out” of your dilemmas. Not only do your problem-solving skills suffer, but so does your motivation.

The dogs in his initial experiment, who were given shocks that they could not escape, and were then put in a box where there was an escape route, failed to see the escape route, even when shown!  They simply lay down and absorbed repeated shocks.

“Learned helplessness” has been identified as a psychological pattern associated with many of the most severe illnesses.  It does not start as a result of the illness; it is in place years before the illness develops.

Here are some ways to avoid developing learned helplessness.

Take frequent mini-breaks during the day during which you take a deep breath and ask yourself, “In the long run, what really matters here?”

When you make mistakes, learn to laugh at yourself instead of getting more stressed.  Use the phrase “Stress makes you stupid.”

And when you feel blocked, say to yourself, “There is a solution.  I just can’t see it right now.

Then take a break, take a walk, talk to a friend, spend a few minutes planning to do something special for yourself later on. Because a brain is a terrible thing to lose.

Women’s Warning Signs of a Heart Attack

Personal note


February is National Heart Month, and I have been more than ordinarily busy giving my talk, “The Angina Monologue,” in which I describe women’s heart attacks and give preventive advice.  Seeing all the “red” clothing and decorations, hearing of all the “Wear Red” events is exciting – except that cardiac disease occurs all year long, not just in February.

In fact, cardiac disease is the #1 killer of both men and women in the United States; but while the rates for men are declining, the rates for women, particularly in the age 35-54 age group, are rising.

We are surrounded by information about cardiac disease in newspapers, magazines, on the radio and on television, yet most people remain surprisingly ignorant about some of the simple facts of cardiac disease.  So I am once again providing a fuller description of the symptoms, as experienced by real people I have known, including myself.

Women’s Warning Signs of a Heart Attack


The “Hollywood Heart Attack,” where the character, clutching his chest, slumps to the floor immediately, does sometimes happen.  But many heart attacks do not mimic this model.  In particular, women’s symptoms of heart attack may be very different from men’s in both quality and severity.

It can be too easy to brush these more subtle symptoms aside; as one woman in my cardiac support group said, “Compared to childbirth, this is nothing!”  But of course, they are something.  And the sooner you pay attention and get help, the better the outcome.

Because I paid attention to a small signal, and took action immediately, I have almost no heart damage and was able to return to a full life immediately.

So I’m going to provide some descriptions here that might give women a clearer picture of what to look for.

Chest discomfort:  
Men typically experience crushing chest pain and pain radiating down one arm.  Some women do also, but many women do not. I only experienced one second of pressure in the middle of my chest, accompanied by a complete lack of breath – once again for one second only.  Luckily, I paid attention.

Another woman I know reports that she felt as if her chest were on fire.

Any pressure, squeezing or burning in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes or comes and goes is a warning sign.

Upper body discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach:
One woman I knew had pain in her jaw; another was awakened in the middle of the night by very painful elbows, which she fortunately recognized as being related to her heart.  Others tell of pain in the neck, the shoulder or across the shoulder blades.

At a talk I gave recently, a woman told me of a pain in her jaw.  She had been checked for both a dental problem and a tempero-mandibular joint problem, but no evidence of either had been found.  Should she see a cardiologist, she asked?  I almost shouted, “Yes!”

Any pain in the upper body that can’t be explained should be suspect and you should take action.  See a cardiologist; if the pain is marked or persistent, dial 9-1-1 and go to the ER.

Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort:
Once again, when there is no rational explanation, such as allergy problems or just having run up a flight of stairs, you should be suspicious of shortness of breath.

Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, nausea and vomiting, cold sweats:
I began to experience nausea and lightheadedness a few days after my experience with pressure (I had already seen a doctor, who found nothing wrong with me). It could have been a virus, but I had no temperature. Taking your temperature is a good idea before you decide it is a virus and dismiss the idea of a heart attack.

After I got to the hospital, I began to experience severe gastric distress, a little like the commercials for acid reflux disease, with figurative nuts and bolts revolving around in my stomach!  A doctor asked me, in fact, if I did have acid reflex disease, and when I said no, it was another factor on which they decided to do angioplasty (go in and see if there was blockage).

I know of a young woman athlete who began to faint after she finished races.  She, in fact, had an undiagnosed congenital defect of a heart valve for which she needed surgery.

So, once again, if there isn’t a good explanation for the symptom, seek help.

Feelings of anxiety, fatigue or weakness — unexplained or on exertion:
I have met at least one woman heart patient who tells of being overwhelmed by inexplicable anxiety as her major symptom. Once again, there was no precipitating event in her life, so it was a very suspicious episode.

The extreme fatigue that a heart attack sufferer experiences is like having a hole in your “fuel tank” from which all the energy has drained out.  One woman I know told me that she was so tired she lay down on her bed, and, feeling cold, wanted to pull the covers up but she couldn’t because it was too much effort.  That was when she realized she needed to get to a hospital.

Take Action

There is an e-mail that keeps circulating on the internet, with advice about heart attacks.  Some of it is good advice: carry an aspirin and take it immediately if you believe you are having a heart attack.  In fact, crunch down on it and wash it down with a full glass of water.

But this e-mail always ends with dangerous advice: “Call and friend or relative and wait by the door,” presumably to have that person take you to the hospital.

This is the message health care providers want you to hear: Do not drive yourself or ask a friend or family member to drive you.
If you have any of the above symptoms, dial 9-1-1.  If you are having a heart attack, emergency responders can start treatment in the ambulance. This can be crucial.

Women, who are often reluctant to have a fuss made about themselves, will dial 9-1-1 in a minute if a loved one is threatened, but will not do so for themselves.

Those few minutes in which you wait for help can make all the difference in the world between life and death, or between a quality life and an impaired life.  One of the possible consequences of heart attack is loss of oxygen to the brain, causing irreversible damage.  You could survive, but only as someone very dependent on others.

The last message I like to leave women with is this:  strive to live the heart-healthy life, and you will feel better than you have in years.  Would you like to wake up every morning eager to start the day, with the kind of zest you had as a child? You can do it!  The women in my support group, cardiac survivors all, glow with health.

The path to heart health is the path to joy.  And who doesn’t want joy?

Handling the stress of rejection

Personal note

It’s still the beginning of the year, and all around me friends and associates are reaching out to find new ways to make their lives go forward.  As I give talks on stress, health, and success, and go to networking meetings and conferences, I meet people who are starting new enterprises.

High hopes can turn to discouragement very easily when rejection is encountered.

It’s a great time to pause, breathe, and choose to use the rejection as a catalyst, rather than as a heavy anchor.

Handling the stress of rejection

Rejection can cause a particularly deep form of anger, because rejection seems to carry with it a heavy load: loss of self-esteem, and even of identity. Rejection can also result in depression.

Sometimes it takes this shock of rejection to make you realize that you may have been asking for toolittle in life and to get moving to do something about it.  You may have settled for what you thought you could have, not what you really wanted.
Or you may have convinced yourself that you really wanted a situation or a relationship in order to escape the uncomfortable ambiguity of not having a settled future.

You have, in fact, made a poor choice.

I first learned how to turn the anger of rejection into useful energy some years ago, after being rejected three times when I tried to transfer to a nearby state college from the community college.  As an older returning student, this rejection played into my fears that I was somehow inadequate.

After the third rejection, I took a deep breath and took stock of skills and abilities, then said to myself, “How dare they reject me!  Why, I’m good.” I then shot off applications to two prestigious universities, one public and one private, that I would never have dared approach before – and got accepted at both, with scholarships.

The energy of anger, racing through my body, shocked me into looking at the situation very differently.  And that energy forced me to take constructive action.

You may feel that you’ve been rejected because you’re inferior in some way, but it may be that you and a given situation just don’t match.  You may have been deluding yourself that you do match, or will match in the near future if you just hang in there long enough.

Very often, you, and what you offer are rejected because another person is just too busy and involved in his or her own life to pay attention now to you and what you offer.

And you can be rejected because someone else sees you more clearly than you see yourself:  as powerful and destined for something better. And it threatens that person.  It’s as if they have recognized that the cocoon conceals a butterfly, and you are the potential butterfly.

To take some of the sting out of rejection, try the following steps:

Pause, take a breath, and release your fantasy about what might have been in that situation.

Recognize what you may have been going for is a feeling of safety rather than what you really want, as in  “this person or job wouldn’t be my first choice, but it’s safe to ask for because it isn’t too far out of my reach.”  Is safety an important enough reward to settle for when you yearn for excitement and appreciation?

Sometimes you don’t get a flat “no.”  Instead, you get a situation that drags on and on, leaving you feeling a little drained, a little demeaned, and a little … well, “little.”

Our brains are great at storing negative information, which we can access immediately when we are feeling low. Combat this negativity by keeping a file of all your successes and triumphs, large and small, to review when you need reminders of your true worth. Include notes, cards, and awards.  Pull it out whenever you are low. Ask your friends to contribute (positive points only, please) to the same list.

Take action: reach out for more contacts of all kinds.  

And when you do, celebrate diversity! Don’t just look for a mate, a client – or any other kind of match – in the “right” category: gender, age, appearance, income, etc. Do show interest and kindness to people of all different kinds, not just the ones you think can lead you to your goals.

Take up activities you’ve kind of wanted to try, but never did before.

Anyone you meet and connect with can open your eyes and connect you to exciting situations of which you had never dreamed.

Remember, if you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting.

To settle for a better-than-nothing relationship, to get stuck doing “okay” work, or to live in a place where you are uncomfortable, to keep applying to the same people, whether they are bosses or clients, for recognition of what you have to offer, is to tell yourself that you’re not deserving of anything more.

Maureen Dowd, the columnist once wrote, “If you settle for less than you think you’re worth, you’ll get even less than you settled for.”

Think about it. Then reach for the stars.  Hey, all they can say is “No,” but at a much higher level than you have been experiencing.

And, when you reach your level – the one where you are energetic and enthused – you just might find “yes” is a frequent occurrence.

New Year’s resolutions, will power, and the February Fade

Personal note

Early January found a friend and me in Chicago, that “toddlin’ town,” as the song goes.  An exhausting but exciting day in the Chicago Art Institute found us foot-sore and hungry; dinner at the Russian Tea Time was reminiscent of the old Russian Tea Room in New York, where so many dancers gathered.

Our journey to nostalgia started with a train trip from Minneapolis to Chicago (and back, eventually), our stay at the historic Palmer House, and a trip to the original Marshall Field’s store on “that great street,” State Street.

Then it was home and back to work, ready to confront all the challenges the New Year inevitably brings, such as plans for self-improvement, which prompted today’s article.

Lastly, I will be a guest of Dr. Nancy O’Reilly, Psy.D, founder of radio show starting Friday, February 3, 2012.

New Year’s resolutions, will power, and the February Fade

Did you have high hopes for change in January, but found yourself slipping down from the heights as the month progressed?  Were you firmly resolved to lose weight, stop smoking, exercise more, eat more vegetables and fewer doughnuts, clean out those crammed closets?  And now you’re grabbing doughnuts instead of a walk, eating one forkful of vegetables and convincing yourself that’s enough, jamming more things into your closet, and have stopped stepping on the scale because it doesn’t tell you anything rewarding anyway.

It happens every year.  On January 1, the parking lot at my YWCA is always full.  Regular members, on their way to the exercise room, walk smugly by the long line of frantic new registrants.  The January crowd is annoying for the regulars, who have difficulty locating an empty locker, must wait for each piece of exercise equipment to be free, and stand in line, shivering, for the showers, not to mention the fact that they may have circled for some time before finding an empty parking slot.

But by early February, the crisis period is past.  There is plenty of room and plenty of equipment for all – “all” meaning the hardy souls who have somehow managed to turn their initial impulse to better themselves into a habit pattern.

And if you aren’t a member of the group \that’s still chugging along,  you feel guilty as heck.

Don’t beat yourself up.  It’s not a lack of willpower; it’s a deeply ingrained habit.  In fact, unlike our conscious resolutions to change, habits are buried deep in the unconscious part of the brain. Amnesiacs, who can’t remember their own names, occupations, or residence, are still able to speak Urdu, play the flugelhorn, pig out on chips and chocolate, and bite their fingernails. (Assuming they could do these things before amnesia struck.)

Overcoming any behavior this deeply ingrained sounds like a real challenge, and it is – a challenge we often try to meet by instituting complete and instant reform:  “I will cut back to 1200 calories per day” or “I resolve to exercise for 1 hour per day 6 days a week.” We then whack ourselves mentally over the head when we don’t follow through.

How can we bring about personal change successfully?

The astonishing advice given by expert Dr. Christine Carter of the Center for Greater Good, University of California at Berkeley (PodcastHabit Change),  is that when your resolutions fail, it’s not because you were not up to the challenge; it was because you didn’t make the challenge easy enough.

Instead of setting up a mountain of responsibility that makes your heart sink every time you contemplate it, she suggests that you break down the early steps of habit change into “easy wins” that she calls “turtle steps.”  (You know, those ponderous, slow steps turtles take that nevertheless get them there – probably serenely, too.)

Furthermore, she advises that you make these steps ridiculously easy.  She cites the example of herself getting back to exercising after childbirth.  Her trainer suggested she start by running for four minutes per day for one week, before attempting to get back to her previous level of exercise.  Amazed and a little offended, she asked “Four minutes?”  “OK,” he replied, “two minutes.”

In fact, she went on to point out that your first step could be just to get your running clothes on – every day for seven days.  For people who have difficulty getting up early, much less running, the first step might be just to get up at 6:30 a.m. instead of 7:00 a.m. – every day until it becomes a habit – before trying to be more active.

Other examples of what she calls “turtle steps” might be the following:

You can initially decide to march in place during a one-commercial break on TV. Add in more commercial breaks over time, and you’re easily up to the minimum of 30 minutes per day!

Have trouble settling down and meditating?  Just go to your place of meditation for one minute per day. When you are ready, increase that to two minutes.  And so on.

Do you despair of your ability to diet?  Then don’t diet.  Just cut out one food that you know is bad for you – that package of greasy, salted chips you get with your sandwich, for example. Once it has become easy and automatic to give that up, focus on another food.

These small, easy steps follow very good advice known to those who teach officer training in the military or who train animals:  “Never give a command unless you’re sure it will be obeyed.”  You don’t train a dog by yelling “Come, Roscoe,” when the dog is running away; you don’t train yourself to perform a good habit when your entire body wants to run the other way.

“Turtle steps” are effective because you can be pretty sure you are able to obey them without encountering overwhelming rebellion from your own body.

After instituting these “turtle steps,” it is important to factor accountability into your plan. You may have an “accountability buddy” you meet with once a week, who will ask firmly “Did you stick to your goal?”

If you don’t have an accountability buddy, have a weekly meeting with yourself.  Create a “tracking record,” post it in a prominent place and record the fact that you stuck to your plan every day for one week.

What, you might forget to keep track of your behavior?  Your first “turtle step” might be to create a tracking record, such as a journal or a chart, and look at it at the same time every day. Then proceed with your next little step towards habit change.

What keeps you on track so that you take that next step after having successfully completed the first one? 

When you stay engaged with the new behavior, you may find that you easily exceed your goal – running longer, or taking stairs as well as running.

What if you slip?

Give up the guilt – it won’t help you make change.  In fact you feel you’re a failure, and do less and less….

Say to yourself, “This isn’t quite working.  Why?”  Adopt a problem solving attitude rather than submerging yourself in shame and guilt, which often call you to kick back, be a sloth, and eat a gallon of Ben & Jerry’s best.

When you do indulge in your bad habit, be mindful of what it is really doing for you.  Often the pleasure of indulgence in a bad habit lies in the anticipation, not the actual experience.  Ever notice how finishing off an entire chocolate cake or lolling around in your sweats all day watching old movies sounds and feels great at the beginning, but leaves you feeling sluggish and a little sick?

To summarize the advice of Dr.Carter, nationally known expert on parenting (yes, you can help your children develop good habits with her method, too):

Breaking a larger goal into small, totally doable steps is the key to making a lasting change.

Make sure each step is easy enough to allow you to “win.”

Zoom in on one behavior at a time: One small item per week:  omit the doughnut, do ten minutes of exercise, add one day per week of exercise rather than starting with six days per week.

Repeat this one change until it becomes a habit before going on to the next step.

And remember, when you’re slipping, it was not easy enough.  Go back to an easier step; then work your way forward.

Change is made this way:  two steps forward, one step backward.  So long as the steps forward exceed the steps backward you are making progress.

And finally, remember to track yourself, but don’t attack yourself.

To hear Dr. Christine Carter, nationally known expert on parenting, and Nurse Rona Renner, on a podcast on habit change, go to

The Dark of the Year and the Dancing Saints

Personal note

Sometime shortly after Thanksgiving, my brain seems to go on vacation.  All I can do is wander about, gazing at lights and humming music softly to myself.  There may be wisdom percolating in that brain, but getting in touch with it seems to be very effortful. So I just decided to go with the flow, and in that spirit, I offer some of my mental wandering for my last blog post of 2011.


The Dark of the Year and the Dancing Saints

As the days grow shorter and darker, I find myself mentally withdrawing into a kind of warm, personal cave – a cozy one filled with minute lights and small comforts, in which I experience a minimum of demands on me.
Over the years, I have come to realize that the Dark of the Year is not a great time to find solutions to big problems, or to make great creative leaps, much less make magic.  It is more like the time experienced by daffodil and tulip bulbs, snug under the ground, quiet, gathering their strength for the big surge that will come as the Earth warms.
No use looking for experiences that will trigger answers to questions – somehow the questions you are asking and answers you are receiving never match. It is instead a time for gathering in experiences that are nourishing and that will fuel that great Springtime leap.
In the spirit of providing ourselves with soul-nourishing experiences, a friend and I went to a Wintersong concert at a church in San Francisco.  The concert itself, consisting of songs from Eastern Europe sung by eight charmingly costumed women, was a revelation.  We were told that caroling predates Christianity, and consists of songs that fulfill that human need to find light, joy and community in the darker months.
As if that were not enough, the sanctuary in which the concert was held was a revelation in itself.  From top to bottom, the walls were covered with vividly colored paintings of saints, as defined by the parishioners, all dancing together.  St. Thomas Aquinas, John Coltrane, Florence Nightingale, Anne Frank, Francis of Assisi, Barnabas, Sojourner Truth, Paul of Tarsus, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martha Graham, and more, all joined hands in the dance. Somehow Lady Godiva was in the mix, too, as were several Seraphim, all similarly clothed (or unclothed). As a friend of mine once remarked, “The Lord certainly loves diversity.  He created so much of it.”
It was a magic experience.  All of these people, spanning centuries and representing a myriad of different belief systems, somehow came together to create a harmonious whole.  It may have been pure fantasy, but it was the most hopeful thing I have seen all year.
May we all dance together as harmoniously in 2012, and may the magic of the holiday season grow in you, and burst forth triumphantly as the light returns.

Holiday Hints at the Buffet for the Heart-wise

The holidays are a particular challenge for those of us who know we must be vigilant every day to maintain our health through good eating. (Actually, that’s pretty much everybody.) Here are some of the challenges, and how to meet them.
The holiday party, with its buffet of delectable treats, many of them high-fat – cheese plates, crackers, cookies made with real butter, rich drinks such as egg nog – can be faced and handled by using some of the following tricks:
  • Drink a glass of skim milk before attending the party.  It’s nutritious, filling, and will keep you from giving in and wolfing down too many hors d’oeuvres.  And it’s great padding if you decide to have that one alcoholic drink you allow yourself at a party.
  • Bring a bottle of sparkling water with you, in case it isn’t available at the party.  Fill your glass with this festive-looking drink, or dilute your one glass of wine with it, making two or more bubbly spritzers.
  • Station yourself as far away from the table as possible, so that you won’t be continually tempted by the sight and smell of food.
  • When you do approach the buffet, fill up on vegetables (easy on the dip) first; then select the richer “goodies.”
  • Decide in advance what you will eat, and how much of it. Want to treat yourself to a little bit of cheese?  Pick the harder type of cheese (lower in fat).  Try putting it on a vegetable, such as a celery stalk, rather than a cracker.
  • Avoid automatic eating by keeping your hands occupied with holding a glass (of the above mentioned sparkling water or spritzer) while you are engaged in conversation.
  • Don’t try to match the speed or amount that your partner is eating (easy to do), particularly if your partner is larger than you are.  After all, would you put the same amount of fuel in a small compact car as you would a big SUV?  No?  Well, then…
  • Do mindful eating: savor each bite by leaving each one at the front of your mouth longer than you usually do.  Then slowly let it move through your mouth, noting the point at which that particular food really stimulates your taste buds and enjoying it to the max.
  • If you don’t get a real thrill from a certain food, be willing to discard the rest of it uneaten.  If you’ve looked the tray over and selected one brownie, be willing to get rid of it if you think it doesn’t taste like the best brownie the world (or at least you) has ever known.


 In short, make sure the actual experience of the feast matches your anticipation by making mindful, better choices.  You’ll end up not only healthier, but happier as you realize you savored the experience and at the same time maintained some control over your future.


Let a smile be your umbrella

November can bring gloomy days, rain, and even snow.  Some people love this autumn weather; others are less enchanted by it.  Add in a few ordinary life mishaps and you can create deep gloom.
Here’s how to lift the gloom when you’re suffering from the “grumpies”, a discontented feeling that arises from a series of  a series of small, unpleasant episodes that you are in danger of inflating into a really bad mood:
Sit or lie down; take several of those deep belly breaths.
Close your eyes and imagine what a smile feels like  – the little lift at the corners of your mouth, the softening of your jaw muscles, the relaxation of your cheeks.
Next, reach far back into your memory for an event where someone gave you support, love, or praise, or where you excelled at something you had attempted.   Slowly scroll forward through your memory seeking only such positive episodes, resolutely resisting reminiscing about old resentments or hurts.
As you think about these pleasant memories, think about how grateful you are, and smile at that thought.  Let the smile be the response to your good memories, not a forced smile.  This genuine smile was called a Duchenne smile by facial expression researcher Paul Ekman, Ph.D,  after 19th Century French physician  and researcher into muscles, Guillaume Duchenne.
Psychologist Dachter Keltner, in Born To Be Good, says that the Duchenne smile activates the reward, or pleasure, center in the brain, by flooding it with dopamine.  The same center responds similarly to chocolate, love, orgasm, alcohol, and even cocaine.
Why not practice  smiling frequently?  People who are stressed out can calm themselves, slow their heartbeat, and reduce stress hormones in their blood by producing a genuine Duchenne smile, as described by Barbara Frederickson, Ph.D., and Robert Levinson, Ph.D. in a 1998 article in Cognition and Emotion.
Research by the British Dental Health Foundation suggested that smiling can provide the same stimulation as eating chocolate bars.
What a great way to feel good without blowing your budget or your diet!


Be careful though: the pleasure center is where addictive behaviors – which can be positive or negative – are formed. You could become addicted to smiling!


The consequences of that addiction?  Better mood, better health, and even a longer life span.
Not a bad umbrella, for any season!


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