Self-Care

Can You Sleep Too Much (or Too Little)?

Photo by Ryan Hutton on Unsplash

“Sleep is that golden chain that ties our health and our bodies together.” – Thomas Dekker

 

I used to think you could never get too much sleep. Of course, that was years ago when I was chronically sleep deprived due to working full-time, going to college at night, raising my kids as a single mom, and trying to have some sort of social life when they were with their other parent. Turns out, there’s a growing body of research that points to the negative effects of either too much or too little sleep.

Too little or too much sleep can affect metabolic health.

Concerned about an expanding waistline? Prone to getting less sleep or more than you need? There’s scientific basis for the link between too little and too much sleep and metabolic syndrome and increasing waistlines in Korean men and women aged 40-69 years in one recent study. Researchers said the study’s observational nature did not allow for cause and effect conclusions, noting that participants provided sleep duration data and estimates may reflect time in bed and not necessarily time slept. Other studies have reported that short-duration sleepers (less than 5 hours per night) are up to 45 percent more likely to be obese.

Excessive and inadequate sleep can affect memory and cognition.

Chronically sleep-deprived people, says Harvard Health Publishing,  are more likely to have high blood pressure, narrowed blood vessels, and diabetes – each of which cause less blood flow inside the brain. Since the brain requires a good flow of oxygen and sugar to work optimally, too little sleep can contribute to memory problems. Those who get too much sleep, on the other hand, aren’t off the hook memory-wise as their quality of sleep may suffer, which could add to thinking and memory problems during the day.

Excessive daytime sleepiness can be particularly troubling for older adults. Researchers found that cognitive deficits and cognitive impairment may be predicted by excessive daytime sleepiness among the elderly. Excessive sleepiness, or hypersomnolence, has two main symptoms: excessive amount of sleep, and poor quality of awakening. Hypersomnolence is the leading cause of road accidents, and is responsible for increased risk of mortality related to neurodegenerative diseases.

If you’re an early riser, you may be less prone to depression.

Researchers are delving into pertinent data showing that middle-aged to older women who get up early may be significantly less likely to develop depression. The largest observational study to-date looks at the link between chronotype (also known as sleep-wake preference) and mood disorders. Researchers found that, even after accounting for such factors as work schedules and light exposure, chronotype, partly influenced by genetics, seems to have a mild influence on depression. The four-year study involved nearly 33,000 female nurses who were free of depression at the start of the study. Thirty-three percent self-described their sleep pattern as early-riser, 53 percent intermediate, and 10 percent evening types. After four years of follow-up, researchers found that early risers had 12-27 percent lower risk of depression than intermediate types, while late-riser types had a 6 percent higher risk of being depressed, although this was not considered statistically significant.

One study found that excessive sleep is “highly associated” with dysthymic disorder and major depressive disorder. Those researchers also found that many anxiety disorders are “associated with prolonged sleep episodes accompanied by consequences/distress.”

Better cardiovascular health is associated with early-rise behavior.

More good news for early risers is the apparent association such behavior has on better cardiovascular health. Researchers in the UK Biobank study found that those who are early to bed and early to rise are “more conscientious and are goal-getters.” They also spent less time in front of electronic devices, ate more fruit and vegetables daily than late chronotypes. Survey participants categorized as evening persons also tended to watch more television and were twice as likely to smoke tobacco than intermediate types and 45 percent more likely to smoke than adequate sleepers. Researchers noted that more study is needed to determine if sleep metrics can predict better cardiovascular health behaviors and if sleep behavior modification can enhance heart health.

If you sleep too much, you may have a sleep disorder.

For those who constantly sleep too much, sleeping longer than 8 hours a night, often napping during the day, finding it difficult to stay awake, the underlying cause may be a sleep disorder known as hypersomnia. Besides excessive sleepiness throughout the day not relieved by napping, hypersomnia sufferers may also experience anxiety, memory problems and low energy. The American Sleep Association states that more men than women have hypersomnia, with prevalence at 5 percent of the population. The ASA also reports that 50-70 million adults in the U.S. have a sleep disorder of some kind.

The most common sleep disorder is insomnia, affecting about 30 percent of the adult population with short-term insomnia, and about 10 percent suffering chronic insomnia. Other forms of sleep disorder and sleep-related breathing disorders include, narcolepsy, snoring, and central sleep. Circadian-rhythm sleep disorders include jet lag, shift work, and delayed, advanced, irregular and non-24-hour sleep-wake rhythm. Parasomnias and sleep-movement disorders round out the category of sleep disorders.

Insufficient sleep over a prolonged period can affect your mental and emotional states.

If you’re perpetually sleep-deprived, your brain is exhausted, unable to adequately perform its duties. Besides difficulty concentrating, your brain’s ability to send signals to other parts of your body may be delayed, which could prove fatal when driving, using dangerous equipment, trying to avoid life-threatening situations. Lengthy periods of sleep deprivation can result in other problems with your mental and emotional states, including hallucinations, trigger mania in those with manic depression, or amp up risks of paranoia, depression, impulsive behavior, and suicidal thoughts.

If you suffer from the effects of too much or too little sleep, help is available. Besides tips for getting better sleep, make an appointment to see a sleep professional or your general practitioner to have tests to determine the cause of excessive or insufficient sleep, as well as how to get back to getting the right amount of sleep you need nightly.

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This article was originally published on Psych Central.

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10 Surprising Health Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation

Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

“The real meditation practice is how we live our lives from moment to moment to moment.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

 

As someone who strives daily to be the best I can be, to be present in the moment, minimize stress and appreciate the beauty and preciousness of life, I’m always keen to learn about scientifically-proven new health benefits of mindfulness meditation.

Get better sleep.

Anyone who’s suffered the lingering mental and physical effects of a poor night’s sleep on a regular basis, as I have on numerous occasions in the past, can appreciate this all-important benefit from mindfulness meditation: better sleep. In fact, research with older adults diagnosed with sleep disturbances found that the practice resulted in significant short-term improvement in sleep quality by remediating sleep problems. Researchers noted this improvement apparently carried over to “reducing sleep-related daytime impairment that has implications for quality of life.”

Make progress toward your weight-loss goals.

If you’ve struggled with yo-yo fluctuations in weight and tried many fad diets and weight-loss crazes, it might be motivating to learn that mindfulness meditation has been shown to be a good strategy to support weight-loss goals. A clinical study involving overweight and obese women found that mindfulness intervention for stress eating, while not designed to induce total weight loss, did stabilize weight among those who were obese. Researchers also found that greater frequency of eating meals mindfully was slightly related to weight loss, noting that, “Minimally, these techniques may support weight maintenance efforts, and actual weight loss might occur for those participants who eat a high proportion of meals mindfully.”

A survey of American Psychological Association licensed psychologists by Consumer Reports found that mindfulness, along with cognitive therapy and problem-solving, are “excellent” or “good” weight loss strategies. That’s because the focus of dieters should be more on the role their emotions play in weight management, rather than solely on exercise and calorie control or eating less.

Lower your stress levels.

It’s a fast-paced society we live in, which contributes to and exacerbates everyday stress. Learning how to control or minimize the effects of stress on body and mind is important in overall health and well-being. So, it’s refreshing to know that a review of 47 clinical trials found that mindfulness meditation programs show “small improvements in stress/distress and the mental health component of health-related quality of life.” Another study found that focusing on the present through the practice of mindfulness can reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

Decrease loneliness in seniors.

Getting older has its challenges, yet relationships can be deeply satisfying and personally enriching. For many older adults, however, loneliness due to the loss of a spouse or partner can be made worse when there are concurrent medical or psychological conditions or issues to deal with. One study found that an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program reduces loneliness and related pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults.

Banish temporary negative feelings.

Sitting all day at a desk or computer is not good for your overall health and well-being. The often-recommended advice to get up and move is well-founded in research.  A study assessing college students’ daily waking movement-based behaviors found less momentary negative affect from movement with mindfulness in mind and suggested that incorporating mindfulness into daily movement may lead to better overall health benefits.

Improve attention.

Researchers found that brief meditation training (four days) can lead to enhanced ability to sustain attention. Other improvements from brief meditation training included working memory, executive functioning, visuo-spatial processing, reductions in anxiety and fatigue, and increased mindfulness.

Manage chronic pain.

Millions of people suffer with chronic pain, some following an accident that leaves them with a long-term debilitating medical condition, some as a result of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) after serious injury during combat deployment, others due to diagnoses with cancer. Managing chronic pain in a healthier way is the focus of much current research. Indeed, the search for and clinical trials of alternatives to medication to help patient cope with chronic pain continues to gain momentum. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a therapy that combines mindfulness meditation and yoga, has been found to result in significant improvements in pain, anxiety, well-being and ability to participate in daily activities.

Help prevent depression relapse.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), according to a growing body of research, may prove beneficial in preventing depression relapse. A particular strength of the mind-body technique is how it shows participants how to disengage from the kind of highly dysfunctional and deeply felt thoughts that accompany depression. A 2011 study found that MBCT is an effective intervention for depression relapse in patient with at least three prior episodes of major depressive disorder (MDD). Another study found that MBCT provided significant relapse protection for participants with a history of childhood trauma that left them with increased vulnerability for depression.

Reduce anxiety.

Feeling anxious? Researchers have found that even a single session of mindfulness meditation can result in reduced anxiety. For the study, researchers focused on the effect of a single session of mindfulness meditation on participants with high levels of anxiety but normal blood pressure. They found measurable improvements in anxiety following the single mindfulness meditation session and further anxiety reduction one week later. Researchers suggested that a single mindfulness session may help to reduce cardiovascular risk in those with moderate anxiety.

Increase brain gray matter.

Along with the well-documented benefits of mindfulness meditation, another surprising finding of the mind-body practice is that it appears to increase gray matter in the brain. A controlled longitudinal study investigated pre- and post-changes to gray matter that could be attributed to participation in MBSR. Researchers found that increases in gray matter concentration occurred in the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, temporo-parietal junction, and cerebellum. These are the regions involved in memory and learning processes, regulation of emotion, self-referential processing and taking perspective.

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This article was originally published on Psych Central.

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6 Ways to Go With the Flow and Stay in the Moment

Photo by Matthew Kane on Unsplash

“Just be unattached as a child at play.” – Gangaji

 

How would it be to let go of all your concerns and fully participate in the moment? More specifically, how would you like to feel the joy of playtime, the rush of doing something wonderfully fun, discovering something new, or pushing yourself to explore unknown territory?

Researchers will tell you – and parents as well – that children instinctively know how to do this. Yet all is not lost if such a natural gift is a distant memory. As adults, while we may have forgotten how, we can rekindle the ability to shake off troubles and concentrate fully on the present moment.

In short, we can relearn how to go with the moment.

Naturally, there are times when such spontaneity is not appropriate, including when the boss is clamoring for a report and you’re nowhere near finished, or you’ve just received bad news that demands immediate action. You should not be unattached at such times.

Still, you can be in the moment, dedicated, zeroed in on what matters, adhering to a constancy of effort and making sure to accommodate deadlines.

But, getting back to having fun, being unattached as a child at play and going with the moment, here are a few suggestions on how to recapture the wonder that children naturally express.

Turn off the self-censor button.

That’s right. Start by telling yourself to stop saying no or chiding yourself that you simply can’t do something, for whatever reason. Chances are, that negative self-talk and self-criticism included the notion that it’s not adult-like or you don’t have time for this or it’s just too silly. Instead, resolve to be open to the experience.

Let go of the past.

Intrusive thoughts and memories of unpleasantness, failure, pain, loss, loneliness and disappointment may rise to the surface. This flood of negativity will deter you from being fully present and enjoying the moment. You must let go of past hurts, including the burden such memories hold over you. This does not mean that you forget the past, for when you experienced things in that moment, it contributed to who you are today. There are also good memories from the past that are worth cherishing. What’s important to remember is that there’s no reason to cling to bad memories, for the past cannot help you rewrite history. Nor can it change the future. What can, however, bring about fundamental change is going with the moment. To get started doing that, you must release the past.

Give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel in the moment.

This might be joy or delight or curiosity. It could entail a bit of trepidation or uncertainty, even a bit of fear. If it’s within the realm of possibility and doesn’t put you at an inordinate amount of risk, let your emotions play out. They may lead you to take action that your previous propensity to self-censor prohibited. Look forward with excitement to what might happen next. After all, who knows what you might learn?

Acknowledge that it’s OK to play.

Remind yourself – by saying out loud, if necessary – that it’s perfectly fine and good for you to have fun, to take a break from chores and responsibilities, to do something just because you enjoy it and want to nurture that part of yourself.

Know when it’s time to stop.

Like a kid playing in the park with friends and the sunset signals time to go home, even if you’re having the time of your life, it’s important to know and abide by limits. There is an appropriate time for play and a time when you must tend to other things. By paying attention to both, the joy you feel in the moment is in no way minimized. Indeed, it’s even more satisfying. You may not remember the hours you toiled on a report, but you do remember how much fun you had working in the garden, celebrating a memorable milestone with a loved one, laughing with your friends, reading your favorite book.

When you’re in the zone, just go with it.

You know the feeling. Being in the zone is energizing, motivating and inspiring. It’s the knowledge and certainty that you can do almost anything. The possibilities that reveal themselves when you go with the moment are unlike anything you could have predetermined or imagined. That’s another benefit to learning how to go with the moment.

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This article was originally published on Psych Central.

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10 Benefits of Tai Chi for Better Overall Health, Well-Being and Living Longer

 

“The reason I exercise is for the quality of life I enjoy.” – Kenneth H. Cooper

 

In the search for effective ways to experience positive outcomes in the all-important life aspects such as overall health, well-being and mortality, one of the sleeper strategies to consider involves adopting an ancient Chinese practice called tai chi. Here are some of the benefits of tai chi documented by research.

Live longer.

Tai Chi is a mind-body practice that originated in China and remains today the most common form of exercise for adults in that country. In addition to the much-researched benefits for reduced mortality from moderate-intensity exercise, such as you get from regular walking and jogging, researchers found the first evidence that tai chi also promotes longevity. The greatest benefit from tai chi was obtained from those who self-reported engaging in the practice 5-6 hours per week.

Improve muscle strength, balance and flexibility.

A systematic review of older patients with chronic conditions who engaged in regular tai chi exercise found that, in addition participants’ physiological and psychosocial benefits, the practice also appeared to promote better balance control, flexibility, strength, respiratory and cardiovascular function. Researchers noted, however, that it was difficult to state firm conclusions about the reported benefits and called for more well-defined studies to drill down to specific, verifiable results. In other research, a clinical trial of older women with osteoarthritis who completed a 12-week tai chi exercise program found participants experienced improved arthritic symptoms (less pain), balance and physical function. Researchers urged a larger-sample longitudinal study to confirm use of tai chi in arthritis exercise management.

Boost cognitive function.

Although the fact is that cognitive decline is prevalent among older adults (about 40 percent of older adults in America have some form of cognitive impairment, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease), it need not be considered a foregone conclusion. Nor should getting older need be synonymous with cognitive decline. A growing body of evidence points to the benefits to older adults from practice of tai chi in the areas of global cognitive and memory functions, especially verbal working memory. A meta-analysis found agreement with the findings of numerous studies on the benefits to cognitive function from physical exercise, and researchers recommended tai chi as an alternative mind-body exercise to improve older adults’ cognitive functioning.

Improve COPD symptoms.

An Australian study found that a modified tai chi program – Sun-style tai chi — helped boost exercise capacity and improved participant’s chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) symptoms. Researchers noted that tai chi has “highly clinically relevant effects on endurance and peak exercise capacity in people with COPD.”

Get better night-time sleep quality.

A 2016 pilot randomized controlled trial evaluating the benefits of tai chi qigong (TCQ) on night-time sleep quality of older adults with cognitive impairment found better quality of both sleep and life than a control group not participating in tai chi qigong. Since more than 25 percent of older adults with cognitive impairment suffer impaired sleep quality, the search for nonpharmacological approaches to improve the quality of night-time sleep is gaining momentum. Due to their low physical strength and medical condition, however, many older adults with cognitive impairment cannot engage in certain exercises. Thus, developing exercise programs tailored to mental conditions and reduced physical well-being is important. Results from the pilot trial showed tai chi qigong participants benefited from improved sleep qualities in the areas of sleep duration, sleep efficiency, and the mental health component of quality of life. Researchers noted that, as a low-intensity exercise, TCQ is an appropriate intervention to improve night-time sleep quality in older adults with cognitive impairment.

Improve symptoms of fibromyalgia.

In a study comparing the effectiveness of tai chi and aerobic exercise on fibromyalgia symptoms in patients, researchers found that tai chi resulted in similar or greater symptom improvement than aerobic exercise. Longer-duration tai chi provided greater improvements, researchers noted, concluding that the mind-body approach of tai chi may be a viable therapeutic option in the multidisciplinary management of fibromyalgia.

See improvements in cardiovascular fitness.

Millions of Americans exercise to help boost their cardiovascular health. Yet, many who do so do not realize the research-backed evidence that certain types of exercise specifically benefit cardiovascular function. Indeed, zeroing in on what types of exercise benefit the heart in healthy adults is only recently attracting researcher interest. A review of 20 studies of healthy adults comparing tai chi exercise with non-intervention found that tai chi has a significant impact in improving heart efficiency by reducing resting blood pressure, resting heart rate, and enhancing stroke outcome and cardiac output at quiet reading. The review also found significant improvement in respiratory function from tai chi exercise.

Reduce risk of falls.

Among older adults, the risk of falling is an ever-present and major concern. As such, finding therapeutic approaches to help reduce fall risk in this cohort is of major importance. A 2016 review  of 10 randomized controlled trials examining tai chi’s effect on fall reduction found the ancient Chinese exercise demonstrates a significant protective effect on fall prevention risk among older adults. Researchers noted the need for additional trials to determine both optimal duration and frequency of tai chi programs and optimal style of such programs for older adults.

Reduce prenatal anxiety and depression.

A 2013 study of tai chi and yoga treatment for prenatal women with anxiety and depression found that the tai chi group had lower scores in depression and anxiety, as well as lower scores in sleep disturbance at the end of the 12-week, once-per-week sessions.

Obtain moderate benefits for chronic nonspecific neck pain.

Chronic pain sufferers are always on the lookout for effective pain relief that is nonaddictive, effective and safe. A 2016 study found that a 12-week program of tai chi resulted in more than 50 percent pain reduction in 39 percent of patients with chronic nonspecific neck pain, compared with more than 50 percent pain reduction in 46 percent of study participants engaging in conventional neck exercises. Researchers noted that both tai chi and conventional neck exercises are safe and effective. They said further that tai chi may be a suitable alternative to conventional neck exercises.

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This article was originally published on Psych Central.

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Want to get my free newsletter? Sign up here to receive uplifting messages and daily positive quotes in my Daily Thoughts. You’ll also get the top self-help articles and stories of the week from my blog and more. I also invite you to like me on Facebook, follow me on LinkedIn,  TwitterInstagram, and Google+.

We All Get Sick Sometimes: How to Keep Going When You Feel Miserable

Photo by Michele Hohner

 

“Life is too short to be miserable.” – Rita Mae Brown

 

While it would be wonderful if you never got sick, that’s not life. In fact, you can count on having some bouts of illness no matter how healthy you currently are or have been. There are countless opportunities to encounter germs, carried by people who are infected – even if they don’t look sick – or clinging to surfaces you touch. Allergies afflict millions every day, while family contact and heredity account for many more instances of sickness and illness. When you do fall ill, it may be of short duration or a long and drawn-out episode. Either way, you might feel miserable. Here’s some advice on how to keep going when that happens, drawn from personal experience and a keen sense of research on what works and what doesn’t.

Keep your perspective.

It might seem like this illness or condition will last forever, yet it’s likely more of a barrier in your thoughts than will pan out. A cold or the flu will run its course over a week or two, unless there are complications. A broken leg will eventually heal, given appropriate medical treatment. A chronic disease or condition can be managed with time and discipline. Doing the best that you can to be good to yourself while what’s bothering you now rages on will help speed recovery. In the meantime, take the long view. Envision yourself getting stronger each day and regaining your health and vitality. By seeing a mental image of a healthier you, you’re priming yourself to get on the road to improvement. Research proves that imagining being able to perform a task, even when physically unable to do so, may benefit recovery. Remember that the next time illness lays you low.

Leave the big decisions for later.

When you’re sick is no time to make major changes in your life. For one thing, you’re not thinking clearly. For another, making an impulse decision now could jeopardize long-term goals, alienate those you care about most or whose friendship or counsel you value highly. When you are anxious, sad, worried or angry about not being able to continue with your schedule, you might make an impromptu choice to quit school, break up with a loved one, close off contact with friends, cope by making rash purchasing decisions. Keep in mind that smart choices are often the ones given appropriate time to consider carefully. Jot down points you find pertinent now, with the aim of revisiting them when you feel better. At present, make healing your highest priority. All other decisions, unless urgent, can wait for later.

Adopt an optimistic outlook.

Have you ever found that thinking in negative terms subsequently affected how you performed when doing the task? That’s called self-fulfilling prophecy by some or engaging in negative self-talk by others. Whatever phrase you ascribe to it, avoid doing it. In fact, researchers have found that imagining a more positive future colors memory of such action when it becomes part of the past. You remember more positive things about the action than negative ones. This can help when you’re stuck in pain at present, nursing an illness and doing the best self-care you can to speed healing. It’s much preferred than wallowing in negativity, which only exacerbates your current misery.

Focus on today.

If you can remember what bothered you so intensely six months ago, it’s likely a distant memory. In similar fashion, what seems so monumental now will likely fade quickly. This includes physical and emotional pain, perhaps caused by chronic illness or the sudden onset of a virus or bacterial infection. Painful emotions, another type of deeply-felt pain, can also be resolved over time with appropriate professional help and the support of loved ones and family members. One technique that may prove helpful is to center your thoughts on today. Just get through the next 24 hours. Things will be better tomorrow. Whether you’re dealing with substance abuse, going through detox, suffering cravings and urges, getting used to pain medication post-surgery, dealing with depression, anxiety, or a broken heart from a recent break-up, tomorrow is another day. In the meantime, you’re healing. That’s what’s most important.

Lighten your load by only doing what’s essential.

Since you’re not physically or emotionally capable of doing everything on your schedule when you’re miserable, the smart move is to remove some items from your to-do list. In fact, ditch nonessential ones completely for now, as they’ll only drain what precious energy you can marshal today. There’ll be time to circle back to them once you’re feeling better. Ask for help tackling tasks and handling responsibilities from loved ones, family members, friends and co-workers. Be sure you reciprocate the favor when they request similar assistance from you. Of the items left that must be attended to, prioritize them and do the best you can with the highest priority one. A single mom who must make dinner for her children will make this a priority, even if that dinner consists of microwaved casseroles or canned soup heated on the stove. Be sure to let the kids know that regular dinners will resume once you feel better – and keep your promise.

When possible, communicate with a friend.

There’s nothing lonelier than suffering in misery by yourself. Pain seems magnified, like you can’t escape it. Thoughts of dire consequences and fears about illness progressively getting worse also tend to rush in during times of solitude. If you’re not contagious and feel that the physical presence of a friend, loved one, family member, neighbor or co-worker will be welcome, invite that person for a visit. If an in-home visit isn’t possible, connect via phone call or social media, even email. Exchanging conversation will at least take your mind off your ills for a brief period. Often, this is enough to change the trajectory of your convalescence, going from stalemate to an upward swing.

Be sure to hydrate.

Many medications have an unpleasant side-effect of dehydration. Even if you don’t require prescription medications when you’re feeling miserable, over-the-counter medications can also cause dehydration. Perhaps you’re not taking any medication. Do you still need to rehydrate when you’re feeling miserable? The answer is that you do. By the time you think you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. This is detrimental to every organ in your body, including your brain. When you’re consumed with thoughts about how bad you feel, you’re probably not taking adequate care of yourself, and that includes drinking sufficient fluids. Water is the best choice to hydrate, so aim for 6-8 8-oz. glasses of water daily.

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This article was originally published on Psych Central.

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To automatically get my posts, sign up for my RSS feed.   

Want to get my free newsletter? Sign up here to receive uplifting messages and daily positive quotes in my Daily Thoughts. You’ll also get the top self-help articles and stories of the week from my blog and more. I also invite you to like me on Facebook, follow me on LinkedIn,  TwitterInstagram, and Google+.

Music Offers Many Cognitive, Emotional and Physical Benefits to Young and Old

Photo by Mike Giles on Unsplash

Photo by Mike Giles on Unsplash

“Music is therapy. Music moves people. It connects people in ways that no other medium can. It pulls heart strings. It acts as medicine.” — Macklemore

 

Much research over the years has centered on the potential, perceived and realized benefits of music. In fact, the area of study has blossomed, growing from the preliminary findings of earlier studies to recent ones that built upon them. What’s exciting is the widespread and diverse benefits that music offers to everyone, young, old and in-between.

Musical training gives babies’ brains a boost.

Even before babies can walk or talk, they can benefit from receiving musical training. That’s the finding from a 2012 study. In the first study of its kind, researchers from McMaster University found that one-year-old babies who engaged in interactive music lessons with their parents were better able to communicate: they smiled more, were easier to soothe, displayed less distress when things didn’t go their way. Babies in the music lessons study group were also able to point at things out of reach and wave goodbye.

Children who regularly attend and participate in music classes benefit from improvements in speech and reading.

A 2014 study found that attendance and participation by children in music classes – especially music classes involving instrument playing – exhibited improvements in neural processing of sound after two years of classes. The researchers at Northwestern University said that the active music class participants had greater improvements in speech and reading scores than their peers who didn’t attend music classes.

Structured music lessons improve kids’ academic performance and cognitive skills.

Researchers in a 2018 study found that structured music lessons added to regular school curriculum significantly enhanced students’ cognitive abilities, leading to improved school performance. The cognitive skills’ improvement was in the areas of short-term memory, planning and inhibition, and language-based reasoning. The first large-scale longitudinal study adapted to regular curriculum at school also found that visual arts helped significantly improve children’s visual and spatial memory.

Early musical training benefits the brain in later life.

Researchers in a 2013 study found that early musical training has a lasting and positive effect on how the brain processes sound, with benefits to aging adults years later. Neural timing, researchers said, is one of the first age-related declines, resulting in compromised hearing, such as a slower response to fast-changing sounds, which is vital in interpreting speech. The researchers looked at musical training adults had in childhood and found that the more years those adults had training in music, the quicker their brains responded to a speech sound. Even though the response was just a millisecond quicker, researchers said that the millisecond, compounded with millions of neurons, corresponds to making a real difference in the lives of older adults.

Surgical music therapy program helps reduce pre-operative anxiety in women undergoing breast biopsy procedures.

Anxiety before surgical procedures is a common concern for patients about to undergo necessary interventions. Results reported in 2016 from a two-year clinical trial on live- and recorded-music therapy during breast biopsy procedures found that women undergoing those procedures self-reported a significant reduction in their pre-operative anxiety levels. Researchers said that adding a music therapist to the surgical setting may help patients achieve goals of reducing anxiety, managing pain, learning more about their procedure and gaining satisfaction from the experience.

Seniors’ mental health gets a boost from religious music.

Research published from a 2014 study discovered that, among older Christians, listening to religious music – especially gospel music – is associated with less anxiety over death, and increases in feelings of satisfaction with life, self-esteem, and sense of control over  their lives. Study authors wrote that even among those seniors with health problems or physical limitations might find listening to religious music might offer a valuable resource to better mental health.

Making music may help children improve pro-social behavior and problem-solving skills.

In a 2013 study, researchers from the School of Psychology at the University of West London found that young children, both boys and girls, who engaged in making music – singing or playing a musical instrument – improved in the pro-social behaviors of helpfulness, cooperation, and social bonding, and with problem-solving skills. Study authors said that making music in class, particularly singing, may encourage students with emotional difficulties and learning differences to feel less alienated at school.

Music listening may offer multiple benefits to older adults with early memory loss.

A 2017 trial found that the mind-body practice of music listening, as well as meditation, may offer several benefits to older adults with preclinical memory loss. After three months, said researchers, both groups showed “marked and significant” improvement in subjective memory function and objective cognitive performance. These improvements were around attention, processing speed, executive function, and subjective memory function – domains generally affected in preclinical and early-stage dementia. The cognitive improvements were not only sustained at six months, they increased. The two groups also showed improvements in mood, sleep, stress, well-being, and quality of life, gains that were either sustained or further enhanced three months after intervention.

Parkinson’s patients may build strength through singing.

Other promising 2017 research finds that patients with Parkinson’s disease might be able to build strength in their muscles used for swallowing and respiratory control through singing. These two functions are complicated by the disease. Study participants were trained in proper breath support, posture, how to best use muscles involved in the vocal cords. Singing significantly improves this muscle activity. Researchers noted that participants also reported other benefits from the singing therapy: improvements in mood, depression and stress.

Music therapy offers comfort to palliative care patients.

In a three-year study of male and female palliative-care patients with a terminal illness, researchers in a 2011 study found that music intervention therapy proved effective in enhancing their pain relief, comfort, mood, confidence, relaxation, resilience, well-being, and life quality. The music therapy team consisted of music therapy students from a university and musicians from a professional symphony orchestra.

Cancer patients find symptom relief from music.

A systematic 2016 review of literature finds that there is a significant body of evidence that music therapy and music interventions help alleviate cancer patients’ symptoms, including pain, anxiety, and fatigue, while also improving their quality of life and overall well-being. Among the findings: music interventions had a moderate-to-strong effect in anxiety reduction, a large pain reduction benefit, and a small-to-moderate effect of music treatment on fatigue.

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This article was originally published on Psych Central.

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Best Ways to Spend Idle Time

Best Ways to Spend Idle Time

Photo by Pacto Visual on Unsplash

 

If you ever feel like there just isn’t enough time in the day to get things done, you’re probably overstressed, overworked and overcommitted. On the other hand, do you sometimes recognize that time stretches on, like you’re in a slow-motion movie, and it seems like this moment will last forever? How can two different views of time exist? Here are some of my favorite quotes on time that may serve as reflection on the best ways to spend idle time – and be time well spent.

Spend time with family.

“I absolutely love spending time with my family.” – Kevin Alejandro

You may not get to choose your family, yet you do choose whether to spend time with them or not. Too often, though, we tend to take family for granted, feeling they’ll always be there – until they’re not. Use spare time to do something with family, for it will always be some of the best idle time you’ve ever spent.

Find the beauty in each moment.

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.” – Henry David Thoreau

When was the last time you looked at your surroundings? Really looked, not just allowed what’s there to serve as background? There’s true beauty all around, if you but make a conscious choice to look at it and be amazed by its power to enrich and nourish you.

Reflect on your blessings.

“I think, every time I’m on the mountain, I’m just so thankful to be there.” – Chloe Kim

I’m grateful to be alive, having experienced a brush with death more than a few times. Some might call me lucky, while others just marvel I’m still here. Nevertheless, what those life-threatening experiences taught me is to be profoundly appreciative of life. I’ve been blessed with many gifts, not the least of which is my ability to find the positive in almost any situation.

Relax.

“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.” – Sydney J. Harris

Why put off doing what relaxes you when the science proves that relaxing activities help refresh, restore and revitalize your body, mind and spirit? Take a half hour for meditation, or engage in restorative yoga, or surrender to a luxurious massage. If something relaxes you, you’ll reap enormous benefits from using the time you have to do it.

Enjoy your passions.

“If biking is your passion, set aside time to enjoy a good ride.” – Patrick Dempsey

I’m passionate about many things. For example, I find the wilderness awe-inspiring and mysterious and treasure memories of driving, hiking, fishing, swimming and exploring America’s great national parks. That wilderness is also dangerous and ever-changing doesn’t lessen my passion to be in it. I just exercise appropriate caution. I have other passions as well, some of which many share. These include gardening, walks in nature, creating tasty and low-fat desserts, writing, decorating, shopping for the best deals, and painting. It isn’t the what but the fact that I do what I’m most passionate about. Whatever time I spend with my passions is the best time.

Have a cup of tea.

“Tea time is a chance to slow down, pull back and appreciate our surroundings.” – Letitia Baldridge

I love a good cup of tea. My favorite for the past year is green tea, sweetened with Stevia and organic honey. Perhaps some of the research around the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties in tea swayed me when I first started drinking in during convalescence from a hospital stay, although I have to admit tea drinking is totally different from my daily latte experience. I do appreciate my surroundings when enjoying each of them, and I value the time I spend treating myself to both.

Walk in nature.

“The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.” – Rabindranath Tagore

Whatever the season, nature is always there to be experienced, appreciated and treasured. Personally, I’m fond of trail walks, possibly because there are numerous nature trails near my home. Whenever we travel, though, I’m always keen to explore the local trails and plan our lodging to take advantage of the most scenic trailheads. There’s a sense of peace and belonging I get from walking in nature. For me, it’s a kind of meditation. I’m conscious of breathing in and out, being in the present, fully aware and alive. What a wonderful and welcoming way to spend a little time. Besides, as  research shows, nature walks, especially in groups, can help banish stress and increase well-being. And, for women with depression symptoms, regular walking can improve their quality of life.

Play with your cat.

“Time spent with cats is never wasted.” – Sigmund Freud

You needn’t be a cat person, or even have a cat in your household, to derive benefit from playing with a feline. It can be a friend’s cat, or the beloved furry friend of a loved one, family member, neighbor or co-worker. I’ve owned several cats over the years and they’ve always amazed me with their never-ending curiosity, playfulness and independent spirit. Hearing and feeling them purr fill me with a sense of contentment and joy. I can be watching TV, listening to music, or just sitting back doing nothing else but playing with the cat. Nothing against dog-lovers, for spending time with dogs ranks just as high in satisfaction. In addition, pets have healing powers and much more, according to research. They make you feel less lonely, for one thing, which is incredibly useful for shut-ins and those without family.

Be flexible.

“Summertime, this is the time that you flex.” – Cardi B

Each season presents unique opportunities to spend free time. My favorite season has to be summer, however, since there’s invariably good weather (occasional thunderstorms notwithstanding) and myriad activities to choose from to have a good time. The key, I find, is to be flexible. If you’re intent on going for a hike and a friend invites you to go swimming, have lunch at a favorite café, shop a great sale, the more willing you are to rearrange your free time to accommodate this unexpected gift the more likely you’ll be glad you did.

Make a choice.

“Time flies. It’s up to you to be the navigator.” – Robert Orben

While it’s true that each day contains just 24 hours, how you spend your time is very much your choice. Even if you must work, that’s a choice. Doing chores is a choice. Taking a break now and then is a choice. So is parceling out an hour for doing what you want, pursuing an interest, investigating something new, making new acquaintances. No one else dictates – or should be allowed to tell you – what you can or cannot do with your time. Own your destiny. Choose how you spend your time.

Savor a favorite food.

“We all need to make time for a burger once in a while.” – Erica Durance

Who doesn’t love a good burger? Whether its angus beef, turkey, salmon or veggie, burgers have long been a go-to form of comfort food for millions of people. The same holds true for many other favorite dishes, whether exotic cuisine or homecooked meals. That’s why turkey dinners are so scrumptious, why the smell of bacon makes you salivate, why the aroma of baking pies brings back your childhood. Instead of wolfing down a favorite food, pause and take in everything about it that’s special. Really savor it. This is the essence, I think, of mindful eating.

Make someone feel important.

“No matter how busy you are, you must take time to make the other person feel important.” – Mary Kay Ash

If you want to go for the gold, use some of your spare time to go out of your way to make someone else feel important and loved. This act of self-generosity doesn’t need to entail spending money. Indeed, often it’s the mere act of conscious listening to what the other person has to say that results in them feeling important, the center of your attention for that brief span of time. Acknowledge what they say, offering words of encouragement, comfort, congratulations, assistance or whatever the person seems to need most. Doing so sincerely and without haste will make you both feel you’ve made good use of the time.

Cherish the moment.

“Time itself comes in drops.” – William James

Time isn’t like a daylong downpour. It doesn’t present itself in four-hour blocks. Instead, time is seconds and minutes, more like gentle drops of rain. Once this moment is gone, it’s forever lost. For this reason, be mindful of the fleeting nature of time and make a concerted effort to live in the present and cherish every moment.

Feel empowered.

“The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” – Bertrand Russell

I believe that every day I deserve to chuck my schedule aside for a while and do whatever I feel drawn to do most. I’m not talking about completely abandoning what must be done, just taking a short hiatus from tasks and responsibilities. The knowledge that I’ll return to my work or chores with a sense of renewal and feeling newly motivated further encourages and empowers me to do what I want with my idle time.

 

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This article was originally published on Psych Central.

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11 Ways to Simplify and Enjoy Your Life More

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11 Ways to Cultivate Resilience

11 Ways to Cultivate Resilience

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“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” – Carl Jung

 

Bouncing back is a concept well understood in the context of recovering from a sports injury. Following favorite players’ comeback stories fills fans with inspiration, encourages perseverance in pursuit of personal goals, and fosters a sense of self-confidence, like we can do it if they can. Cultivating resilience in the face of all life’s challenges is a proactive way of dealing with the unexpected, the upsets and disappointments, the pitfalls and successes in life, including how to cope with trauma, chronic pain, adversity and tragedy.

RESILIENCE: WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT

An article in Forbes defines resilience as “the capacity for stress-related growth” and states that resilience has two parts related to the way you bounce back and grow:

  • From big work or life adversity and trauma
  • From dealing with daily hassles and stress

A study in Health Psychology showed that the frequency and intensity of repeated or chronic everyday life strains is strongly associated with overall health and illness, even more so than major life events.

A 2013 study found that exposure to chronic frequent negative emotion and the inability to process daily stress exacts a long-term toll on mental health.

Resilience, say researchers in an article published in Trauma, Violence & Abuse, can manifest either as “prosocial behaviors or pathological adaptation depending on the quality of the environment.” If individuals suffering from lasting effects of trauma and adversity have access to resources that help them cope, they will be more likely to develop prosocial behaviors that may facilitate healing.

Rolbieki et al. (2017) explored resilience among patients living with chronic pain and found that they showed resiliency in four ways: developing a sense of control (actively seeking information and conferring with their doctor to confirm his/her recommendations; actively engaging in both medical and complementary treatment; making social connections and exhibiting acceptance of pain and positive effect.

One surprising finding is that chronic stress accelerates aging at the cellular level – in the body’s telomeres. These are the repeating segments of non-coding DNA at the end of chromosomes. Scientists have discovered that telomeres can be lengthened or shortened – so the goal is to have more days of renewal of cells than destruction or wear and tear on them.

Researchers suggest resilience should be regarded as an emotional muscle, one that can be strengthened and cultivated. Dr. Dennis Charney, co-author of “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenge,” says people can weather and recover from trauma by developing and incorporating 10 resilience skills, including facing fear, optimism and social support. Dr. Charney, resilience researcher and dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, was shot as he exited a deli. Following the shooting, Dr. Charney faced a long and difficult recovery. The resilience researcher himself had to employ strategies of coping he’d studied and taught.

The American Psychological Association (APA) says that resilience isn’t a trait that people either have or don’t. Instead, resilience “involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”

WAYS TO CULTIVATE RESILIENCE

Among the varied ways to develop and cultivate resilience, some are more self-evident than others, yet each is worth a try when attempting to weather life’s challenges.

Act.

Even small steps add to a sense of accomplishment, of being proactive instead of reactive. Start with something you feel confident you can do and ask for help if you need it. There’s a lot to be said about self-empowerment when you act in your own best interests. After all, no one else can act for you.

Add to coping resources.

Everyone can benefit from having a toolkit of effective coping resources. Combat stress, depression, anxiety and other emotional, psychological and physical issues and conditions through meditation, mindful yoga, exercise and whatever helps you relax, including reading, music, doing puzzles, painting, writing and more.

Learn flexibility.

Instead of regarding your situation as no-win, steer towards an attitude of flexibility. Learn the art of compromise, as in, “I may not be able to run a marathon, yet I can manage a walk in the neighborhood with friends.” In addition, when running into fatigue or pain that prevents you from continuing, congratulate yourself on your effort and the fact that you acted to improve your resilience. Over time, you’ll get stronger and be able to do more, thus adding to your resilience and helping to improve your overall physical and mental health.

Practice optimism.

Science says that some optimism is genetic, while some is learned. You can train yourself with practice in positive self-thinking to see opportunity instead of a dead-end, to view a glass as half full instead of half empty. There’s also truth in self-fulfilling attitudes. If you believe you’ll be successful in overcoming adversity, you’re more likely to succeed. The opposite is also true: If you think you’ll fail, you probably will.

Take advantage of support.

When you need help, it’s OK to ask for it. In fact, when you know you have support available and are willing to use it, you’re exercising prosocial behavior. Similarly, when you can do so, offer your support to others who may need it.

Avoid personalizing.

There’s no point in engaging in blame or endlessly thinking about your situation. Besides being counter-productive, it makes you feel worse. Make use of some of the healthy coping measures you’ve successfully used before and stop ruminating about what happened to you.

Regard the setback/disappointment as temporary.

Nothing lasts forever, not even life-altering events, trauma, adversity and pain. You can navigate through this turbulent and emotionally trying time by realizing that this is temporary, and things will get better with your active involvement in your healing process.

Write your new story.

Psychiatrists and psychologists call this “reframing” and it refers to changing your story to focus on the opportunities revealed. For example, say you’ve returned from active deployment in a war zone with extensive physical and psychological injuries. Instead of remaining steeped in the negative aspects of your experience, allow yourself to center on other senses, traits, skills and resources you have at your disposal – your empathy, understanding, ability to solve problems, a wide support network, loving family and close friends.

Cultivate gratitude.

When you are grateful and actively cultivate gratitude, you are taking advantage of a basic part of resilience and in contentment in life. The more you develop gratitude, the more resilient you’ll become.

Remind yourself of other victories.

This may be an intensely challenging time for you, a time when failures and negativity seem paramount and inevitable. Now is when you must remind yourself of your past successes, examples of seemingly impossible hurdles you’ve overcome, victories you’ve scored. This serves as self-reminder that you’ve come back from adversity before. You can do it again.

Enhance spirituality.

Religion and spirituality have been shown as predictors of resilience in various populations studied, including returning war veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma sufferers, children and adults who experience abuse or violence, patients enduring chronic pain. Prayer, self-reflection, communicating with a Higher Power serves as a healing balm to many who otherwise may resort to negative coping behaviors, such as drinking and drug use.

 

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This article was originally published on Psych Central.

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10 Ways to Express Gratitude

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10 Easy Ways to Increase Your Energy Levels Naturally

10 Easy Ways to Increase Your Energy Levels Naturally

Photo by Jared Erondu on Unsplash

 

“You are responsible for the energy that you create for yourself, and you’re responsible for the energy that you bring to others.” – Oprah Winfrey

 

I’m all about doing what I can do in a better way. This includes taking proper care of my health and watching my energy levels throughout the day. There’s no denying that a busy lifestyle contributes to a drain on how much energy you feel you have, yet there are natural ways to boost your energy levels that are easy and relatively quick to do. After doing my research, I’ve discovered that science backs up the merits of the following 10 easy ways to increase your energy levels.

Lower stress.

Stress is a huge culprit when it comes to drained energy. When you’re stressed-out, you’re likely worn out as well. If you suffer from chronic stress, the effect is cumulative and can result in worsening physical and mental conditions over time. Most stress is the result of anxiety, worry about things you have no control over or agonizing over making the wrong decisions, even worry about decisions you know are right. In short, living with non-stop stress will zap your energy like an electronic bug killer. Figure out healthy ways to lower your stress levels and you’ll find that you have more energy daily.

How can you lower your stress? Do whatever relaxes you, whether that’s reading an engrossing novel, going for coffee with a friend, watching a favorite TV show or movie, exercising vigorously, gardening, playing sports, working on a hobby, taking a drive, going out for dinner and so on. It isn’t what you do but how relaxing the activity makes you feel that will lessen the tension and reduce stress.

Eat more nuts and fish.

Studies of women with magnesium deficiency showed that the women felt physically exhausted much of the time. Why? When you have magnesium deficiency, your heart beats faster and requires more oxygen to get things done. Natural sources of magnesium that are low calorie and delicious include almonds, cashews and hazelnuts, as well as fish such as halibut. Recommended daily magnesium allowances are 300 milligrams for women and 350 milligrams for men.

Get out and walk.

Perhaps one of the simplest ways to boost energy levels is to go out for a walk. How can it be that engaging in physical activity such as walking increases your energy? It sounds contradictory, yet the science is sound. A brisk 10-minute walk is enough to elevate energy levels and the effects last up to 2 hours. Do regular daily walks and you’ll have not only increased energy and stamina, your mood will also improve.

Drink lots of water.

Another nasty culprit causing lack of energy is dehydration. Simply put, when you’re dehydrated, your body is starved of life-saving water. You may not realize that you’re thirsty, though, and by the time that you do, you’re likely dehydrated. Sometimes, you think you’re fatigued when the truth is that you’re dehydrated. You also might confuse hunger with thirst, thinking you need to eat something when what you really need is water. There is a simple solution: drink lots of water at regular times throughout the day. Strive for eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily. If you have trouble downing that much plain water, go for fruit-flavored, sugar-free water. In so doing, you’ll be benefiting every organ in your body, including muscles, which are re-energized with water. You’ll also find that you’ve got a little more energy by exercising your water-drinking habit.

Cut back on sugar.

Besides contributing to a thicker waistline and more pounds on the scale, eating a diet high in sugar will also leave you feeling drained. While sugar initially spikes blood sugar and provides an energy boost, that increased energy is short-lived, quickly followed by a rapid blood sugar drop. You may feel wiped out consequently. If you’re like me, however, adding a natural sweetener to morning lattes and hot tea is an absolute must. I’ve become an aficionado of Stevia, a no-calorie natural sweetener that tastes 30 times sweeter than table sugar. Another natural sweetener I’ve decided to try is coconut sugar, which has 20 calories per teaspoon (the same as table sugar), but it is an excellent alternative to regular sugar for baking.

Meditate.

If you’re a fan of yoga, you might already know that the Savasana pose (also called the corpse pose) is beneficial in reducing fatigue. I was unaware of this, not being very proficient in yoga, yet willing to learn. The Savasana pose is what you do at the end of your yoga session. It looks like taking a quiet nap on the floor while resting on your yoga mat. You are resting, yet fully conscious for the 10-20 minutes you allocate for this restorative energy exercise.

Eat breakfast every day.

Your mother probably told you that breakfast is the day’s most important meal. That advice echoes what nutrition experts have said for years. It’s tempting to skip this vital meal, though, especially when busy schedules mean every minute counts, yet don’t fall for that excuse. It doesn’t have to be a long, sit-down affair for you to gain the benefits of breakfast. Just make sure you eat wisely. Go for breakfasts that help you power up your morning. As Harvard Medical School experts points out, include whole grains, fruit and protein – and eat at home, not from a fast-food eatery.

Add power snacks to provide energy between meals.

It might seem a long way to dinner or your next meal, especially if you’ve been engaged in vigorous physical activity or concentrating on a complex work project. The healthy solution here is to snack on some power foods to give yourself an instant energy lift. Do a combination of fat, protein, a little bit of fat and fiber and you’ll be doing yourself and your energy levels a favor. Try a low-fat, low-salt (or salt-free) cracker with peanut butter or enjoy yogurt with a small handful of nuts.

Try a 1-hour power nap to prevent burnout.

Experimental research conducted by the National Institutes of Health found that participating subjects who took a 60-minute power nap were able to prevent burnout. Like physical effects of stress that cause fatigue, mental performance during repeated cognitive tasks, especially stressful ones, can simulate feelings of fatigue and low energy levels. While not everyone has the luxury of taking a 1-hour nap every day, if you do opt to take time for a snooze, remember that 60 minutes is more beneficial in preventing burnout than a half-hour nap.

Tend to your emotional health.

Depression and anxiety often make you feel exhausted, tired all the time, lacking energy and desire to do much of anything. If you are otherwise healthy, yet you feel constantly fatigued, examine your life for what may be bothering you emotionally. If you’ve experienced depression or anxiety that persists for two weeks or more, consider getting professional help. Psychotherapy can help you overcome these debilitating issues and help regain your normal energy.

 

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This article was originally published on Psych Central.

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10 Health Benefits of Daily Exercise

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7 Tips on Calming the Noise of Life

8 Healthy Reasons to Ditch Your Bad Habits

10 Ways Nature Helps Your Well-Being

 

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In Search of Better Sleep

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“Sleep is the best meditation.” – Dalai Lama

 

After a year of emotional upheavals and health challenges, I resolved to enter 2018 with a singularly proactive step: getting more restful, productive sleep. It can’t be coincidental that numerous sleep studies caught my attention, as my subconscious mind probably directed me to find them. I already know, as do most of us, that sleep is necessary for the body to rest and replenish, as well as heal, yet there are many more aspects of stages of sleep and effective sleep that I’ve discovered in my quest to become more sleep-proficient.

NIGHTMARES: MORE COMPLEX THAN YOU THINK

As someone who’s been plagued by vivid nightmares many times in the past, and sometimes even the present, I welcome research that provides a more complete picture of this nighttime torment. Ever wake up in absolute dread, feeling a sense of impending doom, like you can’t escape the horrible dream you just awakened from? That’s a nightmare, and who wouldn’t relish the opportunity to learn more about them as well as how to overcome them?

It makes sense to me that, as a study in Brain and Behavioral Sciences reported, the form and content of dreams is not random, but constructed by the brain in an organized and selective fashion. Furthermore, certain types of waking experiences profoundly affect dreams. Study authors proposed that the function of dreaming is to simulate threatening events, and then rehearse both threat perception and threat avoidance. Weinstein et al. (2017) found that waking-life psychological need experiences are reflected in daily dreams. Another study published in Stress and Health linked need frustration to higher stress, leading to greater evening fatigue and subsequent poorer sleep quality and shorter duration of sleep.

University of Montreal researchers found that nightmares have more emotional impact than do bad dreams, and frequently contain themes of physical aggression – death, health concerns and threats. Researchers learned that men more often have nightmares involving calamities and disasters, while women’s nightmares centered on themes of interpersonal conflict twice that of men.

During the dream stage of sleep, called REM (rapid eye movement), the sleeper’s brain processes emotional experiences and can promote healing from the reactivation of memories of the event, say researchers. This is thought to happen due to low levels of norepinephrine, a brain chemical associated with stress, during REM sleep and results in a stress-free environment in which to process emotions. The sleeper awakes the next day with those experience memories softened, thus, better able to cope. This finding holds promise for new treatment for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

IN SEARCH OF BETTER REM

If REM sleep is so important in sleep hygiene, I wanted to know more about how to achieve a higher quality and longer duration of this vitally important sleep stage. An intriguing 2015 study by Japanese researchers identified a neural circuit in the brain in mice that both regulates REM sleep and controls the physiology of non-REM sleep, another major sleep stage. Of interest to me was a 2017 study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology that found that people who get less REM sleep may be at greater risk of developing dementia.

Checking recommendations on the web for improving REM sleep, I found several that seem to be self-evident:

  • Avoid alcohol before going to bed.

Alcohol interferes with the various stages of sleep and can result in restless sleep, interrupted sleep, and less high-quality REM sleep as well as deeper, more restorative sleep.

  • Skip that late-day caffeine.

Since caffeine is a stimulant, sleep experts advise curtailing any caffeinated drinks (lattes, coffee, espresso, sodas and teas) later in the day. Drinking caffeine just before retiring can result in an inability to fall asleep or remaining asleep.

  • Mind your meds.

Certain medications can have a negative effect on sleep. This includes both prescription and over-the-counter medications, as well as herbal remedies. Check into their effects on sleep and ask your doctor if there are other medications that can be substituted that won’t interfere with sleep.

  • Curb the urge to smoke late in the day.

Nicotine interferes with sleep. Heavy smokers are prone to be light sleepers, which cuts down on the amount of REM sleep they achieve nightly. Complicating the matter is the fact that nicotine withdrawal during the night causes heavy smokers to wake more often, which makes it hard to fall into REM sleep or maintain it.

While I don’t smoke or drink, I do like my daily lattes. Sometimes I have one in the afternoon and, now that I’m more knowledgeable about the effects of caffeine, I understand why my sleep is erratic. I also take a few prescription medications, although they do not cause me any sleep problems.

Other helpful tips to achieve better REM sleep include meditation, setting a relaxing sleep routine (getting ready for bed), arranging a comfortable sleep environment, and even adding an extra 60 to 90 minutes of sleep. The latter is because REM sleep occurs in cycles every 60 to 90 minutes, so in theory, adding that extra hour to hour and a half should provide another chance at REM sleep. I’ve implemented each of these to my sleep program and attest to their effectiveness.

I also bought and wear a monitoring device on my wrist that helps me keep track of my steps, heart rate, calories consumed, and amount of time spent exercising. Through an online dashboard, I can log my food, water intake, weight and see the results of my nightly sleep. This smart technology allows me to see my sleep patterns and view the results in graphs (showing the various stages of sleep) as well as minutes/hours in each stage, where I am in comparison to benchmark, and 30-day average. It has proven immensely valuable in helping me achieve better REM sleep.

DEEP SLEEP RESTORES THE BODY

If the mind and emotions become revitalized during REM sleep, when does the body get the opportunity to recharge itself? Researching this question, I learned that the third stage of non-REM sleep, called N3, delta sleep, or slow wave sleep, is the deepest stage of the nightly sleep cycle. It’s during N3 that the body repairs itself and, in fact, the body requires deep sleep to perform other vital functions such as building muscle tissue, healing wounds and regenerating cells. The kidneys clean the blood and organs detoxify during the deepest stage of sleep as well.

Sleep experts say that deep sleep typically occurs in longer periods during the first half of nightly sleeping, with the first N3 episode lasting from 45 to 90 minutes and subsequent deep sleep episodes of shorter duration. N3 decreases with age, sleep is intermixed with wakefulness, and is considered normal. Minus other factors, does not indicate presence of a disease or disorder. During this time, muscles relax, breathing and heartbeat slow further, and brain waves (measurable on an EEG) become even slower. It is very difficult to awaken someone in deep sleep.

Factors inhibiting deep sleep that you can control include mitigating stress – especially pre-bedtime stress – and controlling the temperature of the sleep environment. If the room where you sleep is too warm, getting to sleep will be more difficult, since the body drops temperature when it’s ready to sleep. Too warm and you’ll be restless. In addition to adjusting room temperature to between 60-68 degrees Fahrenheit, make sure sleeping clothes, bed linens and pillows are conducive to cooler sleeping.

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This article was originally published on Psych Central.

Related Posts:

How Your Memory Suffers With Poor REM Sleep

The Incredible Value of Dreams

10 Ways Stress Harms You

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