Feeling lonely? Meditate!

Posted by on Aug 5, 2013 in aging, emotions, Meditation/mindfulness therapy | 0 comments

I spent this past weekend in NYC, the place that I once called home and in my heart of hearts, still do. But as I sat at lunch yesterday and watched people stroll by, I realized that many of them were alone. And I remembered that despite the millions of people in NY, I often felt very much alone there. I don’t feel that way very often any longer and yet, I imagine that it’s not simply a geographically-driven emotion but rather, life changes have a lot to do with loneliness. Indeed, by the time that midlife hits full on, many adults find themselves going through a divorce, losing loved ones to illness and watching their children leave the house for college or to start their lives and careers. Sound familiar? Well, then you might also find the link of these events to loneliness and in turn, to an increased risk of heart disease, depression and even premature death, important.

While the underlying reasons for these associations are complicated, suffice it to say, research suggests that stress can trigger inflammation that has been shown to increase the risk for chronic illness and death. Fortunately, for the first time, there may be a solution: meditation.

Researchers from UCLA say that study findings show that incorporating 30 minutes of daily meditation practice may help to alter the way our genes bolster inflammatory processes in the body by altering feelings of loneliness. Indeed, when people between the ages of 55 and 85 were trained in mindfulness meditation practice, they did more than find inner peace.  Here’s the skinny:

Half of the participants  participated in a trainer-led, two-hour mindfulness sessions in which they were guided through mindfulness meditation exercises, mindful yoga and stretching, and group discussions that were intended to help promote mindful awareness of the present moment, and moment to moment experience; these sessions were held weekly for eight weeks. They also participated in a day-long retreat towards the end of the study where their practice were more closely integrated and discussed. Additionally, these men and women practiced at least 30 minutes of mindfulness sessions for six days a week during the program.

Mind you, the study was very small and included only 40 participants. However, learning how to live in the present appeared significantly reduce feelings of loneliness and alter both genes and protein markers of inflammatory by as much as 25%, including the signal that activates the inflammatory processes in the body. The researchers say that also observed a decline in C-reactive protein, which has been linked to heart disease.

Loneliness..scientifically, it’s been described as “a state of social distress that arises when there is a discrepancy between one’s desired and actual social relationships.”

I like this description better, from the great Buddhist nun and teacher, Pema Chodron:

Loneliness is “restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle [through meditation practice], we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our fearful patterns upside down.”

Mindfulness meditation. It may alleviate more than heartache and benefit in ways that we have yet to imagine.


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Make ‘Em Laugh

Posted by on Jan 4, 2013 in emotions, mind-body therapy | 0 comments

“Don’t you know everyone wants to laugh?”

Truly, is there anything better than a deep, uncontrollable, tear streaming down your face, belly aching laugh?

However, besides the sheer joy that laughter brings, did you know that it also lowers stress and benefits the heart and boosts immunity? Laughter reduces tension and anxiety, raises self esteem, hope, energy, enhances memory and creativity, improves interpersonal interactions, builds unity and solidarity. Laughter is essential to happiness and overall wellbeing. Laughter positively affects our muscles, our breathing, our hormones and our nervous systems. In fact, at its core, laughter incorporates the entire mind-body construct. Moreover, although laughter is contagious, it has few side effects.

Yet, does simulated laughter yield the same benefits?

In case you are wondering what I’m referring to, simulated laughter is the foundation of laughter yoga, a worldwide movement that focuses on laughter exercises, including:

  • Pantomime followed by laughter
  • Physical greetings followed by laughter
  • Dancing and singing (and laughing exercises)
  • Laughing alone
  • Laughing meditations

Simulated laughter works in large groups, in pairs and can be playful or exaggerated. The theory underlying simulated laughter is that while the mind can distinguish between spontaneous and simulated laughter, the body cannot. Importantly, research bears this out, and a number of scientifically controlled studies have shown that simulated laughter can lead to reductions in blood pressure, improvements in stress hormone levels, positively affect depression and insomnia and even improve anxiety in chronic pain patients. Regular simulated laughter sessions can be used as effective coping strategies and benefit workplace morale. Even smiling can yield positive effect.

Can anyone do it? Well, clearly, anyone can laugh. But simulated laughter is a technique that is most effective when it’s learned, practiced and developed. Not surprisingly, laughter yoga clubs have popped up across the nation, touting messages of helping people gain a happiness advantage. And data provide sufficient evidence that ‘laughter has positive, quantifiable physiological and psychological effects on certain aspects of health.”

Make em laugh? You bet:
Ah ha ha ha ha ha há
Ah ha ha ha ha ha 
Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha 
Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha 
Make ’em laugh, ah ah!
Make ’em laugh, ah ah!
Make ’em laugh, ah ah!

Make ’em laugh 
Make ’em laugh 
Make ’em laugh!

-Donald O’Connor, Singin’ in the Rain

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Depression: Walking the Walk

Posted by on Aug 27, 2012 in depression, emotions | 2 comments

I’m always on the look out for evidence-based alternatives to drug therapy — not because I believe that drugs are bad — but because I believe that sometimes there are safer ways to manage certain conditions, ways that may minimize side effects or interactions. Moreover? We are a society that relies on a quick fix and sometimes, that quick fix brings on a host of other issues.

Depression and hormonal imbalance go hand in hand as much as love and marriage, babies and carriages, and yin and yang. As many as 40% of women are affected by depression during menopause, but there are other factors that come into play, including gender (women are 1.5 to 3 times likelier than men to report a lifetime history of depression), stress, family life, general health issues, a lack of exercise and genetics. Moreover, research has shown that how women perceive the effect of menopause and its symptoms on their physical health can significantly affect whether or not they develop depression at the start of the ‘pause.

When you think ‘depression,’ you probably think melancholy, sadness, feeling blue and out of sorts. But depression can also affect working memory and bring on persistent negative moods, which may not be easily resolved by drugs alone or by behavioral/psychotherapy alone. Consequently, being aware of alternative strategies may be helpful for some people. That’s why I was so intrigued by the concept of Attention Restoration Therapy (ART).

ART examines attention and divides it into two parts:

  • Involuntary attention, in which our attention is somehow captured by some sort of stimulus that stands out
  • Voluntary or directed attention, which is directed by specific mental processes and intellect

According to ART (which is backed and validated by scientific research) interacting with certain types of environments can promote or invoke involuntary attention; this allows our directed attention a replenishing respite, one that people with depression, who incidentally are more likely to be mentally and attentionally fatigued may benefit. Natural environments in particular, have been shown boost this attention shifting process in healthy individuals. More importantly, a small study that appears in the Journal of Affective Disorders shows that the same benefits may be obtained by clinically depressed persons. In fact, when both women and men were asked to take a 50 to 55 minute walk in an aboretum or an urban setting and deliberately asked to ruminate on a painful memory, they still scored higher on cognitive and attentional testing. After a second walk in an entirely different setting, nature walks were shown to boost both memory and mood.

Mind you, researchers still don’t know how long lasting the effects of nature are on depression, and if it matters if the person actually lives most of the time in a rural or urban setting. However, it does appear that when it comes to depression, walking the walk, especially if it’s in a natural setting, may boost mood and functioning and give attention a much needed rest.

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Time to End the Shhh…

Posted by on Jul 2, 2012 in aging, emotions, menopause | 0 comments

I am discovering a pattern: when women learn about Flashfree, they inevitably tell me that they wish that they had a sounding board, someone to talk to about the aging-symptom paradigm, more exchange, more discourse. When I started this blog four years ago, I wanted to become a conduit for that conversation or at the very least, an inspiration. And I know that I’ve been inspired by the interest and the support.

Lately, it’s become so apparent that we need to talk more, listen more, explore more. We need each other.

The following was written during the early days of Flashfree and it’s as relevant now as it was then. So, in a bold move, I am reprising it, in hopes that it will begin that spark that I would like to see carry us through the rest of this year. It’s been a challenging one for many of us. And every day becomes a reminder of what’s most important and what is really not so important. Mostly though? I hope that this space continues to be as much yours’ as mine.

I was talking to a colleague/old friend the other day about this blog. She is a few years older than I and we got into this great conversation about generational gaps when it comes to discussing health issues. Perimenopause and menopause in particular have been huge taboo issues for women for decades.

Take for example, an episode from ‘That 70s Show,’ in which Kitty learns that she is not pregnant but rather, has entered menopause. When she asks her mother (played to a T by none other than Betty White) about her experience, she’s informed that she never went through menopause and has always been “healthy.” It’s funny and sad simultaneously. And definitely well worth the watch. (Fast forward to timecode 3:59.)

As the last of the baby boomers enter middle age, their appetites for health information appear to be ever more insatiable. And yet, some of the savviest and most practical women I know confess that they rarely, if ever, discuss their symptoms, moods or concerns about the changes that they are going through with their friends, let alone their mothers.

I’m fortunate. I have a mother who is pretty open about these sort of topics. And although she’s 70+, she tries hard to maintain an open attitude about certain things. When I approached her a few months ago about what I was going through, she was very forthcoming about her own experiences. And while her experiences were not exactly like mine (let’s face it; no two women’s experiences will ever be exactly the same), being able to talk about it was very liberating, even if I didn’t find “why” behind my own symptomatology.

Janine O’Leary Cobb, a former professor at Vanier College in Montreal, author of Understanding Menopause and founder of ‘A Friend Indeed,” once said that “it seem[s] to be one of the last things women talk about because it’s so entangled with aging and we don’t want to talk about getting older.”

And yet, research suggests that when we do talk about “it” and about getting older, hopefulness and positivity dominates, even as we acknowledge the more negative, i.e. loss and bodily changes, at the same time. And there a majority of women in this study who said that they feel a greater willingness to embrace personal growth and opportunities being presented to them with ease and sense of self as they age, a liberation, if you will.

So, what’s my point? Well, I’m not suggesting that we embrace the sugar-coated version of perimenopause and menopause that many advertisers would lead us to believe. But if we start having conversations with our gal pals and our mothers and colleagues, well, maybe we can begin moving towards removing the stigma that surrounds the “change” and aging once and for all.

Knowledge and exchange are certainly positive, powerful aphrodisiacs for growth.

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Rage against the machine: menopause and irritability

Posted by on Jan 16, 2012 in emotions, menopause | 1 comment

Last week I posted an amusing video about menopausal rage and parking lots. But is uncontrollable irritability really so funny?

An estimated 50% of perimenopausal women report irritability as a major symptom and it tends to worsen the deeper you get into the ‘pause. Depending on how severe hormonal fluctuations, it’s n0t unusual to have excessive and seemingly out of proportion responses to even the most mundane of activities (such as waiting on line at the bank). A road paved with irritability is truly a rocky one and one that will certainly be less well traveled by those people we surround ourselves with. But, without knowing exactly why irritability is so pervasive, it’s difficult to figure out how to address it properly: are mood symptoms during menopause independently linked to hormonal imbalances? Or, are they secondary responses to vasomotor and other symptoms?

Interestingly, researchers took a look at this very question in a small study of 163 peri and postmenopausal women, asking them to complete an 18 question scientific questionnaire designed to measure temporary psychological states. Irritability directed towards others was characterized ‘outward,’ while irritability directed towards oneself was characterized as “inward.” The findings? It appeared that levels of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and leutenizing hormone (LH) were significantly linked to outward irritability but there didn’t appear to be any similar correlation to inward irritability. Moreover? Women going through menopause who suffered from chronic illness, e.g. high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes or thyroid disease had significantly higher scores on both inward and outward irritability measures.

So, do FSH and LH levels directly influence mood and more specifically irritability? Researchers say that there is a relationship but that there is no direct association; in other words, declining or fluctuating hormones don’t directly cause outward irritability. Clearly, it possible that fluctuating hormones as they relate to overall menopause may be responsible, but we still don’t really know. And aging, at least as it relates to being increasingly vulnerable to chronic illness, also appears to play a role.

And there hasn’t been enough research done specifically on this topic to explain why. Meanwhile, as Whoopie Goldberg once said “I don’t have pet peeves. I have whole kennels of irritation.”

Where are your whole kennels? And what are you doing to reel in the irritability when it wants to rear its ugly head?



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Guest Post Roundup: Sex, Generations and A Whole Lotta Love

Posted by on Dec 7, 2011 in aging, appearance, Boomer, breast cancer, emotions, humour, Inspiration, politics, sexual desire, sexual health, Uncategorized, women's health | 0 comments

As we come closer to the year’s end, I’d like to express my gratitude to a few of my colleagues who took the time to publish their thoughts on Flashfree this year. And, althoughI receive a lot of solicitations, there are few that I feel are worthy of your time or your close read. These, on the other hand, rocked my world, not only because of their breadth and finesse but also because of the love behind the words and thoughts.

This is a Roundup that you don’t want to miss.

[Credit: Special and enduring thanks to artist Darryl Willison of whimsicalwest.com. Please visit his site and support his work!]

  • Should fatties get a room? Dr. Brian Hughes has lent his fine prose to this blog several times and often writes insightfully about how our society takes advantage of women. When I stumble across something on his blog that screams Flashfree, I reach out and say pretty please. Brian rocks!
  • Should I or shouldn’t I? Oncologist, journalist and educator Dr. Elaine Shattner has spent most of her online bandwidth on discerning the facts about breast and other cancers. Let’s face it; there is a  lot of information swirling around the Interwebz and when it comes to figuring out what it means, well, the challenge can be daunting. Want to know more? Elaine’s your girl for the 4-11.
  • Anti Anti-Aging, Pro Great Glow. Do you want to fight your years? Or fight FOR them? Writer and author D.A. Wolfe dishes up some provocative prose and challenges the inner you. This one’s got “win” written all over it.
  • Counterterrorism, women and 9-11. Doesn’t sound like a topic for Flashfree, does it? But my friend Anne Weiskopf shares a poignant piece about what it means to be a woman. And a mother.
  • Want to get your groove on? Move. Alexandra Williams, motivational speaker, fitness writer, radio host and inspirateur nails it with a wonderful post on sex, exercise and wellbeing.
  • Vagina’s are like self-cleaning ovens. Wait! What?! Yes, gynecologist and sex expert Dr. Jen Gunter makes a guest appearance to shake up the idea that douching is a good idea.
  • Have you crossed the Big M finish line? Author Sarah Bowen thought she had. And tells us how she hit the reset button before the race ended.
  • On Becoming Bendy. Author Patti Digh is at it again. She’s changing our world, one day at a time. And wow, has she ever changed hers’ this year. Want to be a better you? Bendy. Who said that Gumby didn’t have an alterior motive?
  • Are you becoming your mother? When was the last time you looked in the mirror and asked yourself the very question that my friend, motivational speaker and author Cherry Woodburn asks in this post? Are you a generational profiler?
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