Chronic Pain and Mind-Body Strategies

Those of us who are lucky enough to be Survivors of Life past the age of 50 are probably way too familiar with the kind of daily aches and pains that our doctors tell us are part and parcel of the privilege of aging.  In talking to my peers I realize that many of us cannot get out of bed in the morning without experiencing some kind of stiffness or pain. Some of you cannot stand up from a chair or even go for a walk without grimacing from the pain in your knees or lower back.  The current chapter I am working on for my book“Aging Happy: How to Knock Out The Nonsense and Make These the Best Years of Your Life”(to be released at the beginning of next year), looks at body image in older adults. This topic is particularly dear to my heart, as it completes the circle of the research I conducted as a (much) younger doctoral candidate many moons ago.  It comes as no surprise that an adversarial relationship with our body in our older adult years is just as poisonous to our happiness as it was in our youth. Body Image Dissatisfaction can still make us older adults vulnerable to eating disorders, low self-esteem, social isolation, and depression.

The bulk of body-image research on adolescents and young adults examines the influence of advertising, the cosmetic and fashion industries, and even the comparisons we make between ourselves and those we think look better than us (i.e. Leon Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory, circa 1954)—but what about the influence of chronic pain on our self image as we age?

Non-malignant chronic pain, the kind that many of us experience every day, can keep us from feeling good about about the very body that houses our heart and soul and keeps us functioning right up to our last breath.

Pain can make us feel (and look) older, and feebler, and often we perceive ourselves to look older as well when we look in the mirror.  Pain can strip us of our motivation to do the things we normally love to do. Thoughts of pain, and ways to adjust our lifestyle to avoid pain can consume our thoughts and eventually our entire existence; causing us become less social and less engaged in life—a disastrous outcome for older adults who need more than ever to be involved with meaningful social interactions.

I recently came across an article that reviewed a number of studies examining various mind-body strategies for relieving chronic NON-malignant pain in older adults. These strategies included tai chi, yoga, hypnosis, progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback, guided imagery, meditation, and qi gong. The benefits of these methods are undisputed when it comes to relieving stress and its related maladies.  When dealing with chronic pain researchers are cautiously positive, but are calling for larger clinical trials to be conducted before the scientific jury can definitively weigh in. My hunch is that anything we can do to help ourselves when it comes to chronic pain will also up the happiness factor.

Let me explain.

Chronic pain commonly triggers feelings of learned helplessness especially when people have been to their doctors, tried a number of medications, modified their lifestyles to the nth degree—and still they suffer, despite reassurance from the medical professionals that there is nothing seriously wrong other than a touch of osteoarthritis in the joints that “everyone gets” sooner or later. Of particular note, however, when it comes to using mind-body strategies such as Yoga to relieve pain, is the change in attituderequired to perform these self-therapies.  It takes us from feeling helpless and defeated to actively taking control of our “rehabilitation”. Often this position of emotional strength starts a domino effect of better self-care and a more positive relationship with our body. For example: “That gentle yoga video made my joints feel better so I wonder if I will feel even better if I avoid all flour and sugar today and instead prepare a large vegetable salad for lunch (like mine, in the photo above).”  Then that leads to going out for a 15 minute walk at lunch time, then to setting your timer to get up from your couch or office chair every 20 minutes to march in place or do a few sit ups. And so on.

It’s been established that mind-body strategies are really good at relieving stress. That alone will reduce the perception of pain. But because they also require an “active” component, our sense of self-efficacy (belief in our ability to affect our situation) will also be bolstered and before you know it you may experiences longer and longer stretches of time in which the thought or fear of your chronic non-malignant pain will not even enter your mind. You can start to once again pursue the things you used to love doing, instead of avoiding them.

If you are in chronic pain have it checked out by your doctor and ask about either starting with, or using mind-body strategies as an adjunct to their recommendation. You may be pleasantly surprised at the results.

 

Reference:

Morone, Natalia E. & Greco, Carol M (2007). Mind-Body interventions for chronic pain in older adults: A structured review. Pain Medicinevol 8(4) pp 359-375.

© Raeleen Mautner, LLC 2018

How To Let Yourself “Flow” Into Happiness

Have you ever become so engrossed in a project that you lost all track of time?  Try to remember how you felt –that deep sense of personal satisfaction, a feeling of accomplishment, a sense of wonder and the motivation to keep going; shutting out anything else that might have distracted you.  You might say you were in the ZONE.  It’s been known for quite some time that the activities we engage in can either add to our happiness or detract from it. This is especially true as we grow older, when time is of the essence and how you spend each moment—matters.

 The phenomenon I am referring to is called “flow”.

A state of flowrefers to the high you get when you become engrossed in an activity that brings you such joy and satisfaction that you become seamlessly entwined with the experience, losing all sense of the passage of time. Everything else fades into the background.  You feel productive, on top of your game, in control. Most likely you are also following your heart; doing something you are passionate about.

Csikszentmihalyi first introduced his theory of flow state to the world of psychology in 1975 and since then, researchers across various fields, such as education, sports psychology, neuroscience and others have leveraged this phenomenon to improve performance and increase success.  Important to note, is something called the Match Hypothesis—that is you are more likely to achieve flow state when you choose activities that match your abilities to the demands of the task. Everyone is different, of course. Some people are more cognitively oriented and are more likely to achieve flow when working on intellectual pursuits (reading, writing, continuing education); some are more inclined toward the creative skills (playing a musical instrument, drawing, acting); some the interpersonal skills (showing empathy, communicating, emotional intelligence). It may be that you are a combination of those, but usually, we derive more satisfaction when engaged in one of those areas, as opposed to the others. I know for myself, when I work on something that is a mismatch for my abilities, I end up frustrated and eventually unfocused, not to mention feeling like I wasted x amount of time that I can never get back.

More recently, researchers have found that the principle of “flow” may be an important key to well-being in older adults. It seems to protect our cognitive functioning as we age.

If you are not already doing so, consider reserving at least one hour of your day to give complete concentration to an activity you find rewarding; one that lifts you up to a higher level and helps you transcend the mundane tasks we all have to do each day. Enjoy the natural high that comes with experiencing flow on a daily basis.

Here is how to start honoring your life with a daily dose of flow-driven happiness

  1. Make a list of several projects/activities that you love to do. They should be challenging but not so far beyond your ability that you will be frustrated and abandon the activity.
  2. Categorize these activities (intellectual/cognitive, creative, interpersonal, kinesthetic/physical), etc.). You may find that you gravitate towards one or more areas.
  3. Rate the activities in terms of how closely each project is aligned with your abilities. Remember they should be challenging enough to hold your interest and give you a sense of achievement when completed; yet they are well within your skillset to achieve.
  4. Set aside an appointment with yourself for no less than an hour a day.
  5. Choose one project from you list which you will work on during that hour each day until that project is complete.
  6. Eliminate all distractions—no phone, email, social media, getting up to vacuum, or anything else. Resign yourself to spending this time fully engaged in the chosen activity.
  7. Be mindful of the peace and satisfaction this one hour of engagement offers you.

The flow experience is a simple way to enrich your life, give you something to look forward to each day, and increase your passion for life. It is also your chance to engage in experiences you have always aspired to before the other to-do’s of living got in the way. I urge you now to go for it. Take out that easel and paint palate; weave that rug; observe the sunrise; outline the novel you have had stuck in your head; compose the lyrics and music to that song you once thought of writing; build that bird feeder; study that period in history that always fascinated you; learn to tango; feel the waves crash around your feet as you breathe in the salty ocean air; fire up your camera and capture life’s portraits—and allow your passions drive your personal flow state. The result? You will be giving yourself the extraordinary gift of a daily dose of happiness.

Reference

Payne, et al (2011) In the Zone: Flow State and Cognition in Older Adults. Psychology and Agingvol 26(3) pp738-743.

© Raeleen Mautner, LLC

Therapeutic Journaling To Reduce Stress and Heal From Trauma

As a former behavioral consultant to a large, hospital-based weight-loss program I often spoke to large audiences consisting of men and women who needed to lose weight for medical reasons. For these individuals, getting the weight off was a matter of life and death. A number of them told me that they were stressed and at their wits end. They felt they didn’t eat any more than their thin friends ate; and added that they probably even ate less! Some commented that even walking past a bakery semmed to cause them to put on weight. They felt defeated and anxious.

At the hospital, I taught cognitive-behavioral techniques to help people suffering from obesity to reach their goals, but the most powerful advice I ever gave clients who were stressed or frustrated—whether the issue was weight loss or not—was this:

WRITE ABOUT IT.

Write The Facts. Write Your Thoughts. Write Your Emotions. Write Out Your Solutions.

I asked my clients to think of where were they when they ate or binge ate; what event precipitated the eating chain; what were they feeling and what where the thoughts and beliefs related to the incident? Most important, I asked them to write out what could they do next time to avoid that same pitfall. Now they ended up with their own personalized guidebook; a concrete plan based on their experience and past patterns that they could measure and modify to overcome their challenges.

Writing helped them come up with a roadmap showing exactly how to reach their goals.

But the usefulness of journaling goes beyond the challenges of weight loss.

Over 30 years ago researcher James Pennebaker discovered that when we write about our stressors and our emotional traumas, we could potentially improve both our physical and emotional well-being. Since his landmark study in the 80’s many researchers have replicated and extended his work and found “expressive writing”, can positively impact the emotional/and or physical states associated with (but not limited to):

  • The stress of caregiving
  • Would healing in older adults
  • Breast Cancer Survivors
  • People afflicted with HIV
  • Men diagnosed with prostate cancer
  • Veterans readjusting to civilian life
  • Mood disorders
  • Pre-adolescent peer problems
  • Problems in romantic relationships
  • Alcohol intervention
  • Patients dealing with colorectal cancer
  • …And some research even shows a strengthening of the immune system after starting a journaling routine, as measured by certain bio-physiological markers as well as a decrease in number of visits to the health practitioner.

Freud believed that telling someone (a friend, a therapist, etc.) about our troubles is healing because of its cathartic effect. The same is probably true of what researchers call “expressive writing.” However, simply letting out your feelings on paper is not necessarily going to improve how you feel. Sitting down and writing one time and then never opening your journal again is probably not going to help either.

Here IS how to keep a “therapeutic journal” as a self-help tool that may help you deal with the stressors, challenges, and traumas that many of us baby boomers face. Such as:

  • Taking care of an aging parent or sick spouse
  • Putting your life together after the death of a spouse or other family member
  • Feeling stressed or depressed over current events
  • Being estranged from a loved one
  • Facing a work crisis or turning point
  • Coping with an illness or recent diagnosis
  • Worrying about finances
  • Losing a beloved pet
  • Being unable to let go of a past trauma

THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF EXPRESSIVE WRITING:

  1. Purchase a regular spiral notebook, or if you want to splurge, a nicely bound blank journal, to make your writing sessions special.
  2. Work on one issue at a time, but do it as follows:
    1. Write the facts about the situation
    2. Write about your emotions, primarily POSITIVE emotions of how you might achieve personal growth as a result of this experience.
    3. Write about solutions or resolutions.   This will help you to achieve a sense of control (as opposed to the world being an uncontrollable and uncertain place to be), and increase your self-efficacy (the belief that you can influence what happens to you, and/or how you react to what happens.
  3. Write regularly for sustained well-being. They can be brief 10-15 minute sessions every other day, or even 3x/week, but don’t put down your journal for months at a time if you want it to impact the quality of your life. If you set a regular time schedule for writing, it will become automatic, like brushing your teeth. You will even begin to look forward to it.

Remember, the goal of the therapeutic journal is not to ruminate on your negative emotions and re-traumatize yourself, but instead to find your way back to inner peace and well-being.

Do you journal? Has writing out your feelings and thoughts gotten your through some difficult situations? I’d love you to share your ideas in the comments section below!

And as always, feel free to forward this article (citing the original source) to anyone who you feel might benefit from it.

References:

Pennebaker, J.W. & Beall, S.K (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Vol 95 (3). 274-281.

Ulrich, P..M, & Lutgendorf, S.K, (2002). Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. The Society of Behavioral Medicine. Vol 24 (3).

 

© Raeleen Mautner, LLC 2018

The Ultimate Happiness Formula (Kindness + Novelty)

In a large hospital setting, a young outpatient stopped me in the corridor the other day and asked if I could tell him how to find the EXIT that led to the parking lot where his car was parked. Without thinking twice I said “Sure, let me walk you there.”

He looked at me like he hadn’t heard correctly. “But you were going in the opposite direction” he remarked, “I don’t want to inconvenience you. You can just point me towards the next corridor and I will try to follow the signs.”

“Come on,” I said, smiling, doing a 180-degree turn. “I could use the extra exercise!”

The young gentleman had a knee injury so we had to walk slowly. “I’m really sorry this is taking up so much of your time,” he said as he carefully coordinated his cane with his steps. “Someone asked me if I wanted a wheelchair, but actually, this exercise is good for me, too.”

By the time we made it through 4 corridors to the EXIT, this brave young veteran had relayed the story of his injury, told me about his new car, the joy he took in being a new Dad and professed he was looking forward to the springtime thaw so he could garden again. When we got to the door I walked him out further to the ramp so he could hold on and make a gradual descent into the parking lot.

“ Gee, I don’t know how to thank you,” he said. “Talking to you really made my day.”

And he was off.

I had never really reflected on how a simple good deed could have such a powerful effect on the person you help. But the truth is, volunteering to help someone else has an even more important effect on the do-er of the kind act.

I knew that various studies in my field of psychology have positively correlated performing kind acts (or what we call “prosocial behaviors”) with enhanced life satisfaction (i.e. happiness). This holds true for all ages. Kindness makes us feel good about ourselves in addition to bettering someone else’s situation. What a win-win!

Back in the 80’s the buzz phrase “random acts of kindness”, implied that whenever it popped into our heads, we should do something kind for someone else. I would like to propose something different: PLANNED acts of kindness; not only because we can’t always depend on our head Muse to give us a hint, but because varying the kinds of good deeds we do has a more lasting impact on our personal happiness.

One study showed that participants who were asked to perform 5 kind acts in one day had a larger increase in happiness than those who performed 5 kind acts over the course of one week.

How could this be?

Adaptation

It is like walking into someone’s kitchen when they are sautéing onions: You are overpowered with the aroma initially, but after a few minutes, you hardly know it is there. That is sensory adaptation, but the same thing happens with other systems of the human body and brain. We adapt to what becomes routine, and it has less of an impact on us.

Enter the powerful effect of NOVELTY (or newness). To the participants who performed the 5 acts of kindness in one day, their actions were new, or novel, therefore the kind acts hadn’t become “old hat” routine, as it had with those who were asked to perform the kind acts every day.

Does this mean that:

  1. We should do kind acts less frequently so they don’t lose their effect?, or
  2. Should we plan to do DIFFERENT kind acts more frequently as a way to achieve long-lasting happiness?

THE ANSWER IS “B”

Let me explain:

Researchers randomly assigned participants ages 18-60 into three groups. They were asked to do one of three things: a) perform kind acts for 10 days; b) perform new (novel) acts for 10 days; or c) perform no acts and just go about their normal business (control group) for ten days. What they found was that BOTH of the experimental groups experienced a significant increase in life satisfaction as compared with the control condition, which did not.

Given that both acts of kindness, AND doing new things can be a ticket to greater happiness, combining these two concepts can be an unbeatable formula for making you—and the world around you—a happier, brighter place.

Here’s how to get started on your own kindness-to-happiness project:

Grab a pencil and paper when you get a few moments and start a KINDNESS list. Jot down as many ways to help someone else as you can think of. No numbers on the list, because you will add to it every day as you come up with additional ways to practice kindness. The acts could be big or small. Try to recall some of the nice things you have done for others in the past, or things other people have done for you, and add those acts to the list. Then glance at this list each day. And get out there and do something kind and new every day to put a smile on someone’s face.

Examples of Kindness Acts:

  • Show (not tell) someone how to get to an exit when they are lost
  • Bring a meal or a tray of fruit to a sick friend
  • Order a friend a book on Amazon that you think they’d love
  • Pay the next car’s bill at the Donut Drive-in
  • Offer your store coupons or coins to the person behind you
  • Send someone the announcement of an event or conference they might like
  • Shovel a older neighbor’s driveway when it snows
  • Help someone on with their coat when you see them struggling
  • Buy a sandwich and give it to the homeless person standing out front
  • Listen, when you see someone needs to talk something out
  • Smile and say GOOD-MORNING, instead of keeping your eyes glued to your smart phone.

In a world where self-preoccupation is commonplace, YOU can be a unique light that shines kindness all around you. And you’ll be a whole lot happier for doing it, too.

Would you share YOUR ideas for acts of kindness with my readers—so we can all add them to our list, too?  I’d love to hear your stories!

Thank you for taking the time to read this article, and especially for those of you who “like”, “share” on your social media, and subscribe to my email list. Mille grazie!

References:

Buchanan, K.E., & Bardi, A. (2010). Replications and refinements: Acts of kindness and acts of novelty affect life satisfaction. The Journal of Social Psychology 150(3), 235-237

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K.M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology (9) 111-131

©Raeleen Mautner, LLC

The Henny Youngman Effect—And YOU

Photo courtesy Wikipedia
  • A man goes to a psychiatrist. “Nobody listens to me!” The doctor says, “Next!”
  • The Doctor says, “You’ll live to be 60!” “I AM 60!” “See, what did I tell you?”
  • The doctor says to the patient, “Take your clothes off and stick your tongue out the window”. “What will that do?” asks the patient. The doctor says, “I’m mad at my neighbor!”

I don’t know about you, but Henny Youngman jokes still crack me up every time. They are so simple and goofy, that for a few moments all the problems of the world slip away as I lose myself in a good belly laugh. But that is not where it ends. The effect of laughter lasts far beyond the last line of the joke. Yes, humor does give us a mood lift, but did you also know that laughing has an influence on your physical wellbeing too?

So how is laughter important to aging happy?

Well, if you have ever suffered from the chronic pain that affects so many of us later in life (and it is estimated that over 50% of older adults deal with some kind of ongoing pain), this might interest you:

Researchers conducted an experiment with two groups of nursing home patients, a population that usually suffers a higher rate of chronic pain than do older adults living in the community. One group (the experimental group) was exposed to an 8-week humor therapy program and was compared to the “control” group, who did not receive the intervention. When the program came to an end the findings were significant. Those who had the “humor training” reported substantial decreases in pain, diminished sense of loneliness, and significant increases in happiness and life satisfaction. No such changes were reported amongst the control group (by the way, this group was then offered the humor therapy group in accordance with good research ethics).

The researchers offered several suggestions to increase humor in the lives of an older population, but one of them especially piqued my curiosity, because I had never thought of it before.

We all know that increasing humor in our daily lives, makes us feel good, and there are many ways to do this:

  • Rent a funny movie at the end of the day
  • Watch your favorite comedy TV show
  • Hang out with a friend who always makes you laugh
  • Put on some music and dance or sing with abandon
  • Play with your grandchildren or pets
  • Watch old clips of your favorite comedians on YouTube

The researchers found, that despite patients’ physical conditions, making a “Happy Folder” can empower them to manage their symptoms. They don’t go into detail about what goes into a Happy Folder, but I would think anything that makes you laugh or smile when you re-read your entries.

  • Funny stories that happened to you or someone else you know
  • Jokes (like the Henny Youngman one-liners he was famous for)
  • Philosophical musings about the absurdity of something you’ve observed or experienced.

The possibilities are endless! I say we all start our own Happy Journal and see what happens. If you have an entry that you’d like to share, do comment below. At any rate, please “like” and share this post with your friends, or with anyone who needs a laugh today. So happy to have you on board!

Reference: Tse, Mimi M., et. al. (2010) Humor Therapy: Relieving Chronic Pain and Enhancing Happiness for Older Adults. Journal of Aging Research.

© Raeleen Mautner, Ph.D. 2018

The Secret to Getting More Resilient With Time

If you don’t care whether or not you are able to get back up on your feet in the aftermath of life’s blows, then maybe you don’t need to read this article. But the majority of us know that life is a lot happier when we deal with our challenges, then put them behind and turn our focus to what is good about our life NOW.

If you’ve survived past the half-century mark, my guess is that you are no stranger to emotional and physical setbacks. The traumas we go through, as older human beings can make us feel defeated. You may be dealing with weight issues, relationship changes, loss of a loved one, temporary or progressive disease—you name it, we’ve been through it.  It seems we are required to pay a price for the gift of staying on our earthly journey; a journey, which those who are no longer here, would love to still be part of. But that is not to say our challenges are always easy. In fact, many are traumatic. Sure, we can wallow in self-pity and defeat. We can tell our story over and over again and with each telling, re-traumatize ourselves by re-living it. Or we can learn how to build our emotional strength so that we can experience more happiness overall, despite the down times.

One way to do that is what social scientist Albert Bandura called “self-efficacy”. Self-efficacy pertains to how confident you in your capability of affecting the outcome of your challenges. In other words, if you feel confident you can “get through” what ever you are going through, it will affect how motivated you are to succeed, how persistent you are in the face of difficulty, and how resilient you are in the face of setbacks. A strong sense of self-efficacy will increase your confidence, your level of happiness, your sense of accomplishment—and above all, it will help you to be more resilient in the face of these darn age-related challenges. In my opinion self-efficacy is one of the keys to aging happy, as we grow older.

Okay, so how to we acquire this resilience skill?

Lucky for us, Dr. Bandura gave us four ways to build self-efficacy:

  1. Your Mastery Experiences. That means look back on the difficulties you have faced and successfully dealt with in the past. Remind yourself of these and this will give you the confidence to know you can succeed at the challenge at hand.
  2. Vicarious experiences of “social models”. Consider people who know who have faced similar crises, and have come through them stronger than ever. If you don’t know any personally, read inspiring stories of people who have made meaning and derived courage from challenges just like yours.
  3. Social Persuasion. It’s amazing what we can do when we have the right people around us. As it turns out, when the people we surround ourselves with encourage us, and tell us they know we can do it, this revs up our motivation level and we tend to live up to their belief in us.
  4. Keep your Mood Positive. Interpret your emotional and physical signals as energizing, not debilitating, when you face a challenge. Imaging your inner resources gathered together to help you overcome and resolve what you are facing and then take a moment to acknowledge how well you are doing.

If you have a moment I would love it if you would “like” or share this article and also comment below. Let me know what your biggest age-related challenges are, so and what you’d like to read about in future articles. Thank you in advance, and may you continue to grow in happiness!

 

Reference:

Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998).

 

 

© Raeleen Mautner 2018