As one goes up – the other comes down

brain heart seesawKindness and stress are like two people on a seesaw. As one side goes up, the other comes down.

As we practice more kindness in our lives, stress tends to come down. Less kindness, on the other hand, often correlates with more stress.

That’s certainly what research is showing.

In a study led by Emily Ansell, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, the behaviour habits and stress levels of 77 people were recorded over a 14-day period.

The way it worked was that each person had to fill out an online assessment every day where they would record any acts of kindness that they did as well as any stressful life events.

Ansell found that kindness and stress were polar opposites. The more kindness the participants reported on any one day, the less stress they experienced.

Even if they reported a lot of stressful events on a day, if they also did lots of kindnesses on that day then their stress levels were comparatively low.

It wasn’t that being kind prevented stressful events from happening. No, not at all. It was that kindness buffered the effects of stressful events. It cancelled out much of the negative emotion of stressful events. Life happens, but kindness colours our experience of it.

The kindnesses each person did didn’t have to be big either. We sometimes get the idea that only big things qualify as kind acts. In fact, in the study, many people reported acts like holding open a door for someone, paying someone a compliment, or even helping someone with their homework.

In other blogs, I’ve described how oxytocin is a ‘molecule of kindness’ in that just as we have stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin, which are produced in response to feelings brought about by stress, so oxytocin is produced in response to feelings of connection that arise through acts of kindness.

Lots of stress can have a damaging effect on our arteries and that’s why stress is associated with high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, even heart attack and stroke. Oxytocin, on the other hand, is ‘cardioprotective’. It protects the heart and arteries. It lowers blood pressure and is protective towards heart attack and stroke.

So kindness goes beyond improving mental and emotional health by buffering stress. It can improve cardiovascular health too.

Nowadays there is a lot of focus on mindfulness meditation for helping people to reduce stress in their lives. I am an advocate of that and have indeed written lots on the beneficial effects of meditation. I meditate every day. But meditation isn’t the only way to reduce stress. Being kind reduces stress too and has additional direct cardiovascular benefits as well.

I’d like to see kindness increasing more in our societies, in our businesses, in the teachings in our schools, and even in the words and behaviours of our politicians and leaders. Kindness makes better societies. It creates a better world. And without doubt, it makes us healthier.

I’d like to see businesses actively encouraging their staff to be helpful to each other and to go that extra half mile for their customers. I’d like to see more business focused more on the contribution that they make to society than on their bottom line. I’d like to see politicians promote kindness in the policies they create, vote for and endorse, in the language they use and in the way that they speak to and treat each other.

I was warmed recently when I gave a talk at my niece’s school to a class of 8-year-olds. I spoke about kindness. The teacher then encouraged the entire class to be kind to each other. She even decided that the student who helped others the most over the next few days would get a copy of my book. OK, they might not totally understand the book as they’re only 8, but it was the gesture from the teacher that mattered most.

I learned that day that some of the teachers in the school regularly talk about kindness with the children and discus the importance of it in life.

Kindness doesn’t need to cost anything. A smile. A compliment. Sitting with someone in school who feels alone. A hug. Holding a door. Looking after the kids. A friendly word. An offer of help or support. A well-timed phone call …

All kindnesses matter!

References
References to all studies can be found in, ‘The 5 Side Effects of Kindness’, by David R Hamilton PhD (February, 2017). Amazon.co.uk  Amazon.com  Amazon.ca  Amazon.com.au

Pay It Forward

Heart Social NetworkI love the concept of Pay it Forward. I first heard about it from the film of that name, starring a young Haley Joel Osment. Based on the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, the story follows a young boy whose idea to pay acts of kindness forward set in motion an extraordinary chain of events that led to hundreds of people being on the receiving end of kind acts.

The basic premise of Pay It Forward is that we repay kindness forwards to other people rather than in return to the person who helped us. So instead of ‘pay it back’ we ‘pay it forward’. It sets in motion a ripple- or domino-effect. The forces that keep it going are elevation and gratitude.

Elevation has been defined by psychologist Jonathan Haidt (pronounced Height) as a state of feeling inspired, moved, or uplifted through receiving kindness or witnessing an act of kindness or moral beauty. It’s the warm feeling we get in the heart. Many studies show that once a person feels elevated they tend to be more helpful to others, especially if they’ve just received kindness themselves.

My friend, Lesley, recently asked me to sign a few copies of my new book, ‘The 5 Side Effects of Kindness’ with the line, “To whoever Lesley gives this book to.” She likes to gift books to people. The idea has now caught on.

I happened to mention it in a few recent talks and it inspired some people to ask for their book to be inscribed in the same way. Now, dozens of people have received a signed book with that message. The elevation people feel after hearing what Lesley did has created a domino effect.

At my book launch recently, after I’d talked about the Pay It Forward concept, a lady who purchased a book and asked me to sign it then paid for a book for the next person in the book-signing queue. You may have heard of this kind of thing in coffee shops where someone pays for the next person’s coffee, or at motorway tolls where a person pays for the toll of the person behind them, each setting in motion a little ripple of kindness.

And the ripple of kindness is exactly what happened at my book launch. The person who learned that their book had just been paid for, in turn, chose to pay for the book of the person behind her. As that person approached and learned they had received some kindness, she also paid it forward and bought a book for the next person in line. This went on for a total of 9 people before ending at an elderly gentleman who was really quite overcome with emotion at learning of the pay-it-forward chain that presented him with a free book. He was visibly moved.

The National Kidney Registry in the USA generates a lot a Pay It Forward goodwill. Following the struggle to find a kidney donor who was a match for their daughter, the registry was set up by Jan and Garet Hil to help spare other families the same stress, ultimately speeding up the time it takes for donor matches to be found. It has started numerous kidney donor-chains.

A kidney donor chain is where a family member or friend of someone who receives a kidney donates one of theirs to someone else. They wanted to donate a kidney to their loved one but they weren’t a match so they pledged to donate theirs in a ‘Pay It Forward’ fashion to someone who is a match. A loved one of the recipient of their kidney does the same, and so on.

One of the world’s longest Pay It Forward-style Kidney Donor Chains involved 34 consecutive kidney transplants involving 26 different hospitals. It began in December 2014 with Kathy Hart, an attorney from Minneapolis who heard her yoga instructor’s son needed a kidney, but not being a match she decided to sign up to the registry and donate one of her kidneys to someone else. It ended on 26th March 2015 with 77-year-old Mitzi Neyens of Wausau, Wisconsin. That’s 34 people’s lives saved by 34 consecutive incredible acts of kindness, done in a Pay It Forward fashion, all from a single act of kindness.

I really love that kindness sets domino effects in motion. It’s a heart-warming thought that so many people have so much goodwill in their hearts that they want to do kind things for others.

We hear so much negative news from TV and read about the same things online and in newspapers. I like to think that there’s much more kindness in the world than that. For every unkindness I see around me, I see a hundred time more kindness. I see a hundred times more smiles, good will gestures, supportive words, friendly acts, helpfulness.

I picked up a hire car a half hour or so ago because I’m driving to give a talk this evening. It’s heavy snow where I am right now in central Scotland. After asking where I was driving to, Craig, one of the managers at Arnold Clark Rentals in Stirling, went online and looked at live traffic cameras all over the region and worked out a route for me that would avoid the heaviest of the snow. He didn’t need to do that. He was simply being kind, and I am extremely grateful for it.

So take every opportunity to be kind that life presents to you. And it will. Kindness really does matter.

And who knows, maybe your kindnesses will topple a few dominos.

Born to be kind

family treeMy religion is KindnessHH The Dalai Lama

You’ve probably heard of ‘The Selfish Gene’. Many have mistakenly taken this to mean than humans are naturally selfish.

That’s not what the term ‘selfish gene’ refers to. Selfish gene really refers to the process of evolution where genes are copied and passed onto the next generation.

Rather than being selfish, humans are actually born kind.

We have kindness genes. The most prominent of these is the gene for oxytocin, a little hormone associated with reproduction, breast feeding and social behaviour. It is also affectionately known as the love hormone, cuddle chemical, and even a molecule of kindness. The reasons for these more affectionate names is because oxytocin makes us love more, cuddle more, and it makes us kind. It is one of our oldest genes, at around 500 million years young.

What does this tell us? It tells us that the gene is highly important otherwise it will have phased out a long time ago. It causes mothers to love and care for their children, thus ensuring that they grow up and are able to reproduce themselves, thus carrying on the human species. It also causes us to help each other, to work together for a common good. The oxytocin gene truly is a kindness gene.

So rather than being selfish, kindness is genetically ‘wired’ in us. Our kind nature is deeply entrenched in us. It is ancient.

So what about selfishness and all of the unkind things we hear about and experience? These things don’t mean we’re not kind, only that life happens. How a person behaves is often a product of learning, or their circumstances or even their early background in life.

A person whose life is comfortable might find it easy to be kind to others partly because life is uncomplicated by stress. Someone else who is having a really difficult time might out of necessity be more focused on survival or just getting through the current phase of their life. At times they might make decisions based on their own immediate needs rather than those of someone else. Person 1 might be regarded as kind and person 2 more selfish. Yet given the same set of stress-less circumstances they will both most likely be kind.

The point is that deviations away from kind behaviour are not necessarily because of a selfish nature but because of circumstances. Although some people undoubtedly do have a more selfish nature.

It’s difficult to argue with that. But how much of this is their true nature and how much is a product of learning and experience? I don’t have the answer to that as each of us is unique. But undoubtedly there is a full spectrum of natural kindness.

Each gene comes in slightly different versions. If you imagine the oxytocin gene to be coloured pink then we’d find that it comes in many different shades of pink, from light pink all the way to a dark pink that is almost red. Some have the lighter shade, some the darker. If we think of the gene’s lightness of colour as generally associated with tendency to be kind, then we would find that some people are more naturally kind than others and therefore some people are more naturally selfish than others.

But the point is that we ALL have the oxytocin gene. There is no one alive who doesn’t have it. If a person didn’t have an oxytocin gene they wouldn’t be alive, which I suppose is quite an odd thing to say but I think you get my point. Oxytocin plays a crucial role not just in reproduction but throughout the cardiovascular system, the immune system, the digestive system, the process of making stem cells into muscle cells, heart cells, even skin cells. Without oxytocin, we quite simply would not be here. Now read this another way – without kindness, we quite simply would not be here.

The 1976 book, ‘The Selfish Gene’, written by Richard Dawkins wasn’t about humans being selfish. I think many have generally misunderstood its title. In some ways, the selfish gene has actually produced a kind species. Evolution has wired in us the tendency to be kind.

It is kindness, not conflict or exclusion, that is the answer to society’s problems. Where there is misunderstanding, we need empathy. Where there is hurt and suffering, we need compassion. Where the opportunities present themselves, we need to be kind. We are wired to solve our problems through empathy, understanding, dialogue, sharing, and finding common ground.

Kindness elevates the human spirit. Kindness opens the heart and mind and helps us see the same things in new ways. That’s it’s power.

If you’re ever in doubt about which way to turn, about what to do, about what choice to make, choose kindness. It is your nature, after all.

 

Further reading

You might like to read about the Born This Way Foundation, which is all about helping to create a kinder, more compassionate world. They have declared 2017 to be A Year of Kindness.

The Most Attractive Quality

David_Hamilton_Kindness_Meme_2aWe usually think of ‘attractive’ in the same sentence as physical appearance. But deep down, what we really find most attractive is kindness. Think about it.

A study of over 10,000 people found this. Quizzed about what they most wanted in a potential long-term mate, kindness was the No.1 choice. It came above good looks and good financial prospects in both males and females.

This might come as initially surprising to some people. That’s partly because we typically imagine what other people would pick – we assume that others would be considering our appearance. But when you really think about it yourself, most of us pick ‘a kind person’, ‘a kind heart’, or some other version of kindness.

Psychologist, John Gottman, is famous for being able to predict with over 90% success which couples will still be together years later, simply by studying how they interact with each other for a short time.

In some of his research, he identified what he called ‘bids’, like when one person invites their partner to “Come and see this!” Bids are basically bids for connection.

He then identified whether the partner would ‘turn towards’, where they would respond attentively to their partner’s ‘bid’ – an act of kindness – or ‘turn away’, where they basically showed little interest, perhaps by murmuring, ‘yes … nice’ then returning to the TV or looking at their phone, or even responding with contempt.

Examining 130 newlywed couples going about their day, he followed up on them 6 years later. He discovered that of those who ‘turned towards’ their partner, 87% of them were still together, but of those who typically ‘turned away’, only 33% of them were still together after this time.

Using these kinds of observations, you can appreciate why some psychologists can predict the likelihood of a relationship standing the test of time by simply watching couples interacting with one another for a short time. Kindness is a reliable indicator of relationship longevity.

Many other pieces of research show the same kind of overall phenomenon. Kindness is key in any kind of relationship, from our closest relationships, through friendships, with neighbours, and even with work colleagues.

It’s a no brainer, really. Do you prefer to hang out with people who show you kindness or contempt? It’s obvious … but I feel it’s important to remember this because it’s so easy to get caught up with the trials and tribulations of life, and even as the political landscape in the world shifts from time to time. Sometimes … we forget that kindness is so damn important.

It’s the fabric that holds society together. It holds relationships together.

Of course, love is the magic ingredient in an intimate relationship. But kindness is that love expressed in words and deed. Kindness is the thread of the fabric because there are so many little moments in any day where kindness can be shown, so many little stitches that can be made, some so small and seemingly insignificant, but so vitally important.

So I invite you to look out for bids and sew some stitches of kindness into the fabric of life where you can.

 

References

5 side effects jacket imageAll References can be found in ‘The 5 Side Effects of Kindness‘, David R Hamilton PhD.

Molecules of Kindness

5 side effects jacket imageNo act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” Aesop

A molecule is a useful collection of atoms. I used to be an organic chemist so I made molecules every day. Even if you don’t know exactly what a molecule is, I’ll bet you’re familiar with many popular ones.

Serotonin is a molecule that’s associated with positive mood. Ascorbic acid is a molecule otherwise known as Vitamin C. There’s caffeine that you find in coffee, morphine that people receive for pain, threobromine in chocolate.  You may even have heard of lycopene that we get in tomatoes or allicin from garlic, which is responsible for its antibiotic effects. Sildenafil is a molecule more commonly known as Viagra.

We produce many molecules in the body through our behaviour. Stress, for example, produces cortisol. Cortisol can therefore be said to be a ‘molecule of stress’. Hunger produces grehlin, a molecule that readies the body for eating. Grehlin is known as the ‘hunger hormone’ (a hormone is another name for a particular type of molecule).

There are two ‘molecules of kindness’; that is, molecules that are produced in the body when we’re kind.

The first is oxytocin and the second is nitric oxide.

You may have heard of oxytocin. People call it the ‘love hormone’ or ‘cuddle chemical’ because it’s readily produced in the body when we feel love or when we hug a person or an animal. We produce oxytocin basically any time we’re being genuinely kind.

And I say genuinely for a reason. This is because genuine kindness creates a warm feeling inside and it’s the warm feeling that produces the oxytocin. If it’s not genuine, there’s no oxytocin. It’s like nature’s catch-22. So, what do oxytocin and nitric oxide do?

Studies of cells from our arteries show that oxytocin basically protects the cells from oxidation (or oxidative stress, as scientists prefer to call it) and inflammation. Oxidative stress and inflammation play a big role in heart disease. When there’s not a lot of oxytocin around, there’s typically more oxidative stress and inflammation, but once oxytocin arrives in our arteries the levels come way down. Basically, oxytocin protects the heart. It’s known as a ‘cardio-protective’ molecule. Since we produce it when we’re kind, kindness can also be said to be cardio-protective.

I remember, as a child, a saying among some of the older people in our street was that ‘if you live from the heart, it’s good for the heart’. They were pretty much on the money with that!

Once oxytocin is in our arteries, which happens when we’re being kind, it causes nitric oxide to be produced. Nitric oxide is a bit of a miracle molecule – that’s according to Dr Louis Ignarro, who received the Nobel Prize for his work on it. Nitric oxide helps regulate blood pressure by altering the texture of our arterial walls. If blood pressure is high, nitric oxide makes the arteries softer and this causes them to widen (dilate) and blood pressure comes down. If blood pressure is low, on the other hand, then nitric oxide toughens up the arteries to increase the pressure.

Nitric oxide also helps circulation and plays a very important role in maintaining blood flow all around the body, including the brain. It also helps maintain an optimum balance of HDL (good) and LDL (bad) cholesterol. It may be a miracle molecule but an even greater miracle is that we produce it by being kind.

Thus, kindness is very good for the heart because it produces oxytocin and nitric oxide, two molecules of kindness, and they both act on the heart and arteries to keep them healthy.

References

5 side effects jacket imageReferences and more information can be found in my new book, (The 5 Side Effects of Kindness), (Feb 2017). Amazon UK  Amazon.com  Amazon.ca  Amazon.com.au

The Science of High Performance in Sport

tennis player abstract

Whether you’re playing tennis, golf or even running the 100 metres, there are certain things you can do that can help you to achieve high performance.

Here’s 7 of the most important ones:

Practice

How good do you want to be? One of the most important things to know is that practice lays down neural pathways in the brain. Whether it’s a cross-court winner in tennis, an approach shot at golf or even the start in a 100 metres sprint, practice is key to laying down these pathways that make you improve at these movements.

Practice creates habits in the brain and therefore the muscles, which not only helps you improve but also means that your body will know what to do in those all-important moments when you only have a split second to think.

Mental practice

Almost every elite athlete does mental practice. Neuroscience research shows that the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. In one piece of research, the brains of volunteers carrying out repetitive movements over 5 days were compared with volunteers imagining the same movements. Amazingly, the new brain pathways were identical in both groups.

So, to harness this fact, visualise yourself doing your sport, but see yourself doing everything just right. Due to the feedback between the brain and the muscles, this ensures that your muscles also learn to work in the way you’re imagining.

You can also use mental practice to play shots you find especially difficult, thus speeding up the learning on the court, green, or track. One important thing to keep in mind with mental practice is that you’re not just necessarily imagining the winning result, but the physical movements you’re doing in creating that result.

Repetition is key

The 3 rules of physical and mental practice are: Repetition! Repetition! Repetition!

High performance requires well defined neural pathways in the brain that connect with the muscles. The only way to build such neural pathways is repetition of the movements. And remember, the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. Use mental practice as well as physical practice.

In one-to-one competitive sports, if someone repeatedly beats you with the same shot or manoeuvre, practice countering it repetitively – both on the field and in your mental practice. Repetition wires neural pathways and thus habits into the brain.

Doing it once or twice is unlikely to get your breakthrough, but doing it a few hundred times might make a real difference. Many people don’t get the breakthroughs they seek because they don’t realise how much repetition is required. It’s all about your mind and body learning what to do, and this occurs through repetitively laying down neural pathways in the brain.

Focus

Stay focused, especially at the higher levels of your sport. Loss of focus for even a moment can turn a game of tennis, leave you 2 or 3 shots to catch up in golf or mean the difference between a gold medal and fourth in a race. Focus is as much a key to building a habit of winning as is training your body.

A simple focus exercise when practicing is to give every shot your 100% attention. Keep your eye on the ball at all times. This is not just something you do in competition, but essential in practice so that mental focus becomes a habit.

Mindfulness practice also helps because it develops the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the front part of the brain, above your eyes, that controls concentration.

Relax

If a tennis ball is flying at you at over 200kph, tension will only slow your reaction time. Similarly, tension before an important golf shot will chop away some smoothness from the shot, introducing an error of a few to several metres. Tension in a race tightens muscles and slows speed of movement.

Practice being highly alert and focused, yet relaxed at the same time. Many people think these are things you do at different times – alert one moment and relaxed in another – but it is important that you learn to do them at the same time. Focused doesn’t mean grimacing and holding your eyes and muscles rigid.

Relaxing helps your trained neural pathways take over. If you’ve practiced enough then your wired habit should do the rest – i.e., your body knows what to do. A good tip is to practice conscious breaths several times a day in a variety of different conditions and contexts. It will help you stay relaxed, yet focused, regardless of what is happening around you.

Body language

How you hold and move your body affects your focus and how you feel. There’s what’s called a ‘bi-directional relationship’ between your brain and muscles. It’s why you smile when you’re happy and tense your muscles when you worry. People mostly think it just goes that one way – from the brain to the muscles – but it goes the other way too, from the muscles to the brain.

To harness this, practice holding and moving your body in a way that conveys self-belief and quiet confidence. Do it on the court, green or track, but also practice it all throughout the day as you go about your life. You’re looking to create a body language habit and wire it into the brain, and this requires repetition while you practice, compete, and throughout your daily life.

Will to win

A will to win can be that edge that makes the difference in the latter stages of any game, when one or two points or one or two centimetres make all the difference. A will to win helps maintain high focus but it also activates trained neural pathways that ensure that your body does what it needs to do to win.

Winning becomes a habit when you have a well-developed will to win.

 

About the author

david-headshotDr David Hamilton is author of 9 books, including ‘The 5 Side Effects of Kindness’, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, and ‘I Heart Me’. He is a former athletics coach and also a former scientist within the pharmaceutical industry. He left the latter to study the placebo effect and teach people how to harness the mind-body connection for health, wellness, and high performance in sport.

 

 

 

Placebo School logoCheck out my online course – Placebo School. It’s all about understanding and harnessing the mind-body connection.

Does a placebo work if you know it’s a placebo?

placebo boxThe answer to that question is Yes!

That’s according to new research led by Ted Kaptchuk, from the Program for Placebo Studies at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston.

It involved 97 patients who had chronic back pain. First, they were given a 15-minute explanation of the placebo effect and how it worked. Then they were randomised into two groups.

One group were asked to continue with their ‘treatment as usual’ while the other group were given a bottle labelled “Placebo Pills” and were instructed to take 2-a-day as well as their usual treatment.

Conventional logic would tell you that the placebos shouldn’t work. “Surely a placebo only works if you don’t know you’re getting it. That’s the whole point. It’s blind faith,” said someone at one of my talks on the mind-body connection. Here they were being told they would be taking placebos so there’s no blind faith. Yet the placebos worked, and not just a little bit.

Those who knowingly took their placebos reported significant reductions in maximum pain, minimum pain, and even their usual pain – 3 different assessments of pain severity that doctors use. They even reported a substantial drop in pain-related disability.

This is not to say that pain is a figment of the imagination. That is not true at all. Try saying that to someone who suffers from chronic pain. What actually happens is that the mind can produce its own natural pain killers and it is these natural ones that are responsible for the drop in pain.

This result is similar to a study of 80 IBS sufferers conducted by the same researchers. They were also given placebos but the key, again, was what they were told. They were told that the pills were:

“… made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.”

Result? The placebos worked. After taking their placebos, they rated their symptoms as moderately improved compared with people who didn’t receive any placebos, who reported only a slight change.

How? In both these studies, the key was knowing that there is such a thing as a mind-body connection, that the mind exerts real, physical, measureable, effects on the brain and throughout the body.

The mind-body connection is obvious when you think about it. What happens to males when they imagine a sexual fantasy? It can be quite obvious, if you know what I mean. The mind actually produces a substance called nitric oxide in certain blood vessels, which causes an increase in blood flow there. In fact, Viagra works by stimulating an enzyme to make nitric oxide.

To offer a different example, when you think of something that worries or stresses you, you increase adrenalin in your body. Again, your mind alters your biology.

Ultimately, it was through the mind-body connection that the above studies worked. Once the patients had an explanation of how the placebo effect works – that the mind does affect the body – it planted the knowledge in their minds that their thinking and what they believe would impact their biology. Then the act of taking the placebo triggered the expectation that it could or would help.

Add to that the habitual action of taking a pill and popping it in your mouth, which activates the subconscious, conditioned, expectation of a result, and there you have it. A placebo can work even if you know it’s a placebo!

 

Check out my upcoming ‘Mind & Emotions Boost Event

How a child with Chickenpox stopped itching

teddy bearAs you know, I’m a big fan of visualisation.

As I’ve explained before, in many ways the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. As we imagine something, to the brain, what we imagine is actually happening.

In previous blogs I’ve shared scientific evidence of how people have altered physical strength through visualisation, how visualisation can help weight loss, lots on the power of placebos, as well as how visualisation is used to help people heal from illness.

During a workshop I taught last weekend on this subject, a woman shared an amazing technique that her little 3-year-old daughter used to avoid scratching her face when she had chickenpox. It is such an amazing strategy that I just had to share it with you.

Her child’s face was so itchy, the woman told me. Having learned about visualisation from my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, she explained, she was suddenly struck with an idea.

She asked her daughter to go find a teddy bear whose face tickled as much as hers. When the little girl returned with a teddy, her mother told her that she should scratch teddy every time her face became itchy and that it would help stop her own itch.

And that’s exactly what she did.

Amazingly, the itch faded on her own face and she didn’t scratch her face once.

It reminds me of how mirror boxes can be used to help people who have lost a limb to deal with phantom limb pain and itches. Say the person had lost their right arm. A mirror box can be placed on the table and the person would lay their left hand down. The mirror then shows a reflection that looks like the person has both a left and right arm.

And that’s what the brain processes. The mirror box tricks the brain into acting as if the person does have a right arm, enabling them to then scratch it. In other words, scratching the left hand, now reflected in the mirror as a right hand, can relieve a phantom itch in the right.

These kinds of techniques work because when you focus on any area of the body, the corresponding region of the brain is activated. Focus on a finger, for example, and the finger region of the brain is activated.

It’s likely, given the teddy-chickenpox example, that even a representation of a body part can have the same effect. In other words, something that we decide represents a part of the body might activate the brain in the same way.

This is how what I call ‘symbolic visualisations’ work. A gentleman who had suffered terrible depression once shared his symbolic visualisation with me. He said he felt broken, so he symbolised his broken feeling as broken shards of a mirror.

In his mind’s eye, he then gathered up the shards, heated them in a cauldron to melt them, and then poured them into a new mould. In effect, he took his brokenness and made himself whole again.

A month or so of daily visualisation like this was a huge tonic for him and brought him out of depression.

He represented the mirror as his feelings, just as the little girl represented the teddy’s face as her own face.

How to use visualisation to boost your self-love

happy-and-confident_smallLots of people use visualisation. The most popular way is to visualise what you want. Some people picture their ideal house, their ideal car, or a perfect partner who ticks all the boxes, for instance.

The idea with this kind of visualisation is to picture what you want, the end result. It’s also useful to picture yourself in the visualisation; living in the house, driving the car, or with the perfect partner.

There’s a different kind of visualisation you can do for self-love, though. It’s centred on the fact that your muscles are in constant communication with your brain.

Why is that important?

Before I get into that, I’d first like to say what I mean by self-love. You can think ‘self-esteem’ instead of self-love if you prefer that term. The main reason I use the term self-love rather than self-esteem is that many people get their self-esteem from external sources, from their seeming successes in life and from other people’s positive opinions of them. But it’s not a stable self-esteem because failure, or a change in people’s opinions, give it a serious shake.

I think of self-love, on the other hand, as an inner sense of worthiness and value. It’s more of an inner self-esteem. It’s mostly independent of successes, achievements and external perceptions of you. It is stable, because if seeming failure occurs or opinions seem to change, the inner perception of yourself is untouched.

OK, so let’s get back to why it’s important that your muscles are in constant communication with your brain.

When you’re lacking in self-love, it comes across in your body language and in your facial expressions. Not all the time, of course, but especially when you’re challenged. This happens because your muscles are connected to your brain. It’s the same reason that your muscles and face tense when you feel stressed, or that your body feels light and floppy when you’re in love, and that you smile when you’re happy. In real ways, you wear your feelings on your body.

But it goes the other way too. Just as your body responds to how you feel, you can use your body to create how you want to feel. Making adjustment to how you sit, stand, how you move, and to your facial muscles, quickly impacts your feelings. A consistent practice of adjusting how you hold and move your body, so that it says, “I love myself,” or “I am enough,” or something else along those lines, can impact your self-love by literally creating the wiring of self-love in the brain.

More than this, though, is that your brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. When you imagine moving your muscles, your brain processes it as if you actually are moving your muscles. Elite athletes and rehabilitation specialists use this fact all the time.

When you imagine holding and moving your body in way that says you have self-love, your brain processes it as if you do have self-love. The key difference between this and ‘classical’ visualisation (of the sort I mentioned at the beginning of this blog), is that you don’t put all your focus on an end result. Instead, you visualise the posture and movement of your body.

As you do this consistently, your brain wires in the habit of holding and moving your body in that way. As this happens, you start to feel the feelings that go with this new body posture and these new ways of moving. With enough consistent practice, the feelings of “I love myself,” or “I am enough,” or something along these lines, becomes habit too.

So to get started, simply notice right now how you’re holding your body. Is your body tense or relaxed? Is your spine straight or slumped? How about your facial muscles? Are you smiling or frowning? Is your brow relaxed or furrowed? Then make some shifts.

Do this as often as you can remember to.

Watch what happens!

 

Want to check out ‘I Heart Me School’? Watch the video. Click here to find out more.

How to deflect negative emotion

faces of different women's emotionsHave you ever felt totally drained after spending time with certain people, whether at work or even in your personal life?

I think we’ve all had those times… when we feel we’re literally soaking up the negative emotions of certain people around us.

It’s called Emotional Contagion. Just as you can catch a cold by hanging out with someone who has one, so you can actually catch emotion too.

In the brain, we have an interconnected network of cells known as the Mirror Neuron System (MNS for short). It causes us to mirror the facial expressions, body movements, and gestures of others as they express their emotions. In the presence of someone expressing negative emotion, then, your MNS mirrors the movements of their facial muscles that are conveying those emotions.

The trouble is, your MNS stimulates your facial muscles in the same way as theirs (thus, ‘Mirror’), hence you frown when they frown, tense when they tense, even without realising it. This also causes you to mirror much of their emotional brain chemistry too (see graphic at end of blog). As a result, even though you tend not to notice, your facial muscles move like theirs and you swiftly begin to feel how they feel.

But herein lies the secret to deflecting unwanted emotion. The primary gateway for catching emotion is the face. That’s because we’ve evolved over hundreds of millions of years to look at a person’s face to understand them. So the key to deflecting negative emotion is to prevent the mirroring from taking place.

The trick is to interrupt the natural process of unconscious mirroring. It’s a simple 3-step process. Here’s what to do:

Step 1: Awareness.

The key is to simply notice that you’re catching negative emotion through emotional contagion. Only with awareness of what’s happening can you stop it.

Step 2: Move your facial muscles differently.

The MNS causes you to mirror their facial muscle movements, so simply do something else with your face. It helps to actually stretch your facial muscles, but of course that’s not always an option, especially if you’re at a meeting at work. But simply massaging the corrugator supercilli muscle (the one between your eyes) helps, as well as the orbicularis oculi (the one at the side of your eyes). Stretching your mouth wide open helps too. It’s all about interrupting the flow of negative emotional data from the facial muscles to the brain and sending different data to the brain instead.

Step 3: Adjust your posture.

Sit or stand up straight, straighten your back, and breathe comfortably from your diaphragm. This lets your brain know that you’re confident and in control. Your brain will adjust your biology to reflect this.

Step 4: Patience.

So long as you’re doing this, negative emotion will gradually be replaced with positive emotion. It can take a few minutes sometimes so just keep your attention on your face, your posture, and your breathing in the meantime.

Of course, we don’t just catch ‘t negative emotion. Emotional contagion works with positive emotion in the exact same way. It’s why you tend to feel good around people who are happy.

The graphic below, in fact, shows how emotional contagion works for catching happiness.

Oh, and just before I finish this blog, you don’t just catch emotion from others, you transmit emotion too. Other people catch what you’re feeling. So if you want to help some others to be happier, one of the best ways is therefore to work on your own happiness.

Then they will catch it from you. 🙂