Category Archives: Health

Laughter Is the Best Medicine

In my opinion, laughter really is the best medicine.  Like a steam bath, it opens up all your pores and lets the bad stuff roll out.  That’s why I use humor on the air – it’s a diagnostic which makes your body, psyche, and soul all feel better.

Laughter seems to have an evolutionary benefit.  Laughter is a feature that we share with other great apes such as the chimpanzee and gorilla, which suggests that it is an ancient behavior.  People of all ages and cultures laugh spontaneously, and they spend quite a bit of time doing it.  Interestingly enough, if you ask most women what traits they want in a man, a sense of humor is usually first or second on the list.

Laughter also operates as a social connector.   Groups are important for human survival, and across evolutionary time, groups got larger and socially more complex, which raises the interesting question about how these groups could be held together. Other primates groom each other to smoothen social interactions, but this is impossible when groups get really large. One solution to this problem is laughter. Through laughing, we can quickly establish a good relationship with each other, and because it is so contagious, it can quickly spread through a crowd.   For example, if you’re watching a movie with other people and someone laughs, there is an instant connection. 

In addition, laughter helps facilitate your capacity to learn new things.  When somebody teaches you something with humor, you usually retain the information better.  That’s why, for example, kids learn faster and better through play-learning. 

Lastly, laughter helps alleviate pain.   When you laugh, endorphins are released in the brain and act as a kind of legal drug inside your head.  According to studies conducted by researchers from Oxford and VU Amsterdam, being exposed to comedy can raise your pain tolerance as much as 50 percent.  I believe the same is true for emotional pain as well.  Humor opens up people to hear things that they are often uncomfortable hearing.  There is even some research on patients which shows that exposure to humor and comedy helps them reduce their medication intake.

Without humor, life would be quite dreary.  Laughter works in the same way as a good massage or an intense jog (but without all the stress on the knees).  It’s relaxing, social, and there are no side effects other than the occasional bad joke.

Training Your Brain to Stress Less

The vast majority of Americans today feel stressed out.  I would say that it mostly stems from financial struggles, which, in my opinion, are only going to get worse in the near future.  Women, in particular, get stressed out because they have too much on their plates. Ever since the feminist movement, women have been told that they are lazy bums and betrayers of their sisters if they stay home to raise their children.  As a result, women have quadrupled their responsibilities, and in doing so, increased their risk of heart disease and cancer by trying to play wife, mother, and jack of many other trades all at the same time.  If you’re struggling with stress in these hard times, I have some advice.

The first thing you need to do is realize that you are only human and that humans have limitations.  It’s simply the reality of our systems.  There are times when we just need to sleep or shut down.  Thinking that you’re a lazy slob or an incompetent idiot because you’re getting killed by all the stuff on your plate is not constructive.  You need to see that you have limits.

When I was still involved in private practice, I used to tell people to write down a list of all their obligations and then dump a third of them.  You should do the same.  Arrange all the things you need to do into a hierarchy of least to most important, and then dump the ones that are least important.

In addition, there are techniques you can use to train your brain to stress less.  For example, many athletes have trainers who help them respond quickly in stressful situations.  They teach them to focus under pressure, and even more importantly, how to recover from stress-induced errors.  Their trainers also teach them the importance of shutting down so that they don’t carry their stress around with them all day and night.  The same thing goes for soldiers training for battle. The more combat situations they face, the more familiar they become with handling the stress and the more control they have over their reactions. 

Training your brain to deal with stress is difficult, but it can be done. Here are a number of ways you can start reducing your stress levels.

Stop Putting Off Your Procrastination Problem

The definition of procrastination is putting off something that was planned or scheduled.  Statistics indicate that most people procrastinate.  At least 20 percent of the population calls themselves chronic procrastinators, and according to some researchers, procrastination has more than quadrupled in the last 30 years. 

I think that more and more people have become accustomed to procrastination in recent years for the same reasons that fewer men are going to college and fewer young adults are becoming autonomous – very little is expected of them anymore.

When we were in the era of responsibility, obligations were taken seriously.  Very few people procrastinated because there were consequences for doing so.  However, people today are hardly ever held accountable for anything, especially teens and young adults.  It used to be that if you had an 8-to-4 job, you arrived at your desk at 8 ready to work; you weren’t stumbling through the door at 9.  A lot of young people don’t get that, and then wonder why they are having such a tough time getting jobs.  It’s not just because of the economy – there is simply a lack of respect for young adults in the business world today because they lack commitment, work ethic, diligence, focus, and pride in what they do.

In addition, advances in technology have come at the cost of reducing many people’s effectiveness.   Between the TV, Facebook, and the latest Blackberrys and iPads, technology is providing people with constant distractions.  And with more lazy, unmotivated people sitting around drooling into screens, it’s no wonder that the procrastination statistics keep going up. 

Another contributing factor is that there isn’t a whole lot of parenting going on anymore.  Fewer and fewer kids are spending time with Mommy and Daddy at the dinner table discussing their day.  Chalk it up to divorce or no parent staying at home, but the outcome is the same: kids get away with murder and there’s no hell to pay.  Parents are failing to teach their kids about obligations and responsibilities.  A hundred years ago, kids got up at 5 a.m. and did a whole heck of a lot of stuff before they went to school.  Nowadays, I have parents calling me up complaining about how they can’t get their kids to get dressed in the morning.  It’s ridiculous. 

As you can see, people are not born procrastinators; they are formed to be that way.  And sadly, when they become chronic procrastinators, the results can be dire.  They often experience financial failure or end up dying younger than they should because they don’t bother to go get tests.

If you have a problem with procrastination, here’s what to do:

People procrastinate for all kinds of reasons, but more often than not, I think procrastination is a kind of passive aggressive behavior: “Screw you!” “I don’t have to!” “I don’t want to!”  “I don’t feel like it!”  So, if you really want to change, stop being hostile and start acting like a responsible person.

Don’t overthink what you have to do or make things too complicated – just get started.  It’s funny how something you were initially dreading can all of sudden become easier once you start it.  If you want an example of this, just listen to some of the people who call in to my program.  They may start off extremely nervous, but once they start talking, all their hesitation goes away.   

If you feel overwhelmed by a big project, break it up into smaller chunks.  Start with the hardest part first and then take a step back.  You’ll likely find that once you’ve finished each smaller task, the bigger project isn’t as difficult as you feared.

If you don’t have the right skills to complete a project, do some research or call someone to help you.  YouTube, for example, has a million useful little videos of people explaining how to do all kinds of stuff.  I learned how to drill certain jewelry pieces I’ve worked on from watching YouTube videos.

If you don’t have the right tools, find out where you can buy or borrow them.

Set realistic goals.  What can you realistically do given your abilities?  Ask someone to help pace you.

If you’re easily distracted by clutter, your phone, or your friends, then block out time dedicated to working on what you need to get done.  I rarely have my cell phone on me.  It certainly frustrates a lot of people who want to get a hold of me at that precise moment, but when I want to sit and deal with something, I cut out the distractions.  One of the things you must do in life is prioritize.  Do what needs to be done first, not what you wish to do.  Always remind yourself of what the highest priority is.
 
If you are a perfectionist (as I tend to be), you need to learn to control your impulse to be perfect.  I remember reading about one culture which purposefully put one tiny mistake in everything they made.  I thought that was so clever – what you do doesn’t always have to be perfect to be an expression of you.

Lastly, if you are afraid of failing or taking responsibility, you need to remember that the greatest failure is sitting there like a lump of protoplasm and not trying.  Failing is an inevitable part of trying, but failing is not an endpoint – not trying is.  Failure is at least a step forward toward success.

Getting yourself organized and putting a stop to your procrastination is pretty simple.  Set a reasonable goal, give yourself a time frame, dump the excuses, and figure out a way to hold yourself accountable. In short, just make it happen.

Getting the Most Out of Therapy

Once I started becoming more “known” from my radio program and books, I had to give up my private practice.  Folks would come in for sessions and expect me to work magic in three and a half minutes.  It became clear to me that I couldn’t be as effective one-on-one anymore.  So instead, I wrote books and did my show because I thought that those were the best ways I could help people.  

However, there are times on my program when I tell callers that they need to do a little more extensive work.  I can give them a jump-start, but they need to pick up where we left off in therapy.

Therapy can be a very complicated process, and there aren’t many therapists who do it well.  When looking for a therapist, there are a few things you need to do.  First, and most importantly, you have to form a relationship with your therapist.  When people call in to my program, they generally have listened to me for a while.  This means that they have already developed a kind of relationship with me in their minds.  When you go into somebody’s office for therapy, it usually takes a while to form that relationship. Without it, there isn’t going to be trust.  Although it seems like I receive instant trust from the people who call in to my show, that’s not really the case.  Most callers have been listening to me for a long time (sometimes 20 years or more), and therefore, the trust part is pretty much all squared away. 

Your clinician also needs to be a good fit for you.  Not every therapist makes the same choices or has the same personality and expertise. For example, when I was involved in private practice, I would not deal with anyone’s insurance companies.  They paid for their sessions, and I signed the insurance papers for them to submit.  I did this because I didn’t want my fights with an insurance company to interfere with our relationship.   

In addition, I believe that your first session should be free and on the phone.  It’s not really a session – it’s simply you asking a lot of questions.  You can always look up somebody’s license and credentials, but you still need to ask them about their expertise.  A lot of people get psychology licenses of various kinds and then claim that they can do anything.  However, there are specific areas of expertise.  Make sure you ask.  If you’re nervous about asking questions, first write them down on a piece of paper.  You may be less afraid to ask them if you put them in writing. 

This process may be uncomfortable, but if you don’t feel safe and comfortable with the therapist at first, you are not likely going to meet your goals with them later. 

Personally, I think that if you are seeking marital therapy, you should ask if the therapist is divorced.  Statistically speaking, when a therapist is divorced, he or she is more permissive of divorce.  And if they’re more permissive of divorce, it may impact how you perceive your marriage.  It’s the same old thing – if other people have done it, we feel like it’s more acceptable.  So, be sure to ask if they’re divorced and for how long.

Also ask about their ethics and how they’ve continued their education.  Once you’re done asking everything you want to ask, repeat this process with three to five more therapists.  See who gets defensive and who answers your questions openly. 

I know it can be intimidating or feel like you’re being impolite, but you must ask questions.  The truth is, your therapist is your hired help.  And if you do hire them, you’ll want to be able to ask them honest questions later, such as, “I don’t understand how this is helping; can you please explain it to me?” 

Nevertheless, you must also remember that the therapist does not assume the entire burden.  Therapy is hard work, and in order to improve, you have to do the work.  It’s the same principle as playing the piano – if you don’t practice, you’re not going to play very well.  You may notice that I often give assignments to callers on my program.   That’s because change doesn’t happen in one session – it happens outside of the session.  It’s an active process.  You can’t expect to go to therapy once a week and then not give it a moment’s thought until the next session.  The sessions are important but so is your effort to reflect on the content of those sessions and apply it on a daily basis. If you don’t make progress, it could very well be your own fault.  As I’ve said many times on the air, “Hey, I’m not going to work harder on your life than you are.” 

Finally, you need to expect that at some point during therapy, things could become extremely painful, uncomfortable, or unpleasant.  There are often blockages you have to work through.  You may start placing some of your past relationship issues on your therapist or treat them as if they were your mother, father, sister, etc.  Sometimes you’ll want to quit therapy or wonder why you’re bothering to spend money to be in pain.   You might even develop a habit of arriving late to sessions as a mechanism of avoidance.  However, when you start freaking out or getting defensive, you absolutely must go back and talk to your therapist about it.  Say, for example, “After opening up to you last time about ___, I became very vulnerable.”  Really good therapists are trained to understand and deal with your concerns.   

To bring it full circle, this is why establishing an initial relationship with your therapist is important – you need to be able to discuss anything and everything.  If you don’t trust your therapist or don’t feel like they believe in you, there will be no change.  You’ll simply reenact the same patterns with them and everybody else.

Learning to Be Joyful

My friend, Patty, called me this morning to ask how I was feeling.  I told her, “Well, I can breathe through my nose, my Eustachian tubes are about 90 percent unclogged from my allergy stuff, I can run around, and nothing hurts – so I’m good.”  We both laughed.  We were just both so grateful for our parts still working and for the opportunities that go with that. 

Finding joy in life is not terribly difficult, but it is a learned skill.  First off, being in a state of joy is not the same thing as being happy.  Joy is more of a deep and profound type of feeling.   Secondly, joy is not innate.  You are not born with it – it’s learned.

Some of you have a tougher time acquiring this skill because you were raised in harsh or negative families.  However, it’s still possible for you to learn – it’s just harder. 

One of the first things you need to do to be joyful is to change the way you talk to yourself.  You need to take all that negative-speak going on in your mind (e.g. “I suck,”  “I’m terrible,”  “I should have never done ___”) quite seriously.  You may flippantly say, “I suck,” but you are really hurting yourself deeply on the inside.  Stop the negative self-talk, and instead, replace it with the phrase, “I could be doing ___.”  By giving yourself some leeway, you’ll have choices and flexibility.  These statements give you room to explore and not feel so bad about yourself.  Tearing yourself down is not motivating.  By saying, “I could have made another choice and the next time I will,” you’re going to provide yourself with a lot more opportunity.

Another thing you can do to experience more joy is to have at least one big laugh each day.  It has been proven that laughter makes you feel better and reduces stress.  Laughter makes hormones that boost immunity and creates beta-endorphins that stave off depression.  Moreover, laughing every day is not all that difficult.  There are copious amounts of things to laugh about: funny articles, comic strips, movies, hilarious memories, etc. 

Another tip: try absorbing nature.  Focus your attention on your natural surroundings.  If you do something as simple as examining a plant leaf by leaf, you’ll improve your attention and begin finding joy in the every day.

Now just to be clear: I’m not saying that you should gloss over the negative, ignore painful emotions, or pretend that everything is OK.   What I am saying is that you should be moving forward and trying to be flexible.   Paying attention and practicing gratitude gives you some peace.

It’s hard, no doubt about it. But just because something is “hard” doesn’t mean it should stop you.

Every day I put up a question at Facebook.com/DrLaura.  Recently, I asked, “What’s your secret for remaining joyful even in the midst of tough times?”  Here are two of the responses:

From Loren:

Last night I was reminded of this as we were traveling down I-5 with our three kids under 4.  They had colds and were coughing constantly while trying to drift off to sleep. We were well on our way and had already stopped three times to accommodate the needs of everyone. My oldest son, 4, started coughing harder and harder in a sleepy daze when he started vomiting.

Ugh! I was so tired – my husband and I had been on a nonstop agenda for weeks and we wanted to escape for a peaceful early Thanksgiving break with family, but now this happened. I know both my husband and I could have very easily argued and been stressed, but I grabbed a blanket, caught all the upchuck, and snapped at my husband desperately, “Pull over!!!” He didn’t want to because of the small shoulder on the road, but he did anyway. Barefoot and now smelly, I got out and assisted my son.  Together, my husband and I worked to switch out the car seat, wipe him down, and change his clothes, and we were back on the road 15 minutes later.

Four minutes after that, the rain started.  We both looked at each other and laughed thinking the same thing, “Well, at least we missed the rain!”

Although it was supposed to be a relaxing vacation, we found joy in the midst of the unexpected, unplanned interruptions of the journey.  My husband offered me his hand and said, “That was good teamwork.”

Now, they certainly have a good marriage.  And here is Deborah’s response:

As the parent of a soldier killed in Iraq, for a while joy didn’t seem to fit my vocabulary or mindset, but with time and meditation, I knew the only way to feel joy again and to honor our son and all those who have sacrificed for our country was to dwell on how they lived, not on how they died, and to let our son’s humor, leadership, and love of family and friends shine as best as I could through myself

I also choose not to keep company for very long with family or acquaintances who thrive on negative thoughts and attitudes. As our son did, I find ways to serve others, which brings much joy. I surround myself with words of positive thoughts by way of motivational books and framed motivational thoughts in each room of my home. As a person who deals with depression, “changing the way I think, speak, or do to the positive” helps keep me balanced with a heart of joy.

The Importance of Getting Your Kids Outdoors

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children be physically active for at least 60 minutes per day, although they stress that the activity doesn’t have to be consecutive.  Is that not the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard?  As long as the time they spend walking across the living room and back to go to the bathroom or play video games adds up to an hour, that’s considered OK.  It’s no wonder nearly two-thirds of children in the United States are overweight or obese. 

I know this may sound obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway: children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to be fat.  According to the National Environmental Education Foundation, kids living within two-thirds of a mile of a park with a playground are five times more likely to have higher levels of physical activity and weigh less.  In addition, children exposed to nature can reduce their stress levels by as much as a third.  It only takes a 20-minute walk outside to help children with ADHD concentrate better (believe it or not, you don’t have to just drug them).

With all that being said, it’s hard to imagine why so many of our kids are overweight when there are more than 20,000 parks and 11,000 playgrounds totaling over 1.5 million acres in cities across the U.S.  When my son was little, I’d put him in the kid seat on the back of my English racer and ride him over to the park to play all the time.  I don’t know why more people with kids don’t try moving closer to areas with parks nearby.

What I really don’t understand is why kids these days don’t want to go outside.  When I was young, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was be in the house.  That’s where your parents could tell you what you could and couldn’t do.  Instead, I’d always be outside running, riding my bike, hiking, and playing ball with friends.  And it wasn’t called exercise – it was called playing.  Nowadays, kids have Wii and Xbox, and they need special shoes and other electronic equipment in order to be active.

I think one of the reasons kids aren’t as active is that a lot of parents are either too busy or just too lazy to pay attention to what their kids are doing, where they are doing it, and who they are doing it with.  They also take their children to sedentary “mommy and me” groups where they sit there and put one block on top of the other.   Whatever happened to kids going outside, running, pushing, and falling down laughing?  Parents need to stop being so freaked out about the possibility of their child getting a boo-boo.  My theory is if your kid turns 18 with no scars or broken bones, you have been too controlling (I can’t tell you how relieved I was when my son broke his arm when he was 17).

Furthermore, a recent study suggests that your child’s social network of friends can greatly influence how much they move their butts.  The journal Pediatrics conducted a study of 81 kids between the ages of 5 and 12 for 12 weeks in an after-school program.  They interviewed the kids about who they were hanging out with the most and equipped them with devices called accelerometers to measure their activity levels.  What the researchers found was the children’s activity levels increased or decreased depending on who they were hanging out with.  If a child’s friend was sedentary, then he or she would also be inactive.  When given the choice to keep their activity levels the same or change them to match those of their pals, the children were six times more likely to match their friends.

The takeaway from this study is that kids are influenced by their peers, even in how much they exercise.  You need to arrange play dates and encourage your children to have relationships with kids who are active.  Even if your child tends to be sedentary on his or her own, having friends that like to play will make them more likely to go out, run around, ride bikes, and do normal kid stuff. 

As parents, you need to get your kids playing outside.  Limit their electronic media use to an hour a day.  Don’t let them sit there staring at a screen all day with hyperactive thumbs – it’s like a scene out of a scary movie.