My doctor recently suggested I stop multi-tasking. Focus on one thing at a time, she said: our brains aren’t wired to take on the kind of intense juggling — from chauffeuring to food prep, extracurricular logistics, work strategies, worry over aging parents, anxiety about climate change — that many of us attempt (with varying degrees of success) every day.
For me, meditation and yoga offer a lifeline: a quiet sanctuary where focusing on one thing is the only thing required.
So I was slightly annoyed by the headline of a recent Scientific American story: “Is Meditation Overrated?”
The premise of the piece is this: Many people report that meditation improves their mood and relieves various symptoms of chronic stress and other health problems, BUT the data on this isn’t terribly robust. So, the story continues, “Johns Hopkins University researchers carefully reviewed published clinical trials and found that although meditation seems to provide modest relief for anxiety, depression and pain, more high-quality work is needed before the effect of meditation on other ailments can be judged.”
So shouldn’t the headline be: “Meditation Relieves Some Modern Woes; More Research Needed To Conclusively Prove Further Benefits?”
For the past four years, I’ve been involved with a local nonprofit, the North Cambridge Family Opera, which stages original productions featuring cast members age 7 to grandma, and with a range of abilities. In 2011, I wrote about how performing in the group’s opera helped children with autism. This year, I was struck by the story of how music helps heal the past trauma of one young cast member, 8-year-old Aster, adopted from Ethiopia after her birth parents died. I asked Aster’s mother to write a bit about their experience. Here’s her post:
By Marina Vyrros
In the mid 1990s, I worked as a refugee aide in the Guatemalan rainforest.
Many people in that community — having fled horrific atrocities, like their villages being razed or worse — were suffering from post-traumatic stress.
Atrocities notwithstanding, a contingent of ranchero musicians somehow managed to lug homemade, oversized guitars to the camps and play music each night, often in the 100-degree heat.
While the NGO’s provided a valuable service — helping the people rebuild their external structures — the service that the ranchers provided, though perhaps less tangible, was invaluable. Their nightly gatherings, singing songs about their plight, helped the community to rebuild and heal internally.
Four years ago, when I adopted an almost 4-year old child from Ethiopia (who continues to recover from the trauma of having lost both birth parents during her formative, early childhood years) the lesson of the power of music was not lost on me.
Claudia M. Gold, a pediatrician, blogger and author of “Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child’s Eyes,” explains what may be going on in my daughter’s brain:
“Severe meltdowns are common in children who have experienced early trauma, at the time when the higher cortical centers of the brain were not yet fully developed. Stress of a seemingly minor nature can lead the rational brain to in a sense go ‘off-line.’ The child will have access only to the lower brain centers that function more instinctively.”
Especially during her first few years in Cambridge, Aster’s meltdowns were epic, but music and dance have consistently provided the most important vehicle to help her regulate her emotions.
Before, she might bang on the walls, now, to relieve her frustration, she pounds on a djembe, an African drum, in an afterschool program; instead of crying over seemingly inconsequential things, now, to release her emotions she invents and belts out Whitney Houston-y type songs, tears streaming down her face. To release her energy — which is abundant — she dances around. Everywhere. It all helps.
Recently, over the past five months, Aster’s been singing, dancing and even acting with the North Cambridge Family Opera based in Cambridge. In this year’s production, “Rain Dance,” she and the other animals living on the South African savannah elect a Machiavellian lion in a desperate attempt to end the local drought. Trouble ensues.
All kinds of research suggests that music can minimize the symptoms of post traumatic stress and other types of trauma. A 2011 study found that guitar-playing can help veterans with PTSD drown out the traumatic memories of bombs blasting; and in 2008 researchers found some reduction of post-traumatic stress symptoms following drumming, in particular “an increased sense of openness, togetherness, belonging, sharing, closeness, connectedness and intimacy, as well as achieving a non-intimidating access to traumatic memories, facilitating an outlet for rage and regaining a sense of self-control.”
We’ve all been there: feeling low, overwhelmed, anxious, or just majorly bummed out about the freezing cold, the dead-end job, the noncompliant spouse, whatever, and we dream of a pill — a quick fix — to put an end to all that negative muck.
Of course, pills have side effects, and don’t always work. But it turns out there’s something that may be more effective with no downside, though it takes a bit of effort: meditation for about 30 minutes a day.
A new analysis by researchers at Johns Hopkins find that just a half-hour of “mindfulness meditation” may improve some of these garden variety, not yet full-blown, symptoms of anxiety and depression. The findings, published online in JAMA Internal Medicine, also found that some pain symptoms can also be relieved through a consistent meditation practice.
This should not come as breaking news. Many studies over many years link meditation to all kinds of health improvements. But I think it’s worth restating, since meditation is still viewed as a crunchy, ineffective practice by so many — including those in the medical mainstream.
Here’s lead study author Dr. Madhav Goyal, assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, quoted in the news release:
“A lot of people use meditation, but it’s not a practice considered part of mainstream medical therapy for anything,” says Goyal, M.D. M.P.H. “But in our study, meditation appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as what other studies have found from antidepressants.” Continue reading →
Imagine this tense scene at Logan International Airport’s Terminal E earlier this summer:
A woman with two young children rummages through her medication bag while awaiting an overnight flight to Europe. She pulls out a bottle of pills, then grabs her phone to text her therapist:
Woman: How early can I take half a Xanax? Flight at 8:20. Getting shaky.
Therapist’s response: You can take it now. You can do this!!!!
The scene, sadly, is all too real; that frantic woman is me.
I hate flying. Just writing the word ‘flying’ gives me a pang of dread, twinges of imminent diarrhea and the feeling that I might choke on my own fear.
I’m like Woody Allen on the plane in “To Rome With Love,” a death-grip on Judy Davis’ arm when turbulence hits. “I can’t unclench when there’s turbulence,” he says. “I don’t like this, the plane is bumpy, it’s bumpy… I don’t like when the plane does that… I get a bad feeling.”
In my case, to avoid this excruciating feeling, I have cancelled family trips at the last minute, pretended to be ill, and dragged my children on a 30-hour train ride from Boston to Orlando.
This summer, I’d finally had enough of my fear and its invasive grip on my life. But could I overcome it? I honestly wasn’t sure.
(Before I go on, let me say clearly that mine is definitely a “first-world problem.” There’s no poverty, abuse or major life-threatening illness going on here — just a “problem bred of privilege,” as one friend put it. Still, it’s fairly widespread, and worse since 9/11. Though precise prevalence numbers don’t exist, a 2008 study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders says fear of flying is “estimated to affect 25 million adults in the United States and nearly 10–40% of the adults in industrialized countries.” Similarly, a 2007 New York Times report quotes an NIH estimate that about 6.5 percent of Americans fear flying so intensely that it qualifies as a phobia or anxiety disorder.)
Russian Planes With Duct Tape
It wasn’t always this way for me. As a single, childless reporter, I flew all over: to Africa and Vietnam, to Cuba on a Russian-made plane lined with duct tape and in China on a domestic flight on which the pilot told everyone to move to the left side of the plane for “balance.” I flew in tiny, private planes across Washington state in bad weather, and to Provincetown on a little 9-seater.
Then, while walking to work across the Brooklyn Bridge on September 11, 2001, I saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center. A year later, when I was pregnant with my first child, my flying anxiety suddenly took hold. When the baby was six months old, I rescheduled a family trip abroad to avoid heavy rain. After that, for the next 10 years, I never took a flight more than three hours long.
I said “no” to weddings, work trips and excursions with my husband to romantic locales. I always had a good excuse not to travel, but in reality, avoiding these trips was all about my fear.
Flying Coffins And Familial Anxiety
There are likely genetics at play here: anxiety is a family trait, and several of us have suffered with flying fears. Years ago, a close relative freaked out on a flight from D.C. to San Francisco and, after a scheduled layover in the midwest, refused to get back on the plane. Instead, he took a train home. For a while, my father called planes “flying coffins,” and took a heavy dose of Klonapin, usually prescribed for seizures and panic attacks, before flights. Continue reading →
Has data-driven parenting run amok? Are spreadsheets to measure every poop output and breast-milk intake necessary? Do we need a time stamp for each “ga” “mmm” and “da-da”? Or is this just, frankly, insane? A way to try to ease the sometimes overwhelming anxiety of parenting with cold, emotion-free numbers?
(Tampa Band Photos/Flickr)
For writer Amy Webb, a so-called “digital strategy expert,” measuring everything her child does makes loads of sense. In her controversial and truly mind-blowing piece on Slate last week, Webb revealed the process by which she documents every minuscule element of data on the kid’s existence.
During the first feeding at home, I put my laptop on the nightstand beside my bed and filled out the chart as I tried to burp my daughter:
Time: 11:15 a.m.
Breast Milk: 75 milliliters
Formula Supplement: none
Wet Diaper: 1
Yellow Scale (1 = clear, 10 = call the hospital): 3
Dirty Diaper: 1
Poop Scale (1 = Dijon mustard, 5 = pâté, 10 = tar): 5
At 2 a.m. the next morning, I attempted the same routine. Laptop on left nightstand, baby attached to right boob.
But it doesn’t stop there: “At 15 months, we knew the 37 complete words she’d mastered and the 11 miscellaneous vowel sounds that meant real-world objects… By her 18-month pediatrician visit, she could point to her throat, ankle, eyebrow, teeth, shin, knee, and belly button when prompted, and we’d tracked it all in our series of spreadsheets, which we’d prepared for our appointment.”
Webb claims all this poop-measuring and morsel-tracking is state-of-the-art parenting, with myriad benefits for the child. In this approach, nothing is left unrecorded: “When she was 6 months old, we added a tab to the spreadsheet for new foods. Rice cereal, 2 teaspoons, on Oct. 3. Steamed, mashed carrots, 1 ounce, on Oct. 30; didn’t like at all. Steamed, mashed sweet potato, 1 ounce, on Nov. 10; liked even less. Steamed, mashed peas, 2 ounces, on Nov. 18; wanted more.” Continue reading →
Casey was diagnosed with canine compulsive disorder. He’s now on Prozac. (Courtesy)
When Casey, a 6-year-old German Shepherd, gets anxious, she chases her tail.
But it’s not the kind of endearing, once-around-and-it’s-done kind of tail-chasing we’ve all seen. Left unchecked, Casey circles around and around, pursuing her tail until she can bite it. Then, even when the blood starts flowing, the dog is driven to continue the chase.
“It’s upsetting,” says Paula Bagge, a Hopkinton, Mass. business owner who has been living with Casey since puppyhood. “And it’s damaging. She hurls herself around the house, and it’s like a big bloody paintbrush spraying the walls.” Once, Bagge tied the dog’s leash to a coffee table in an attempt to control the chasing. But Casey, who weighs about 85 pounds, just started dragging the coffee table around with her. Now, she’s on Prozac.
Dogs, it turns out, can have obsessive-compulsive disorder, just like people. And in a new study, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a professor of clinical sciences at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, found that structural brain abnormalities in dogs, in this case Doberman pinschers, with canine compulsive disorder (CCD) are similar to those of humans with OCD.
In an earlier study, Dodman, a leading researcher on repetitive behavior in animals, found a specific gene associated with canine OCD.
Studying anxiety disorders in dogs, Dodman says, may ultimately help scientists come up with better therapies and medications to treat OCD and related conditions in people. Current drugs for OCD, such as SSRI’s (or for dogs, a beef-flavored form of Prozac) are notoriously ineffective for many sufferers. Indeed, Dodman says, only around 43 to 60 percent of people suffering from OCD show a postive response from an SSRI; the average reduction of symptoms in people taking these drugs is only about 23 to 43 percent. “Certainly not a panacea,” he says.
So, to further this research, Dodman spends time thinking about bears who pace obsessively, for instance, or parrots unable to stop preening and picking their feathers and beagles who overeat to the point of exploding,
Dodman calls the latest dog-brain imaging study, conducted in collaboration with researchers at McLean Hospital, in Belmont, Mass., “another piece of the puzzle, another brick in the wall.”
He says while more research must be done, it’s becoming increasingly evident that dogs with OCD are a great model for exploring human psychopathology: they show similar behaviors, respond to drugs in comparable ways and now, at least in this small study, seem to have the same brain abnormalities as people with the condition. “When you know what your dealing with it’s much easier to create targeted approaches,” to treatment, Dodman says. “If you don’t know what you’re dealing with it’s just kind of like going with your sense of smell.”
OCD afflicts about 2 percent of the population and often goes untreated or undiagnosed. People suffering from the disorder, marked by intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors such as hand washing, locking and unlocking doors, counting, or repeating the same steps, feel these impulses as uncontrollable. And the compulsive rituals, often triggered by stress or trauma, can be incredibly time-consuming, interfering with daily life.
Famously, Lena Dunham, the star and creator of the HBO series “Girls” came out with her own OCD on air, with repetitive tics, obsessive counting and painfully compulsive use of Q-tips. Continue reading →
Donna Pincus (courtesy of BU, Photo by Crystal Conte for Portrait Simple)
I am not an anxious person — I was born with an even keel — but I am one hell of an anxious mother. Everyone knows that mothers tend to worry, but still, I’ve found it shocking how intense, and how nearly unbearable, concern for a child can be, even when the cause clearly doesn’t merit the distress.
So when I saw the BU Today headline “When the world is scarier than it should be” this morning, of course I immediately clicked. And now I have a new book on my wish list: “Growing Up Brave: Expert Strategies for Helping Your Child Overcome Fear, Stress, and Anxiety,” by Donna Pincus. BU Today writes:
Pincus, director of research for the Child and Adolescent Fear and Anxiety Treatment Program at BU’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, walks readers through techniques to reduce or eliminate childhood anxiety.
The book, which weaves science and anecdotes into an enlightening guide for parents, teachers, and health care workers, offers a readable counterpoint to the many less informed prescriptions kicking around on the internet.
And, it must be noted, less-informed parenting strategies that arise from our well-meaning instincts — whether we’re being over-protective, or pooh-pooh-ing children’s fears, or over-sharing our own fears.
BU Today: Will most parents who read this book recognize themselves in it?
Pincus: Parents will likely relate to the many difficult situations we are all regularly faced with—for example, knowing when to follow our so-called instincts to protect and when to take a step back and allow a child room to navigate certain challenges on his or her own. Most parents have faced this challenge of knowing how to strike the best balance. Numerous parents have related that they recognized themselves in the chapter on parent-child interaction styles that affect anxiety—and that their awareness of these parenting styles was the first step in modifying the ways they interact with their children.
The interview, by Susan Seligson, is worth a full read. I found particularly interesting this hint of the sorts of techniques that are being developed to help with childhood anxiety: Continue reading →
In May, my six-year-old daughter, Julia, smashed into our front door handle and got a deep, bloody gash in her forehead.
We rushed her, head wrapped like a tiny mummy, to the medical center at MIT, where we generally go for pediatric care. Julia wept while the nurse cleaned and examined her lacerated skin. After a short exam, she sent us to the emergency department at Children’s Hospital Boston for stitches. “How bad is that, generally?” I asked, having never experienced suturing either for myself or my cautious, risk-averse, older daughter.
“It can be traumatic,” the nurse said.
Julia cried, “I don’t want stitches.”
It’s a large needle, but Julia is too busy coloring to notice.
So I braced myself for the worst: an endless wait and nerve-wracking bustle; screaming, germ-laden children and brusque, end-of-shift staff. But more than anything, I dreaded the inevitable pain in store for my small child with the deep cut.
(I know, kids get banged up on the path to adulthood and some pain is unavoidable. Still, when bloody heads are involved, I tend to overreact.)
Indeed, I was in full Mama Bear mode when into our exam room strode Dr. Baruch Krauss, the attending physician that evening.
Dark, lean and intense, Dr. Krauss shook my hand and then went straight to Julia, complimenting her pink, sparkly shoes. She lit up and was eager to chat. They talked about exactly how old she was (nearly six-and-three-quarters) and what she likes to do (climb trees). Then he gently rubbed a bit of Novocaine gel on her cut and said he’d be back.
I hovered nervously around Julia, checking and rechecking the cut and generally exuding anxiety, while my husband sat quietly, telling me to calm down. Sure, that’ll work.
Five times over the next 40 minutes or so, Krauss came in and re-applied the anesthetic, gently squeezing the site with his thumb and forefinger. Why, I wasn’t sure. Was it a dosing thing? Was he just numbing the wound even more before the scary stitching began? With each visit, he engaged Julia to learn something new about her. For instance, she loves to draw.
And, she loves snacks. On my way back from the cafe with treats, Krauss stopped me in the hall and said something like, “I’m going to stitch her up; it really won’t be bad.” I rolled my eyes. But, he added, “I need you to work with me. I’m going to give you a task.” Fine, I said, though the whole thing sounded a little gimmicky.
Krauss returned with an oversized 101 Dalmations coloring book and a handful of Magic Markers. He opened to a page overflowing with dog outlines. “Julia,” he said. “I want you to color each dog’s ear a different color, OK? Which color do you want to start with?”
“Purple,” she said, grabbing the marker. Focused, driven and completely oblivious to the large needle now going into her head, Julia colored in dog ears for the next 30 minutes. (This is a kid who, when awaiting her first flu shot, sprinted down a hallway until cornered by three nurses.) Every once in a while, Julia checked with Krauss to see if he approved of the colors. Great, he said. “Now, their paws. Each a different color.”
My job was to hold the coloring book up straight.
My husband took video. (That was his stress-reducing task, I suspect.)
As Julia drew, Krauss stitched, about five or six tiny loops in her head. He continued to chat with Julia about the picture and her color scheme; then he’d return to stitching. Soon, it was over. Julia finished her picture and signed it: “To Baruch, Love Julia.”
As we left the hospital, hand in hand into the night, my daughter looked up at me and grinned. “Well, Mama, at least I didn’t have to get stitches.” I looked back at Julia, with her bandaged head and big eyes: “But honey, you did get stitches.” “Really?” she twirled. “Well it was fun.” And she jumped into the car.
The entire experience was so profoundly different from any other medical encounter I’ve ever had as a mother. I understand that in an emergency, the priority is to fix the damage as fast and efficiently as possible. But Krauss offered such a higher level of care that I wanted to know more.
So I Googled him, and my mouth dropped as I read his profile: “Baruch Krauss’ research focuses on pharmacological and non-pharmacological techniques for relieving acute anxiety and pain in children undergoing diagnostic and therapeutic procedures in the emergency department… (my bold).
We’d won the ER lottery with this guy. It was like going in for your regular, ho-hum therapy session and finding Freud. This doctor chose my priority as his priority: to spare my child from pain.
Worry begets worry (and sleepless infants), a new study finds. (littlemaiba/flickr)
File this under: Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes.
A new government-funded study found that depressed, worried mothers were more likely to wake up their sleeping babies (and wake them unnecessarily) than non-depressed moms. This, in violation of perhaps the most important rule of mothering: Don’t, under any circumstances, wake a sleeping baby.
This study makes me sad because this was me: The overwrought new mom hovering over the totally fine baby to the point she woke up, confirming my worst fears (that I had a baby who wouldn’t sleep) and keeping me in a constant state of sleep deprivation (and depression) until she was about 5. But I did learn, and I’m pretty sure I let go a bit with my second daughter, leaving us both in peace at night.
Here’s the news release from Penn State:
“We found that mothers with high depressive symptom levels are more likely to excessively worry about their infants at night than mothers with low symptom levels, and that such mothers were more likely to seek out their babies at night and spend more time with their infants than mothers with low symptom levels,” said Douglas M. Teti, associate director of the Social Science Research Institute and professor of human development, psychology and pediatrics. Continue reading →
Could the pressure of social media trigger trigger a mental disorder?
I had what might have been a symptom last month.
It happened the night I created a Pinterest account. Pinterest is not inherently scary. At least it shouldn’t be. It’s just one more thing. One more place where there are a lot of eyeballs — which of course I want directed at my stuff. One more place where I have to make new friends. One more place where I don’t really know how to act or what to say.
I woke up that morning after signing up with Pinterest (and creating my first board) with my heart beating faster than usual. This is silly, I thought. If Pinterest is going to stress you out, I counseled my Inner Type A, just don’t do it. No, no, said the ambitious one, this is where the women are, your target audience, you have to have a presence here. The voices battled and prattled on.
I put both feet on the floor next to my bed before I picked up my phone. I had vowed not to be one of those people who check their phone before they get out of bed. I would not get addicted to Twitter. I would make sure I was sitting up, with my feet out of bed before I slid one thumb to the Twitter, FB or email apps on my phone.
But I started to wonder that morning if I was getting a little out of control with the social media. A racing heart triggered by Pinterest doesn’t sound normal. Could Social Media Anxiety Disorder (or Social Media Anxiety Syndrome) be the next illness we create? Continue reading →