Thursday, 15 November 2012

Laughing is not a Laughing Matter

I recently read in a study that pre-school children laugh about 400 times a day. 400 times!! And how often do I laugh? I actually started to count after reading this and the result varied between a meagre zero to five. According to the same study adults laugh 17 times a day. So I am either not an adult or I just lead an amazingly dull life. But here´s the thing: I do not think I do. I am happy, I am content, I do not think there is anything significant missing in my life. And why should I laugh? There are many Finnish proverbs ready to point out how futile laughter is, and how laughing will get you in the trouble sooner or later. Maybe we Finns are not meant to be laughing… at least not an awful lot.

The study got me worried nevertheless. Am I missing out on something when I do not laugh? Why should I? Does laughter, in some mysterious way, help me to be a better person?

I set out to find out what laughing does to us. I decided to look for facts.

Laughing 100 times roughly equals 15 minutes on an exercise bike. If you laugh vigorously your heart rate increases, your breathing rate deepens, and the muscles in the face, stomach, and diaphragm get used.

Laughter also helps reduce stress, fight infection and reduce pain. Not to speak about how it improves your mood. The levels of cortisol and epinephrine, both stress hormones, will drop leaving your body´s immune system to do its work better. These hormone levels are also effectively lowered by planning enjoyable activities for the future. Is that why we so enjoy planning a trip or a party? The brain chemistry is also altered by laughter. Endorphins, the body´s natural feel-good chemicals, are being released and thus more oxygen brought into the body with deeper inhalations.

Laughing heartily seems to get rid of negative feelings; anger, fear, guilt, anxiety, and tension. You can´t feel anxious, angry or sad when you are laughing. Laughter helps you relax. Laughter helps you recharge. After a good, hearty laugh your muscles will stay relaxed for up to 45 minutes.

When you laugh, it is much easier for you to concentrate on “right” attitudes rather than “wrong”. Humour shifts perspective, allowing you to see situations in a more realistic, less threatening light. When we laugh with one another a positive bond is created.

Here is something I had never heard of before. Higher levels of an antibody (salivary immunoglobulin A) which fights infectious organisms entering the respiratory tract were found in the saliva of people who watched humorous videos or were having a good time and laughing. So is not laughing enough responsible for my having frequent respiratory infections? Maybe not totally, but I sure need all the help I can get to fight them. Researchers also found that after an hour of slapstick comedy our “natural killer cells”, the ones that seek out and destroy malignant cells, were more active in attacking tumour cells in test tubes. These effects lasted up to 12 hours.

Books have been written and films made where patients in grim hospital atmosphere were helped to better at least their quality of life, if not provide a cure for their illnesses, through laughter, fun, and watching comedies.

So, laughing is a serious matter. It can make all the difference.

Right, where are our Monty Python DVDs? Faulty Towers? Good old Spede (very Finnish) movies?


Friday, 9 November 2012

About the sun, winter, and everything SAD

Autumn has a very strong presence in Finland at the moment. It is raining, sleeting and snowing but it is not winter yet. The sun makes a rare appearance and the winds are bitingly chilly. Not even the beautiful white blanket of snow has arrived yet.

If you look at the people in their regular meeting places, you don't see very many happy faces. Even less smiles and laughter. I am starting to think that Montesquieu was right with his meteorological climate theory, which holds that climate may substantially influence the nature of man and his society. His theory presented the people in the north "icy" and "stiff". Walking down the streets in a rainy, chilly November afternoon it is easy to agree with him.

But what can we do, if this is where we were born? Is it really the climate or is it the lack of sunlight, which leaves us feeling miserable and joyless? If the latter is to blame, the culprit is causing us to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
The symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder appear in the autumn/winter months and leave with the return of longer days of sunlight, in the spring. They include body aches and pains, changes in energy level, sleep/wake patterns, and appetite, avoidance of social situations, reduction in the quality of sleep, drop in energy level, weight gain, irritability, inability to complete tasks, decreased creativity, and even suicidal thoughts.

Some studies say that 14 % of the population suffer from SAD. What about the rest of the population? Many of us suffer from some of the symptoms mentioned above occasionally but somehow seem to be able to get over it. Or the symptoms are mild enough not to cause a major disturbance or turmoil in our everyday life. I do not think there are very many people who are great fans of short, grey autumn/winter days. They may feel a bit down but they get on with their business as usual. But I am pretty sure that everyone of us could do with some cheering up. Music, books, art, films, and parties are good for the body and soul. And then there is Christmas with colourful fairy lights and all things red and green and family and friends and holiday. At best it provides us a welcome break.

It is true that we spend less and less time outdoors when the weather is bad. It is also true that we work indoors without natural light, even windows in some case. And even if we do go out, the sun will not be there to greet us.

Thus our exposure to sunlight is limited. Vitamin D, known as the sunshine vitamin, is produced by the body in response to sunlight. It is also occurs naturally in a few foods -- including some fish, fish liver oils, and egg yolks -- and in fortified dairy and grain products.

I include here part of an article I found online:

What Do You Lack? Probably Vitamin D

Vitamin D promises to be the most talked-about and written-about supplement of the decade. While studies continue to refine optimal blood levels and recommended dietary amounts, the fact remains that a huge part of the population — from robust newborns to the frail elderly, and many others in between — are deficient in this essential nutrient.

If the findings of existing clinical trials hold up in future research, the potential consequences of this deficiency are likely to go far beyond inadequate bone development and excessive bone loss that can result in falls and fractures. Every tissue in the body, including the brain, heart, muscles and immune system, has receptors for vitamin D, meaning that this nutrient is needed at proper levels for these tissues to function well.

Studies indicate that the effects of a vitamin D deficiency include an elevated risk of developing (and dying from) cancers of the colon, breast and prostate; high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease; osteoarthritis; and immune-system abnormalities that can result in infections and autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.

Most people in the modern world have lifestyles that prevent them from acquiring the levels of vitamin D that evolution intended us to have. The sun's ultraviolet-B rays absorbed through the skin are the body's main source of this nutrient. Early humans evolved near the equator, where sun exposure is intense year round, and minimally clothed people spent most of the day outdoors.
"As a species, we do not get as much sun exposure as we used to, and dietary sources of vitamin D are minimal," Dr. Edward Giovannucci, nutrition researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, wrote in The Archives of Internal Medicine. Previtamin D forms in sun-exposed skin, and 10 to 15 percent of the previtamin is immediately converted to vitamin D, the form found in supplements. Vitamin D, in turn, is changed in the liver to 25-hydroxyvitamin D, the main circulating form. Finally, the kidneys convert 25-hydroxyvitamin D into the nutrient's biologically active form, 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D, also known as vitamin D hormone.

A person's vitamin D level is measured in the blood as 25-hydroxyvitamin D, considered the best indicator of sufficiency. A recent study showed that maximum bone density is achieved when the blood serum level of 25-hydroxyvitamin D reaches 40 nanograms per milliliter or more.

"Throughout most of human evolution," Dr. Giovannucci wrote, "when the vitamin D system was developing, the 'natural' level of 25-hydroxyvitamin D was probably around 50 nanograms per milliliter or higher. In modern societies, few people attain such high levels."

What really dawned on me quite recently is that vitamin D could actually help to reduce some of the aches and pains we all have from time to time. After that I have not missed my daily dietary supplement of vitamin D.

Another form of SAD treatment that makes sense, is exposure to artificial light, which imitates sun light, the so-called light therapy. It can come from varied light sources (including incandescent light). This involves daily exposure to light through the use of a 10,000 lux light box or a light visor, both of which provide cool-white fluorescent light. The latest invention being the light earplugs. I do not know enough of them to say whether they are just a good placebo or a real relief to SAD sufferers or people who just want an uplifting experience.

Also the drugs which are used to treat normal depression have been known to be helpful in treating SAD. Not my first choice, though, but better than the worst alternative, surely.

A week or more in the sun would certainly do the trick, but if you, for some reason, cannot travel, what else is there. I wish I could offer a simple, straightforward answer to the question. And if I could, I would probably be famous. But I do have an idea I will be wanting to try this winter.

It is clear that you can fool your mind. You can fool it into thinking that you are exercising. Under hypnosis images of running or playing basketball are known to cause your heart and respiratory rates to go up and your muscles to tense and activate. So if you imagine yourself being in the sun and enjoying its warmth on your skin, would it not have similar physiological and chemical changes as well as benefits? Would it not treat you to your necessary daily dosage of natural sunlight?
No studies exist. It also sounds improbable that the level of vitamin D would be raised by mental images, but stranger things have happened. There is no danger in trying it out and at best you get the benefit of relaxed body and mind. Also, I do not think we have as yet discovered everything there is to the mind-over-body - link.

So here's how I am going to do it.

Form an image of yourself on a beach where you would love to spend your holidays if you could. Make the image and the place where you want to be as authentic as you can: include as many of your senses as you can. It will help you if you use a place where you have already been. Take you time to find the right place. There is no rush. Also make sure that you are physically in a place where nobody will disturb you and that your position is comfortable and you are warm enough.

Feel the warmth of the sun, slight warm breeze on your skin and hair... Smell the sea.... Feel the salty taste of sea in your mouth..... Listen to the waves.... Hear the seagulls.... Feel the sand slip through your fingers and bury your toes in the warm sand..... If you like water, you can even feel yourself swimming or floating weightlessly in the warm water.... Look up to the blue sky and experience the carefree feeling of the first day of your holiday.... Let everything else go and just enjoy being there.

This will be your own private place and you can make what ever you want with it. It can change from day to day. You can change it. You can use it to get rid of the thoughts that are bothering you just by releasing them for the wind to carry away or by building a fire on the beach and burning them there. You can picture yourself there in perfect health and as happy as you ever wanted to be. This is your moment and it is as perfect as you want it to be.

And now I am off for a long run. (Physical exercise is good for keeping your spirits up.)

Note to reader.

1. Not all of you suffer from the lack of sun light, so just do this exercise to enjoy relaxation after a hard day at the office and get rid of your high cortisol (the stress hormone) levels.

2. I try to post once a week so normally you should have something new to read by the next weekend.

3. Number 2 failing, I will post when I can. :-)

Friday, 2 November 2012

Scratching the surface. About worrying

I have been wanting to start a blog for the longest of times but always something else has come up. Also the threshold of starting has not come any lower, so I just decided to take the plunge.

Life has so much to offer and such interesting things to discover and such endless source of topics to display that portraying my thoughts about all that will probably take me a lifetime, even if I live to be 100+. But it is nice to start scratching the surface.

Of late, I have been trying to learn to live without worrying. It is such an easy thing to write and say but when something unexpected turns up in life the dark ominous clouds start to gather in your mental sky and very soon everything is dark. More clouds gather and light is hard to find at the end of the tunnel.

Through my profession (counselling) I have over the years given others many good advice on how to stop worrying. I have advised people to write down their worries on a paper the way they spring into their minds. No judging, just writing them down. I have also done it myself. With some things you write, you notice as the pen draws the first line that this really is not worth worrying. Like how will the long drive to see a friend go? What if I get a flat tyre. Will something bad happen at home when I am not at home to deal with it? It is almost as if we must have a set of worries to dwell on to feel "safe". As if "a familiar worry a day keeps other far worse worries away"- way of thinking would really help to ward off serious worries and, indeed, keep bad things from happening. We are creatures of habit.

And OK, if that's what it takes to make a person tick, OK, but if it has the opposite effect and it stops you on your tracks something should be done to release the worry. If worrying about how well you will do in the exam you are going to take, will make you work extra hard for it, it will have served its purpose. It will have contributed towards enhancing your performance.

But back to the list. When you have it, start going through it with a pencil and serious thought. Is there something there that you could address immediately or maybe first thing tomorrow? If so, write a date next to it. Your subconscious mind will then see it as being under control. What remains are the issues that should get more attention.

Ask yourself: how likely is it that this thing will happen? How likely is it that you can avoid it by doing something about it? If you are worried about dying one day soon and are a healthy person at the moment, the likelihood is not very high. If you are worried about dying one day, the likelihood is high. We all die. But in the meanwhile we have plenty of time to live and enjoy it. In other words, treat your worries with healthy critisism. Can you stop something from happening just by worrying about it? No sir, you cannot. But you can ruin your present moment by worrying about it. You sure can. Now the question remains: why should you spoil the present with future worries that you cannot do anything about in the first place. And what if things don't go from bad to worse and you will have worried for nothing, wasting your time in dark thoughts instead of enjoying life and its small endearing everyday things? Isn't that a waste of a good NOW? Also living in the future and in the present at the same time is not possible. You must choose.

Worrying about the future also creates patterns that you either knowingly or not tend to follow up with your actions. Why would we want to send ourselves a bad present for our future birthday, so to speak, in the form of negative thoughts, which is what worries are.

The present. That is where we are right now. If we constantly worry about things of the past and feel sorry for ourselves for something that happened ten or more years ago, which we cannot change no matter what, we are spending most of our time in the past and will thus be conspiciously missing from this moment. Other people will probably have already commented on your absence, if you think about it.

Most of the time, if not always, worrying is a waste of time, money and energy. It also distracts us from the good things that are happening in front of our very eyes. Worry about your child getting some awful disease, which might not ever happen, and you miss her/his smile and laughter in this moment.

Worrying is associated with negative thoughts. You don't worry about winning the lottery, do you?
So what I do to get rid of these thoughts, is that I build myself a mental image of all my negative thoughts and worries - and oh boy, is it ever a frighteningly large image! When it is there in front of my mind's eyes, I destroy it with any means that seem fit at the moment. Burning the image works for me. Fire seems to be a cleansing concept in my mind. Then I remind myself that I am in control of my thoughts, not vice versa. Thus I can redirect my thoughts onto a happier track and build myself a postive image of everything past, present or future.

It sounds so easy. I know. But at least for me a lot of "burning" is needed but I know I am better off going to the right direction. So you see, just knowing how things should be dealt with does not necessarily mean that it is all plain sailing. Only maybe a bit easir because the set of trusted tools is there, but it still is an effort.

Worried about how you look - worried people are never good looking or beautiful.
Worried about losing - take the time enjoy what you have, otherwise it will truly be lost.
Worried about your children - notice them laughing, smiling, enjoy them now the way they are.
Worried about the future - do you know of somebody who can totally control it. I don't.
Worried about the past - what ever you do, it will always be out of your reach. All you can do
is change your own attitude towards it. Leave it be. It made you the
person you are.
Worried about illness - enjoy your health and take care of it. Nobody knows what is going to
happen. We are all in it together. Strength in numbers?
Worried about dying - we all will when the time comes. Worrying won't change it.
Worried about money - nobody has ever made a buck by worrying, so make better use of you
time and that could actually make you some money.