Healthy Brain, Happy Life

Healthy Brain, Happy Life

“The mind of man is capable of anything.” –Joseph Conrad

There are certain things you and I have learned to do to take care of our bodies. These include brushing our teeth, washing hands, wearing sunscreen in the sun, eating a balanced diet, and trying to fit in regular exercise. There is so much knowledge about how to keep the body physically healthy! In like manner, new research has yielded valuable information about things that can be done to promote a healthy brain.  In recent years, research on the brain has made leaps and bounds, and has impacted my practice for the better.  Much of what I do–especially helping clients who are battling anxiety, depression, or other diagnosable mental illnesses–is impacted by this research. It can positively impact you, too. Today I want to share some of the findings that will help promote a healthy brain.

The benefits of keeping the brain healthy are innumerable. The following action list will not only help keep your brain young and healthy, but also positively impact other parts of your body, health, and life in general. Read the list, then consider one or two things you can start doing today to rejuvenate your brain. Your brain ten years from now will thank you!

  1. Mental stimulation. Keep learning and challenging your brain. Mental exercise is believed to activate processes that help maintain individual brain cells and stimulate communication among them.  Any mentally stimulating activity should help to build up your brain. You can try reading, taking courses, trying word puzzles or math problems…even Sudoku! Similarly, experiment with activities that require manual dexterity as well as mental effort, such as drawing, painting, and other crafts.
  2. STAY HEALTHY! Taking care of your body will adversely promote a healthy brain. So exercise; it will lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and reduce stress. Meditate. Eat healthy foods; a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, low in saturated fat, full of the nutrients found in leafy green vegetables, along with whole grains can help keep your brain healthy throughout your life. Get quality sleep; give your brain a rest by shutting it off for 7-9 hours a night. This is when it will reset, heal, and be restored to full health. Avoid tobacco, drugs, alcohol and other harmful substances that alter how the brain functions. Be sure to care for your emotions (read: self-care). A “reset” or self-care/personal time is everything for managing the emotions that affect both mind and body!
  3. Prioritize brain space. I am guilty of expending precious mental energy remembering where I put my phone or remembering what was on my mental grocery list. The suggestion here is to take advantage of calendars and planners, maps, shopping lists, file folders, and address books to keep routine information accessible. This way it is easier to concentrate on learning and remembering new and important things.
  4. Repetition, repetition, repetition! When you want to remember something you have just heard, read, or thought about, repeat it out loud or write it down. That way, you reinforce the memory or connection. (If you just met Emily, for example, use her name when getting to know her better: “So, Emily, where did you meet your husband?”)
  5. Be social. When you are socializing, the blood circulates to several different parts of your brain as you are listening and formulating responses. Strong social ties have been associated with a lower risk of dementia, as well as lower blood pressure and longer life expectancy. So get off your phone, Instagram and Netflix, and go interact with your friends!
  6. Protect your head. Head injuries increase the risk of cognitive impairment. Wear a helmet when you are biking, skiing, snowboarding, rafting, horseback riding, scootering, using a motorcycle, or any other activity that could potentially result in a head injury.
  7. Think positively. There is a well-known effect in the psychology of education referred to as the “Pygmalion effect.” If you set high standards for yourself and believe that achieving them is possible, they become possible. Thinking positive thoughts has a profound impact on the brain!

Take charge of your brain health. Everyday you and I make choices that affect the health of our brains both today and in the future. Prepare now for a healthy, happy future by exercising your brain and your body, meditating, ingesting healthy foods, getting quality sleep, and thinking positively. As always, should you have questions, or if you feel you would like to talk about your mental health, I invite you to contact me or schedule a session with me personally. My door is always open.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Intuitive Eating: Giving Your Body What It Wants

“Eating today has become this idea that the food on your fork can either kill you or cure you. It’s gotten to a point of almost religious fervor.” ~ Evelyn Tribole

Babies cry, eat, and then stop sucking when they have had enough milk. Children naturally balance their food intake from day to day — eating when they are hungry and stopping when they feel full. But adults have all types of stipulations on when they can eat, what they can eat, and how much they can eat. At some point, we stop letting their internal clocks guide us in feeding our hunger, and instead rely on society’s norms to guide our nutritional intake. Children have something to teach us about what, when, and how much we eat: It’s called following our intuition or intuitive eating.

In honor of March being National Nutrition Month, I want to talk about our relationship with food. There are so many diets today; Keto diet, Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers, South Beach, Dukan, Paleo, Vegan, low-carb and Atkins diets to name a few. There are all sorts of “fad diets” out there that eliminate certain food groups, have you count carbs, measure waistlines, and include a range of rules to achieve weight loss. And while [temporary] success may come from these diets, many individuals and dietitians in the country have found that more often than not, weight that has been lost that way does not stay off forever.  

Have you heard of intuitive eating? In 1995, two dietitians in Southern California grew tired of watching their clients see success in weight loss through dieting, only to gain it back over time. One of these dietitians, Evelyn Tribole, said, “We were banging our heads against the wall because the way we were working wasn’t working. We were sick of the insanity [our clients] were going through: They’d restrict themselves and lose weight, but then they’d gain it back and they’d blame themselves.” So she and her colleague, Elyse Resch, went back to the drawing board and their book, “Intuitive Eating A Revolutionary Program That Works” was born.  

At the time, Americans were just starting to realize how tiresome the shame and fear around food and ineffective weight loss was. In their book, Evelyn and Elyse encourage readers to do something that might sound backwards and dangerous:

Eat what you want, with no rules about what to eat, how much of it, or when.

Intuitive eating has 10 tenets, which I urge you, my readers, to read, ingest (pun), and practice. In a future blog post, I will go over these 10 principles of intuitive eating in greater detail and offer actionable steps. For the purpose of this overview post, I wish to focus only one of these 10 tenets, the one that may surprise you the most about intuitive eating: No foods are off limits, and there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” food.

I imagine you are thinking, woah woah woah, this just sounds like a free-for-all. I see where you are coming from and I validate that concern. But step back and allow me to explain. Often times, the reason you and I crave pizza is because we tell ourselves it is a wonderfully delicious sinful indulgence. But if we look at pizza as what it truly is (bread, tomato sauce, cheese, and pepperoni)–not necessarily anything good or bad…just food!–then the guilt associated with pizza evaporates. Sure, you may gorge on pizza for the first couple days of eating intuitively (and preliminary studies have found this occurs frequently for those new to intuitive eating), but eventually the body will tell you it has had enough pizza and wants something else. It may surprise you how quickly your body will tell you to pass up the post-workout donut and instead eat something nutritious!

It is undeniable that different foods have different nutritional benefits. Tribole and Resch are not aiming to tear down public-health initiatives that tell society to eat vegetables. At the very root of intuitive eating is the training to teach you to pay attention to how food makes your body feel.  If you untangle food from the stress, shame, and labels that society has put on things you eat, how do you really FEEL eating that donut or that celery juice? The fact is that while you may fill up on Five Guys, if you truly pay attention to what your body wants, you will inevitably crave the variety and nutrition represented by the “healthy” foods you once had used as punishment in your dieting days.

Intuitive eating means breaking free from the yo-yo cycle of dieting and learning to eat mindfully and without guilt. Intuitive eating is about trusting your inner body wisdom to make choices around food that feel good in your body, without judgment and without influence from diet culture. You were born with the skill to eat, to stop when you are full, to eat when you are hungry, and to eat satisfying foods. Intuitive eating is a return to that instinctual skill.

Intuitive eating is not a weight-loss program. It is not a diet. It is a way of life, a complete paradigm shift with what you eat and why you eat it. It has been found to improve body image, to promote mindfulness practices such as meditation, and encourage exercise — all of which is intended to better attune people to their bodies. This will allow you to mitigate binge- and emotional-eating tendencies…by listening to your body!

Calorie counting, carb avoiding, and waistline measuring are miserable lifestyles. The lifelong pressure to diet wears people down and does not lead to a healthy relationship with food. Though I am not a certified dietitian, I have experience in helping clients struggling with rules and negative beliefs around what they eat. I have seen firsthand how effective and life-altering intuitive eating can be. If you need help working through unhealthy eating habits, I would be happy to assist you and point you to helpful resources. Please contact me or schedule a session today to get started on the path to a healthier relationship with both food and your body.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Living Your Best Life, ADHD Aside

“ADHD is not about knowing what to do, but about doing what one knows.” ~ Russell Barkley

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), previously known as ADD, can present challenges for adults across all areas of life. It can be taxing on your health, your job, and your personal and professional relationships. Your symptoms may lead to procrastination, trouble meeting deadlines, difficulty maintaining relationships, and impulsive behaviors. You may wind up feeling alone, and as though friends and family do not understand what you are dealing with. Fortunately, there are skills you can learn to help manage the symptoms of your ADHD. You can improve your daily habits, learn to recognize and use your strengths, and develop techniques that help you work more efficiently, maintain organization, and interact better with those around you.

Over the last several years, awareness about ADHD has increased, and the stigma surrounding this mental health issue has decreased. There are many resources available for adults living with ADHD. Below, in the resources section, I have included links to articles that include specific tips for managing stress and boosting mood, ideas for staying focused and productive at work, suggestions for managing money and bills, advice for managing time and staying on schedule, and instructions to get organized and control clutter. In this post, however, I will share the basic, overarching principles you will find helpful to live your best life despite having ADHD.

  1. Create structure. This is possibly the biggest help to combat ADHD. Make a routine and stick to it every day. Establish rituals around meals, school, work, free time, as well as your morning and evening routines. Simple tasks, such as laying out your clothes and items for the next day, meal prepping, and daily planning can provide essential structure.
  2. Break tasks into manageable pieces. The demands of school, work and life can leave anyone feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and hopeless. Whatever task you are faced with, break it down into bite-sized (so to speak) steps that you CAN do. Then tackle those one by one until you accomplish your end goal.
  3. Simplify and organize your life. Create order in your home or work space. Often, the tendency to get distracted makes organizing clutter difficult. But if everything has a designated place, cleaning up will be efficient and easy. This will allow you to focus on the things that really matter. In addition, having an orderly living or work space will offer you a haven from the chaos of everyday life.
  4. Limit distractions. Individuals with ADHD welcome easily accessible distractions. Television, video games, and the computer encourage impulsive behavior that must be regulated. In addition to decreasing time with electronics, I recommend increasing time doing engaging activities outside the home as an outlet for built-up energy (see next).
  5. Encourage exercise. Physical activity burns excess energy in healthy ways, which will decrease impulsivity. Exercise will help to improve concentration, decrease the risk for depression and anxiety, and stimulate the brain. Did you know that many professional athletes have ADHD? Experts believe that athletics can help those with ADHD find a constructive way to focus their passion, attention, and energy.
  6. Regulate sleep patterns. Bedtime may be an especially difficult for individuals suffering from ADHD. The lack of sleep exacerbates inattention and hyperactivity; therefore, getting quality sleep is paramount! Not too long ago, I wrote a blog post on nightly rituals that will help you “sleep like a baby.” In addition to the suggestions in that post, I recommend eliminating stimulants like sugar and caffeine, and decreasing television time to help get better rest.
  7. Encourage out-loud thinking. Those with ADHD can lack self-control and often speak compulsively, or without thinking. Try verbalizing your thoughts and reasoning. If you do not have someone supportive with whom you can confide, I recommend keeping a journal. It is important to understand your thought process in order to be able to curb impulsive behaviors.
  8. Take breaks. It is 100% normal to become overwhelmed or frustrated with yourself as you try to manage the behaviors and impulses that accompany ADHD. Give yourself breaks, schedule them (include them in step one, when you “create structure”!). Scheduling alone time is important. Good break options include going for a walk, reading a book, taking a relaxing bath, or anything that promotes self-care.
  9. Believe in yourself. Remember that ADHD causes legitimate stress. Do not minimize your feelings of anxiety and frustration. While so doing, it will be important to remain positive and hopeful. Recognize your progress. Believe that you can work through the obstacles before you. Have confidence in yourself and be positive about the future.
  10. Get help. The final suggestion I would like to allow others to help. You do not need to manage ADHD on your own! Allow close family or friends to be part of your journey; rely on them for support and to help you make progress. Additionally, get individualized counseling with a licensed, experienced therapist. I have several patients who have learned the necessary skills to be in control of their ADHD.  I am your advocate and can be you personal cheerleader! Contact me today to schedule a session. Furthermore, some individuals find that receiving medication can help immensely help them in managing their ADHD symptoms. Finally, look into local support groups near you. This is an incredibly helpful resource!

Before I end, I want to leave you with some reminders that have been helpful to those I have worked with. Be willing to make some compromises and recognize that perfection is not realistic. Remember that while ADHD may not be visible on the outside, it is real. You are dealing with a hard thing, so please remember that when the going gets tough! Third, take things one day at a time and remember to keep everything in perspective.

Take heart. You can learn to live with manageable ADHD symptoms and be in control of your life. Let ADHD be an explanation, rather than an excuse. Be patient and remember that change will not happen overnight. These ADHD self-help strategies require practice, patience, and a relentlessly positive attitude. As I always say, my door is wide open and I am here to help. I accept new clients for in-person sessions. Contact me today!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Avoiding the Silent Killer in Relationships

“Expectation is the root of all heartache.” ~ William Shakespeare

We all have experienced disappointment in a relationship before. There are a million reasons we may be let down by our friends, family members, or romantic partners. In our most important relationships we often feel our most painful feelings. When we have been hurt by those that love us, we may start to believe that getting disappointed is inevitable and unavoidable. What if I were to say that there is something we could do to lessen the disappointment we feel in our relationships? Such a thing exists, and it may seem almost too simple! Almost.

Allow me to paint a picture to demonstrate this point. Kathy had an idea of how things would go for Valentine’s Day last month. She dreamt of breakfast in bed, maybe a voucher for a massage, some roses delivered, a bit of extra help with the kids, a fancy dinner, and chocolate with a lovey card from her husband to top off the day. Unfortunately, her reality involved nothing from the above scenario; instead, a brisk hug as her husband rushed out the door for work, a long day at home with fussy children, no card, no flowers, no chocolate. She was left disappointed and discouraged.

What happened? Her expectations went unmet. While this was somewhat of an extreme example, the point is clear. Kathy’s expectations did not match reality, and it led to dissatisfaction in this important relationship.

Having unmet expectations is not just a marriage problem. It is a LIFE problem. All of us have important relationships. It does not matter whether we are single, married, working, unemployed, old, or young. Having unmet expectations is lethal to everyone in any kind of a relationship. No one is immune.

So what can be done? This may seem like a very obvious solution, but what if we tried communicating our expectations? I have a very wise client who asks his wife what she expects for her birthday, their anniversary, Christmas, any holiday, and even ordinary week nights. He will say, “What do you want tonight to look like? What can I do to help you?” That way, they are on the same figurative page and team, and no one is left feeling frustrated because the night did not go as planned. And for those important holidays, his wife has had to learn to really use her words and communicate that she wants a mushy card and some one-on-one time. This type of direct communication has satisfied both of their needs and helped them to avoid unmet expectations.

We can do the same! Communicating our expectations is a sure-fire way to avoid the grief and frustrations that come from unmet expectations. It really can be that easy.

There are some who say to not have any expectations at all — that if we do not have any expectation for our spouse or partner on any given day, we will not be disappointed. While I can kinda see the logic there, I would not apply this advice to important relationships. We get what we expect, so if we expect nothing, we will settle for less than what we ultimately want or deserve. I advise having firm, yet realistic expectations in any given relationship — whether that is with a brother, friend, neighbor, parent, or lover. I encourage expectations of respect, honesty, trust, support, and communication. It is realistic for each of us to hope for and expect these core elements in our relationships!

Healthy, realistic expectations, that are communicated, are essential in a relationship. You deserve it! When we come into a situation where our expectations are not met (as we assuredly will) let’s take a breath, discard our expectations for how that moment should have gone,and deal with the reality at hand.  Later, have a conversation with the other party involved, about what was expected and why, come to an agreement about each other’s expectations, and discuss how any misunderstandings can be avoided in the future.

It is noteworthy to mention the need to not expect perfection. We need to remember that our siblings, friends, and partners are imperfect beings doing the best they can. When Kathy (from the story above) berated her husband for the unremarkable Valentine’s Day, he was not only surprised by her expectations of him for the day, but also discouraged about her uncommunicated idea of what the “perfect husband” does. We all need to set goals in our relationships, and it is equally important that those goals be realistic and clearly communicated.

Having unrealistic expectations or not voicing our hopes for a given circumstance/situation can lead to frustration, resentment, and disappointment. But if we have realistic expectations that we verbalize to one another, we will watch our relationships flourish due to this honest and open type of communication. Should you have questions or concerns, click here to contact me. My door is always open. Click here to schedule a session today.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Beginning the Conversation: Teen Suicide

“Where did I go wrong? / I lost a friend / Somewhere along in the bitterness / And I would have stayed up with you all night / Had I known how to save a life.” “How To Save a Life” by The Fray

It has been a tragic week for our community as many were impacted by the suicide of a teen from a local high school. This particular teenager was described as happy and easygoing, so this loss has rocked and taken the community by complete surprise. Whether it is from a story in the news, or from personally losing a classmate/neighbor/colleague/friend/family member, many of us have experienced the painful aftermath of suicide. Popular artists like Nickelback, Rascal Flatts, James Taylor, Green Day, Billy Joel, The Fray, Katy Perry, U2, Linkin Park, are just a few of the many artists that have also been impacted by suicide and have written songs about their experiences. With my heart heavy from this recent loss in my community, I feel the need to begin to address the mountainous topic of suicide.

Suicide is devastating to family, friends, and a community. Loss, due to suicide, leaves a gaping hole; each suicide intimately affects at least six other people. Parents, siblings, classmates, coaches, and neighbors may be left wondering if they could have done something to prevent that young person from turning to suicide. This post is for those contemplating self-harm or suicide, who work with teens, who are acquainted with someone with a mental illness, or who have wanted to just go to sleep and not wake up…in short, this post is for all of us.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline (24 hours a day): 1-800-273-8255

It can be hard to remember how it felt to be a teen, caught in between childhood and adulthood. While it is a time of tremendous possibility, it is also a period of great stress and worry. There is intense pressure to fit in socially, to perform academically, and to act responsibly. Young people with mental health problems–such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or insomnia–are at higher risk for suicidal thoughts. Teens going through major life changes–parents’ divorce, moving, a parent leaving home due to military service or parental separation, financial changes–and those who are victims of bullying are at greater risk of suicidal thoughts.

Suicide rates differ for boys and girls. Girls think about and attempt suicide about twice as often as boys, but they typically do so by overdosing on drugs or cutting themselves. Suicide among boys is four times as common because they tend to use more lethal methods–such as firearms, hanging, or jumping from great heights. Interestingly, in the United States, suicide rates are the highest in the months of March, April, and May.

The risk of suicide increases dramatically when kids and teens have access to firearms at home. Nearly 60% of all suicides in the United States are committed with a gun. If there is a gun in your home, please ensure that it is unloaded, locked, and kept out of the reach of children and teens.

Teens who are thinking about suicide might talk about suicide or death in general. They may give hints that they might not be around anymore or talk about feeling hopeless or feeling guilty. They tend to pull away from friends or family. They write songs, poems, or letters about death, separation, and loss. They may start giving away treasured possessions to siblings or friends. They lose the desire to take part in school, sports, or other favorite activities and things. They may have trouble concentrating or thinking clearly, or experience major changes in eating or sleeping habits. They may increasingly engage in more risky behaviors. Or they may seem to suddenly be “better” or “happy” after a period of hopelessness or depression.

If you are contemplating suicide, please… talk to someone. Ask for help. Make a safety plan. The musician, Billy Joel, once attempted suicide; later he wrote the song, “You’re Only Human” to assure his listeners that better times are ahead: “Don’t forget your second wind. Sooner or later you’ll feel that momentum kick in.” Evaluate your relationships; love and friendship are all about respect. If you are in a toxic or unhealthy relationship, it has the power to negatively affect you and cause you to consider self-harm. Seek help! There are so many resources available. Similarly, if you are being bullied, help is available. You deserve love and respect. You are worth it!

National Suicide Prevention Hotline (24 hours a day): 1-800-273-8255

Earlier this week, I woke up to a text message in a family thread about what is referred to as the “Momo Challenge” infiltrating YouTube kids and other online platforms. Parents, please be aware of this challenge! Participants are urged to take photos and videos of themselves completing harmful “challenges” that escalate to incredibly dangerous and even suicidal actions. The creators of these challenges have the intent to harm as they invite their users to do dangerous “challenges.” This is not something to toy with. Please, if you or someone you know has gotten sucked into the Momo Challenge or anything akin to it, please entirely disconnect from it. You do not need to play with knives or engage in other risky behaviors to get love and attention. You are worthy of love and belonging without harming yourself!

There has been a major uptick in teen suicide the last few years. Several teachers at Lone Peak High School in Highland, Utah, noticed this epidemic and made a slam poem into an inspiring video for their students. In it, the teachers share their past failures and disappointments, as well as how things changed for the better as life continued on. They plead with their students to not harm themselves, to keep going, and to remember their worth. I urge all of you to watch their video as well as to share it on your social media platforms. Here are some of their words:

This isn’t the end. High School was never meant to be the end.

It’s too early to draw the final conclusion. This proof is incomplete. This is not your denouement. It’s not the fourth quarter. This is not the curtain call.

You are more than the sport you play and the one you don’t; more than a GPA, ACT, AP, honors, regular classification on a college application.

You can do this. We believe in you. And when they call your name at graduation, we’ll call you patience. We’ll call you courage. We’ll call you hope and say we saw it all along.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline (24 hours a day): 1-800-273-8255

Please, my readers, if you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please reach out. There are so many resources and so many people willing to help and listen–despite if you feel alone, helpless, or hopeless. If you feel there is no one else to turn to, please know that I am here as your advocate and your cheerleader. My door is always open! Contact me with questions or click here to schedule a session.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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