A Change of Venue

In my first post, Walk 20 Blocks and Call Me in the Morning!, I talked about the role that walking played in my healing journey. Initially, I walked in my mom’s neighborhood, and then my friend’s neighborhood. And, once I moved to an apartment, through the apartment complex parking lot. A friend of mine asked if I had visited a nearby park—Lake Willastein. At her recommendation, I started walking there. It was summer, so I got up early in order to avoid the heat. My early start offered me the chance to experience many a gorgeous sunrise on the lake.

A sky with pink, purple and orange clouds reflect in a body of water below. Silhouettes of trees like the shore on the opposite site of the water.
Sunrise at Lake Willastein Park

Soon I realized that the benefits of walking seemed to be even greater as I walked among the trees in the park, enjoyed the water fowl at the lake, and witnessed the purple, orange and yellow colors of the sky reflecting on the lake. Soon after starting this morning practice, I picked up The Nature Fix by Florence Williams. In it, she cites a study by Yoshifumi Miyazaki in which he discovered that: “leisurely forest walks, compared to urban walks, deliver a 12 percent decrease in cortisol levels.” His research team also “recorded a 7 percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 6 percent decrease in heart rate.”

That resonated with me. The change from walking in the neighborhoods to walking around the lake felt like doubling the dose of medication I had been taking to heal from past traumas.… Read the full post “A Change of Venue”

Novelty and the Brain

The lens of my camera moved from branch to branch, following a black-capped chickadee that was desperate to avoid having its photo taken.

A small bird with a black head and throat, white belly and grey wings rests on a small brach with purplish-pink flowers on it.
Black-capped Chickadee perching on a Redbud Tree, istock.com. (Because I didn’t get the photo. Grin.)

“What you got there?”

I looked over my shoulder to see a man and woman approaching me.

“A couple of black-capped chickadees,” I said as I turned back to the tree and pointed.

We all peered at the tree together.

The woman broke the silence. “I was just thinking that I hadn’t seen any birds yet.”

I thought about the tufted titmice I had seen earlier—the sound of their song as they took turns calling out to each other. Two turkey vultures were circling above the nearby lake just minutes ago. A pileated woodpecker cackled in the distance.

I started to tell her about them but stopped myself. “I bet you’ll see more in this area of the gardens.” We were in a wooded area of Garvan Woodland Gardens at this point.

It’s actually not surprising that she hadn’t noticed the birds. She was there to see the tulips. We all were. The striking colors and magnitude of the 150,000 tulips was breathtaking. And it was novel.

The Power of Novelty

Deep purple flowers shaped like cups with straight green stems
Purple tulips at Garvan Woodland Gardens, Melanie Thornton

I had been reading about the power of novelty in The Nature Fix (See the Resources Page). Novelty is good for our brains. Research shows that novel experiences result in the release of dopamine.… Read the full post “Novelty and the Brain”

Our Brains on Anniversaries

Our brains are wired to protect us from danger. When something traumatic happens, our brains use all the senses to gather data around us during that event. We may not be able to voluntarily remember all of those details, but our brains store them.

A green plant is in a large light colored pot with a rainbow shaped decoration that is tan.
Bird nest fern

This is why our reactions to anniversaries of an event can catch us off guard. Even when we are not consciously thinking about an upcoming anniversary of a traumatic event or loss, there are many things that remind our brains that it is coming and then our brains kick into gear to warn us that danger may be around the corner. It might be the smells of certain flowers that bloom that time of year or the decorations for a holiday that was near that anniversary.

Many people refer to these cues in our environment as “triggers”. I prefer to use the word “stimulus” or “stimuli.” (The topic of a future blog entry.)

Sometimes we don’t recognize that our reactions are connected to a past event. We may feel anxious or irritable for no apparent reason. We may have a sense of dread but not know why.

I’ve been around many people who have very strong anniversary reactions to past trauma and loss. I’ve never had as predictable a pattern as that. So as I approach the first year anniversary of my separation from my partner, I’ve been a bit caught off guard by my strong emotions. I’m not sure if it is due to stimuli in the environment or all my own processing, but my emotions this week have been big.… Read the full post “Our Brains on Anniversaries”

Being Okay

Hands cut out of many colors of paper come together to form a heart

Phrases like “Love is love” and “Love is never wrong” are deeply significant to us as members of the LGBTQ+ community. These phrases push back at the messages we received growing up. I grew up hearing all sorts of denigrating messages. As a lesbian, I’ve heard my brand of love and attraction described as: disgusting, sick, sinful, perverted, abnormal, and deviant. Many of these descriptions came from people I knew and loved. No matter how clear I am that these messages are wrong, they have still left a mark. In fact, research is revealing that continuous experiences of discrimination and microagressions* have an impact on the brain that is similar to that of other types of trauma.

As a young person, I rarely heard positive messages to counter these hurtful words. On an emotional level, I translated these messages into negative beliefs such as “I am not okay,” “I’m a bad person,” and “I am unloveable.” Sure, these beliefs are untrue, but they have operated on a subconscious level. These negative beliefs have had a huge impact on me throughout my life. I’ve placed other people’s happiness and importance above my own. I have held back. I’ve lived a smaller life than I might have otherwise. And I’m certainly not unique in this regard. In fact, many of my friends have experienced much more intense levels of rejection and hurt.

The Power of EMDR

As I mentioned in my previous post, Old Wounds Heal, Pal, I’m working with a therapist who is skilled in EMDR.… Read the full post “Being Okay”

What Do You Want More Of?

In my post entitled As the Winter Solstice Approaches, I mentioned that one of the questions I was posing to myself was “What do I want more of?”

As we consider what we want to be different in the coming year, we sometimes think about things we don’t want to do or things we want to do less of, but posing our questions and stating our goals in the right way is important because it helps our brain help us.

Let me lay the groundwork for this for a moment.

Have you ever been driving somewhere that you go often, such as work, and you suddenly find yourself in the parking lot and have no memory of the drive there? Your mind was wandering somewhere else. But your subconscious mind was in full control, getting you safely to work.

On the other hand, have you ever been heading somewhere and suddenly find yourself going another route, perhaps taking a route that you frequently take? Again, your subconscious mind took over, but this time it wasn’t so helpful, taking you the wrong direction.

Both examples show how powerful the subconscious mind is. It can be harnessed to help us meet our goals if we learn how to formulate our goals in ways that our subconscious mind understands more easily.

Our subconscious mind:

  1. Does not process negation as well as positive statements.
  2. Understands images better than words.

So asking yourself what you want more of leads to positive statements that are more easily understood by the subconscious mind.… Read the full post “What Do You Want More Of?”

Old Wounds

In my first post, Walk 20 Blocks and Call Me in the Morning, I mentioned that I was working through childhood trauma with a therapist. I’ll share more about that later, but right now, I want to acknowledge that the experience of trauma during childhood is quite common. Though our individual experiences differ, the majority of us have experienced painful circumstances early in our lives. As I share my own journey, I do so with the recognition that this journey does not make me unique. In fact, it connects me to those of you who also had traumatic experiences as a child.

How do we know that childhood trauma is common? One piece of evidence comes from the ACE Study. I learned about this important research a few years ago and it had a profound impact on my own understanding, and on our collective understanding of the prevalence and impact of childhood trauma. ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences.

A brief summary of the findings is: There is a strong correlation between the number of adverse childhood experiences a person has and an increased risk of unhealthy behaviors and health problems.

To be more specific, children who experience

  • physical abuse,
  • sexual abuse,
  • emotional abuse,
  • physical neglect,
  • emotional neglect,
  • mental illness of a family member,
  • incarceration of a family member,
  • a mother being treated violently,
  • parents being divorced, and/or
  • substance abuse of a family member

…become adults who are more likely to:

  • be physically inactive,
  • abuse drugs or alcohol,
  • smoke,
  • miss a lot of work,
  • have health problems such as depression, diabetes, heart disease, COPD, stroke, STDs, cancer, broken bones, and severe obesity, and/or
  • attempt suicide.
Read the full post “Old Wounds”

I’m So Lucky!

As today is Thanksgiving, I want to share a story about gratitude.

Years ago my mom worked with a man who had several children. The youngest, Julia, was doted over by the whole family. She had to go in to have her tonsils removed and her parents and siblings worried that she would be scared. So they dealt with it preemptively by talking about all of the good things that would happen before and after the surgery.

“You’ll get to stay home from school.”

“You’ll get to eat all of the ice cream and popsicles you want.”

And on and on.

They realized they may have overdone it when she finally proclaimed, “I’m so lucky!”

This story is one that my family has referenced often through the years. Like an inside joke, we sometimes say “I’m so lucky” in situations where we are facing something challenging. It brings a bit of levity into the situation and is also a reminder that there really is always something to be grateful for.

As neuroscientists are recognizing the many benefits of gratitude on our well-being they are also discovering that for some people, like Julia, gratitude comes more naturally. Research is identifying both genetic differences and brain differences in people who are naturally more grateful.

The good news though is that whether gratitude comes naturally or not, practicing gratitude can change our habits and maybe even rewire our brains—resulting in greater health and happiness.

Gratitude can look a lot of different ways. We may be grateful to a specific person.… Read the full post “I’m So Lucky!”

Walk 20 Blocks and Call Me in the Morning!

I was 57. I had just separated from my partner of over 20 years. I had moved in with my mom in her rather small apartment. I was away from my dog. We were a year into the pandemic. Work was more stressful than normal. I was trying to work through some childhood trauma with a therapist. I was emotionally exhausted.

One day, I just set off walking. I didn’t walk because I read I should or because I wanted to exercise or lose weight. I walked because I had to. The turmoil inside my body, mind and heart compelled me to move. And walking was the way I chose to move. I began walking daily. And with every walk, I felt like I was somehow cleansing the trauma that was living inside me. If I skipped a day, I could feel more of it creeping back in. It was as if I had skipped a dose of medicine.

And then, I happened to run across Brené Brown’s podcast interview with Emily and Amelia Nagoski, the authors of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Here’s a summary of some of the key points of the podcast and book.

  1. “Emotions…involve the release of neurochemicals in the brain, in response to some stimulus.”1
  2. They have a beginning, middle and end. They are like a tunnel.
  3. If you move all the way through the tunnel, great! But if you don’t do something to complete the cycle of the emotion, you get stuck in the tunnel and the chemicals created by that emotion get stuck in your body.
Read the full post “Walk 20 Blocks and Call Me in the Morning!”