An Old-Fashioned, Counter-Cultural Approach

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Elder Care, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

Are you already worn out from holiday activities?  There is Thanksgiving travel, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and reports of morning, noon, and night sales hitting record levels.  The cold and flu season is well underway, and millions of Americans are totally tuckered out.  They will, nonetheless, try to sustain this frenetic activity for another month.  There is an alternative, old-fashioned, counter-cultural approach.  It’s called Advent.

Long, long ago, before people had electronic devices surgically implanted into the palms of their hands, they observed a quiet, disciplined period of waiting for Christmas.  The word, “Advent,” is from the Latin word “adventus,” referring to the arrival of a significant person, time, or event.  Over the centuries, Christians developed the practice of spending the four weeks before Christmas in prayer, fasting, and giving alms to the poor.  It was a way to discipline themselves, physically and spiritually.

Many of our grandparents were very serious about this tradition.  They waited to put up a tree and decorate it until Christmas Eve.  The 12 days of Christmas were actually celebrated from Christmas Day to January 6th, the Epiphany, or arrival of the three Wisemen.  Today, Christmas-in-July sales have us in major shopping mode for half the year.  Many people are tired of Christmas long before it arrives.  By the time credit card bills arrive in late December, very few people are ready for any sort of Epiphany, spiritual, or otherwise.

There are some healthy, helpful things any of us can do in the spirit of Advent.  Most folks want to find meaning in their lives that extends beyond acquiring money, stuff, and titles.  Nonstop, frantic striving can only distract us for so long.

  • Before the holiday craziness consumes any more of your mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual energy, consider a slightly different approach to December: “Fast” from all electronics for one hour a day (while you’re actually awake).  This will reveal volumes about where you are in life.
  • Practice the old-fashioned discipline of giving up candy, sweets, desserts, etc. The first bite of your favorite holiday treat will taste heavenly.  Chances are good that you’ll drop a few pounds in the process.
  • Avoid spending money on fancy coffee, eating out, alcohol, and other little indulgences; give the money you save to help a family devastated by the recent natural disasters.
  • Do something nice for someone else — anonymously.
  • Do something nice for someone you really can’t stand.
  • Invest 15–25 minutes each day in prayer, meditation, contemplation, or spiritual reading to focus on what matters most to you.
  • Make a serious effort to replace cynicism and sarcasm with gratitude and gentleness.

If all of us did even half of these things for a few weeks, the ripple effect would be immense.  Advent.  It’s an old-fashioned, counter-cultural approach.

A Little Extra Thoughtfulness

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

It’s coming.  The busiest travel time of the year is nearly here.  Thanksgiving is next week, and we’ll be bracing for impact.  Tens of millions of people will go somewhere they don’t really want to go and will do things they don’t really want to do — in some cases with people they may not even like.

Painful delays at airports, agonizing congestion on highways, bad weather, stress, and exhaustion will give a green light to viruses everywhere. Welcome to the cold and flu season.  It might be prudent to rethink a few things.

Despite a strong economy, this has been a very tough year for many people.  Historic flooding, catastrophic hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes, and hellish wildfires have inflicted untold suffering and loss.  Mass shootings, violent threats, angry mobs, and generally vicious behavior have overshadowed civility and decorum.  Many decent people across the country feel overwhelmed and demoralized.  I don’t think anyone needs more stress, certainly not at the Thanksgiving table.

But all is not lost.  Difficult situations bring out the worst in some people but the very best in many others.  Heroic acts of courage and compassion abound whenever disaster strikes.  Few of us will ever have to save someone from a raging flood or fire, but we can all be a bit more thoughtful and understanding.  This year, consider a few ideas that might make Thanksgiving less stressful and more pleasant for everyone:

  • Don’t put pressure on loved ones to travel. People only have so much time, energy, and money to spare.  Controlling relatives is not helpful here.
  • Include someone who might otherwise be alone.  Chances are good such folks are all around you.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist in the kitchen. Thanksgiving is not a competitive event.
  • Offer to help or bring a dish, but don’t force your brussels sprouts casserole on the host. Some people don’t know when to cease and desist.
  • Resist the temptation to talk politics. Now is not the time to upset people.
  • Put a ban on phones, television, and assorted other devices. Through your church, synagogue, or club, sponsor a Thanksgiving dinner for a family in need.
  • Show interest in other people at dinner. Good conversation starts with sincere questions about the other person and really listening to that person.
  • Don’t inflict yourself on others if you’re sick. Someone will almost certainly be happy to bring you some wonderful leftovers.
  • Be genuinely grateful for all the blessings you do have. Let people know that you appreciate them.

Thanksgiving is a lovely holiday with charming traditions.  With a little extra thoughtfulness, we can make it better than ever for everyone.

Calm Down, Slow Down, and Live

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Pain, Seminars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

I witnessed a four-car accident this week.  Moments before it happened, I knew what was coming.  A driver wanting to turn left raced through a light turning red.

Another driver coming in the opposite direction jumped a light before it turned green. They collided.  Two cars following much too closely plowed into the mess.  Everyone was all right, but a major intersection was blocked and lots of people were ready to explode.

This scenario plays out all over the country every day. Impatient, rude, distracted drivers are increasingly problematic.  Drunk or sleep-deprived drivers cause a tremendous number of accidents, but 66 percent of traffic fatalities are caused by aggressive driving.

Nearly everyone is in a hurry today, even in a place like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  I suppose at 9 A.M. many people are still trying to get to work, but a traffic accident will really make you late.

Research has shown that aggressive, angry drivers have distorted depth perception. This is worrisome, since traffic congestion is not about to ease and most people drive much too close to the car ahead.  Add a little rain, fog, snow, or ice, and an accident is inevitable.

Halloween is on October 31, with Thanksgiving and Christmas travel soon to follow.  Since an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure, there are a few tips we can all use to stay safe:

  • Get in touch with reality. Many people underestimate how long it takes to go anywhere.  Stress levels ease when you routinely leave an extra 15-20 minutes to reach your destination — more if you drive in a large city.
  • Leave more space between your car and the one ahead. The laws of physics work whether we like them or not.  Sooner or later someone will have to stop unexpectedly.
  • Don’t try to run a stoplight. At some point, it will not go well for you.
  • Don’t be rude on the road. Cutting off another driver, yelling, making vulgar gestures, or otherwise being aggressive will not help.
  • Stay focused on driving. Unless you’re driving across Wyoming or west Texas, you must have your wits about you at every moment.  Even talking on the phone or sipping coffee can be dangerous.  Texting is flat out foolish.  Don’t do it.
  • Be considerate of other drivers. We’ve all struggled to get in the correct lane on a congested highway.  Unless it’s simply unsafe, let another driver merge ahead of you and never fuss at someone for being gracious to others.

Every person today is dealing with stress, and most of us have made an occasional error on the road.  Perhaps we could all calm down, slow down, and live to enjoy the holidays.

A Circle of Prayer

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Elder Care, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars
Credit: National Review

They knelt in prayer and grief.  A dozen brave, dedicated, selfless firefighters and rescue personnel in Wilmington, NC were heartbroken on sight.  A mother and her 8-month old baby girl were killed when a tree crashed through their house during Hurricane Florence.  The father was severely injured and rushed to the hospital.  Upon completion of their agonizing task, the first responders were captured in a photo kneeling in a circle of prayer.  Within hours, the image went viral and millions felt their anguish.

Suffering and heartache are rampant here in the Carolinas now.  It will take many months and even years for people to recover from the devastation.  This part of the country has been my home for many years and my heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to everyone in need.  I know that everyone at INR joins me in that circle of prayer.  To all our customers and colleagues who have worked with us for so long, we wish you Godspeed in your recovery.

To Whom Much Is Given

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

Something is seriously wrong.  The unemployment rate is around 3.9 percent.  The most recent GDP (Gross Domestic Product) figure shows a 4.1 percent gain.  These are tremendous numbers, and yet, millions of people who should be building lives of their own are still clinging to mommy.  They don’t want to grow up, pay their own way, develop a career, make a commitment to another person, begin a family or household of their own, or accept responsibility for anything.  This is not good.  Maturity begins with the acceptance of responsibility.

Unfortunately, many of my fellow baby boomers have indulged their children to the point of pathology.  Feverish efforts to create a perpetual soft landing for kids have only enabled endless dependency.

In World War II, millions of young men in their teens and twenties signed up to defend the country.  No one who had stormed the beaches of Normandy or fought at Guadalcanal came home to sponge off mommy and daddy.

Even the relatively spoiled people of my generation would have chosen to live in their Volkswagens after college rather than go home to live with mom and dad.  Living with your parents after college was considered the ultimate sign of personal failure.

There are of course, millions of millennials working hard to develop their careers and raise young children.  But far too many still think that eternal adolescence is “cute.”  Arrested social development and “infantilization” of adults is not cute.  It’s medically, psychologically, socially, and even spiritually abnormal.  Our culture has gone off the rails attempting to normalize behavior that is clearly dysfunctional and disturbed.

Work is essential for a man to feel good about himself.  A woman needs a sense of accomplishment too, but a woman can also define herself through relationships and caregiving.  Depriving a young man of the satisfaction and fulfillment that comes with physical labor, challenge, and struggle is not in his best interest.  All too often part of the problem is a mother who desperately wants to feel “needed.”  Parents may complain about an adult child who won’t leave the nest, but as long as mom and dad pay the bills, little darling has no motivation to get off the couch.

Sometimes real love is difficult and even disruptive.  The fundamental responsibility of any parent is to provide and protect the child when he or she is young.  The job is not complete, however, until a child has been taught the skills necessary to become a capable, honorable adult who gives more than he or she takes.

“To whom much is given, much will be required.” Some people think that sounds harsh.  Actually, it’s one of the secrets to a happy, fulfilling life.

A Wonderful Ritual

Posted on Posted in Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

It has started.  Across the country, kids from kindergarten to college are heading back to school.

I miss that back-to-school ritual.  Shopping for new clothes (even uniforms), textbooks, pens, folders, notebooks, and lunch boxes made me happy.  Spending a day with my mom and sister focused on a bright, new beginning.  It was a wonderful ritual.  We would always be excited to show our dad all the new treasures.  He would heartily approve of our purchases and remind us to use them to get good grades.

I could be wrong, but I get the feeling that much of that ritual and tradition is fading away.  Online shopping, frantic last-minute errands, and people doing “their own thing” seems to be replacing planned family outings.  Maintaining some structure, routine, and ritual is more and more challenging.

But the “whatever” approach to life is not very fulfilling.  Human beings, whether they are in a newborn nursery or a nursing home, do best when they have a healthy routine.  If you have school-age kids, it may help to consider a few time-tested principles.  Establishing these “rules” is a lot easier at the start of the school year than it is after a month or two of foundering and fiascos.

  • Preserve and protect bedtime — few factors influence performance at school (or work) more than sleep. And most kids need a lot more of it.  Unfortunately, when kids stay up until 10, 11, or 12 at night during the summer and then try to go sleep at 8:30 or 9, things don’t go well.  Begin to ease everyone into school-day bedtimes and wake-up schedules a week before school starts.  Only the strongest and wisest of parents will even attempt this.
  • Get everyone up early enough to have a decent breakfast and avoid morning rush and chaos. Some people never learn this principle, but most successful people get up long before they “have to.”
  • Teach kids to prepare as much as possible the night before — homework, projects, clothes, permission slips, etc. This is another principle of success in life and does wonders for easing stress and anxiety.
  • Limit TV and screen time, especially on school nights. Bullying and generalized nastiness abound on social media.  Kids will always complain about rules and boundaries, but deep down every child wants to feel safe, secure, and loved.  It helps if mom and dad set a good example here.
  • Create a home environment that’s conducive to calming down. Overstimulation and overextending are epidemic in our culture and disastrous for concentration or restorative sleep.
  • Establish and maintain a family dinner hour without devices. Kids must be taught how to have a conversation and actually be attentive to others.  There are 50-somethings out there who haven’t learned this.

People will always insist they don’t have time for lots of things.  But we all get 24 hours of time each day.  The question is, which activities will really make a difference down the road?  Establishing a healthy back-to-school routine can be the foundation for a happy, successful life.

Pearls of Wisdom

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

He was a disciplined thinker, a real-life Mr. Spock, in a world where so many worship emotion.  Dr. Charles Krauthammer died on June 21, 2018, after a battle with cancer and 46 years of paralysis from a diving accident.  He finished medical school at Harvard and trained as a psychiatrist before turning to political journalism.  Early in his career he won a Pulitzer Prize.  The rest is history.

Dr. Krauthammer was an intellectual force of nature.  Facts, reality, logic, and truth served as his compass.  He had an unusually inquisitive mind and was open-minded enough to allow his thinking to evolve.  This stood in stark contrast to so many in the media who idolize notions and emotions.

Always patient and respectful in debate, Dr. Krauthammer was kind, thoughtful, gracious, and dignified.  But those qualities never suppressed a laser-like wit and genuine sense of fun.  He knew what there was to know about baseball and chess. People loved being around him because they always learned something and had a good laugh.  Being confined to a wheelchair did not prevent him from enjoying life.

Most people will remember Dr. Krauthammer for his political analysis and writing.  But as a physician who struggles with multiple illnesses, I have a slightly different focus.  Here are just a few pearls of wisdom I learned from his remarkable example:

  • Resist the temptation to feel sorry for yourself. Bitterness and victimhood will not solve anything.
  • Think about death every day. This is not morbid.  Charles Krauthammer was a wonderfully cheerful, funny man.  Confronting death allows one to appreciate life fully.
  • Keep your focus on others. We live in an age of malignant narcissism.  Krauthammer rarely talked about himself and kept his focus on the needs, problems, hopes, and dreams of other people.
  • Be courageous enough to say what you think but always be measured and civil. Hatred and nastiness abound today. There’s nothing constructive or healthy about it.  Civility, patience, gentleness, and humility will always be the mark of true wisdom.

Dr. Charles Krauthammer could have given up on everything at the bottom of that swimming pool when he was 22 years old.  He chose to fight back, and I’m one of millions who is grateful that he did.

homestudy

Note to Self

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Elder Care, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

Anthony Bourdain. Kate Spade. Robin Williams. They had what most people dream of having: massive success; fame; money; and a fabulous lifestyle. And yet, on the most profound and intimate level, they were utterly miserable. They couldn’t find a way to love themselves enough to keep living.

They are not alone. Millions of people, known only to a few folks around them, suffer the torment of suicidal thinking. We’ve known for decades that most suicide victims see some sort of health care professional shortly before they die. There is no shortage of studies, articles, committee meetings, and conferences on the subject. But somehow very little seems to change.

Two days ago I heard an “expert” on TV insist we should ask every patient about his or her personal life, marriage, relationships, family and financial problems, and work stress. I’ve been quite ill in recent years, and I’ve seen multiple physicians. No one has ever asked me about any of these matters. Perhaps, since I’m a physician, they feel too uncomfortable to ask. I suspect, however, that the larger issue is our obsession with time and money. Herd ‘em in, herd ‘em out, generate more revenue. A discussion about personal problems can become lengthy and emotionally charged. It’s difficult to get a tearful, distraught patient out of the office. In far too many cases, we’d really rather not know about it. Besides, when someone is crying, it’s tough to stay focused on your computer.

We live in an ever more detached, isolated, dissociated, overstimulated, and under-loved culture. All the “fans,” “likes,” and “followers” in the world cannot take the place of one sincere, sympathetic listener who actually cares.

Chocolate: A Smart Food

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Nutrition, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Dr. Laura Pawlak

There is universal agreement that chocolate is a feel good food.  Chocolate melts in your mouth, releasing its sweet, creamy, cocoa flavor, and the brain follows with a burst of “happy” chemicals.

Beyond the sensory joy of eating chocolate, there are claims that chocolate is a healthy food for the brain.  Most of us would gladly eat more chocolate if proven to benefit the brain.

Several ingredients in cocoa have been proposed to explain the possible cognitive benefits of chocolate.  Cocoa contains caffeine, a substance that enhances cognitive functioning and alertness.  Major nutrients have also been identified in the cocoa bean.  Presently, studies focus on the chemical group called flavanols.

Flavanols are micronutrients found in many fruits and vegetables, especially the fruit called the cocoa bean, the basis of chocolate.  Flavanols have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties — important for brain health.

Small studies, often supported by chocolate manufacturers, state that the cocoa flavanols can boost mood and cognitive performance — as well as blood flow to the brain.  Researchers are now evaluating the significance of these small studies by conducting large, clinical trials using a cocoa extract with known flavanol content, not chocolate.

A dose of 600-750 milligrams of flavanols is considered healthful for the brain.  To obtain this dose, you would have to consume 4.75 ounces of dark chocolate, a total of 750 calories, or 40 ounces of milk chocolate, which has 5,850 calories.

A day with adequate flavanols from commercial chocolate is also a day heavy in sugar, saturated fat, and calories — not a formula for a sharp brain.  Perhaps future studies examining chocolate’s healthful ingredients in the cocoa extract will provide more healthful ways to capture the goodness of the cocoa bean.

Meanwhile, manufacturers divert your focus from calories to health by presenting chocolate paired with a superfood, the avocado.  Called a health food, the Avocado Chocolate Bar is made of freeze-dried avocado pulp powder, 70 percent dark chocolate — plus added sugar — and has nearly 600 calories.

The bar is a convenient, but calorie-laden, snack.  The alternative — consuming whole, fresh plant food — is always a good choice for the brain.

My suggestion:  Eat dark chocolate in moderation if you like it, not because you think it will make you smarter.  For added flavanols, focus on the abundant amounts of this nutrient in grapes and berries.  Enjoy!


Dr. Laura Pawlak (Ph.D., R.D. emerita) is a world-renowned biochemist and dietitian emerita.  She is the author of many scientific publications and has written such best-selling books as “The Hungry Brain,” “Life Without Diets,” and “Stop Gaining Weight.”  On the subjects of nutrition and brain science, she gives talks internationally.

Steady As She Goes

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

Are you afraid to open your financial statements for March? Have the recent market gyrations triggered a sudden interest in Xanax? Nonstop news cycles and social media postings have spawned massive overreactions to every comment made by political or business leaders. Down drafts of 1,000 points can cause even the most seasoned investors to panic. Over the past two months I’ve had to curtail my exposure to the business networks. Watching the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunge 700 points at 2 P.M. can make me feel as if I’m about to go into ventricle fibrillation. I’d rather stay in normal sinus rhythm.

Sadly, that is not a joke. I have a vivid memory of sitting at a stoplight in Little Rock, Arkansas, on October 19, 1987. It was about 5:30 P.M., and I was headed home from my office. Over the car radio I heard, “The Dow Jones Industrials are down 517 points.” I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh, he’s reading that wrong! The DOW couldn’t possibly be down that much.” It was.

Shortly after I arrived home, my beeper went off. One of my favorite patients was in the emergency room (ER) with a massive myocardial infarction. George A. was a 76-year-old gentleman from Hope, Arkansas. He had grown up in poverty but had educated himself and built up several successful businesses. He was bright, witty, charming, dapper, and gracious. But on that day, George A. had lost over a million dollars, at least on paper. He was devastated.

I grabbed my bag and raced back to the hospital. We got George admitted to the cardiac care unit (CCU). His electrocardiogram (EKG) looked awful, and he looked worse. He was utterly convinced that one dreadful day on Wall Street had destroyed his future. Around 8 P.M., George become very ill (coded). We worked on him frantically for over an hour, but we couldn’t bring him back. There was no doubt in my mind that the thought of financial ruin had literally scared George to death. I felt numb.

Later that week, two of my colleagues committed suicide. They had also lost a fortune, at least on paper. Everyone was stunned and afraid that week. One year later, however, the market had recovered nearly all of its losses. Thirty years later I still mourn the loss of three good people. For all intents and purposes, they died from acute financial panic.

I am no financial genius. But forty years of investing have taught me a few lessons that may help someone else:

  • Don’t watch market moves minute to minute. Before long, you’ll need heavy sedation.
  • Don’t dump stocks when everyone is panicking. You’ll almost always miss out on the best part of the recovery phase.
  • Remember the wisdom of the ancient Greeks: Moderation in all things. Balance stocks, mutual funds, bonds, certificates of deposit (CD’s), cash, real estate, and precious metals based on your age, health, family needs, and risk tolerance.
  • Don’t give in to ignorance, laziness, fear, or greed. Sixty-six percent of millennials have nothing stashed away for retirement. Failure to invest is one of the greatest mistakes of all.
  • No matter what happens, avoid the temptation to overreact. You are infinitely more important than your financial statements.

Now take a deep breath and open the statements from March. Steady as she goes. You’ll be fine.