Committing to Curiosity

 

CaptureIn this month’s exploration of adaptability, we’ve established that the ability to become and remain curious helps us embrace change and prepare us for new opportunities.  Curiosity has also been shown to contribute to higher academic achievement and greater work performance. It helps us create more satisfying and authentic relationships with others and can help us be better teachers, parents, and partners.

It may be hard to believe something seemingly so simple could have such an impact. But think about the early days in a romance, when everything was new and exciting, or the sense of excitement you once had with a new notebook and pencil at the start of a new school year.  Our brains are wired to seek out novel experiences and can continue to change over a lifetime.

So how do we invite more curiosity?  Seems like a funny question but think about a challenging relationship you have with someone, maybe a student you haven’t been able to reach or a family member you’ve kept your distance from over the years.  Often we trade in curiosity for the need to be right or to avoid further conflict.  As a result, closeness to those around us suffers.

Committing to curiosity requires a willingness to put aside judgement and to sometimes go without an answer in favor of finding more questions.  Here are some tips for inviting more curiosity into your life:

Look for surprises. Take a different route home from work or school.  Take a different seat on the bus or in a meeting.  Try something new off the menu.  Each small experience opens up the chance for some new discovery.

Banish boredom. Boredom is a curiosity killer.  Once we’ve given in to boredom it can be hard to find a spark again.  One woman I know took a repetitive and not very challenging part time job for extra money.  To keep herself challenged she decided that she would learn to perform every task at her position with her left (non-dominant) hand. She said it took a while at the beginning but she enjoyed trying to relearn how to open locks and turn doorknobs and soon found she was able to work more quickly and efficiently than her single hand using colleagues.

Take a vacation from having the answers. The fear of being wrong or seeming not to know something often shuts us down to new solutions.  When children or friends come to you for a solution, before rushing to respond, try answering with “I’m really not sure. Tell me what you’re thinking so far.” You’re more likely to get better solutions with more minds involved in the process.

Hop the fence in an argument. Are you stuck in gridlock with a child or a partner?  Try arguing from each other’s position.  Tell your child all the reasons it makes sense not to clean his room and invite him to convince you why a clear floor is necessary.  Hang in there past the initial giggles and you’ll have to learn a little more about how your partner sees the world.

Reserve judgment.  Judgments, even positive ones, create a roadblock to curiosity.  Once you’ve determined something is ‘bad’ or even ‘perfect’, it’s difficult to look past the decree to see things in a new light.

Maybe curiosity is how the cat got those nine lives in the first place.

Going with the Flow Part 2

CaptureIn the first part of this post on adaptability I introduced the idea that a person’s unwillingness to deal with change might be linked to his or her fears of things that have happened in the past or might happen in the future.  Staying put, keeping things the same, often feels like the safer bet to these people.

And it’s no surprise.  As living creatures we are predisposed to maintain a sense of sameness.  Consider the body’s attempt to keep a regular temperature.  We are also wired to want to grow and reach our full potential, which requires stepping out of sameness.  So we’re always engaged in a battle for change (growth) and stability.  Keep doing the same thing for too long and you’ll feel like you’re in a rut.  Yet it is very uncomfortable to try something different and we quickly attempt to set things ‘right’, often before understanding the full experience of what might have been.

To make this more concrete, clasp your hands together so that the fingers are interlaced as in the picture.  Notice which index finger is on top.  Now, shift every finger up one spot so that the other index finger is now the top one.  How does that feel? How long can you keep your hands this way before you rearrange them to the ‘right’ way for you?  Even if you didn’t feel a need to change them in this experiment, it’s likely that the next time you casually interlace your fingers, you’ll do it the way you’ve always done.

The trick to becoming more adaptable is to find a way to keep these two forces, the force for change and the force for sameness, in balance.  And the way to do that is to practice curiosity.  To be curious about things the way they are includes asking oneself ‘how did I come to believe this?’ ‘What is the first moment I remember being aware of this feeling?’ ‘What am I noticing right now about my environment, my body, my feelings?’.  When presented with something different from what is, or when contemplating what you may feel should be in the future, applying the same level of curiosity can help you identify where you are on the continuum of same versus change.  “Where do my ideas of what this new thing might be like come from?’ ‘What feelings get stirred up for me when I think about this new thing?

What will you wonder about next?

What it Takes to Go with the Flow (Part 1)

chameleon“I just don’t do well with change.” Most of us know someone like this, someone who eats the same meal every Monday or must take the same route home from work each day.  Perhaps you yourself are one of these people.  The thought of trying a new restaurant or deviating from your annual summer vacation spot seems preposterous.  The news that a new co-worker or supervisor has joined the team can mean weeks of worry.

While stability and predictability may offer comfort, our ability to adapt to change is directly linked to overall life satisfaction and happiness.  Flexible people tend to be healthier, experience less anxiety and have more fulfilling relationships.   Most jobs in the market today require employees to be multi-faceted and to quickly respond to new initiatives and opportunities. Education guidelines and standards seem to change with the seasons and teachers who are not agile can get bogged down by new curriculum and measurements.

People who assert that they ‘can’t handle change’ say they know this about themselves with certainty.  However, what they are likely more aware of is how they have been in the past and what they fear in the future.  They are probably not terribly aware of how they are affected by the immediate and present moment.  Consider the chameleon.  It does not change its color based on where it expects to go next.  What is unique in its survival technique is that the chameleon adapts to its immediate surroundings.

For humans, this is a little more difficult.  In order to adapt to or reject our surroundings we first have to learn how to become aware of them.  We need to learn to take in information from the environment and to pay attention to our own internal cues. We need to know more about how we make sense of our environment and ultimately find a way to be comfortable looking at our own areas for growth.

For many people it is easier to focus on the failures that have come from times we’ve tried to make a change. New situations start to feel like obstacles to growth rather than opportunities. Without a sense of optimism about our circumstances it be hard to imagine wanting to face challenges at all.

In Part II of this topic we’ll look at the ways we make sense of our world and how that may be keeping us stuck in the familiar.  Life may begin at the edge of our comfort zone, as my coffee cup says, but I sure don’t want to get too close to an edge without knowing more about my ability to move around it.

 

A Journey to Health Begins with a Long Look Back

CaptureI am having a food memory.  I am remembering every detail of what it was I ate, how it tasted and felt in my mouth and where I was when I ate it.  And the memory is almost 15 years old.  I’m not remembering  a fancy French dish served on a romantic holiday or the first plate of spaghetti I shared with a date.  I am remembering a cool, crisp Gala apple eaten after my first grueling hike through the Cascade mountains in Washington State.  This particular apple memory stays with me because it was one of the few times in my life that I was aware of eating food as fuel.  I could feel it immediately restoring me and I remember being fully satisfied after it was finished.  I was more than 30 years old!

I have always had a complicated relationship with food.  In my family it was used as a reward for accomplishments and a comfort to difficult times.  Mealtimes in our family were stressful and food was quickly consumed so I could be excused from the table.  After my parents’ divorce, my mother often included me in late night ‘un-birthday parties’ that involved fancy cakes that only the two of us consumed.  I loved the closeness and secrecy of those moments, even while sensing something was not quite right.

It is no mystery to me why I have such trouble losing weight and keeping it off. Like most women ‘of a certain age’ my metabolism is now slowing and it’s even more difficult for me to shed pounds.  In my lifetime I have been a size 6 and a size 20 with stops at nearly every size along the way.  Somewhere in the middle of that range these days, I am learning to form a new relationship with my body, my size and what kind of fuel I take in.

In order for any change to be successful, we need to take stock of what our current behaviors mean to us, in my case, why is this excess weight I want to lose there in the first place.  This is the paradoxical theory of change that is a key piece of gestalt therapy.   Previous diet attempts that have included restriction of calories and extreme exercises have worked for a while. In fact, three years ago I was at my lowest adult weight ever but now am back to where I was when I started that journey.  I had done the work identifying my motivation to lose and made changes to my exercise and fitness routine but I had neglected to pay attention to how it was I had gained the weight in the first place.

A new course at TeacherCoach.com looks at the psychology of weight loss and breaks the process into three phases: Awareness, Detoxification, and Implementation.  I am learning more about the quality of the food I eat and the support I will need on this journey and I am being gentle with myself as I come to understand that food has meant love, protection, safety and joy over my lifetime.  Accepting this, rather than feeling guilty about it, is helping me find new ways to meet these needs while taking better care of the body I live in.

 

You can check out this course yourself and many others on health and wellness at http://teachercoach.psychpro.com/catalog.php

 

Feed Your Head

Remember the last time you rode a roller coaster?  Or had to speak in front of a large audience? Or found a spider on your arm?  Did you just think about your stomach?  Gut instinct. I feel it in my belly.  I have butterflies in my stomach.  These aren’t just expressions.

Scientists have long known that neurons that are embedded in the alimentary canal, or gut, send messages to our brain.  So rich is this network that it is sometimes referred to as ‘the second brain’ and it is partially responsible for our mental state.

New research on the bacteria that lives in our guts suggests that unhealthy bacteria plays a key role in behavioral and emotional problems including depression, anxiety, ADHD and even autism.  In fact, it is estimated that nearly 95% of the body’s serotonin is manufactured in the gut when it is functioning normally.  Serotonin is the neurotransmitter responsible for transferring messages through the brain. Serotonin levels and the brain’s receptivity to it are believed to be associated with mood and depression.  Our modern diets of excessive sugar, processed foods, refined grains and genetically engineered foods have compromised our gut health, destroying healthy bacteria and increasing the amount of bad yeast and bacteria.

All is not lost, however.  Healthy bacteria can be returned to the gut with some simple changes to diet.  Reducing the amount of processed food and increasing your intake of fermented foods such as kefir, some yogurts, tempeh and sauerkraut or kim chee can re-balance your gut flora. People who do not enjoy the taste of fermented foods may wish to take a pro-biotic supplement available in most health food and grocery stores.  Before grabbing any heavily promoted ‘pro-biotic’ yogurts or drinks, do be sure to check the sugar content or you may be robbing Peter to pay Paul and not getting the most health benefits.

So before resorting to an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication, perhaps, in the words of Jefferson Starship, remember what the dormouse said: Feed your head.

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Tips to Tackle Stress

CaptureThe countdown to the end of the school year has begun.  With students only theoretically connected to their chairs and final marking period deadlines looming, teachers and students alike are bound to be feeling stressed.

Here are some stress-preventing tips you can share with your students in these final weeks:

Stretch Out Stress: You could probably use a break from standing and the students might love a chance to be out of their seats and still be following directions.  Stretching releases endorphins, the body’s natural stress reliever.

Color Me Relaxed: Coloring books for adults are the latest craze in stress-busters.  When is the last time you picked up a set of new, sharp markers and just colored?

Tune Out: Did you know that singing increases the flow of oxygen to your brain and lowers blood pressure? Can’t carry a tune? Don’t worry, humming one note or sound has many of the same benefits.  How about a round of ‘name that tune’ next time you have a few minutes before the bell?

 Stay Connected:  While the students may not have any trouble chatting with their friends, you may have let your relationships take a back burner to work.  A quick text, email or call to a friend can remind you that you’re not in this alone.

When in Doubt, Write it Out: Whether it’s stream of consciousness, doodling, poetry or daydreaming about your perfect summer vacation, journaling can help you disconnect from the stress of the day for a few minutes.  Spelling and grammar don’t need to count when the journal is for your eyes only!

ROFL: There’s a reason it’s called the best medicine. Laughter releases endorphins, increases the flow of blood to the heart and increases the immune system.  If your classroom is internet-ready, why not check out a doggy day care web cam for some quick laughs, because puppies.

Above all, attention to sleep, water and healthy food will help protect you from the end of the year demands so you can finish the year with enough energy to enjoy your well-earned break.

 

Surviving or Thriving?

I did not inherit my mother’s natural talent for gardening.  Even the silk plants in my care have shriveled and lost leaves.  So it was with some doubt that I approached my goal of starting a small indoor garden this spring.  I thought I would start with an aloe plant from a clipping a friend gave me.  They seemed hearty enough to survive my black thumb.  I potted a couple in small pots and set them on the coffee table.  After a month or so, I noticed that the plants had not grown at all.  In fact, the leaves, though still plump, were drooping and turning a little brown.  The plant was surviving, it was alive, but no one looking at it would say it was a thriving plant.

Many of us find ourselves in a similar position in our work and lives.  We get up every day, we do what we are ‘supposed to do’, we might even do it fairly well.  When asked, we say we are ‘fine’, or ‘can’t complain’, then we get up the next day and do it all over again.  We are surviving, but are we thriving? To thrive is to ‘grow and to flourish vigorously’. Thriving entails a sense of passion for what we are doing, a joy that is present in our interactions with others and a sense of wonder and curiosity for our experiences.  It requires stepping outside of our comfort zones, being OK with uncertainty and purposefully attending to what is positive.

In her research on what keeps teachers in the profession, Sonia Nieto found that thriving teachers are those who make genuine connections with their colleagues, students and families; who are focused on the present and on the positive and those who feel compelled to give back to their school communities.  Environments that encourage collaboration, risk-taking and creativity are essential.  Without these things, in environments that stress standardized teaching and hierarchical decision making, teachers burn out.

It turns out, aloe plants don’t like to live alone either.  My friend told me to take them out of their pots and let the roots completely dry up in the sun.  That sounded crazy, but when I repotted the two together in a new pot, with soil that was tailored to their specific needs, and placed them in a sunny spot on my porch, they began to thrive.  They have grown several inches in the past few weeks and I have learned a little more about stepping back, letting things happen and taking in the sun.

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Getting Kids to Eat Healthy

A family came into my office this week excited to share their plan to get their child to eat new foods and increase his intake of fruits and vegetables.  They have created J’s Taste Kitchen which stars their youngest son who currently lives mostly on chicken fingers and pancakes.  The Taste Kitchen will be a special event weekly during which the child will taste and review one new food.  The family plans to make a video of the tasting each week in the spirit of popular cooking and food programs. J’s parents will work with J to choose each week’s tasting.  Foods he likes will be added to the family dinner rotation.  J will earn points for every food he tastes which he will cash in for a variety of rewards including extra screen time, 10 extra minutes of staying up before bedtime and extra bedtime stories.

What I love about this plan is that it is fun, incorporates technology, involves the whole family and can be kept within the family food budget. It also puts J in charge of some of the decisions about the food he eats which is likely to cut down on family feuds.

Getting children involved in cooking and shopping for food is a wonderful way to expand their interest in healthy eating.  There are a number of television shows cropping up that feature young chefs and bakers to inspire your picky eater.  Cookbooks with bright pictures and simple to follow instructions can help you involve your child in the weekly meal prep and cooking utensils designed especially for young people can help you feel comfortable turning your child loose in the kitchen.  A quick internet search can lead you to many recipes that substitute or add in fruits and vegetables to current family favorites.  Planting and growing vegetables can help you and your family feel more involved with the food you put on the table.

The following resources are just a tiny sample of what’s available to help you in your effort to inspire healthy eating.  Involving the family in fun and easy options might just end the dinner-time wars.  I’m sure hoping that happens for J!

Kid Cookbooks

Chop Chop: The Kids’ Guide to Cooking Real Food with Your Family ; Chop Chop also publishes a magazine and website featuring child cooks and recipes.

My A to Z Recipe Box: An Alphabet of Recipes for Kids: includes brightly colored and easy to follow recipes on cards that can be taken to the grocery to pick out ingredients.

Kid Cooking Supplies

www.GrowingCooks.com offers many kid-friendly utensils and kitchen items made for small hands.

www.CuriousChef.com offers recipes, blogs and utensils including safe cooking knives for small chefs at affordable prices.

Websites and Apps

www.thesneakychef.com includes recipes and products for adding fruits and vegetables in your family’s diet.

Nicolas’ Garden is a mobile app developed by 8 year old Nicholas that can be used by children and adults to find, plan and save healthy recipes and share them with others.

 

Please add to this list by posting some of your favorite ways to encourage children to eat healthy and check out our two-part course How to Get Children to Eat Healthy

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Why is Heart Disease on the Rise?

heartI was at my annual exam last week and anxiously reviewing my family’s cancer history with my doctor.  My mother and her sister each died from cancers and I knew that put me at a higher risk.  My doctor reviewed my history and noted my regular screenings over the past 10 years.  She applauded my commitment to regular screenings and exams but then said “You know, what you really should be worrying about is heart disease.”  This was her gentle way of reminding me that I’ve been saying I should lose weight for the past 10 years.

According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the number one killer of women, killing half a million American women a year. And yet, according to a study by the Mayo Institute, only 8% of women see heart disease as a serious risk to their health.  The news isn’t any rosier for men.  The risk of stroke and arterial disease has increased by 24% in the past 10 years and the danger is climbing for young people as well. In another study published by the American Heart Association, researchers found that the risk of hypertension in children and teens rose 27% over a 13 year period. Hypertension can lead to stroke and heart disease.

News about the benefits of exercise and healthy eating are not new. Talk of fitness is as ubiquitous as ever.  My gym is packed this month with people making good on their New Year’s resolutions.  I have apps on my phone to track exercise, calories, carbohydrates and sugars.  My friends with FitBits can print out hourly reports of their health. With all the information and research available to us at our fingertips, how is it that heart disease continues to rise?

We don’t get enough exercise

Fifty years ago jobs were more active, enabling us to move throughout the day.  Active jobs now make up less than 20% of our workforce and we’re working longer hours.  On average, full-time workers spend about 47 hours a week working, that’s more than 350 extra more sedentary hours worked each year.  Since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, schools have struggled to make time for more rigorous instruction and testing and cuts to recess and physical education have become common solutions, meaning that our children are spending more time sitting.  The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate activity at least 5 days a week or 25 minutes of vigorous activity at least 3 days a week for improved cardiovascular strength.  There are days I can’t imagine finding five minutes for myself, carving out 30 can feel nearly impossible.

Too much of the bad stuff

Processed and refined sugar, excessive sodium and trans fats are the chief threats to our heart health, and they are in nearly everything we eat.  I was shocked to learn that despite carefully cutting snacks and candies from my diet I was still consuming sugars at a dangerous rate.  Eighty percent of our food products now contain refined sugar and are hidden under at least 57 different names, my favorite being ‘dehydrated cane juice’ – does that fool anyone?

Processed packaged and restaurant foods are to blame for 80% of our sodium intake.  Current dietary guidelines call for no more than one teaspoon of salt a day.  By the year 2000, we were eating nearly three times that amount.

The effort to reduce or eliminate trans-fats has been making strides with some cities banning their use.  However, despite labels that claim ‘no trans-fat’, in a study of 4.340 top selling packaged foods bearing this claim, researchers found that 9% still contained the main source of trans fat, partially hydrogenated oils.

Not enough of the good stuff

With hidden ingredients, code names for refined sugars and blatant misrepresentation of fat content, what’s a gal supposed to do to eat better??  Well, let’s keep it real.  Real food, that is.  Fruits and vegetables.  Turns out only about 26% of adults in this country eat their veggies three times a day.  Vegetables are expensive, inconvenient and not equally available in all communities.  I have a weekly ritual right now that involves throwing out half the produce I bought on Sunday while promising to do better next week.  The large leaf lettuce that was going to house veggie wraps looks like my son’s science project and who knew a red pepper could completely liquefy??!

There is encouragement.  Farmers markets are increasingly allowing shoppers to use food stamps to buy fresh, local produce, many cities support urban gardens in vacant lots and nearly every state now has programs to send fresh vegetables into poorer schools and neighborhoods.  Some food companies are trying to market baby carrots, edamame and other small fruits and veggies as snack food.  But as a mother who was raised on an old food pyramid that emphasized meats and breads and clearing one’s plate, it’s still hard for me to feel I am feeding my child well when his plate is half-filled with veggies.

We’re still lighting up

“Nobody smokes anymore!” my teenage clients tell me and statistics seem to bear out their claim.  Only about 20% of Americans smoke now as compared to 40% 15 years ago.  But that’s still about 40 million people lighting up.  Smoking decreases good cholesterol, increases blood pressure and accelerates the risks of obesity and other heart health risks.

Research is mixed on whether the advent of e-cigarettes offers smokers a heart-safe way to enjoy nicotine.  Inhaling smoke weakens the cardiovascular system.  E-cigarettes deliver the nicotine without the tar and smoke of traditional cigarettes but there still may be risks.  Nicotine is known to constrict blood vessels which may compromise heart health. And the solvents used in e-cigarettes to break down the nicotine are still being studied and tested to determine their risks.

February is Heart Health Month

So why not take the opportunity to learn a little more about how to protect yours?  Here are some ways to start caring for your health and that of your loved ones.

  1. Films to educate: Why not make a movie night to view one of these films as a family or with your friends? Fed Up uncovers the risks of sugar consumption.  Super Size Me looks at fast food consumption and Forks over Knives makes the whole food, plant-based diet accessible and compelling.

 

  1. Try a Smoothie Challenge:  Smoothies can be quick, easy and tasty ways to get your servings of vegetables and fruits.  The Simple Green Smoothies 30 day challenge offers affordable and easy recipes that can be made in your blender. http://simplegreensmoothies.com/30-day-challenge

 

  1. Involve your loved ones: This is the month to celebrate love and what could show your valentines you care more than focusing on heart health, yours and theirs?  Making change is easier with support.  Start a Facebook group to keep yourselves accountable to each other for exercising and eating well.  Join an online community focused on healthy living. Ask your spouse or partner to join you in your efforts.

 

Your heart beats about 100,000 times a day and 35 million times in a year.  Isn’t it time to do something good for it in return?

 

 

Why Is It So Hard to Lose Weight When You’re a Teacher?

scaleAh, January! 

The time of renewed gym memberships and firm promises to eat better, exercise more and lose weight.  These are tough changes for any of us, but teachers are faced with unique challenges that can make these goals even more challenging.

Focus on Others: The very nature of a teacher’s job is to put the needs of students first.  If you are also a parent, spouse or partner, it may be even harder to put your own health on the front burner and those intentions to care for yourself get postponed.

It’s Not That Bad: Teachers, like many other Americans, may not realize the health risks of eating poorly or being overweight, and may underestimate the benefits of a plant-based diet.

Brains not Body: Face it, teachers are excellent and creative thinkers but with such a focus on teaching and learning, it can be difficult to prioritize caring for the body as well.

No Time: A teacher’s day begins early and often goes non-stop well into the night.  That leaves little time for thoughtful eating and it isn’t always easy to bring or prepare healthy food.

No Energy: On that same note, there isn’t much time left over for exercising or rejuvenating, which leads to low energy, which can encourage teachers to consume sugar and caffeine and thus continues a cycle of energy spikes and fatigue.

Swallowing More than Food: The demands of high-stakes testing, ever decreasing budgets and the growing needs of children and families can lead to a great deal of stress, frustration and anger, feelings that are not always wise to express.  Some teachers resort to emotional eating to swallow or avoid these feelings.

So What to Do?

Take advantage of the New Year to set goals for small, but sustainable changes in diet and fitness.  There is strength in numbers, start a fitness challenge with your co-workers.  Designate a bulletin board where staff can share recipes and fitness tips.  Consider monthly potluck lunches of all those healthy recipes you’ve been pinning to your Pinterest board to try ‘someday’.  Pedometers are affordable and fun ways to challenge each other to increase movement, and wouldn’t you like to know how many steps you actually take in a day as you move around your room and back and forth to meetings?  Add a fruit bowl to the faculty lounge and encourage co-workers to leave fruits, nuts and seeds to share instead of bagels and doughnuts.  Research indicates that dramatic changes in diet and habits do not last more than three or four weeks but small changes to your daily routine and having a friend or group to keep you focused can lead to a new lifestyle of health.